Let’s start with an important point here: a lot of Protestants (including several key Reformers) have seen the tradition of relics as a superstition, but the concept wasn’t entirely without biblical precedent. The remains of saints and patriarchs were clearly held in high regard (see Exodus 13:19, for instance), and there are cases in both the Old and New Testaments of saints’ body parts and possessions performing miracles (2 Kings 13:21, Acts 19:12). So even if you’re averse to the medieval Christian habit of keeping dead people’s body parts around, you can at least see where they got the idea.
As always happens, though, what started as a pious impulse—to show respect for the dead in Christ—was quickly ruined by economics. As Christianity spread and pilgrimages became increasingly popular, it soon became clear to both the clergy and the magistrate that the churches with the coolest relics would attract the most visitors, and therefore the most money. (In other words, sacred relics were the medieval equivalent of “Donuts, coffee, a come-as-you-are atmosphere, and a rockin’ band!”)
The people of Calcata continued to parade through the streets with the prepuce every January 1 almost until Return of the Jedi hit theaters.The result was a sort of “arms race” to have the best relic. “Those guys might have Joseph of Arimathea’s sweaty gym socks, but we have his armpit hair!”—that sort of thing. The more famous the saint, the better, and the more intimate the relic, the better. So body parts took priority over personal possessions, and key biblical figures obviously trumped lesser-known saints—but the best, of course, was Jesus himself. All of which led to one inescapable conclusion: the relic everyone wanted—the holy grail of relics (aside from, y’know, the actual Holy Grail)—was the only body part Jesus had left on earth.
The “Holy Prepuce.”
This is a Very Serious Historical Column (clearly), so let’s get all the giggles out of the way now: in layman’s terms, we’re talking about Jesus’s foreskin. You can laugh if you want, but it actually makes perfect sense (of a sort): Our Lord was only on earth for a brief period of time, and he ascended bodily into heaven afterward. He only left one piece of himself behind, when he was circumcised, and it wasn’t his shinbone. So, if you wanted to have a piece of Jesus’s body that didn’t look suspiciously like a Communion wafer, you really only had one option—which explains why, for a while, there were as many as a dozen medieval churches all claiming to have it.
The best candidate for the authentic Holy Prepuce (“best” being a very relative term here) allegedly first surfaced in western Europe on Christmas Day of A.D. 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the newly minted Holy Roman Empire (which would turn out to be like the Regular Roman Empire, but less fun). Charlemagne apparently gave the relic as a gift to the Pope—much in the same way Trump bestowed Reagan’s last bottle of hair gel on Jerry Falwell, Jr. —after claiming an angel had given it to him while he was praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Cynics, however, will tell you Charlemagne actually got it from Byzantine Empress Irene, no doubt through a series of wacky, rom-com-esque hijinks.
In any case, Pope Leo put the Carolingian prepuce in the Lateran Basilica with his other assorted relics, where it stayed until 1527, when Rome was sacked by the armies of the Holy Roman Empire. (Yes, the Holy Roman Empire sacked its own nominal capital. It’s… a long story.) During the siege, the prepuce was apparently stolen by an unnamed German soldier, who only made it 47 miles with it before he was captured in the tiny Italian town of Calcata. He hid it in his prison cell, but it was discovered 30 years later, at which point the town was allegedly beset with an outpouring of miracles, such as violent freak storms and a heavily perfumed fog, both of which seem to set the bar for “miracle” pretty low, but I guess no one asked me.
By this point, most of the competing Holy Prepuces had been either lost or destroyed in the social upheaval of the Reformation, and the Vatican granted a degree of approval to Calcata’s prepuce, offering a 10-year indulgence to anyone who made a pilgrimage to see it. This went great until Rome remembered that—oops—they’d had a whole other Holy Prepuce right there in Rome the whole time.
By now, though, it was the turn of the 20th century and Freud was becoming a thing, so the whole affair was getting a little embarrassing. In 1962, Pope John XXIII officially changed the January 1 “Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord” to the decidedly-less-phallic-sounding “Octave of the Nativity,” hoping that would put an end to things once and for all.
He was, of course, wrong. The people of Calcata continued to parade through the streets with the prepuce every January 1 almost until Return of the Jedi hit theaters. But in 1983, the local priest, Fr. Dario Magnoni, announced that there would be no parade henceforth—the prepuce had been stolen.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Who would steal such a thing, except for possibly a time traveler from the Middle Ages? I’m not going to take sides, but at least one journalist is pretty convinced it was actually the Vatican itself. After all, they had been trying to get people to let the thing go for almost a century at that point—and some eyewitnesses claim Fr. Magnoni made a very suspicious trip to Rome the day before he made the announcement.
I‘m not Dan Brown, so I don’t know if I buy it. But if the Vatican did take back the prepuce, I can’t say I blame them for doing what they had to do to stamp out the silliness and juvenilia surrounding relics. After all, what relics should point to is the truth that every inch of our bodies has been washed clean in Christ’s blood and will be raised again on the last day—and it’s just too bad when that gets drowned out in giggles.
The upshot? Maybe we’ll see the prepuce again some day—y’know, after you guys grow up.