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The Holy Grail: Fact or Fiction?

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Janice Bennett on the Legendary Cup of the Last Supper

LITTLETON, Colorado, NOV. 29, 2004 (Zenit) - The story of the Holy Grail has spawned numerous works of fiction and fantasy, including popular films. The truth about the actual whereabouts of the cup is less clear.

One scholar, Janice Bennett, author of "St. Laurence and the Holy Grail" (Ignatius), believes that the cup's history can be traced from St. Peter's journey to Rome, to St. Laurence in the third century, and then to its final resting place in Spain.

Bennett holds a master's in Spanish literature from the University of Colorado, and a certificate in Advanced Bible Studies from the Catholic Biblical School in Denver. She is a member of the Spanish Center for Sindonology, based in Valencia, Spain.

She shared with us why she believes that the Holy Chalice of Valencia is the same cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper.

Q: What exactly is the Holy Grail? How do you answer skeptics who say it is just a myth?

Bennett: For Christians, the Holy Grail is and always has been the cup used by Jesus to consecrate the wine at the Last Supper, the very receptacle that held the blood of Christ in the newly instituted sacrament of the Eucharist.

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As such, it has been held in high esteem as a historically authentic object that was used by Jesus himself, the relic of singular importance for Christianity because it serves as a symbol for the Bread of Life.

People of all eras have wondered what has become of this precious relic, which has generated a considerable number of fantastic stories about knights, monks and kings embarking on a quest to find it.

This has been true not only for the people of the Middle Ages, but also for those of us living today, as seen in the continued popularity of the Grail legends and in films such as "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," in which Indiana Jones discovers a large number of possible grails in the unlikely location of Petra, Jordan.

Unfortunately, the grail he determines to be authentic is the most unlikely historically speaking, because it is made of wood, a porous material that was forbidden for the Jewish Passover.

It is undeniable that Jesus used an actual cup for the consecration, and that this cup is a historical object, not a myth. Perhaps because of the mystery and fantasy that have surrounded this relic par excellence, some modern scholars have created a scenario by which the Holy Grail can be just about anything, from the Shroud of Turin to Mary Magdalene.

Others define the Grail as nothing more than a personal quest, or an exploration of self, or link it with all sorts of ancient legends and fertility rites, leading to a great deal of confusion about what it actually is.

Q: What got you interested in researching its existence and whereabouts?

Bennett: My husband and I visited the Chapel of the Holy Grail in the Cathedral of Valencia in the early 1990s. I thought it rather strange that they claimed to have the actual cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, because I had never heard anything about it in the United States.

The only information available was a small leaflet that had been poorly translated into English, which mentioned that Pope Sixtus II entrusted the cup to St. Laurence in A.D. 258, and that St. Laurence sent it to Spain in the hands of a Spanish soldier. It also provided a brief history of the relic in Spain.

Years later, when researching relics in the National Library of Madrid, I remembered that leaflet. I searched for information on St. Laurence and found a very interesting translation of a document that was reportedly written by St. Donato in the sixth century, which not only contains a biography of St. Laurence's early life, but also confirms that this transfer had indeed taken place.

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At the same time I found a small book written by the priest responsible for saving the relic at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

As I examined the photos of where it had been hidden during the conflict -- underneath the cushions of a sofa, in the secret compartment of a wardrobe and in a stone wall -- I was absolutely amazed by the difficulties this relic has suffered throughout the ages.

I immediately knew that I had to investigate the history of this cup in depth. The Holy Chalice of Valencia not only claims authenticity, but also has a long tradition and fascinating history that support that claim completely.

Q: What is believed to have happened to the Holy Grail immediately after the Last Supper?

Bennett: Most scholars believe that the Cenacle -- the room where the Last Supper took place -- and the Holy Cup were the property of the family of St. Mark the Evangelist, who served as interpreter for St. Peter in Rome.

St. Mark and St. Peter were very close, and it certainly makes sense that St. Mark would have given the Holy Cup to St. Peter, for the simple reasons that it was very important for the early Christians to use relics in the liturgy and that Peter was head of the Church.

Spanish tradition claims that St. Peter took the Holy Cup with him to Rome, where it was passed on to his successors until the Valerian persecution of 258.

Due to the extreme danger of the precious relic falling into the hands of the Romans, St. Sixtus II, knowing that he would soon be martyred, entrusted the cup to his treasurer and deacon, St. Laurence. St. Laurence in turn gave it to a Spanish soldier with the request to take it to Huesca, Spain, where he knew that his family would care for it.

This very early tradition is supported by many factors: the Roman Canon of the Mass, the fact that the cup is not mentioned in Rome after the third century, various documents and the traditional and historical presence of the Holy Chalice in Spain.

Q: What is your theory about the Holy Grail's history and current location?

Bennett: Most people believe that there are hundreds of possibilities for the authentic Holy Grail, which goes well with the old saying that if all the supposed relics of the True Cross were gathered together, there would be enough wood for a dozen crosses. This is definitely not the case.

It is true that by the 16th century there were about 20 cups that claimed the honor of being the authentic cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. But today none of these are considered authentic -- with the exception of the Holy Chalice of Valencia and the silver cup of Antioch.

The cup of Antioch has a two-liter capacity and is much too large to have been passed around the table of the Last Supper for the Eucharist. What is interesting, however, is the fact that St. Jerome mentions that there were two cups on the table of the Last Supper, a silver cup that held the wine for the meal, and one of stone that was used for the institution of the Eucharist.

Only the Holy Chalice of Valencia, with its upper cup of agate stone, fits St. Jerome's description of the cup used by Christ for the consecration. When one examines its tradition and history in detail, it is quite evident that everything makes perfect sense. I don't believe that anything could ever disprove the theory that the Holy Grail is indeed the Holy Chalice of Valencia, Spain.

Q: What erroneous tales have modern scholars put forth about the Holy Grail and those involved in its transfer?

Bennett: When speaking about the Holy Chalice of Valencia, one problem has been a lack of substantial, factual information that goes beyond the St. Laurence tradition, and another has been the erroneous claim that there are many Grails in existence that claim to be the one given to St. Laurence by Pope Sixtus II.

Facts are sometimes mixed with false claims and legendary material in such a way that it casts doubt on the possibility of ever knowing the truth.

One serious rival to the St. Laurence tradition, at least in popular opinion, is the legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to England.

It is based on the poem "Joseph of Arimathea" by the poet Robert de Boron, who confirms the apocryphal legend of Nicodemus, adding that Joseph brought the Grail to Glastonbury, thus joining Christianity to the bones of the legendary Arthur that are supposedly buried there.

It relates that Joseph collected the blood of Christ in a vessel that had served as a dish for the bread and the paschal lamb at the Last Supper, and later gave it to the Celtic god Bron who took it to the West as a talisman of immortality.

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It is not difficult to see that this legend is based on nothing of any substance whatsoever, and the grail in this case is not a historical cup, but rather a dish that doesn't even exist in reality. It is a perfect example of the mixture of fantasy, literature and legend that permeates most discussions of the Holy Grail.

Q: Why should the Holy Grail matter to modern Christians today?

Bennett: The Holy Grail should matter to modern Christians today for the very same reason it has always been venerated through the ages, as the actual cup used by Christ to institute the Eucharist.

How appropriate that this latest "discovery" about the Holy Grail should coincide with the Year of the Eucharist that was proclaimed by Pope John Paul II on the feast of Corpus Christi in June, and began this October. In this yearlong celebration of this sacrament that is so central to the Faith, Catholics are called to honor the Eucharist, to receive it more faithfully and to reflect more deeply on its meaning in their lives and in the life of the Church.

The story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia is a beautiful reminder of the importance of this sacrament in the life of the Church, so evident in the care the vessel used by Christ to institute the Eucharist has received throughout the ages.

The story begins with St. Peter, the first head of the Church, who brought the sacred cup to Rome to be used in the liturgy of the Mass. It continues with Sts. Sixtus and Laurence, both of whom were martyred for refusing to turn it over to the Romans.

The Church in Spain went to great lengths to protect the vessel from the Muslim invasion in the eighth century, and years later we see the same respect and heroic courage in those who saved the cup from destruction during Spain's War of Independence and Civil War.

Thanks to their personal strength and dedication, in 1982 the Holy Father became the very first Pope to say Mass with the relic since St. Sixtus II in the third century, and today Christians worldwide are able to venerate this very special cup.

This is a modern-day miracle that should give us all cause for deep reflection on the importance of the Eucharist in our daily lives, so that we can publicly proclaim that the sacrifice of Christ is for the salvation of the whole world, as the Holy Father desires.


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Holy, Grail, Cup, Christ, Jesus, Wine, Last Supper

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