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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

The Battle For Father Christmas’s Bones And The Light It Throws On Pope Benedict’s Schemes

Benedict XVI’S 21st Century Crusade Part 1
Dr Clive Gillis

A powerful body of intellectuals are dedicated to the idea of Europe as a venerable Holy Roman [Catholic] Empire.  Pope Benedict XVI is their front man and deeply committed to the cause.

Their manifesto is to be found in the document Le radici cristiane dell ‘Europa dall‘est all’ovest (‘The Christian roots of Europe from the East to the West’). Its cover shows an old map of Europe in the hey day of papal temporal power.  This document was widely promoted when Rome hosted the signing of the EU Constitutional Treaty, which nevertheless proved to be a disaster.

These people claim the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Regina Apostolorum (Queen of the Apostles).  We shall return to the significance of this title in a moment.  And Pope Benedict is portayed as a Crusader committed to protecting this Holy Roman Empire “from the east to the west”.

Next year is the 25th anniversary of the visit of the Pope to Britain in 1982.  But the truth is that Pope seems to be too preoccupied with the eastern borders of his empire to heed Cardinal O’Connor and PM Blair’s pleas for another visit to the UK, at least at the moment.

The plan

Benedict has been described as the “Vicar of orthodoxy”. He has bolstered his conservative image by sending aides to retrieve long discarded items of papal attire from dark corners of the Vatican.  In his scarlet ermine trimmed cap or camauro and scarlet ermine‑trimmed cape, the mozzetta, his press photographs bear an eerie resemblance to portraits of bygone Benedicts shrouded in the mists of time.

But all this is a smokescreen behind which Benedict is launching an ecumenical crusade against the Eastern Orthodox church and its leader, His All Holiness the Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is ‘first among equals’ in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It is interesting that while recent popes have declined the triple crown, Benedict has declined coronation altogether, opting for an installation mass instead.  At the time of his installation he refused to speak directly about the policies he intended to pursue, but talked about symbolism instead.  “There is no need for me to present a program of governance,” he said but, “I should simply like to comment on the two liturgical symbols ... of the Petrine ministry”.

These symbols are the pallium and the Fisherman’s Ring, and there is more to the Pope’s reference to them than at first meets the eye.

The pallium

Benedict then explained that,  “The first symbol is the pallium, woven in pure wool, which will be placed on my shoulders.  This ancient sign .... the bishops of Rome have worn since the fourth century.”

But the pallium Benedict wore that day was the older style of pallium, broad with red crosses, and hanging down from the left shoulder, not the type worn today which hangs like a circular collar with front and back pendant strips. “This style,” he said, “is more typical of the first millennium, and similar to the omophorion representing episcopal authority in the Eastern Church” (emphasis ours)

Benedict has removed the triple crown from the papal coat of arms.  In its place place he has put a pallium and a mitre.  But the mitre still sports the symbolic three bands of the classical tri­ple crown which Rome claims represent, “or­der, jurisdiction, and magisterium”.

So Benedict is playing down the kingship aspect of the papacy and emphasising the Bishop of Rome aspect.  All this looks suspiciously like a bid to make himself first amongst equals in a new ecumenical union with the Eastern Orthodox churches, which will then be gobbled up to create a new, Islam proof, super church of which the pope is the real leader.

The Fisherman's Ring

The other symbol of ‘the petrine ministry’ is the so‑called Fisherman’s Ring worn by the Pope.  In explaining it Benedict said, “Today ... successors of the apostles are told to put out into the deep sea of history”.

But who does the Pope mean when he talks of the ‘successors of the apostles?’  The Blessed Virgin Mary as Regina Apostolorum is Benedict’s Queen as the 265th successor of St Peter. But she also happens to be the Queen of the 270th successor of the Apostle Andrew, that is Bartholomew 1, of the Eastern Church.

The Pope launches his crusade

Pope Benedict launched his crusade against the Eastern Orthodox churches six weeks after his election.  His first sally from Rome was to the ancient eastern Italian seaport of Bari (pronounced Bahrree) in the boot of Italy.  Here the pope has a powerful bargaining lever with the Eastern Church.

Southern Italy still maintains a Greek character.  John Paul II called Bari “a bridge to the east”.  It was from Bari in 1195 that Emperor Henry V1, son of the famous Barbarossa, accepted the red cross from bloodthirsty Crusader pope Urban II.  Armed with this Henry set off in 1195 to recover Jerusalem.

Modern crusader Pope Benedict XVI, went to Bari ostensibly to attend a Eucharistic conference.  But on Sunday 29th May 2005 his true agenda became clear as he headed for the nearby esplanade of Marisabella from where departing ships of Henry’s Crusade would have once been visible.

Here 200,000 people attended open air Mass, many having taken advantage of a low train fare and a new, convenient express service advertised widely in the north and making this usually hot and lengthy journey more pleasant.

Benedict appeared on a boat shaped stage. “Eucharist,” he said, “is the sacrament of unity. Unfortunately, however, Christians are divided!”  He went on to declare that, “We must feel all the more roused to striving with all our strength for that full unity which Christ ardently desired”.

Then Benedict came to the point: “Precisely here in Bari, fortunate Bari, a city that preserves the bones of St Nicholas, a land of encounter and dialogue with our Christian brethren of the East, I would like to reaffirm my desire to ... [work] with all my might for the re‑establishment of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers”.

Fortunate Bari

Why did Benedict say, “fortunate Bari, a city that preserves the bones of St Nicholas”?  Well, the relics of St Nicholas are held in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari’s old city.  But this basilica along with a couple of other churches and some ancient windy streets is basically all old Bari amounts to.  Without the relics of St Nicholas, Bari would be nothing. The relics, particularly the bones of St Nicholas, have brought Bari prosperity for 800 years as generation upon generation of pilgrims, not only Roman Catholics from Germany, Austria, and Belgium but also Eastern Orthodox pilgrims from Greece, Serbia and Russia have visited in droves.

Now Saint Nicholas is “just about everyone’s saint”, guarding children, travellers, sailors and the sick particularly.  The cult of St Nicholas has created Bari.  What is more, the cult of St Nicholas has a grip on the minds and hearts of both the Catholic and Orthodox of the region.  This is the St Nicholas we know in northern Europe as Santa Claus or Father Christmas.  The now familiar caricature of a red coated gentleman was developed in 19th century New York where immigrant Orthodox veneration of St Nicholas was common.

The bones

But these bones are bones of contention as both Rome and the Orthodox claim ownership of them.  And Benedict well knows St Nicholas’ bones were stolen from a well established Orthodox shrine in Turkey in 1087 and the Turks want them back.

Nicholas was a fourth century bishop at Myra near Antalya on the coast in southern Turkey.  He had no connection with Rome.  He vigorously withstood the Arian rulers and could have been a genuine, born again Christian man.  A shrine inevitably grew up and prospered at Myra.  Its fame grew, based upon the miracle of ‘manna’.  This was an annual sweating of perfumed liquid from Nicholas’ bones sufficient to collect in a flask.  In time countless miracles were ascribed to this liquid.  But the Myra shrine, being close to the Turkish coast, was well known in SE Italy.  An Islamic rebellion in Turkey at the end of the 11th century gave papal raiders the chance to seize the bones, under pretext of protecting them.  The raiders took them back to Bari where the Basilica di San Nicola was built to house them.  To everyone’s relief the bones continued to sweat their annual flask of manna, which also happily retained its miracle working power, and does so to this day.

One might add that the Vatican is still suffering the consequences of allowing scientific scrutiny of the Turin shroud, and it is wisely keeping science at bay in Bari.

The Turks

The Turks have a good case for return of the relics.  The original raid was chronicled in enormous detail and the manuscript survives.  The voices of the local monks absolutely refusing to surrender the bones still cry out from the parchment indicting Rome.  The haughty reply of the crusading raiders condemns her still:

“Look you, that we have not disembarked here of our own will, but we have been sent by the Pope of Route and by the Archbishops and Bishops and authorities at Rome associated with hMt and the whole Council. For all of  these arrived in our city of Bari with a large host and the diverse armies of the west, en­joining on us to accomplish this worth and bring back to the Pope the remains of the saint without fail. Why even the saint himself, appearing in a vision to the Pope bade him do this with all haste”.

Worse, when Vatican II demoted 90 saints as rank embarrassments in a modern world St Nicholas was amongst them, but with the proviso that devotion was allowable as a matter of personal choice.  This is not how the Greeks, Serbs and Russians see it.  St Nicholas is mainstream for them.

Now Benedict is trumpeting the cult as a bargaining chip for a take over of the Eastern Orthodox.  Islamic Turkey he believes is not worthy to have the bones, but if the Orthodox agreed to reunion they would get some sort of possession of them.

But Bari would never agree to return the relics.  These are the bones that work the ongoing tourism miracle.

Trouble brewing

Early in 2003, the bones dispute became public.  A Turkish foundation dedicated to Santa Claus asked the Italian government to “retrieve the relics of St. Nicholas ... and return them to his native Turkey”.  Muammer Karabalut, the foundation chairman, told the Associated Press, “We want them returned in 2003.  We’re starting a campaign this year for them to be given back”.  For the Turks this is possession by Antichrist.

But the priests of San Nicola in Bari were equally scathing.  Besides rejecting any Turkish claim to the bones out of hand, Father Gerardo Cioffari, historian at the basilica, impugned Turkish motives.  “They ask for the remains only to keep tourism alive ... They don’t venerate St. Nicholas”.  He pointed out that the bones are now secured in blocks of reinforced concrete (which is actually intended to precipitate the “manna”).  Cioffari said that local popular piety would prevent any such return of the relics. “If the remains were moved there would be a revolution here ... Even the Vatican couldn’t do anything about it.”

But the Pope has precedent upon his side.  Thirty years ago, the Vatican approved the return of several relics of St. Nicholas to a Greek Orthodox Church in New York.

After all, like the endless supply of wood from the true cross, there are usually sufficient of any relic to go round Meanwhile St Nicholas church at Myra has its empty crypt dedicated to St Nicholas ready and waiting for bones.

Benedict’s eastern crusade is far from over, and we watch his planned trip to Turkey later this year with interest.

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