More Scandal: Vatican steals Jesus’s foreskin – David Farley

David Farley“During the Middle Ages, the holy foreskin achieved a Holy Grail-level of fame. About a dozen monasteries and towns claimed to possess it, each insisting theirs came from Charlemagne—who received the relic from an angel while praying at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The holy foreskin that ended up in Calcata, the only papal-approved version of the relic, was said to have been given by Charlemagne to Pope Innocent III upon the French king’s coronation in Rome on Dec. 25, 800. The Pope placed the relic in Rome’s Sancta Sanctorum (where it resided with the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul) until 1527, when a German soldier—part of the booty-hungry army that sacked the city—swept in to the relic-laden room, grabbing a bejeweled reliquary, tucking it under his arm, and making a mad dash northward. He got as far as Calcata before being caught and imprisoned in the village, where he stashed the relic in his cell. Thirty years later, in 1557, its discovery set off a series of climatic miracles in the village.” – David Farley in The Daily Beast


Luke 2:21 details Jesus’ circumcision on his eighth day. According to the Infancy Gospels—which some have claimed are “lost” or removed chapters of the Bible, while others have said they’re apocryphal—Jesus was circumcised in a cave. Afterward, Mary’s midwife, an old Jewish woman, took the foreskin and put it in an alabaster jar filled with aromatic nard, a fragrant ointment known for its preservative qualities. The old woman handed the jar to her son, who was in the perfume business, and said, “Guard well this jar of aromatic nard and do not sell it, even when they offer you 300 denarii.” Well, he must have been hard up for cash, because somehow, according to this legend (which was retold by French historian Patrice Boussel in his 1971 book Des Reliques et de Leur Bon Usage), Mary Magdalene ended up with the jar and then apparently passed it on to St. John the Baptist. The rest is history.

In 1983, as the residents of Calcata, a small town 30 miles north of Rome, prepared for their annual procession honoring a holy relic, a shocking announcement from the parish priest put a damper on festivities. “This year, the holy relic will not be exposed to the devotion of the faithful. It has vanished. Sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home.” Not since the Middle Ages, when lopped-off body parts of divine do-gooders were bought, sold, and traded, has relic theft been big news. But the mysterious disappearance of Calcata’s beloved curio is different.

This wasn’t just the residuum of any holy human—nor was it just any body part. It was the foreskin of Jesus Christ, the snipped-off tip of the savior’s penis, the only piece of his body he supposedly left on earth.

Just what the holy foreskin was doing in the priest’s house—in a shoebox at the back of his wardrobe, no less—and why and how it disappeared has been debated ever since the relic vanished. Some suspect the village priest sold it for a heavenly sum; others say it was stolen by thieves and ended up on the relics black market; some even suggest Satanists or neo-Nazis are responsible. But the most likely culprit is an unlikely one: the Vatican.

And why not? Protestant doubt (“They couldn’t let Christ’s body go without keeping a piece,” John Calvin quipped) and the scientific revolution, which changed our thinking from superstitious to skeptical, have taken their toll on a relic that once rested high atop the pious pecking order of blessed body parts. It’s understandable that the 20th-century church ! began feeling a bit bashful about the idea of its flock fawning over t he 2,000-year-old tip of the redeemer’s manhood. Still, when I arrived in Calcata six months ago, the idea of a Vatican theft of Jesus’ foreskin sounded more like a ganja-induced brainstorming session with Dan Brown and Danielle Steele. But some transplanted bohemians, a deathbed confession, and a little historical context have convinced me otherwise.

Even before its disappearance, the relic had a strange history. It was discovered in Calcata in 1557, and a series of miracles soon followed (freak storms, perfumed mists engulfing the village). The church gave the finding a seal of approval by offering a 10-year indulgence to those who came to venerate. Lines of pilgrims stretched from the church doors to beyond the walls of the fortress town. Nuns and monks from nearby villages and monasteries made candlelit processions. Calcata was a must-see destination on the pilgrimage map.

That is, until 1900. Facing increasing criticism after the “rediscovery” of a holy foreskin in France, the Vatican decreed that anyone who wrote about or spoke the name of the holy foreskin would face excommunication. And 54 years later, when a monk wanted to include Calcata in a pilgrimage tour guide, Vatican officials didn’t just reject the proposal (after much debate). They upped the punishment: Now, anyone uttering its name would face the harshest form of excommunication—”infamous and to be avoided”—even as they concluded that Calcata’s holy foreskin was more legit than other claimants’.

Pope Leo XIII

But that wasn’t the end of the holy foreskin. In the late 1960s, government officials, worried that crumbling cliffs and threatening earthquakes might doom the village, decided to build a new town. Hippies discovered the newly abandoned town, which was awaiting a government wrecking crew, and squatted in, then legally purchased, the vacated buildings. Some of the bohemian transplants were intrigued by Calcata’s relic, which was now only shown to the public during the village’s annual New Year’s Day procession (even though the Vatican II reforms removed the Day of the Holy Circumcision from the church calendar). The new residents began writing about the quirky event and relic for newspapers in and around Rome, and Calcata’s scandalous prepuce was isolated no more. And the church took notice.

Was this the reason Dario Magnoni, the local priest, brought the relic from the church to his home? Who knows. Magnoni refuses to speak about the relic, citing the 1954 threat of excommunication. Magnoni’s predecessor, Mario Mastrocola, didn’t want to talk about the relic, either, but when asked if he was surprised to hear it had been stolen, he shook his head. When pressed, he said, “The relic would not have been taken away from Calcata if I were still the priest there.”

Mastrocola’s ambiguous words—while not directly incriminating anyone—hinted at underhanded church dealings (interview requests with the Vatican went unanswered). And later, I found myself sitting in a wine cellar halfway up the hill between the old and new villages of Calcata. Capellone, the cellar’s owner and a lifelong Calcatese, told me about his close relationship with a former local bishop, Roberto Massimiliani. Ailing in bed, the bishop told Capellone that when he was gone, so too would be the relic. Bishop Massimiliani passed away soon after, in 1975. Eight years after that, the relic disappeared. “To me, it almost felt like a confession,” said Capellone. “Like he needed to tell someone before he died.”

Church of the Holy Foreskin, Calcata, ItalyCould the “sacrilegious thieves” Magnoni mentioned in his 1983 announcement about the relic’s disappearance actually have been Vatican emissaries? The thought of masked, black-clad Vatican agents on a mission to steal Jesus’ foreskin does sound alluring. But for residents like Capellone, who swear the Vatican now has the relic, the thief could be Magnoni himself. Some loc als claim they saw him go to Rome the day before he made the announcement, generating speculation that the Vatican asked for it and Magnoni not only failed to stand up to them, he delivered the relic himself.

Sold, stolen, or delivered to the Vatican—or even all three—the holy foreskin of Calcata is probably gone for good, even as some residents persist in the hope that it will return. And the church is certainly breathing a sigh of relief. While most of the other copies of the relic were destroyed during the Reformation and the French Revolution, Calcata’s holy foreskin lived long past its expiration date, like a dinosaur surviving the meteoric blast of the scientific revolution.

But if it had survived, it would have been only a matter of time before someone wanted to clone it. And that could have given the Second Coming an entirely new meaning. – Copyright 2009 Washingtonpost-Newsweek Interactive Co. – Slate, Dec. 19, 2006

The holy foreskin has ended up in a few historical footnotes

  • Because of the relic’s reputation as having the power to make sterile women fertile and ease childbirth, Henry V had the holy foreskin of Coulombs—a village near Chartres—transported to England in order to help his wife, Catherine of France, deliver the future Henry VI.
  • St. Catherine of Siena, the self-proclaimed spiritual spouse of Jesus, was said to wear his foreskin around her finger.
  • St. Bridget claimed to have received the relic from an angel and would place bits of it on her tongue, resulting in orgasmic-like sensations throughout her body.

» David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town