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.