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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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”.
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
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.
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 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
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.
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.