Tom Kington in Rome
Monday September 24, 2007
In a very modern take on the age-old circulation of saintly bones and torn clothing, thousands of devotees of Pope John Paul II are going online to apply for certified shreds of his white cassocks as the late pontiff heads swiftly towards sainthood.
Supplied without charge, the circular dots of cotton, measuring about 4mm in diameter, come pressed into a postcard bearing a photo of John Paul on one side and a prayer on the other. They are available by clicking a link on the website of the diocese of Rome and filling in the email application.
The tiny dots of cloth have been available on request since the pope’s death in 2005, but when a religious wires service published details on September 13 of the online offer, 5,000 applications promptly poured in, said Don Marco Fibbi, spokesman for the diocese.
“We are more accustomed to letters,” said Mr Fibbi. “The internet has speeded things up a bit, but it’s fitting, since John Paul was the first pope to live in the global media age.”
The slicing up and sending off of papal robe fragments was the idea of Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Polish postulator of John Paul’s cause for beatification and canonisation. The application is on track since a French nun reputedly recovered from Parkinson’s disease after her congregation prayed to John Paul in 2005.
Polish nuns who took care of the dying Pope have so far cut up one of John Paul’s cassocks, producing more than 5,000 dots. “After 27 years as Pope, John Paul will likely have possessed many cassocks and it is possible the nuns will cut up another, depending on request,” said Mr Fibbi, adding: “Normally, procedures like this start after sainthood, but demand was great.”
To deter collectors, applicants are encouraged to explain in their emails why they would like a cassock fragment, with those praying for a sick friend or relative given precedence, although medical certificates are not mandatory.
Recipients of dots are invited to write to an address printed on the card if their prayers produce a miracle.
Bone parts and clothing from saints, often purchased by churches to attract pilgrims, have done a brisk trade for centuries. But Mr Fibbi denied the current online boom had anything to do with relic-trafficking.
“Firstly, relics pertain to saints, and John Paul is not yet a saint,” he said. “Secondly, these objects of devotion are not for sale, although contributions are welcome for postage costs.”
The distribution is also aimed at snuffing out the peddling of fake John Paul mementos such as those that were discovered in shops around the Vatican last year. “The more fragments we supply, the less fraud there will be,” said Mr Fibbi, speaking in his Rome office.
What the postcards lack, however, is a numbering system, such as that used on bottles of expensive wine, or the hologram stickers used on computer software, to prevent the unscrupulous faking of the cloth fragments. “The only safeguard we have is on the back,” admitted Mr Fibbi, pointing to a tiny paper sticker bearing John Paul’s coat of arms.