Atlas Obscura is Hiring! Join us in pursuit of wonder.

The Practicalities of Transporting a 400-Year-Old Heart

How the traveling body parts of saints get through customs.

The heart of St John Vianney, at the Church of St John Vianney in Dublin.
The heart of St John Vianney, at the Church of St John Vianney in Dublin. IrishCatholicBishops /CC BY 2.0

On Tuesday, December 6, 2016, a mummified human heart was packed into a small, custom-made, €700 suitcase, and hand-carried onto a plane bound from Belgium to Detroit.

The heart’s carrier and custodian, who also toted a stack of customs forms and insurance paperwork, passed the organ through customs at Detroit, then carried it onto a flight to Dallas.

Though by no means a frequent flyer, that heart had traveled great distances before. It belonged to John Berchmans, a 17th-century Flemish Jesuit seminarian who died in Rome at the age of just 22. At the time, there was no question of repatriating his body. Transporting a whole, rapidly decomposing body over the Alps in 1621 would have been almost impossible.

Instead, a Jesuit priest on his way back to Belgium took the most important piece: his heart.

Berchmans was canonized in 1888, at which point his heart became a relic—a venerated remnant of a saint. In December 2016, after it left its home in Our Lady of Leliëndaal, a 17th-century Jesuit church on bustling shopping street in Mechelen, Belgium, for Dallas, it traveled 200 miles east by car to Shreveport, Louisiana, and its destination at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. There, the heart, in its silver and gold reliquary, spent 11 days being the focal point of a celebration nearly two years in the planning.

A 17th-century engraving of John Berchmans.
A 17th-century engraving of John Berchmans. Public Domain

Getting permission from the Jesuits who keep the heart in their church, Our Lady of Leliëndaal in Mechelen, Belgium, was the first and perhaps most difficult step, says Father Peter Mangum, rector of the St. John Berchmans Cathedral and the architect of the heart’s journey.

“The relic has not left Belgium in 395 years—my first request was met with a little kind of chuckle,” he says.

The Jesuits’ reaction is perhaps unsurprising: relics are incredibly important artifacts of Catholic faith. (We should note here that other religions also venerate relics—the Prophet Mohammed’s beard is housed in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace, and the Buddha’s canine tooth, which survived his cremation, lives in Kandy, Sri Lanka—and that secular relics also exist, such as Galileo’s thumb and middle finger and Napoleon’s penis. But it’s the Catholic faith, and Orthodox faith, that really, really go in for relics.)

In Catholic tradition, relics are intended as a kind of physical link to God’s power, evidence that God works miracles through the bodies of saintly, holy individuals, and that this power does not wane with death. It is a practice that runs deep in the Church; one of the earliest mentions of the power of a relic comes in the Old Testament, in Kings, when a touch from the remains of the prophet Elisha resurrects a dead man.

For every story from the Bible, there probably has been or is still a relic: Crusts from the bread of the Last Supper, feathers from the wings of the Angel Gabriel, the bones of the Three Magi, living in a gold reliquary in Cologne since 1164. Some are more improbable than others, such as the Virgin Mary’s actual home, allegedly flown from Palestine to a small town in Italy by four angels in the 13th century.

Stories about the powers of relics are myriad, from the mummified head of St. Catherine that transformed into hundreds of rose petals and back again, to the perfumed fog that engulfed Calcata, near Rome, after the Holy Prepuce—Jesus’s circumcised foreskin and allegedly the only piece of his body that remained on earth—was brought there in 1557.

The head of St. Catherine of Siena in a reliquary at the Basilica of San Domenico.
The head of St. Catherine of Siena in a reliquary at the Basilica of San Domenico. Giovanni Cerretani/CC BY-SA 3.0

As Christianity came to dominate the Western world and beyond, the demand for relics as a link to God grew. Many are built into the bones of Catholic churches: Early on, it was the practice to place the relic of a saint under the altar table during church construction, as a way of further sanctifying the space. Even now, whenever a church is constructed, the diocese must appeal to Rome to be supplied with a relic. In addition to being sealed away in churches and cathedrals, relics were often hawked on street corners at pilgrimage sites; the fact that they were typically small and portable made relics even more useful as objects of faith.

It also meant that from the very beginning, the potential for fakery was huge. The amoral and industrious could do a brisk trade in any old dead thing, saints’ “finger bones,” tatty bits of cloth supposedly worn by the Virgin Mary, and suspicious vials of liquid meant to be blood or tears or even holy breast milk. Even if there was no outright trickery involved, a combination of passing centuries, tradition, and wishful thinking has meant that there are, for example, several sites claiming to have the skull of John the Baptist.

There are now hundreds of thousands of relics scattered throughout the Catholic world, divided into three classes. First class relics are body parts of the saints, such as the heart of St. John Berchmans, St. Thomas of Hereford’s leg, the disintegrating eyeball of Catholic martyr, Blessed Edward Oldcorne, or the objects intimately involved in Christ’s Passion, such as wood from the True Cross. Second-class relics are objects that once belonged to a saint, such as piece of cloth from St. Joseph’s (probably not technicolor) cloak. Third-class relics are objects that were touched to a verified first- or second-class relic, so there’s an almost limitless number of potential third-class relics. Stricter emphasis on authenticity in the last century meant that some dubious relics were taken out of circulation, and now, museums sometimes display notable reliquaries without their disproven contents.

A silver reliquary containing the skull of St. Agnes in Rome.
A silver reliquary containing the skull of St. Agnes in Rome. Public Domain

Search “reliquary” on eBay, though, and hundreds of “authentic” relics of long-dead saints pop up, some more dubious than others—a piece of the Shroud of Turin and a sliver of an actual thorn from Jesus’s Crown of Thorns among them—and fetching upwards of $15,000.

This, notably, is in direct violation of Church Canon Law number 1190: “It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics” (for the record, it’s related to “simony,” one of the lesser known sins), and strains eBay’s own regulations regarding “authenticity.”

But for the devoted, opportunities for veneration might be few—travel to the places where these relics live can be prohibitively expensive. Which is why some of these verified relics, like St. John Berchmans’ heart, go on tour.

Despite initially getting the brush off when he asked to have St. John’s heart visit the Shreveport cathedral that celebrates him, Father Peter persisted. And timing was in his favor: 2016 marked the 150th anniversary of the miracle that got St. John Berchmans canonized, an event that happened in the same state. (In 1866, a would-be nun fell desperately, vomiting-blood-ill in tiny Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Through the intercession of Blessed Berchmans, she says, she was cured. St. John Berchmans is now the patron saint of youth, students, and altar servers.)

The cost of bringing the heart to the Cathedral so far is around $20,000, paid for by the Diocese, but, Father Peter says, “the expense, ultimately, is minor compared to the spiritual rewards that we are already seeing.”

Though this was only the second time in its independent life that the heart made such a big journey, relics of other saints spend much more time on the road. The floating rib and skin from the cheek of St. Anthony of Padua have been touring the world for the last 20 years. In 2016 alone, the relics, in their gold reliquaries, visited New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Vancouver and British Columbia, Denver, Colorado, and Houston, Texas, as well as the Philippines, Ireland, and the UK, in the carry-on baggage of their Franciscan guardian, Father Mario Conti.

In February 2017, these relics will travel to Austin, Texas, accompanied by Father Mario and Tom Muscatello, the US representative of the Anthonian Association of America, who organizes the U.S. and Canadian tours of the relics. Tours are paid for in part by donations from the faithful; there is no cost to the churches visited. Muscatello wouldn’t divulge how much a typical tour costs, but said, “It’s not an extreme cost, but when you’re on a Franciscan budget, it’s a cost.”

In the years that they have been touring together, Father Mario has had few problems getting the relics in or out of countries. But the fact that he is traveling with human remains can get a little weird. Muscatello laughed when asked about getting relics through TSA check-points, although he said that most of the time, the relics make it through the scanner with little comment.

Alleged relics of Saint Séverin in Paris.
Alleged relics of Saint Séverin in Paris. Dennis Jarvis/CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s typically customs where things might get held up, as in the case of the heart relic of St. Philip Neri, which spent a day in customs after arriving in Washington, DC in January 2016.

“If someone’s Catholic at the customs, they probably know what a reliquary is,” Muscatello pointed out. “But we had one problem in Los Angeles,” he said, laughing. “What happened in Los Angeles, the guy said, ‘What the heck are these?’… The guy thought Father Mario was absolutely crazy.” It took some explaining, he said, but they managed.

Father Peter and Muscatello agreed that relic tours have increased in America over the last 20 years, so perhaps customs officials are getting used to seeing the body parts of saints packed snugly into custom carry-on suitcases. That uptick might be in part due to the fact that America is historically short on relics compared to Europe, and travel between continents is easier (mostly) than it was, but Muscatello also attributes the rise to demand and curiosity.

“[The relic visit] gathers Catholics who are very curious to come in contact with the reliquary, it gathers people because they want to know what veneration is and they want to know what this whole exercise of venerating a relic of a saint is,” he explained.

So, what is it that attracts the faithful in droves? Is it the same thing that drives fans to collect shoes worn by Alyssa Milano, a bra worn by Katy Perry, snippets of clothing worn by Kevin Spacey or Arnold Schwarzenegger (thank you, eBay’s Celebrity Worn page)? Not exactly, although Father Peter acknowledged that there is some of that need for a transitive physical connection in there. For Father Peter, though, veneration of a relic is tied to the Catholic faith’s unique grounding in the physical body.

“The Catholic Church recognizes the body as being good, not just good, but very good, and after death, we believe in the resurrection of the body … We are spirit-body creatures,” he says, meaning that the body is a temple for the Holy Spirit, and a conduit for it.

This is in line with the Church’s message on the veneration of saints’ relics (which is largely the same message since the 16th-century Council of Trent): In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI explained, “The relics direct us towards God himself: it is he who, by the power of his grace, grants to weak human beings the courage to bear witness to him before the world… [T]he Church does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones, but they are bones that belonged to individuals touched by the living power of God.”

But the function of relics also seems to be to remind the faithful not of a saint’s holiness, but of their humanity. These were real people, who wore cloaks and carried cups, had teeth and cheeks and kneecaps; they may have struggled, had doubts, made strange decisions, met grisly ends, but they were people – and, says Father Peter, role models, proof. “It can be done, everything that we talk about in church. People can lead a holy life.”