Strangers in a strange Church

Last Sunday my fiancée and I were away from home – at least five dioceses* (or three countries) to be exact – so Mass was to be attended at an unfamiliar church in an unfamiliar language (well, at least partly). We opted for the Cathedral of St. Erik in Stockholm.

The cathedral is the mother church of the Diocese of Stockholm, which covers all of Sweden, and the seat of Bishop Anders Arborelius (who himself was in Rio when we visited his cathedral). It has been the cathedral since 1953, when Stockholm was established as a diocese, although it wasn’t consecrated until 1983.

As visits to other churches than my own, both in the Netherlands and in Germany, have made me a bit concerned about how the liturgy would be celebrated, I entered St. Erik’s with similar feelings. But, as it turned out, there was no need. The cathedral community and her priests understand liturgy and celebrate Mass as the Church requires. What they don’t do well, however, is architecture.

 St. Erik’s is divided in two parts. There is the original church, which is a perfectly fine 19th century building, with lots of woodwork, paintings, stained glass, statues and two altars. Much is made of the 1989 visit of Blessed John Paul II, and the cathedral is the proud owner of a relic of the soon-to-be saint. The patron, Saint Erik himself, is also in evidence, as is St. Bridget, patron of Sweden. No complaints with this part of the building, except that it contains a gaping hole.

There is no main sanctuary.

Instead, where the sanctuary once upon a time was, there is now a nicely arched entry into the second haf of the building: a standard hall-like structure of the style which suffices for a meeting hall, multifunctional school room or other spacious area where a large number of people can meet. But a space where the sacrifice of our Lord can become present? Not so much. The contrast between the two parts of the church is quite jarring. It is a sign of the power of good liturgy that it is able to transcend this contrast, but why someone once elected to remove a perfectly good sanctuary, designed to elevate the soul and make the sacrifice of the Mass visible to its deepest level, and replace it with a  brick room is anyone’s guess.

But not wanting to be a sour-puss, I’ll share some photos I took at the cathedral:

saint erik's cathedral

^The coat of arms of Pope Francis graces the front of the cathedral.

saint erik's cathedral

^The modern section of the cathedral, which does contain some positive elements: the tabernacle is impossible to miss, the altar has a Benedictine arrangement, and priests, deacons, acolytes and servers sit facing the tabernacle when not at altar or lectern.

st. eriks  cathedral, john paul ii

^A relic of Blessed John Paul II’s blood, in a chapel in the archway leading from the original church to the newer section.

st. eric's cathedral

^ From the old to the new: both parts of the church seen together.

Lastly, a church is also made up out of people. One of these was Blessed John Paul II. Another is the unknown lady who approached us and told us her story in Swedish (we were not able to follow it all). Her tears touched us, as did  her desire and hope for our future happiness. She gave us a tiny relic of the blessed Pope, a piece of fabric with his blood on it… **

*Seen from my home diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, these would be the Dioceses of Osnabrück and Münster, the Archdiocese of Hamburg, and the Dioceses of Copenhagen and Stockholm.

** And yes, it is official, containing an affidavit with Cardinal Vallini’s name and signature.

The Christian element, in Viking art

Aside from blogging about Catholic things, another of my interests is history. Today I visited an exhibition of Viking artefacts, so why not share a view photos showcasing the Christian element in some of those artefacts.

The head of a crozier, depicting the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale.

A large reliquary which once contained a relic of the Cross, the story goes. It ended up in Poland and was destroyed in the Second World War. This is therefore a replica.

Another reliquary, if much smaller, designed to be carried around on a necklace or in a pocket.

Silver thread on linen, an image of a deer. Deer were often used in Christian Viking imagery, no doubt based on Psalm 42.

Pictures say more

… than a thousands words, they say. So with that in mind I won’t add many words to the reports of yesterday’s beatification of Blessed Pope John Paul II. Instead, here are 20 photos which I liked:

[But if there is need of words, here is my translation of Pope Benedict XVI’s homily.]

Thousands of pilgrims gather on St. Peter's Square and the streets leading to it.
The glass reliquary shaped like intertwining olive branches and containing a vial of blood of the new blessed.
Another view of the crowds on the square
Some of the many priests attending the Mass in choir, with the statue of St. Peter in the foreground
The crowds don't all fit within the borders of the world's smallest state
Pope Benedict XVI greets President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland at the end of the ceremonies.
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the coffin of Blessed John Paul II
Pope Benedict XVI kisses the reliquary containing a relic of the new blessed
Four photos of the revealing of the photo of Blessed John Paul II, overlooking St. Peter's Square
Young pilgrims from Germany
Sister Tobiana, who took care of Blessed John Paul II in the final days of his life, touches his coffin
Watching from the Circus Maximus, a Polish pilgrim cries during the beatification
With Polish flags and banners behind him, Pope Benedict XVI arrives just before Mass
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, for many years the personal secretary of Blessed John Paul II
Sister Marie Simone-Pierre, whose miraculous cure from Parkinson's paved the way to the beatification
Deo gratias!
In the early hours of the morning, many pilgrims are still dozing
Throughout the night before the beatification, as thousands and pilgrims prayed and kept watch, a candle burned in the window of Pope Benedict XVI's apartments
A religious sister peers from underneath one of the many pictures of Blessed John Paul II present on the square
Pope Benedict XVI faces his predecessor in pictorial form

Photo credits:
[1] Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images
[2] [4] Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
[3] [10] [11] [16] Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
[5] AP Photo/Massimo Sestini, Polizia di Stato
[6] Pool L’Osservatore Romano Vatican-Pool/Getty Images
[7] REUTERS/Ettore Ferrari/Pool
[8] AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano
[9] [12] Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
[13] REUTERS/Max Rossi
[14] Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
[15] [20] AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito
[17] [18] AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
[19] AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

Stats for March 2011

 With Lent having begun this month, the top 10 of most-read posts has a distinct Lenten taste. Last year’s post about the Stations of the Cross is, fittingly for this time of year, at number 1. Japan ranks understandably also high, as  do messages for Lent, and a post about Ash Wednesday.

The number of visitors for March was 4,939, the second-highest number since I began this blog. The total number of visitors is now 76,943.

1: The Stations of the Cross 247
2: A surprise to no one, a Dutch politician in favour of rampant secularisation 137
3: Pray for Japan 94
4: To rub or not to rub 93
5: Boodschap voor de Vastentijd 2011 64
6: Bootcamp program unfolds 53
7: Stille Omgang 2011, Dutch missionary bishop in the dock 52
8: Dutch bishops’ encouragement for Lent 49
9: Papal message for Lent 43
10: St. John the Baptist in Bulgaria? 40

St. John the Baptist in Bulgaria?

Head of St. John the Baptist, by Andrea del Sarto, c. 1523

Now how did he end up there?  And is it even him?

Archaeologists working on an island just off the town of Sozopol, Bulgaria, announced earlier this week that they had found an ancient reliquary in the altar of an old church named for St. John the Baptist (the island, too, is named for the Baptist). The reliquary, shaped like an urn, was opened today and seems to contain bone fragments from an arm and a leg.

Of course, the mere presence of bone fragments is no proof at all that St. John the Baptist is involved. The fact that the church and the island are named for him constitute better proof – that there is some connection between location and saint. Such a connection often results in a special devotion to the saint in question. Age is another important element. The church that the archaeologists are digging around in dates from the 4th century or so, and Sozopol has a long Christian history. It was home to a Bishop Athanasius as early as 431. It clearly wasn’t just any Christian settlement.

The relics discovered could be those of St. John. It certainly is not unheard of that relics travel long distances after a saint’s death. The Baptist was beheaded not long after he baptised Jesus, so very early in the first century. His followers, who would later merge into the followers of Jesus, buried his body after it was released to them (Matthew 4:12). It is not inconceivable that they later took relics with them on their travels to spread the news of Christ. Sozopol, being on the coast of the Black Sea, would have been in easy reach of merchants from Greece and modern Turkey, and so it could have been an inviting location to introduce the Christian faith.

All elements that point at the possibility of the relics belonging to St. John the Baptist. But the fact is that we don’t know. Not yet, at least.


Some facts about the Turin shroud

The face of Christ?

Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI visited Turin and, among other things, he viewed the Turin shroud. This shroud, of course, is said to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, and it depicts an impression of a human body which bears an uncanny resemblance to the traditional depictions of Christ in art. 

I am not going to pretend I can make any statements about the authenticity of the shroud. There has been and continues to be much debate about this among people who actually know what they are talking about. has two pieces about the shroud on their website: one listing ten misconceptions, and the other with ten arguments in favour of the authenticity of the cloth. 

The lists were composed by Fr. Jeroen Smith, parish priest in Leyden. He wrote a book. De lijkwade van Turijn herzien (Reconsidering the burial shroud of Turin),  about the Turin shroud. 


1. The image on the shroud is a painting.
We still don’t know how the image was created. Its characteristics are very complex (for example the fact that they only exist on the very outer surface). 

2. The C-14 method of dating the shroud definitively showed that the cloth was made some time between 1260 and 1390.
A badly prepared and manipulated test. Applied to a strongly contaminated section. Unreliable. People are working on a new C-14 test with pieces taken from various places. But this is for now only theory. 

3. Only believers assume that it is the burial shroud of Jesus.
There is a list of publications by ‘unbelievers’ who also think that it is the burial shroud of Jesus. 

4. The shroud was made by Leonardo da Vinci.
Nonsense. The shroud existed centuries before the birth of Da Vinci and it is not a product of an artist. Discovery Channel especially kept broadcasting a documentary that implicated Da Vinci. 

5. The shroud is ‘not real’, a ‘forgery’, ‘fake’.
Confusing words! What is meant is that the shroud is not that of Jesus and was (therefore) made by someone, possibly as a forged ‘relic’. But the shroud and the image were not made by ‘someone’. ‘Fake’ is a belittling term, especially when used in a sentence like, “Believers think that the shroud is that of Jesus, scientists know that it is fake.” THis is an assumption that believers are stupid enough to believe in ‘fake things’. 
6. Science has proven that the shroud is not that of Jesus.
On the contrary! The argument against authenticity is yet to be found. Scientists who investigated the shroud tend to favour authenticity and there are non-Christians and atheists among them. 

7. The shroud has been copied multiple times.
Wrong again. Last year we heard that one Garlaschelli had copied the shroud. But if one takes a close look at his ‘reproduction’, the differences with the real shroud immediately become clear. THis remains a challenge for science in the 21st century: who will copy the shroud with all its characteristics? 

8. The Catholic Church does not accept the scientific conclusions and blocks study.
The Church authorised the studies of 1978 and 2002. And she is willing to accommodate further investigation, as long as the shroud is not damaged. High definition photographs were made in 2008, and these allow anyone to do their own investigation. 

9. Like all relics of Christ, the shroud is not real.
There are indeed ‘relics’ which turn out not be genuine, like Jesus’ foreskin. But the shroud and its image belongs in an exceptional category. At the moment the shroud is the best studied archeological artefact in the world. 

10. If the shroud is indeed dated back to the first century, there is still no reason to assume that it belonged to Jesus. Countless men were crucified in that time.
Certainly not countless. An certainly not with the same abuse (crown of thorns, spear wound in the side). According to probability calculations there is a chance of  1 in 200,000,000,000 that this is NOT the shroud of Jesus. 



1. Textile
The method of weaving, sowing together and the kind of fabric are very specific and match cloth from Massada (Israel, first century; Massada was destroyed in 70 AD). Excavations there uncovered pieces of linen cloth that resemble the shroud. 

2. Pollen
In and on the linen pollen from plants have been, belonging to specific plants from Italy, France, Turkey and Israel. Many are pollen that belong to plants that grow or used to grow in the area of Jerusalem. 

3. Gravel
On the images of the feet and knees a unique kind of stone gravel has been found in the traces of blood. This can still be found today in the Jerusalem soil. 

4. Size
The size of the cloth (4.36 by 1.11 meters) fits the Jewish measurement unity, the Anoti: 8 by 2 Jewish cubits. A cubit was 54.35 centimeters. 

5. Icons of Christ
From the fifth century onward the face that is visible on the shroud was copied as the Face of Christ, as iconography developed as an art form. Some ancient icons even fit the face of the shroud exactly. The image shows that we are dealing with a Jewish man (facial features, mustache, beard and hair), aged between 30 and 40, about 1.78 meters tall and weighing some 80 kilos. 

6. Remarkable passion
The passion of Christ was remarkable. Even though more than one man was crucified (although the numbers were not that great), we only know of Jesus that he was tortured, whipped, was given a crown of thorns and ws stabbed in His side after His death. The Gospels are in complete agreement with the image on the shroud. 

7. Sabbath
Jesus’ body was buried in a shroud with haste, because it was the eve of the sabbath. On this day one could not bury bodies. It was a temporary burial and a definitive one was intended to be held after the sabbath. This fits the Turin shroud. 

8. Impossible to copy
The image was created at a time that the shroud was stretched. And the shroud shows nowhere that the linen was removed from the body. An image was created that is still inexplicable and which can’t be copied. Could this be related to the moment of Resurrection? 

9. Not a crucial test
In all the studies there is not a single issue which undermines all other facts. The C-14 method appeared to do that. From the 1989 study it was concluded that the cloth dated from the period between 1260 and 1390. The media consider this definitive. But the conclusion caused more problems than solutions, because it is absolutely certain the shroud existed in the 7th century. So the question was now: what went wrong: what went wrong with the C-14 test? Probably this: the piece of cloth used for the test was highly contaminated because it come from a part (a corner) where the cloth was held at expositions during the centuries. 

10. Minority
Only a very small minority of scientists who worked with the shroud excludes the possibility that it is the shroud of Jesus. A large percentage does not. Some believe that it is really the burial shroud of Jesus.