Saturday, May 14, 2005

Bones and Body Parts in Italy

by Steve Ray on May 14, 2005

We were beat and eyelids at half mast. Staying up over 28 hours always does that to us, especially with the added stress of travel – cooped up on a plane over the Atlantic, waiting around, catching cabs, making and confirming reservations for hotels and rental cars, and eating horrible airplane food. Sometimes the food is not too bad, but this time I couldn’t even eat it. If you ever hear the phrase “airline cuisine” don’t believe it. “Airline cuisine” is an oxymoron – a contradiction of terms. (But if you are in Business Class, which we weren’t, the food is excellent. “I’ll have my filet medium rare, please!”)

We are in downtown Milan Italy today doing research for our upcoming DVD “Doctors of the Church: Defining the Faith”. Augustine once taught here as a pagan. He listened to the Bishop of Milan – St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church – and through those lectures he was converted to the Catholic faith. Great thing for us, since he was one of the brightest and most influential Catholic thinkers of all time.

As bishop in the 4th century, St. Ambrose built a church here in Milan. It was destroyed and later rebuilt. In the grotto below lies the remains of St. Ambrose. In the picture to the right, the arrow points to his skull. The church is also full of marvelous paintings of the saint along with the oldest known representation of him – a mosaic of his early years (see picture below).

When kneeling in the grotto below the high altar, observing and praying near the bones of St. Ambrose in the glass coffin, I thought “Some people must think Catholics are morbid, putting on display and honoring bones and relics and body parts and stuff that belong to dead people.”

I remembered that as a Protestant I was not concerned with such things. Our religion was one of spirit and propositional truth – not of body parts and morbid bone collections.

But why divide the two? God made us both spirit and flesh and he made a religion to correspond to both. Jesus said we would worship in “spirit and truth”, but he also used mud and spit to heal, and held the physical body to be of extreme importance – so much so that the resurrection of the body was a crucial element of Christian teaching.

And remember, the bones of the patriarch Joseph were carefully brought out of Egypt to his homeland in Israel (Gen 50:25) and Elisha’s bones could raise the dead on contact (2 Ki 13:21).

From the earliest years the bones of saints and martyrs were treated as the most precious possessions and were honored and venerated. Read the story of St. Polycarp if you don’t believe me. He was a disciple of the Apostle John – burned and stabbed in a coliseum in AD 155. Eyewitnesses wrote of his martyrdom and collected his bones as precious treasures. His bones and the bones all of the saints have always been respected as treasures and these relics have been kept in churches as reminders for the faithful.

As Janet and I sat in the grotto looking at the 1,600 year old bones of a defender of the Faith, we couldn’t help but be proud. We honor and venerate (not worship!) St. Ambrose and desire to be like him. He is in the Catholic Hall of Fame – Sainthood!

We walked around the old city of Milan for seven hours today We saw the famous Duomo, and climbed to the top – the largest gothic church in Italy. I won’t even try to tell you about it, but imagine a church with more stained glass than you’ve ever seen in 50 churches combined and which contains over 3,500 statues of other Saints in the Catholic Hall of Fame! The whole story of salvation from Adam to the Apocalypse – all portrayed in glorious color and feather-light spires reaching to the sky. Gothic on steroids! It made us proud to be Catholics.

We are here to do research for our videos but we also came to celebrate our 11th anniversary into the Church – and that we will do this Sunday. That will also make us proud as we celebrate Pentecost Mass with our new Holy Father, Cardinal Ratzinger – err, excuse me, I mean Benedict XVI.

By the way, a thousand years from now his bones will be preserved and honored by Catholics – unless, or course, Our Lord returns before then to resurrect all those old bones, body parts and relics to enjoy the glories of heaven forever. Remember, “we believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come” and we “believe in the communion of the saints.”

Tomorrow (Saturday) we will drive south to Pavia to visit some more old bones – those of St. Augustine which we saw in Rome a few months ago. From there we drive on to visit some old Flesh and Blood (geez, us Catholics are morbid  – the Eucharistic miracle of Orvieto before we arrive at our apartment in Rome. There are no speed limits here – I love it – but I will try to keep it under 180 km an hour – and that I do to honor my wife.

Side Note: If any of you talk with Jimmy Akin in the next few days, please let him know Janet and I bought him a nice Italian pipe. It’s already gift wrapped and ready to ship to San Diego as soon as we get home. By the way, he's another reason we're proud to be Catholics!