This coming October marks the sixth anniversary of the exhumation of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s corpse. From an austere burial site in a small cemetery near Rednal, Newman’s remains were to be moved—translated, as the term of art has it—to a marble sarcophagus standing opposite All Soul’s Altar in the Birmingham Oratory, the fraternal congregation established by Newman (with Paul IX’s endorsement) shortly following his 1845 reception into the Catholic Church. That the Church should take a keen interest in his corpse was no surprise. No, that interest was and is threaded deeply within a rather ancient pattern of thought that entails, inter alia, the disinterment, dismemberment, and distribution of the traces of the canonized or beatified dead for veneration among the faithful. This is how the Church came by the designator Cultus sanctorum, by performing a curious form of sacramental necrophilism by which Christians give honor to their saints by clinging to their material vestiges: bone, hair, bits of cloth, scapulars, and their like. Or so it goes, ideally.
Newman’s case proved altogether different: this time the Vatican’s request engendered two unanticipated results. The first had to do with public reaction to the request which was swift and, at its highest pitch, blistering. Much of the ruction flowed from the pens of gay activists for whom, the argument runs, a singular motive slouched behind the disinterment—namely quieting whispers regarding the nature of Newman’s intimate and (presumably) romantic attachment to his beloved, Fr. Ambrose of St. John. They held that to translate Newman’s corpse was to ride roughshod over the Cardinal’s repeated wishes to be buried with his confrater. On this view, the Vatican’s actions amounted to little more than ghoulish acts of “grave-robbing, sacrilege, and desecration.” Shots were returned and, as is so often the case in our time, an otherwise stimulating conversation devolved into splashy mudslinging over sexuality.
But the controversy came to nothing when the tomb turned out to be empty. Well, almost. Though Newman’s corpse was mystifyingly absent, there remained a paltry cluster of sundry materials—“brass, wooden, and cloth artifacts.” The empty grave was forensically predictable: according to the opinion of medical professionals present for the exhumation, the sodden clay native to the area, coupled with the mold in which Newman insisted his casket be enshrouded, rendered conditions ideal for the quickened and complete decomposition of a corpse. The Oratorians claim that Newman himself intended the speedy and total erasure of his traces. This they do by stitching together Newman’s burial stipulations with the famed dictum of his patron saint Philip Neri: amare nesciri (love to be unknown). The minor premise slinking beneath the surface here is, of course, that Newman was fully aware of the long-term sequelae effected by the strain of mold selected; he intended, that is, to be expunged.
Yet confirming whether or not this is in fact the case seems to me about as likely as determining without remainder both the object and nature of Newman’s sexual appetite. Investigations of this variety simply risk obscuring the real scandal of the story.
“There is nothing which prejudices us more in the minds of Protestants,” Newman scratched, “than this belief . . . [the relic] is the Protestants’ charge, and it is our glory.” The real scandal of the empty grave is neither the shadowy specter of his sexuality nor enigmatic forensics but rather the Christic passage of memorabilia to relic, from token to icon. So understood, the absence of his corpse serves to invite the living into deeper reflection about and gratitude for the “heavenly shrines” who, Newman incants, “yet live to God.”
We might say (though Newman does not) that all relics find their paradigm in the Eucharist, at once residuum and promise. The residual connection is likely to be plain; less obvious, though, is the eschatological texture of relic veneration. Just as the Eucharistic stains smeared on our lips prefigure the kisses we hope to receive from those of the resurrected Bridegroom, so too does the reliquary stand as an antechamber to the fleshy communion we hope to sustain with his saints. Relics, then, like all sacramentals, are ephemeral. And it’s to this that Newman’s empty tomb, insofar as it stands as simulacrum of Christ’s, bears witness. Even so, death lingers as the necessary and sufficient condition of resurrection; until then, Catholic Christians should and will continue to seek the living among the dead.
“The truth,” Flannery O’Connor once penned, “does not change according to our ability to stomach it. . . . [T}here are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.” It is indeed difficult to imagine a claim in the order of Catholic truth more likely to provoke disgust than the veneration of relics. Call it morbid, call it cultic. Call it holy nausea. It bids us plunge into the depths of Christianity’s harrowing sublimity—into, that is, our ossuaries encrusted with bone, our catacombs whose chambers ancient hymns once filled. This October, in memoriam, let those among us who consider ourselves students, friends, or even venerators of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman follow him into the reliquaries he himself haunted.
Justin Coyle is a PhD student in historical theology at Boston College.
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