Sesame Street today was brought to you by the word ‘monstrance’

A medieval European money-spinning cult crops up in Asia’s world city in the form of a lock of Pope John Paul II’s hair. The relic will be housed at the Catholic Cathedral below Caine Road, and local Holy Roman clerics believe it will join unadulterated baby formula, tax-free designer-label handbags and copies of banned books as a draw for Mainland tourists. Only a small proportion of Mainlanders will probably be interested in ‘praying in the presence’ of the grey papal tuft, but with 1.3 billion people up there, that’s all it will take to have the Mid-Levels jammed full of tour busses of worshippers, and lots of lovely money rolling into the Immaculate Conception collection box.

The South China Morning Post informs its readers that the holy item is “Encased in a special container”; those of us blessed with a Catholic education will know it as a monstrance. A ‘free-standing point-of-sale promotional display unit’ in plain English.

As a child I was once taken to see a vial of Mary Magdalene’s blood in a church in France. It struck me as a bit dried-up and brownish – but then I had developed a vague skepticism about these things ever since determining that a piece of the Lord’s body in the form of a communion wafer wedged against an upper molar did not cure toothache. Still, peasant ladies in black veils were praying furiously in the direction of the famed New Testament prostitute’s alleged bodily fluid.

The Catholic Church has been touchy about relics ever since the trade in splinters of the true cross, Roman police-issue crucifixion nails, bones and other items assumed Pearl River Delta export volumes in the Middle Ages. People believed that proximity to such objects would speed up the processing time in purgatory between death and entry to heaven – a USP if ever there were one.

Rebels like Martin Luther denounced such ideas as idolatry. Rome’s response was, to paraphrase the long-winded and evasive official wording, that people who say veneration and honour are not due relics, that such honour is useless, or that visiting them to seek aid from the saints will be in vain “are wholly to be condemned.” The Vatican’s contemporary encyclopedia tentatively adds that “There is nothing … in Catholic teaching to justify the statement that the Church encourages belief in a magical virtue, or physical curative efficacy residing in the relic itself,” which sounds like the sort of disclaimer you get on a jar of New Age diet supplement pills.

In short, yes it’s a load of mystical codswallop, but the target market can’t get enough of it and it would damage the brand to strip this bit of mystique away. And at least it’s really JP’s hair. ‘Rational’ consumers of mystical codswallop can always insist that the sure way to get to heaven is to believe that the universe is 6,000 years old because the Bible says so. Bored expat housewives waiting for their husbands’ companies to return them to their native post-Christian homeland have some energetic cellular healing to look forward to next month. And adherents of Gautama still fondly recall the time they got up close to Buddha’s finger to help them on their trek to Nirvana. It’s a shopper’s paradise.

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19 Responses to Sesame Street today was brought to you by the word ‘monstrance’

  1. Joe Blow says:

    Sorry, Hemlock, but this is not the best piece you have ever done. As a lapsed Catholic you are entitled to your ‘oh-looked-how-progressive-and- ‘with it'”-I-am’ display, and I am sure most of the regulars here will applaud and try to bask in your Hitchins-glow, but kicking against the Catholic Church -that you don’t belong to anymore- is now as stale as a 1-day old baguette from (No) Taste supermarket.

    And the Cathedral is slightly above Caine Road, not below.

  2. Iffy says:

    Preaching to the choir, baby. Christianity is creepy.

    Calm down Joe. Your church isn’t going anywhere soon and it ought to be mature enough by now to face down a bit of history and skepticism.

  3. Iain Dunross says:

    The church of Rome is a schismatic invention created by Pope Gregory VII for the bolstering of their own power.

    Those thinking about visiting the Vatican City to admire the architecture might like to think about how those buildings were paid for.

  4. maugrim says:

    Joe Blow, as Catholic I think Hemmers is right on the money. Perhaps people like Cherry Pie Antaban, a domestic helper praying to work in Singapore, as mentioned in today’s SCMP, might be the sort of demographic the gurus on Caine Rd are looking for.

  5. Stephen says:

    Yes we have done the Christianity bashing before – yawn – move on.

    In other news I note Hong Kong’s biggest con (The MPF) got a boost yesterday meaning more of our money will be diverted to this pillar of Hong Kong inc.

    Lets see if i had put the money under my mattress $2000 x 130 Months = $260K – yep that about the size of my MPF account.

  6. Big Al says:

    Ah, the wonderful New Age Shop ( is still with us! Check out the resident practicioners. While their resumes are filled with so much twaddle they could have been produced by government’s PR dept, there are some babes there. Amiee Mok, for one, who has been “inspired by angels and spiritual guides since childhood” and has “a unique collection of angel vibration jewelry” – not sure into which orifice she inserts it, but sounds pretty saucy to me! And then there’s poor old Jenny Kakulu Kam, who needs a bag over her head. Still, it takes all sorts …

  7. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Stephen

    Exactly the same calculation I made ………..

    What a con the MPF is

  8. Walter De Havilland says:

    Joe Blow … I said it before and I’ll repeat it … it hard to think of a more evil organisation than the Catholic Church. It has for years been a haven for child rapists and other deviants. Instead of acknowledging the problem, the Catholic Church sought to cover up, attack victims and then transfer wayward priests to other parishes to spread the evil around.

    The cover up continues as the Pope has declined to cooperate with the police and open the Vatican’s file on the issue. History will be the judge and future generations will shake their heads in disbelief.

  9. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Thanks for the exquisitely reasoned piece, with its light touch on weighty issues. The CE and much of “our” government appeal to faith with its infallible pronouncements to make decisions affecting everyone, so we have the right to know how un-Zen-like (pun intended) the one church really is.

    Does it have to be like this?, by Anthony J Solloway, which I’ve just read, similarly takes pot-shots at sitting-duck targets, namely HK schools and universities, and hits the target nearly all the time. But it lacks the deftness, the self-deprecating humour, the eversion (turning inside out) of the opposing situation, the erudition, the style, the wit of its avowed models, including the irreplaceable Hemlock.

  10. Joe Blow says:

    This is the last thing I am going to say about the Catholic Church: @WdH and the rest of the Hitchins-Dawkins brigade:

    please pull out your calculator and tell me how many unis, schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, old people’s homes, and social centres the Catholic Church has ever built (I accept a rough estimate-number).

    Now add the number of people who were rejected and discarded by society because they had “no social value whatsoever” and who were subsequently taken in and cared for by the Catholic Church.

    Got a number ? I don’t need to hear it.

    Tell me what Dawkins and Hitchins have ever done for other people ?

  11. gweipo says:

    ” Cherry Pie Antaban, a domestic helper praying to work in Singapore,” is she nuts? Does she have any idea of how much worse off the DH’s in SG are than in HK?

  12. God says:

    It is Hitchens, not Hitchins.

    @Joe Blow: funding schools to brainwash children into unquestioning belief in and fear of a creationist god and counteract the evil influence of those who believe in the scientific method, evolution and natural selection. Taxing members through tithes and peer pressure to pay for the schools. Prohibiting contraception to ensure an ever-expanding recruitment ground, over-population, and perpetuation of poverty. These are all good catholic values.

  13. Iffy says:

    Joe: probably nothing, I’ve never heard of them.

    In any case, I form my own views and don’t subscribe to dogma regardless of its source. Get it?

    (I even disagree with Hemmers once he starts up on one of his dog-hating numbers.)

  14. Satan says:

    Science flies you into outer space

    Religion just flies you into buildings

  15. maugrim says:

    Gweipo, one can only hazzard a guess at what she must be escaping for Singapore to be option number one.

    Actually Joe I agree with your last point about the services the church provides in many unpopular parts of the world.

  16. Jason90 says:

    JP2 beatified – next step sainthood – paedophiles are presently without a patron saint so there is a need….

  17. John says:

    Only sheep need a shephard — follow the church, follow the crystal healer, follow the football team, follow Ann Rand….it’s all the same

    It’s all about holding power over others and of course the money:

    “The Catholic church is the biggest financial power, wealth accumulator and property owner in existence” – Jack T. Chick (1983)

    The ‘v’aticans net worth is immeasuarable and many believe the pope is most likely the richest man on the planet.

    @ Blow Job the church is in no way altrustic — I’d be willing to bet big that the number of christian schools far eclipses the number of old age homes.

  18. You forgot little boys , BJ, the catholic church is really ” into” little boys…

  19. Walter De Havilland says:

    @joe blow. You are in denial about the terrible harm being done by the Catholic Church as it exploits the vulnerable to continue its dogma and at the same time provides a haven for the most despicable child rapists. Your claims regarding its so-called good deeds don’t amount to anything when measured against the harm done to our whole society by a dogma that compels women to servitude by denying them contraception. I don’t expect a rational response from those blinded by dogma.

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