For Catholic Christians, 1 January is traditionally the Day of the Holy Circumcision – the day on which Jesus of Nazareth was circumcised according to Jewish law. For centuries, the small town of Calcata, Italy, 47 km from Rome, has celebrated an annual procession on that day. The Calcatans had particular reason to rejoice on this day – it was an opportunity to display their most precious relic – the Holy Foreskin, a certified object first given to the Church by the Emperor Charlemagne himself.
In 1983, however, the Calcatans received shocking news: the Holy Foreskin had been stolen! Apparently, daring thieves had broken into Father Dario Magnoni's house and taken the sacred object from its usual resting place – a shoebox in the back of the priest's wardrobe. Alas, the Holy Foreskin has never been found. It has failed to show up on the antiquities market, and no one appears to be looking for it.
A prominent Holy Foreskin researcher, David Farley, has charged the Vatican itself with the theft. His reasoning? The Vatican was so embarrassed by the relic's existence, and so eager to quash discussion of sacred DNA, that it instructed Father Magnoni to hand over the relic, which he quietly did. These allegations have not been proven, of course. But the disappearance of the Holy Foreskin is just the most recent chapter in the long and fascinating history of an interesting body part.
Why a Foreskin?
In the Middle Ages, relics of holy people – objects they had touched or used, or even better, leftover body parts – were much in demand. First of all, possession of these objects lent added sanctity to a church or monastery. Second, they allowed the faithful to show their piety by venerating said object. Third, and possibly most important, possession of a relic allowed the institution to charge extra for seeing it. The medieval tourist business was largely religious, and pilgrims brought in needed revenue.
Really good relics belonged to famous people in the Bible. The most famous, of course, was Jesus himself – but here, the relic trade ran into a problem. It was a well-known fact that Jesus' body parts weren't lying around anywhere to be picked up – because Jesus had taken them all with him when he went back to Heaven. One of Jesus' body parts, however, might have been left behind. As it said in Luke 2:21:
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
For this reason, the Holy Foreskin was high on the wish list of any respectable relic collector. Those who searched had reason to believe it might exist: the apocryphal Infancy of Jesus Christ claimed that an 'old woman' had preserved the Holy Foreskin in an alabaster box. Thus it was satisfying to all when the Emperor Charlemagne presented this extremely holy relic to Pope Leo III as a Christmas present on 25 December, 800. Charlemagne claimed he got it from an angel. The sacred flesh was placed in the Sancta Sanctorum, or collection of most holy things, in the Lateran Palace in Rome, there to be duly venerated.
In 1527, the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Charles V, was feuding with the Pope of the time, one Clement VII, who was backed by a group called the League of Cognac. In the process of this disturbance, Rome was sacked by Charles' mutinous troops. A German soldier stole the Holy Foreskin – after all, it was in a pretty box – and ran off with it. The soldier was apprehended in Calcata and imprisoned. He hid the relic in his cell, where it was discovered in 1557. The Calcatans adopted the relic, and continued to venerate it for the next four centuries – through thick and thin, and in spite of Vatican disapproval and the threatened demolition of the town1 – until its second theft, by persons unknown.
An Embarrassing Topic
Discussion of the Holy Foreskin can get embarrassing for religious people. For one thing, it isn't often that spiritual values involve the mention of private body parts. In fact, the Vatican got so tired of the whole discussion that in 1900, it was made an excommunicable offence to discuss the topic of the Holy Foreskin2.
Second, the Holy Foreskin in Rome wasn't the only one in Christendom. Up to 18 different claimants to the title have been located around Europe. The argument today is somewhat simplified by the fact that most or all of these alternative foreskins have vanished, been discarded or destroyed by angry sceptics during the Reformation and French Revolution. So at present, the Holy Foreskin of Calcata – if, in fact, it still exists somewhere – is the only one that need concern relic believers.
Not everyone has been satisfied with the idea that Jesus' foreskin stayed behind when he left. Some medieval scholars opined that the Holy Foreskin, like the rest of the Redeemer, would have translated into Heaven with him. Which, of course, raises the question: what would Heaven want it for? One theologian allegedly had an answer.
In the 17th Century, Vatican librarian Leo Allatius wrote an unpublished treatise called De Praeputio3 Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba, or 'A Discourse on the Foreskin of Our Lord Jesus Christ'. Alas, this treatise is lost to us. A 19th-Century description of this work, however, claims that Allutius stated that the Holy Foreskin did, indeed, ascend to Heaven with Jesus – and became the Rings of Saturn. At the time, the rings had just been discovered, so the reference was topical, if theologically dodgy.
What Have We Learned?
What do we learn from the story of the Holy Foreskin? On the whole, not much. It is easy to mock the medieval reverence for relics – until one considers the contents of a Sotheby's auction. It is equally easy to scoff at the credulity of past centuries when it came to preserving sacred body parts. That is, unless one reflects on the possible reasons for the disappearance of the Holy Foreskin in 1983, when genetic research was making enormous strides. What if some scientist had desired to create a Jesus genome project based on the relic? Or worse. As David Farley wrote:
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.