The Skull of Saint John the Baptist

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. II

Chapter XXI.-Discovery of the Honored Head of the Forerunner of Our Lord, and the Events About It.

About this time the head of John the Baptist, which Herodias had asked of Herod the tetrarch, was removed to Constantinople. It is said that it was discovered by some monks of the Macedonian heresy, who originally dwelt at Constantinople, and afterwards fixed their abode in Cilicia. Mardonius, the first eunuch of the palace, made known this discovery at court, during the preceding reign; and Valens commanded that the relic should be removed to Constantinople.

The officers appointed to carry it thither, placed it in a public chariot, and proceeded with it as far as Pantichium, a district in the territory of Chalcedon. Here the mules of the chariot suddenly stopped; and neither the application of the lash, nor the threats of the hostlers, could induce them to advance further. So extraordinary an event was considered by all, and even by the emperor himself, to be of God; and the holy head was therefore deposited at Cosilaos, a village in the neighborhood, which belonged to Mardonius. Soon after, the Emperor Theodosius, impelled by an impulse from God, or from the prophet, repaired to the village.

He determined upon removing the remains of the Baptist, and it is said met with no opposition, except from a holy virgin, Matrona, who had been the servant and guardian of the relic. He laid aside all authority and force, and after many entreaties, extorted a reluctant consent from her to remove the head; for she bore in mind what had occurred at the period when Valens commanded its removal. The emperor placed it, with the box in which it was encased, in his purple robe, and conveyed it to a place called Hebdomos, in the suburbs of Constantinople, where he erected a spacious and magnificent temple.

The woman who had been appointed to the charge of the relic could not be persuaded by the emperor to renounce her religious sentiments, although he had recourse to entreaty and promises; for she was, it appears, of the Macedonian heresy. A presbyter of the same tendency, named Vincent, who also took charge of the coffin of the prophet, and performed the sacerdotal functions over it, followed the religious opinions of the emperor, and entered into communion with the Catholic Church. He had taken an oath, as the Macedonians affirm, never to swerve from their doctrines; but he afterwards openly declared that, if the Baptist would follow the emperor, he also would enter into communion with him and be separated. He was a Persian, and had left his country in company with a relative named Addas, during the reign of Constantius, in order to avoid the persecution which the Christians were then suffering in Persia.

On his arrival in the Roman territories, he was placed in the ranks of the clergy, and advanced to the office of presbyter. Addas married and rendered great service to the Church. He left a son named Auxentius, who was noted for his very faithful piety, his zeal for his friends, the moderation of his life, his love of letters, and the greatness of his attainments in pagan and ecclesiastical literature. He was modest and retiring in deportment, although admitted to familiarity with the emperor and the courtiers, and possessed of a very illustrious appointment.

His memory is still revered by the monks and zealous men, who were all acquainted with him. The woman who had been entrusted with the relic remained during the rest of her life at Cosilaos. She was greatly distinguished by her piety and wisdom, and instructed many holy virgins; and I have been assured that many still survive who reflect the honorable character which was the result of training under Matrona.



The Discovery of the True Cross of DNJC

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. II

Chapter I.-The Discovery of the Life-Bringing Cross and of the Holy Nails.

When the business at Nicaea had been transacted as above related, the priests returned home. The emperor rejoiced exceedingly at the restoration of unity of opinion in the Catholic Church, and desirous of expressing in behalf of himself, his children, and the empire, the gratitude towards God which the unanimity of the bishops inspired, he directed that a house of prayer should be erected to God at Jerusalem near the place called Calvary.

At the same time his mother Helena repaired to the city for the purpose of offering up prayer, and of visiting the sacred places. Her zeal for Christianity made her anxious to find the wood which had formed the adorable cross. But it was no easy matter to discover either this relic or the Lord's sepulchre; for the Pagans, who in former times had persecuted the Church, and who, at the first promulgation of Christianity, had had recourse to every artifice to exterminate it, had concealed that spot under much heaped up earth, and elevated what before was quite depressed, as it looks now, and the more effectually to conceal them, had enclosed the entire place of the resurrection and Mount Calvary within a wall, and had, moreover, ornamented the whole locality, and paved it with stone. They also erected a temple to Aphrodite, and set up a little image, so that those who repaired thither to worship Christ would appear to bow the knee to Aphrodite, and that thus the true cause of offering worship in that place would, in course of time, be forgotten; and that as Christians would not dare fearlessly to frequent the place or to point it out to others, the temple and statue would come to be regarded as exclusively appertaining to the Pagans.

At length, however, the place was discovered, and the fraud about it so zealously maintained was detected; some say that the facts were first disclosed by a Hebrew who dwelt in the East, and who derived his information from some documents which had come to him by paternal inheritance; but it seems more accordant with truth to suppose that God revealed the fact by means of signs and dreams; for I do not think that human information is requisite when God thinks it best to make manifest the same. When by command of the emperor the place was excavated deeply, the cave whence our Lord arose from the dead was discovered; and at no great distance, three crosses were found and another separate piece of wood, on which were inscribed in white letters in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin, the following words: "Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews." These words, as the sacred book of the gospels relates, were placed by command of Pilate, governor of Judaea, over the head of Christ.

There yet, however, remained a difficulty in distinguishing the Divine cross from the others; for the inscription had been wrenched from it and thrown aside, and the cross itself had been cast aside with the others, without any distinction, when the bodies of the crucified were taken down. For according to history, the soldiers found Jesus dead upon the cross, and they took him down, and gave him up to be buried; while, in order to accelerate the death of the two thieves, who were crucified on either hand, they broke their legs, and then took down the crosses, and flung them out of the way. It was no concern of theirs to deposit the crosses in their first order; for it was growing late, and as the men were dead, they did not think it worth while to remain to attend to the crosses.

A more Divine information than could be furnished by man was therefore necessary in order to distinguish the Divine cross from the others, and this revelation was given in the following manner: There was a certain lady of rank in Jerusalem who was afflicted with a most grievous and incurable disease; Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, accompanied by the mother of the emperor and her attendants, repaired to her bedside. After engaging in prayer, Macarius signified by signs to the spectators that the Divine cross would be the one which, on being brought in contact with the invalid, should remove the disease. He approached her in turn with each of the crosses; but when two of the crosses were laid on her, it seemed but folly and mockery to her for she was at the gates of death. When, however, the third cross was in like manner brought to her, she suddenly opened her eyes, regained her strength, and immediately sprang from her bed, well. It is said that a dead person was, in the same way, restored to life.

The venerated wool having been thus identified, the greater portion of it was deposited in a silver case, in which it is still preserved in Jerusalem: but the empress sent part of it to her son Constantine, together with the nails by which the body of Christ had been fastened. Of these, it is related, the emperor had a head-piece and bit made for his horse, according to the prophecy of Zechariah, who referred to this period when he said, "that which shall be upon the bit of the horse shall be holy to the Lord Almighty." These things, indeed, were formerly known to the sacred prophets, and predicted by them, and at length, when it seemed to God that they should be manifested, were confirmed by wonderful works. Nor does this appear so marvelous when it is remembered that, even among the Pagans, it was confessed that the Sibyl had predicted that thus it should be,-`"Oh most blessed tree, on which our Lord was hung."'

Our most zealous adversaries cannot deny the truth of this fact, and it is hence evident that a pre-manifestation was made of the wood of the cross, and of the adoration (sebaj) it received. The above incidents we have related precisely as they were delivered to us by men of great accuracy, by whom the information was derived by succession from father to son; and others have recorded the same events in writing for the benefit of posterity.

 Christians of the East and the West united in the veneration of martyrs

From the very early times, Christians of the East, like those of the West, realised the importance of witness given in suffering violent death for love of Christ by their brothers and sisters apparently silenced by their persecutors, but in actual fact victorious, mysteriously sustained by the Holy Spirit and therefore examples along our earthly journey illuminated by eschatological hope. They sought to collect the bodies or remains to give them a worthy burial and to commemorate them in that place, especially on the day of birth, no longer calculated by the earthly birth, but by their entry into heaven through martyrdom. As soon as the peace of Constantine permitted, houses of worship and even basilicas were built over the venerated tombs, which became places of pilgrimage. The diffusion of detailed information on the last days of the martyrs, and also the distribution of small relics, spread their veneration even to distant lands. This is an indication of the fundamental unity of the Church of Christ in the first millennium, despite the diversity of some liturgical and social traditions. And let us hope that the martyrs, old and new, will help Christians to re-establish unity among themselves. 

Devotion to the martyrs must be preserved

Already for some of the preceding affirmations we have gone beyond the period prior to the Constantinian peace. It will not be surprising to see that the tombs of the martyrs are adorned with decoration which distinguishes them from those of the other dead, the customary use of lamps near the tombs doubled on the day of the anniversary and the inscriptions on the tombs replaced with other more commendatory ones. Among inscriptions of this kind, most famous are those of Pope Damasus for their artistic value and for the testimony of living historical memory which they hand down and orientate. Over some of the tombs basilicas are built, to serve as places of prayer and memorial, permitting the anniversary celebrations to assume a solemn character. The tombs of the martyrs become places of pilgrimage (Cf Paolinus Nolanus, Carmen 26 vv. 387-388; Prudentius, Peristephan. Hymn XI, vv. 195-210).

An ulterior development of devotion to the martyrs in the Roman liturgy will take place when this is extended to "cenotaphs" or votive tombs not containing the martyr's body or to "relics", either objects held in contact with the bodies or the tombs of the martyrs, or actual parts of the mortal remains. The mentality arising from the Roman law offered considerable initial resistance against dismemberment and even only the transfer of the martyrs' remains. Although discovery and transfer of the relics of the saints are noted by the end of the IV century in Rome, nevertheless, the general phenomena is later (Cf St Gregory the Great in a negative answer to the Empress Constantina). But since many graves of the martyrs were outside the city, it was not long, in Rome and elsewhere, before Christians began in the 7th century to transfer the bodies of the martyrs within the city to save them from neglect and possible looting. This was accentuated after the first invasions of the Longobards and the Saracens.

Although starting from the 4th century, not all the spreading of devotion to relics, the construction of "memoriae", the custom of celebrating anniversaries was immune from falsification and abuse which the bishops reproved and corrected (Cf for the relics and also for wrestling at fraternal agapes, the works of Saint Augustine), the fervour of initiatives testifies clearly a great desire on the part of the Christians to render honour to the martyrs. In the time of Saint Augustine, next to the "Martyria" or "Memoryae" of the local martyrs of Christian Africa, "Martyria" or "Memoriae" for "reliquiae" from other Churches were built. These "martyria" also became places of veneration richly decorated and widely frequented. What we know of Africa, from the writings of Augustine, also took place, although in different forms, in almost all the Churches in Italy, Spain and Gaul.

By the end of the 4th century, the Roman calendar was almost complete. Later, the different local Churches will share their calendars and this leads to ulterior extension. Not long after, the various calendars were combined to compile "martyrologies", lists of names and brief details of a certain number of martyrs belonging to different local Churches, whose anniversary occurred on the same day. Standing out among these is that of Saint Jerome, which is at the basis of all those which followed and were diffused in the ambit of the Roman liturgy, used in the Divine Office, as well as in private reading.

Comparing the Philo calendar, St Jerome's Martyrology and the calendars of the Church of Rome of the 11th century, we see that the first records only the martyrs of Rome, indicating the place where the anniversary was celebrated, and this is true generally also of St Jerome's Martyrology. Documentation on the devotion to martyrs in Rome, as it appears in Roman calendars and early Capitulars, from the late Middle Ages to the 13th century, continues to testify that in Rome only authentic Roman feasts were admitted and that normally every Church celebrated the feasts of its own martyrs. In the time of Pope Adrian I, the indication of the place began to be omitted, also because most of the celebrations took place in the Vatican Basilica. But the Ordo Romanus of Canon Benedict of the 12th century informs us that the Pope still went regularly to the "stationes" on the relative "martyria" and this is why their memory has come down to us.

In the 4th and still in the 5-6th centuries, the celebration of anniversaries at the tombs of the martyrs was diffused and the faithful organized "vigiliae", called also "pannuchis" because they passed the night in prayer. There was a growing custom, which at times was even authorised, (Cf Council of Hippo 393, c 5; Council Carthage 397 c. 36b) to listen to hagiographic readings relative to the martyr and his or her martyrdom. From these readings will then be born a hagiographic literature, that of the "Passiones" which was to serve as a basis for liturgical celebration, but, straying into the field of imagination, of legend, at times this distorted the meaning and focused on the amazing, the incredible, rather than historical truth.

In these celebrations, and outside them, the invocation of the martyrs spreads throughout the Churches. Saint Ambrose will exhort his people to address their prayers to the martyrs that they may intercede for the forgiveness of sins. Saint Augustine reveals to us that although the invocation of the martyrs was a consolidated fact in the Christian communities of the 4th century, the liturgical expression of devotion to them was still very discreet.

Very early on the memory of martyrs became part of the great Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman liturgy and the Roman Canon bears witness to this tradition. The bond between the blood of the martyrs and the Eucharist is seen also from traditions regarding the altar which, from the early times, was to contain relics of martyrs carried in solemn procession for the consecration-dedication of a new church. However the custom later became hidden, with the use of portable altars and holy stones to be inserted into altars, and was extended also to the relics of other saints, considered martyrs in spirit, although they did not have, as with Saint Martin, occasion of martyrdom.

The earliest eulogistic texts used in the memories of martyrs that we have today, date to the Verona Sacramentary which contains formulas of Mass for the celebration of the "dies natalis" of true martyrs. In the early sacramentaries each martyr is celebrated with a proper formula. With the sacramentaries called Gelasian of the 8th century we begin to find Commons for martyrs, as well as Commons for other categories of saints. These Commons of martyrs develop further until they are fixed as found in the Saint Pius V reform, and in their later revision.  



 The ceremonial closing of the door.


- The Pope processes into the Basilica through the Holy Door and presides at Vespers in the Basilica.

- He then sends the Cardinal Legates charged with closing the Doors of the other Basilicas.

- A procession follows, first to the relics and then to the Holy Door, accompanied by the singing of appropriate hymns.

- The relics of the Veronica and the Lance are publicly shown and venerated.

- The Pope is the last to leave by the Holy Door.

- He then blesses the stones and the bricks.

- With the trowel he applies cement to the threshold of the Holy Door and sets in place three bricks and a few gold and silver coins.

- Other bricks are added and then the masons, outside and inside the Basilica, finish the work of closing the Door while the choir chants the hymn Caelestis Urbs Ierusalem.

- The Pope says the prayer Deus qui in omni loco and ascends to the Loggia of the Basilica where he solemnly imparts the Apostolic Blessing.



Homily at the Liturgy Commemorating the Millennium of the Martyrdom of St. Adalbert (3 June 1997); L'Osservatore Romano: Weekly Edition in English, 11 June 1997, pp. 1, 4.

1. Veni, Creator Spiritus! Today we are at the tomb of St Adalbert in Gniezno. We are thus at the centre of the Millennium of Adalbert. A month ago I began this journey in honour of St Adalbert in Prague and in Libice, in the Diocese of Hradec Králové, whence he came. And today we are in Gniezno, at the place it can be said where he ended his earthly pilgrimage. I give thanks to the Triune God that at the end of this Millennium I have been granted the opportunity to pray once again before the relics of St Adalbert, which are one of our greatest national treasures.

We are here to follow the spiritual journey of St Adalbert, which in a sense begins in the Upper Room. Today's liturgy leads us precisely to the Upper Room, to which the Apostles returned from the Mount of Olives after Christ's Ascension into heaven. For 40 days after the Resurrection he appeared to them and spoke to them about the kingdom of heaven. He told them not to leave Jerusalem but to await the promise of the Father: "which, he said, "you heard from me. John baptized with water, but before many days ... you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth'" (Acts 1: 4, 8).

The Apostles thus receive the missionary mandate. By virtue of the words of the risen Lord they must go into all the world to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 28: 14-20). But for now they return to the Upper Room and remain in prayer, awaiting the fulfilment of the promise. On the 10th day, the feast of Pentecost, Christ sent them the Holy Spirit, who transformed their hearts. They were made strong and ready to assume the missionary mandate. And so they began the work of evangelisation.

The Church continues this work. The successors of the Apostles continue to go forth into all the world to make disciples of all nations. Towards the end of the first millennium, there first set foot on Polish soil the sons of various nations which had already become Christian, especially the nations bordering Poland. Among them a central place belongs to St Adalbert, who came to Poland from neighbouring and closely-related Bohemia. He was at the origin, in a certain sense, of the Church's second beginning in the lands of the Piasts. The baptism of the nation in 966, at the time of Mieszko I, was confirmed by the blood of the martyr. And not only this: with him Poland became part of the family of European countries. Before the relics of St Adalbert, the Emperor Otto III and Boleslaw the Brave met in the presence of a legate of the Pope. This meeting was of great historical significance the Congress of Gniezno. Obviously it had political significance, but ecclesial significance as well. At the tomb of St Adalbert, the first Polish metropolitan see was announced by Pope Silvester II: Gniezno, to which the episcopal sees of Kraków, Wroclaw and Kolobrzeg were joined.

2. The seed which dies bears much fruit (cf. Jn 12: 24). These words of the Gospel of John, spoken one day by Christ to the Apostles, are singularly applicable to Adalbert. By his death, he bore the supreme witness. "He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (Jn 12: 25). St Adalbert also bore witness to the apostolic service. For Christ says: "If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honour him" (Jn 12: 26). Adalbert followed Christ. He made a long journey which took him from his native Libice to Prague, and from Prague to Rome. Then, after facing resistance from his fellow countrymen in Prague, he left as a missionary for the Pannonian Plain and from there, through the Moravian Gate to Gniezno and the Baltic. His mission in a sense was the crowning point of the evangelisation of the lands of the Piasts. And this was precisely because Adalbert bore witness to Christ by undergoing a martyr's death. Boleslaw the Brave ransomed the body of the martyr and had it brought here, to Gniezno.

In him the words of Christ were fulfilled. Above love of earthly life Adalbert had placed love of the Son of God. He followed Christ as a faithful and generous servant, bearing witness to him at the cost of his own life. And the Father honoured him indeed. The People of God surrounded him on earth with the veneration reserved to a saint, in the conviction that a martyr of Christ in heaven is surrounded with glory by the Father.

"The grain of wheat which dies, bears much fruit" (cf. Jn 12: 24). How literally were these words fulfilled in the life and death of St Adalbert! His death by martyrdom, mingled with the blood of other Polish martyrs, is at the foundation of the Polish Church and the Polish State itself in the lands of the Piasts. The shedding of the blood of Adalbert continues to bear ever fresh spiritual fruit. All Poland, from its origins as a State and throughout the centuries that followed, has continued to draw upon it. The Congress of Gniezno opened to Poland the path of unity with the whole family of the states of Europe. On the threshold of the second millennium the Polish nation acquired the right to take part, on a par with other nations, in the formation of a new face of Europe. St Adalbert is thus a great patron of our continent, then in the process of unification in the name of Christ. Both by his life and his death, the holy martyr laid the foundations of Europe's identity and unity. Many times have I walked in these historic footsteps, at the time of the Millennium of the Baptism of Poland, coming from Kraków to Gniezno with the relics of St Stanislaus, and I thank divine Providence that today I am able to make this journey once more.





 The millennium of Saint Adalbert

3. The millennium of St Adalbert, martyred in the year 997, was the second reason for my visit. He came from Bohemia and belonged to the princely Slavník family. Born in Libice in the territory of the present day Diocese of Hradec Králové, he became Bishop of Prague at a young age. At the end of last April, we solemnly celebrated Adalbert's millennium in the Czech Republic, with the participation of many Bishops from countries linked with this saint's life and work. St Adalbert came to Poland towards the end of his life, invited by King Boleslaw the Brave. He accepted the invitation to evangelize the pagan peoples who lived in the regions of the Baltic Sea. There he met his death, and after martyrdom his body was ransomed by King Boleslaw the Brave and taken to Gniezno which then became the centre of devotion to St Adalbert. An important meeting, not only religious but also political, took place near the relics of the holy martyr in the year 1000. Emperor Otto III and the Papal Legate both went to Gniezno for the occasion. Their meeting with King Boleslaw the Brave is known as the Gniezno Meeting, and it was precisely then, in Gniezno, that the first metropolitan see was established in what was then Poland. From the political standpoint, the Gniezno Meeting was an important event because it marked Poland's entry, under the Piasts, into a united Europe. At the recent commemoration of the millennium of St Adalbert's death, we were once again linked with that historic event and with its particular importance for our continent. The Presidents of the countries connected with the tradition of St Adalbert came to Gniezno to remember him: from the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Hungary. Once again I thank the Lord and all those who worked hard to arrange this important event.



J. Francis Stafford President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity

3) Models of faith.

The life and spirituality of St Theresa of Lisieux attracted many pilgrims. The applause that greeted her proclamation as Doctor of the Church emphasized the unanimous participation in the event. The relics of St Theresa are venerated in the Church of Notre-Dame des Victoires. Many pilgrims flocked there, gathering closely around the reliquary, they touched it and listened with devotion to Theresa's poems put to music.

The procession with the reliquary and the Crown of Thorns, which recalled the devotion of St Louis IX, was also an important moment in this day. The beatification of Frédéric Ozanam was followed with interest by the young people. His death, at a relatively young age, made it easier for them to identify with his holy life and his ministry.




 111. The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration. For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation.