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Images, Miracles, And Relics

( Originally Published 1870 )


THERE was the same wisdom at Trent, as we have already seen, in what was said respecting images ; there is the same forgetfulness to-day of what was then said. Even at that period there was a perceptible discrepancy between theory and practice, though we should naturally have supposed that the Papacy, after having sanctioned the decree, would at any rate have striven in some slight degree to amend what was therein condemned. Has such been the case ? We have already recorded the present Pope's declaration that he had habitually invoked a Madonna, and that his petitions had been answered. This saying is but an illustration of what image worship becomes, and of what are its results wherever it has free scope. And we might fitly add here a sketch of the encouragement continually given by Rome to this deplorable fetishism. When the Pope grants special privileges to the sanctuary of this or that saint, he is perfectly well aware that the statue of the saint will become invested with a prestige which it would not possess in an unprivileged spot. When he orders or sanctions the crowning of a Madonna (that strange invention of the present century), he is perfectly aware that the faithful will no longer regard that Madonna as occupying the same position as the humbler ones at corners of the streets, or as those that are uncrowned ; he knows the absurd rivalries which these privileges have created, a clear proof, if any were needed, that what is really worshipped is the image or idol, and not the Virgin or saint, who would, of course, be the same everywhere. Much encouragement is thus given to those special devotions which time has sanctioned, and in this way the old heathen errors are continued in a very melancholy way. There were countless Jupiters in Rome and Greece ; but who shall say how many Marys find a place in Papal Rome, and the Catholic world ?

A king after the Pope's own heart made the following decree on the 15th of March 1848.

'On the recommendation of our minister, Secretary of State for home affairs, and after hearing our council of ministers, we have decreed, and do decree as follows :

` 1st. That the National Guard of our most faithful city of Naples be placed under the special protection of the most holy Virgin of Carmel.

' 2dly. Our minister, Secretary of State for home affairs, will carry out the present decree.'

We will not dwell on the second article, nor inquire what steps were taken by the minister for the execution of the decree, especially how he notified it to the Virgin ; the first article is sufficiently singular. The king does not place his National Guard under the protection of the Virgin, but under that of ` the Virgin of Carmel.' And it is the Virgin of Carmel herself, and none other, not she of Loretto, for instance, in spite of her great reputation, who is supposed to accept this office ; it is she and none other that is to be honoured and worshipped; it is she, finally, who will work miracles, if it is thought necessary that any should be worked, and who will work them in consequence of the special devotion of which she is to be the object. `A Madonna is worshipped in the church of our Lady of Victory at Rome,' said L' Univers lately, ` who is celebrated for the advantages which she secured to the Catholics in the religious wars between Hungary and Bohemia.' Here, then, we find victories attributed not to the Virgin her-self, but actually and materially to one of her images.


And Catholic miracles ! What an open defiance to common sense and the age ! What discredit is cast, from vulgar and interested motives, on Christianity, and on its primitive history, which was also miraculous, but then how soberly, how purely miraculous, and with what an elevated and divine spirituality ! In this, then, as in everything else, the Middle Ages are restored to us, but without their simplicity, their faith, and their sincerity, for they at least believed in legends, and this cannot be said of those who preach them to-day.

Miracles ! We need not revert to those which the Popes were so successful in discovering in the histories of the persons they had resolved to canonize ; miracles which may have been floating about unrecorded for twenty or forty years, for a century or more, and which might prove certain or uncertain, sufficient or insufficient, according as the necessary funds were or were not forthcoming. How many other miracles have been adopted without even this show of conscientious inquiry ! How many have been adopted indirectly and furtively, a hidden hand being stretched out to support the most grotesque lies ! Just consider the case of La Saiette. The Pope never proclaimed the miracle to be authentic, indeed he could hardly have dared to do so ; for assuredly he is as well aware as we are that though a Virgin did appear unquestionably, yet she appeared in the person of a half crazy and half mendacious woman, whose tricks were brought to light in a court of law. Yet he has nevertheless authorized the founding of societies and chapels under the patronage of 'Notre Dame de la Salette,' he has granted rich indulgences to those societies and chapels, and therefore he has formally, though unofficially, recognised the miracle. We are told that weeping and winking Madonnas have been ordered to keep quiet for the present ; but this order was only given because too many Madonnas were adopting such practices, and no small number had adopted them before Rome was led to regard the matter in any other light than as a successful means of influence. With all this, the literature of legends could not fail to receive fresh impetus. Educated people have no idea of what is printed and reprinted in the obscure regions so dear to the Papal heart. Who in Paris, for instance, is aware of the extravagances which may have been published in this or that diocese, with the approbation and recommendation of the bishop, who has the reputation, most likely well deserved, of being a man of sense and talent, but who, as a bishop, can have no other sense or conscience than that which comes to him from Rome ? And even in Paris itself did there not appear, under the archbishop's sanction, the life of Saint Kotska, one of the most fabulous of these miserable productions ? ` The charm of the narrative,' said the archbishop, ` the interest of the incidents, and the orthodoxy and piety of the general reflections, will secure to this work all the beneficial results anticipated by the author. We cannot therefore do otherwise than cordially recommend its perusal.' Read it, then, and you will see that our saint, when he prayed, was gradually lifted, and found himself, though still in a kneeling posture, two feet from the ground ; read, and you will see our saint in sickness receive a visit from the Virgin Mother, who places the infant Jesus on the bed within reach of his caressing hand ; read, and you will find about a hundred pages filled with accounts of miracles, wrought after his death by means of his intercession and his relics. And what of St. Rosa of Lima, or St. Philomena, and twenty others, and the rosary of Mary, called also the garland of Mary, where you will find a prayer for every day addressed to the Virgin, together with the record of a miracle proving the efficacy of that prayer ?

Do not think, however, that such stories are only to be found in the little books provided as the spiritual food of the lower classes. What is the Boman Breviary, which the priests are compelled to read daily, but a vast collection of legends ? Till quite lately many Catholic countries had always refused to adopt it ; but Pius Ix. has now succeeded in obtaining its acceptance almost everywhere. In Catholic journalism, the first - class papers seem to take pleasure in rivalling the credulity of the very lowest. There was an article in the Univers on the flying Capuchins, in which they were described as superior even to Kotska, for not only were they raised from the ground, but lifted on to the altar.

Even in the highest walks of Catholic literature certain books have appeared, which you cannot read without constantly asking yourself whether the author was trying to befool himself or his readers. Take, for instance, the life of St. Elizabeth by M. de Montalembert, or even that of Pius v. by M. de Falloux. ` A Spanish soldier taken prisoner by a detachment of Orangemen was tied to a tree, and shot ; but the balls that struck him fell to his feet, as if he had been made of brass. On searching his clothes, the Huguenot soldiers found that he wore an Agnus Dei on his breast.' M. de Falloux could write these lines, and yet he is one of those very men who, on other occasions, will lay before you an enlightened, clearly reasoned, and reason-able Catholicism, and will express astonishment and indignation that any one should dream that any other exists. The Pope shows greater frankness ; he does not know anything about that enlightened, transcendental, and reasonable Catholicism, which courts popularity in certain books, and from certain pulpits; or, if a faint echo of it does by chance reach him, he immediately assumes an anxious and defensive attitude. His Catholicism, the only one he chooses to recognise, is that of which we have just been sketching the features, indulgences,

the Virgin, the saints, penances, miracles, above all, the omnipotence which these things are destined to secure to the Vicar of Jesus Christ.


It is, in fact, inevitable that a religious authority, whose chief concern is to assure its own dominion, should tend continually to materialize the religion which it represents. It is certainly possible to rule over mind through the mind, but only on condition of supplying it with really pure, spiritual, elevating, and reasonable nourishment ; and when this condition cannot be fulfilled, a totally different regimen must be resorted to, a regimen of outward forms and visible incarnations. Besides, a truly spiritual training would foster thoughts of liberty, and Rome is quite aware of the danger. Those who profess an enlightened Catholicism always cause her much anxiety, however resolved they may be, or appear to be, to remain children of the Church. They have always one foot on the road that leads to rebellion. It is necessary to overlook a number of small heresies, nay, even great ones, and to refrain from giving them any warning, which would only remind them of a yoke they do not feel, and which, if they did feel, they would shake off. The only believers whom Rome holds in her grasp securely and truly, are those whom she holds by means of forms and superstitious practices, and all things appertaining thereto.

Hence the immense development of the least spiritual part of the worship of the saints that of relics.

The apotheoses of Paganism had not furnished any precedent. Yet many of the gods were supposed to have lived on the earth, and many of the demigods had unquestionably done so. Nothing therefore would have been easier than to worship, either their real or supposed remains, or some article that had belonged to them. Yet, except perhaps in two or three places, there is no trace of any such worship. When it became customary at Rome to deify the emperors immediately after their deaths, it would of course have been easy to obtain any number of authentic relics, had such been wanted. They were not wanted, and, indeed, no one ever gave a thought to the matter. A temple dedicated to Caesar or Augustus, was a temple dedicated to the soul of Caesar or Augustus, to the being reputed as divine. Their ashes were not deposited there, and only received the honours paid at other sepulchres.

Christian Rome has effected a change in all this. Bones, articles of clothing, all that belonged, or is supposed to have belonged to one of its demigods, partakes of the worship rendered to him; and it not unfrequently happens that some particular relic the body, or a portion of the body of a saint is honoured with more pomp and splendour than the Host, which is the body of Christ.

At Trent, therefore, on this point as on others, great moderation was displayed, as compared with what the Catholic world had already seen ; and greater moderation still, as compared with what the Catholic world was to see in the seventeenth century, even under Bossuet, and in the nineteenth, even with all the advances of modern progress.

For a long time Rome confined herself to manufacturing the relics of saints, even at the risk of assigning to each, for want of a little mutual arrangement, several heads or bodies. But now saints are manufactured from relics, and as soon as any trace of relics is discovered, new saints forthwith spring up for adoration. Cuvier, by the help of one bone, reconstructed an entire animal, and not the animal only, but its history. The Pope, by the help of a few bones, constructs a saint, and when once the saint is constructed, suffers the story of his life to be told, though it is a life of which no one probably either knows or can know anything. You are perfectly lost in amazement when you learn how those demigods are created at Rome which the Pope enshrines on the altars of the Catholic world. Even as early as 1697, Father Mabillon related facetiously how such things were managed. It was he who styled the saints so manufactured by the Pope, the unknown saints. Fresh provisions of saints are made from time to time from the catacombs, from the ancient Christian cemeteries, from any place, in short, where there is any hope of finding the bones of martyrs. Controversy might easily raise an objection here. Martyrdom is scarcely a sufficient proof of holiness. ' Though I give my body to be burned,' says St. Paul, ' and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.' It is therefore possible to give one's body to be burned for the glory of God, and yet not be a true saint ; for martyrdom may have been courted through pride or enthusiasm, as many another bloody encounter has been courted. These remarks, indeed, already find a place in the works of several Fathers who lived in the days of the great persecutions. And yet it is only on the strength of their martyrdom that a whole host of saints are regarded as saints ; and, very often, even the martyrdom itself is as little authenticated as anything else. Formerly, at any rate, search was only made in those graves that bore the name of the dead, and certain emblems typical of martyrdom. Now, how-ever, both names and emblems are willingly dispensed with, and bones become the bones of saints on the very barest shadow of probability. The bones are taken, and cleaned by men appointed for the task ; afterwards the cardinal-vicar or the sacristan-bishop of the pontifical chapel places them in a case, which he seals. Letters testimonial are then drawn up, certifying that the bones are bona fide relics, and may be set up anywhere for the veneration of the faithful. As in any other commercial transaction, the merchandise awaits a demand, and is despatched as soon as an order is received. The Queen of Spain had asked for two new saints to guard her throne ; but unfortunately the two cases containing them did not reach their destination till after her throne had fallen. Three years ago a priest, living in the neighbourhood of Geneva, also asked for a saint, probably to protect his parish from the attacks of the headquarters of heresy. The case was duly received ; the bones were placed in a wax image sumptuously attired, and Saint OEliodorus made a triumphal entry into the church to the sound of cannon and the pealing of bells. But was that his real name ? Did any one ever bear that name ? We know not ; for most of the saints of this kind bear names invented pretty much at haphazard by the Pope. Thus have arisen in our day St. Prudentissimus, St. Felicissimus, St. Fidelissimus; and there are people who will tell you gravely that these names, though invented, are real, inasmuch as they de-scribe what the saint most certainly was, viz, very wise, or very happy, or very faithful. And besides, they add, the name of the saint does not matter in the least ; the saint whose bones you honour knows perfectly that the bones are his, and does not need to be called by his right name in order to hear you.


We have seen Catholics excited to indignation on hearing these details, not at the details themselves, but so they said at the impudence with which the enemies of the Church dared to invent such lies. Alas ! in all that relates to making profit out of a people, it is not easy to calumniate Papal Catholicism. We might repeat in this connection what we have already said respecting administrative and political abuses. In all the questions we have just reviewed, canonizations, worship of the Virgin and of the saints, images, and relics, imagine all that is most contrary to the spirituality of Christianity and of its worship, to the most elementary truths of natural religion respecting God and His dignity, and the human soul and the dignity of man, and you may be pretty nearly sure that in one form or other the error you have imagined finds a place, and plays a part in the Papal religion.

The Christian writers of the first centuries often reproached Paganism with being no better than a huge compound, to which every age and every people had contributed its gods and its errors. Is Romanism so very different ? Heir to many heathen forms, it welcomed all that the human heart has seen fit to graft on that old stock. Only, while Paganism was the work of all, Catholicism, which is also in a sense the work of all, is the work more especially of that central power which welcomed, regulated, and blessed every novelty that could be utilized in the construction of the edifice.

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