A very Medieval Pilgrimage and the Power of Relics

Evelyn Nicholson – April 2020.

Since my own conversion to the Catholic faith some years ago, I  accepted the idea of relics, but never really ‘got’ them,  rather enjoying the reports that St Teilo had his mortal remains divided into three portions, so that the three monasteries connected to him would each have a fair share! [1]This view changed in May 2016, when I learned through social media, that a relic of St Thomas Becket was being temporarily brought back to Canterbury Cathedral by a Hungarian mission, following reception at London Cathedrals and churches.[2]

On May 12 in that year, the Hungarian pilgrimage group formed a procession with other pilgrims walking from the outskirts of the city in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims (from the village described by Chaucer as ‘bobbe-up-and-doun’, it took an hour to the cathedral). Their purpose was also ‘the hooly blisful martir for to seke’ but in their case, they were bringing back a sacred relic of St Thomas for a week from the basilica in Esztergom in Hungary.[3] This elbow bone of the martyr was taken there in 1220, possibly as a gift. The power of the saint’s patronage, however, as one who fought for the church against a ruling power, namely Henry II, made Becket’s patronage and this particular relic the most important in Hungary as their focus of the Hungarian symbol of resistance to Communism. [4]

There was a service of welcome in the choir of the cathedral the next day by the Very Reverend Doctor Robert Willis, and other prominent Anglican clergy, then a Catholic Mass was celebrated at 1.30pm in the very crypt where the saint’s mutilated body had been taken following the murder. The pilgrims had arrived early, because the relic was available for veneration (and viewing by tourists) in a smaller chapel, just off the crypt.

Somehow, looking at the statue of Our Lady of the Undercroft, the candlelight invited an insight into a different era. It was Pentecost Sunday, and the crypt filled with people coming in to venerate the relic in the light of candles. Excited white-robed boy altar servers came in to light more candles, choir members and pilgrims and their children arrived. The clergy and dignitaries arrived for Mass. A colourful, medieval copy of an original 1220 statue of the saint made for Sweden almost presided at the assembled pilgrims inside and out of the door who were all absorbed in their prayers and veneration before Mass began.[5]

The main celebrant of Mass was Father Valentin Erhahon, and the clergy of St Thomas Catholic Church. His homily detailed the fate of the relics excellently. Chorally the Mass was magnificent, the Joyful Company of Singers, and the choir of St Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church combining and were conducted by Peter Broadbent. They sang Matyas Seiber’s Mass setting and Messaien’s haunting ‘O Sacrum Convivium’.All in the candlelight.

After the Dismissal, everyone was invited to come up to the martyrdom sites to pray. The clergy and dignitaries and some of the congregation formed a procession leading to the scene of the martyrdom via the Trinity Chapel, where his shrine had lain for so many years. Upon the return of the procession, all were offered a cream tea up on the lawn, but curiously not many pilgrims left immediately. The crypt gradually became deeply silent as the candles burned lower and other guests left. It was as if amm pilgrims were concentrating on the relic in the sparkling gold reliquary on the Undercroft altar. Everyone had it as a focus for their devotion. The people, priest and strangers moved silently forward almost as one into the chapel. People tried to squeeze in, transfixed by the relic, standing, sitting or kneeling, or leaning against the wall.

Suddenly, I understood Barbara Rosenwein’s view on an ’emotional community’. Here it was! This group did have a common stake in a salvific Christian afterlife. The injustice of Becket’s murder, the scars of the penal laws and persecution of the faithful, the Apostolic Faith, moral values, goal of salvation and sacramentals. The relic was the focus. Here was a temporal community with a stake in heaven at the foot of the Cross. The prayers being used had been memorised, taught at mothers’ knees and committed to the heart. This community would be what Foucault called ‘Discourse’, a group with shared vocabularies and ways of thinking which control and discipline the Faithful to lovingly work together[6] for the Kingdom.[7] This assembled community were gripped as one, in a divine, mysterious way to focus on Christ.

The ‘Meditationes Vitae Christi’ directs the Christian to ‘make hym-selfe present in his thoghte as if he sawe fully with his bodyly eghe all the thyngys that be-fell abowte the crosse and the glorious passione of our Lorde Ihesu.’[8] Becket had converted from a somewhat profligate lifestyle to suffer and serve Christ, fighting against royal interference in church matters. He had become an example of virtue and now was praying with the Faithful right there in that ancient place during the Pentecost mission of 2016. Then, crossing themselves, the faithful gradually dismissed themselves from the saint, and slipped away into the darkening crypt, mainly strangers but an emotional community, who had joined others through all ages to pray together. Becket’s relic had focused and ‘activated ’these pilgrims as it had the people of Hungary to resist evil.   So I finally ‘got’ the power of relics!  It really had been a ‘medieval’ experience.

Postgraduate researcher and doctoral candidate: Medieval Pilgrimage and Theology at MBI. Admin of the Facebook Groups: Catholics of Britain and Ireland, We are Catholics of Britain and Ireland Debate Page. I have a historical website maryinmonmouth.blogspot.com, and a podcast of the same name.

[1] Baring Gould and Fisher, Saints of Wales, Cornwall and Ireland. Vol 3 St Teilo.

[2] Embassy of Hungary, London. Solemn High Mass for the closing of the Hungarian Pilgrimage  in honour of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr .Celebrated in the presence of the relics of St. Thomas Becket from the Basilica of Esztergom in Hungary on the Feast of Corpus Christi: The Body and Blood of Christ in the Crypt, Chapel of our Lady Undercroft., Canterbury Cathedral.May 29 2016. The Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest, the Diocese of Szeged, the Hungarian Embassy, the Hungarian  Cultural  Centre  in  London, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Etzegom.

[3] BBC report https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36397808.

[4] This was the first time the British public had the opportunity to see the relic of St Thomas Becket – after having been kept with great reverence in Esztergom, Hungary – for 800 years  In Hungary devotion to Thomas Becket was heightened under Communism when the Church suffered attacks from the government. A candle ceremony has been held every year together with a combined at Esztergom to honour the martyred saint on his feast day.

[5]  A copy of a fifteenth century original held at the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities given to Canterbury in 1970.

[6] Barbara H Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the early Middle Ages (Cornell University Press), pp. 24-26.

[7] Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969) (trans. AM Sheridan Smith, 1972), pp. 135–140 and 49.

[8] Quoted by Eamon Duffy as C Horstmann (ed) Yorkshire Writers 1895, I, p. 198. Aquinas Lecture,1988. Mater dolorosa, Mater Misericordiae. New Blackfriars, 69(816) (May 1988), 210–227.

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