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Feasting on Relics; What Makes a Bioethicist

3/18/2005 - 7:00 PM PST

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The Veronica and the True Cross Make Annual Appearance

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 18, 2005 (Zenit) - By the fifth week of Lent, little sacrifices can start to seem enormous. Whatever penitential measures we have adopted, they begin to weigh on the flesh and often the temper. Easter still seems far away and we wonder if we will make it through our 40 days in the desert. One needs a light at the end of the tunnel.

And the Church understands. Like water in the desert, she offers the weary pilgrim his ardent desire, the chance to look upon the face of Christ.

On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the "station church" is St. Peter's Basilica. Among its many treasures, are a relic of the True Cross and Veronica's veil. This one day a year, the Veronica and Cross are taken from their chapel to be shown to the faithful gathered in the basilica.

The Veronica is a holy relic of a veil with the image of Christ's face imprinted on it. According to an ancient tradition, on the road to Calvary a pious woman gave Our Lord her veil to wipe the blood from his eyes -- and the miraculous image remained.

Veronica comes from "vera icon," or "true image," but over the years the name of the woman and of the object became one and the same. Today it is kept in the pier of St. Peter's above the 15-foot statue of St. Veronica by Francesco Mocchi.

While recently professor Heinrich Pfeiffer of the Gregorian University has claimed that another, authentic Veronica has been found in the Abruzzo region, on this day the question of the authenticity of the veil takes second place to the anticipation and excitement of seeing the relic.

Entering the basilica at vespers, it was clear that something special was in the works. A red-and-gold banner hung from the balcony of the Veronica and the pews by the altar of Peter's throne were packed.

The papal altar under Bernini's canopy was crowded with reliquaries. At the four corners of the altar, glass reliquaries shaped like obelisks pointed heavenward, while another, shaped like a silver portrait bust, held court in the center. Surrounding it were many other glass boxes, silver caskets and golden urns containing primarily relics of popes. They were arranged with martyrs at the center, confessors next and then saints.

The ceremony began in Lenten silence. First the choir came in and took their places and then the extensive procession of more than 40 cardinals, bishops, priests and acolytes entered. On hand were Monsignor Vittorino Canciani, apostolic protonotary and Vatican canon, and the archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Francesco Marchisano. They processed up and back down the 187-meter nave of the basilica with the faithful following.

After vespers, both clergy and congregation gathered by the pier of the Veronica as the choir sang the sixth-century hymn "Vexilla Regis" (The Banners of the King). One of the canons came out on the balcony with the Veronica in a glass frame. He held the image first toward the center, then to the left and then right. Many knelt before the image on the cloth.

At the exposition of the Veronica the low hum of tourists, pilgrims and visitors ceased entirely and the church fell silent. This silence, one of the most striking features of this event, was broken by silver bells, arrayed on a wheel, tinkling as the wheel was turned.

Then the relic of the True Cross was brought out. Holding it aloft, Monsignor Canciani blessed the crowd with it. Then chanting, the clergy filed back to the sacristy.

Reinvigorated by this vision, we went home ready to face the last two weeks of Lent.

* * *

When Scientists, and Celebrities, Overstep

Art historians delight in the multiple facets of art. A different view, a new detail, can open up a fresh avenue of thought. It is delightful to discover the same quality in other fields.

Media reports on the bioethics conference held at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University last week rightly focused on the three main issues of the conference: embryo death, altered nuclear transfer (for the possible creation of non-embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells) and embryo adoption.

As fascinating and significant as these issues are, it was another topic that, like a splendid illumination on an important manuscript, captured my attention: the authority of "experts" to offer counsel outside of their field.

The highly articulate neuroscientist, Maureen Condic of the University of Utah, illustrated the relationship between science and ethics with colorful, provocative and refreshingly honest comments.

Condic started out by putting things in black and white. "Science as a profession is fundamentally amoral," she stated. "There is no moral judgment in science. To say ...

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