LOS ANGELES — It's a problem that is nearly as old as the Church, and Tom Serafin has started a crusade to stop it.
Though his battlefield happens to be virtual and his weapon is e-mail rather than a sword, in keeping with the finest medieval traditions he has been knighted for his efforts by the titular king of Portugal.
“Simony,” which derives its name from Simon Magus, who sought to buy St. Peter's power in a story recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, is the buying or selling of spiritual goods or sacred material, and has occurred periodically throughout the history of the Church.
And with the advent of what Serafin calls “e-simony” it seems to have come roaring back. Sales are made easy by popular Web auction sites such as eBay, and so the bones of the saints, relics of the true Cross and other priceless pieces of Catholic heritage are sold daily to the highest bidder, sometimes fetching thousands of dollars.
Serafin, who founded the International Crusade for Holy Relics in 1995, points out that such activity is prohibited by canon law, which states in Canon 1190: “It is strictly forbidden to sell relics.”
To ward off such sales, Serafin's group contacts sellers of relics to explain why the sacred items shouldn't be sold, and to try to persuade the sellers to donate the relics instead to worthy recipients. The group also contacts Internet auction houses, asking them to refrain from engaging in relics trading on their Web sites.
Relics of saints are classified by the Church as first class (a piece of the body), second class (something that a saint had direct contact with in his or her lifetime) and third class (something touched to a first- or second-class relic). They have long been a part of Catholic devotion, and until recently the altars in Catholic churches were supposed to have a first-class relic.
Claretian Father Robert Bishop, a canon lawyer and superior of Dominguez Seminary in California is familiar with Serafin's work and confirms that selling any relic clearly violates Church law.
“You cannot sell blessed articles or relics,” he said. “The more sacred the item, the bigger the penalty.”
But that doesn't seem to worry many of the Internet sellers. According to Serafin, much of the problem is due to “lack of knowledge” about relics among Catholics, many of whom “give [relics] away to Greek or Russian Orthodox” churches because they don't know what to do with them.
For some relic sellers, it's an honest mistake — Serafin tells the story of a woman he encountered who was selling a relic that she had inherited because it was “creepy.”
For others, though, it's no mistake. Serafin's e-mail correspondence, much of which he provided to the Register, included one seller who referred to Serafin and other relics activists as “e-relic Nazis,” and quibbled over whether it was “sacrilegious” or merely “gravely sinful” to sell relics; another called those trying to stop the sales “the canon law police.”
John Seese, who was selling a relic of St. Vincent Pallotti, a 19th century priest, defended his actions to the Register.
“I acquired this relic as a purchase to sell as a purchase, and in this sale I personally tell people the theca [that is, the case containing the relic] is for sale … the relic is a holy gift.”
Serafin said that's a common claim, which could be tested. “Sell the reliquary, but no relic, and see what you get.”
Father Bishop also sees such an excuse as inadequate under canon law. “You can sell the case, but only according to its real value,” he said.
In addition to simony, fraud abounds in the relics trade, according to Serafin. He cites one case in which a relic seller in September was auctioning “the air breathed by Jesus,” and says that many of the relics now being sold have no or, at best, suspect documentation.
A Russian Orthodox archimandrite, Father Symeon Carmona of Mother of Kazan Monastery in New Mexico, told the Register that at least some of the legitimate relics are stolen.
“There was a cranium of a saint auctioned for $10,000,” said Father Carmona, who is a member of the board of directors of International Crusade for Holy Relics-USA. “[It] was taken from St. Sadas Monastery in Israel during a burglary. It was sold on eBay.”
Despite the obstacles, Serafin's relics crusade has had some successes.
The U.S. branch, known by the acronym ICHR-USA, has grown to more than 200 members, including Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox, all of whom assist in the effort to eradicate relics sales in the United States and Canada.
Worldwide, Serafin estimates the relics crusaders now number “between 2,000 and 3,000.” And while eBay still auctions relics, Amazon.com no longer does, and Serafin wonders aloud whether “a boycott [of eBay] would work.”
Father Robert Bishop said the veneration of relics has a solid pedigree, pointing out that the Acts of the Apostles gives support for their veneration, and that many of the Fathers of the Church, as well as the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787, and the Council of Trent, all addressed relics and their veneration.
Archimandrite Symeon Carmona said that though he is Russian Orthodox, his monastery has helped “3,000 people return to the Catholic faith” through the influence of relics.
“I have seen people overcome evil through relics,” he said, “because they are physical evidence that common people can become saints.”