THE SKULL of St Demetrius has been returned to Salonika from an Italian monastery. It is presumed that it was either pinched by Crusaders or taken for safe keeping when Salonika — whose patron saint he is — fell to the Turks in the year 430.
The former interpretation is far more likely. Greeks were by then in no mood to entrust anything to the rude Latins. There was even a saying, "Better the turban than the mitre", and God forgive us for the bitterness that caused it.
Salonika is a charming place, where half the inhabitants appear to live by selling oranges to the other half. It has a better than Cornish harbour where fishing caiques bob beside a monumental qua/.
It has been a bit fought over from time to time. On a clear day you can see Mount Olympus. There are several churches, Greek Orthodox, of world magnificence.
St Demetrius has his own basilica with his tomb in the base ment. It is said to exude an oil of miraculous power — and how, may I ask, if the body is still there, did the head get to the abbey of Sam Lorenzo in Campo?
Relics were once worth their weight in diamonds and in addition, like captured battle flags, they conferred prestige. They also tended to bring in a steady income for religious foundations. The Basilica of St Demetrius is built on the site of his martyrdom.
But who was he? There have been two Syrian kings of that name. There was a silversmith in Ephesus who used to make little models of the Goddess Diana's temple there — she had improper attributes — for pagan pilgrims to take away.
He led the rioting against St Paul when he preached in the theatre of which the ruins still stand. Christianity was clearly going to be bad for business. St John the Apostle praises another one in a letter and leaves it flat.
I can find only one Saint Demetrius in my books. He was Bishop of Alexandria from 188 to 231. One legend about him says that he died at the age of 105. He was the Superior of the great but rash theologian Origen who took one of Christ's counsels of perfection a little too literally and regretted it ever after.
He also disciplined him for preaching while still a layman — an unheard of presumption. But although there were some singularly violent Emperors in Rome at the time, he does not appear to have been martyred. And that is all — slightly more than all — that I know about the blessed St Demetrius. And it is clearly the wrong one.
This saint and martyr is said to have been a Roman officer who was killed on the orders of Caesar Galerius about the year 303 for refusing to give up the Christian Faith. But I can find no reference to this person who matters so much to the people of Salonika. And my sacred source is The Daily Telegraph.
From time to time Rome returns a relic to the Orthodox Church. A few years ago they gave back the head of St James the Apostle. They are not received with any very extravagant gratitude, nor do they appear to change the attitude of relentless suspicion harboured by the Greeks against all things Roman Catholic.
After all, you would not smother a thief who returned your silver pepper pots with thanks, or change your attitude to the act of robbery. From the Holy Shroud of Turin downwards, some of the West's greatest relics are either booty or obtained by questionable means from the cradle of christianity, which is the Middle East.
This time, however, the Metropolitan Panteleimon of Salonika came to Italy to fetch the relic, and in gratitude offered three scholarships a year to the small town of San Lorenzo in Campo which had held the relic.
These will be given at the Unversity of Salonika, and in view of the state of Italian universities, students who want to learn more than the art of stone throwing would be wise to compete for these places.
Squall blowing up in Rochester
I SEE that there is quite a squall blowing up in the precincts of Rochester Cathedral. They are going to sell some of their silver to build a visitor's centre. It is none of our business. But it raises some interesting problems.
Rochester used to be about the poorest diocese in England, and Cardinal John Fisher lived there — until his unique martyrdom — in a condition of dank squalor. I am not sure what a visitor's centre is, unless it be a shop or cafeteria. The cathedral itself is the place for visitors.
But the business of selling ecclesiastically ancestral treasures is not easy. At first it looks easy: sell the lot and give it to the poor. The late Cardinal Heenan, in one of his pastoral letters, decreed that priests should sell their • superfluous chalices. They can be de-sanctified with a discreet and purposeful tap on the rim.
But I can remember once, when going to lecture at a Catholic college — one dare not identify such places for tear of a pestilence of burglars making it a condition of my acceptance that I be shown their treasures.
They took me into a strong room as big as my drawing room which was lined with shelves which were crowded with the instruments of religion.
For generations Catholics had been giving things for the good of their souls to this church. This room was hideous. Some of the things could be described as semi precious. Many of them were composed of the marriage rings of widows or widowers. They were unadmirable, unusable and virtually unsaleable — except cheaply and melted down.
But the Cardinal's idea. though clearly emanating from the right place, was a bit macabre. Who wants all these silver gilt uglies that we use on our altars? They are not worth much.
Cardinal Heenan sold two minor Italian paintings, the wings of a tryptich which used to hang in the splendid sacristy of Westminster Cathedral. They rejoined their centrepiece elsewhere. They had been given by a Duke of Norfolk and were sold with the leave of the last one.
They looked tremendous where they were. They fetched, if I remember, a mere 0,000, which did not even spoil the surface of the archdiocese's debt. He also sold a tiny crown used, or not much used, for a statue of Our Lady.
It was an admirable idea. But, had it been obeyed, one had a mad vision of frantic priests selling chalices to each other. No one else would have wanted these things. A curious decorum would prevent even humanists drinking claret or, alas, Spanish white wine from ex-chalices at a dinner table. It would be regarded — as Nanny used to say — as the essence of vulgarity.
But it goes deeper than that, and I confess to being a reactionary. Prebendary Cooke gave two Communion cups, made during the rule of Oliver Cromwell — plain, noble, with lids on them — to the Cathedral. One bore his arms and the other the Cathedral's.
Also for sale are a pair of English baroque candlesticks. They are marvellous in their restrained exuberance. They have great outward curving bases. One longs to own them.
But there is the pleasure of seeing works of art in the places for which they were intended a Titian over a High Altar in Venice, the Eric Gill Stations of the Cross in Westminster cathedral, my half-canopied bed in my bedroom. I get uneasy in some museums at the misuse of things, and I get sinful in others with the lust to possess. No matter!
An absurd and amateur plot
SOME OF YOU, alas, have only recently celebrated Guy Fawkes night. Catholics have no place in this celebration. Someone once wrote (was it George Orwell?) that anti Catholicism is the only true religion in Britain. Quite untrue, but comforting in an odd way. And of this religion, this is the Easter Day.
But you should know next time why you are burning your fingers, scarring your lawn and endangering your children or giving some coppers to a daubed child allowed to be on this single occasion with a carelessly made effigy in a push-cart.
You should recall that traditionally the effigy represents the Pope. Catholic children who indulge in such delights should be beaten without anger in order to induce in them a sense of history.
It's an odd, sad, mad story, but there is nothing for us to rejoice about in it. When James I did not keep his promises to make life easier for Catholics in England, a Robert Catesby started a good old fashioned plot to destroy the King in Parliament — literally. He was going to blow up the lot in the Palace of Westminster at its State Opening.
He was an Oxford man, profligate and wild. He took to the old religion on the death of his father in 1598. So in 1604, with the zeal of the "born again", he gathered some Catholic friends. They took an oath of secrecy which excluded even their telling their plans to their confessors — they were that certain of the moral rightness of their intentions.
They were all men of gentle birth, reasonably rich, with everything to lose. They were zealous Catholics though they were not saints. They were dare devils and duellists and one of them, Thomas Percy, was a bigamist. But when they had taken their oath, they went into another room where they made their confessions and heard Mass.
By the end there were 13 of them. One of the last was Francis Trencham. It is believed that it was he who blew the plot and wrote to Lord Monteagle, a cousin, to persuade him to stay away from the House of Lords on the Day. He referred to a "terrible blow" and "there will be no appearance of any stir", and "they shall not see who hurt them".
The noble lord informed the authorities (who probably knew all about it anyway, and perhaps the chief Minister, Robert Cecil, had encouraged it with agents provocateurs). But on November 4, 1605, Parliament was searched and Guido Fawkes found with the gunpowder.
The other conspirators fled to an arranged place where they were immediately detected. No Catholics would give them help. Wales seemed their only hope of a refuge, but they had only reach
ed Worcestershire when they realised their case was hopeless and prepared to defend themselves to the death. However, one of these dotty aristos dropped a spark into their gunpowder which exploded and wounded some of them and discouraged the lot.
They made their confessions to a passing priest. They were arrested on November 8. In the process Catesby and Percy and two others had the good fortune to be killed. All the others were wounded. They were terribly tortured, tried on January 27 and executed four days later.
It was an absurd and amateur and wrong plot. Not long ago, one of the galleries in London sold a portrait of Guy Fawkes done while he was in prison. Despite its historical interest, it did not fetch much of a price.
Who would want so savaged a portrait of a man who had been a dandy soldier of fortune in Europe? It was more terrible than the portrait of St Thomas More after his untortured imprisonment.
Now go and celebrate the deaths of these poor fools next year.