The Heartless Pope

Most newspapers and online outfits are behaving themselves when it comes to the use of the word medieval and the various details of the Pope’s recent death, upcoming funeral, and impending succession.* In fact, it’s one of the few times when the media has been genuinely awed by the middle ages and the Catholic church’s lingering medievalities.

In the rash of AP stories bent on ensuring no papal stone was left unturned, one strange quote was run concerning the wishes of some Poles to have the Pope’s heart buried in their country:

“There was once this Romantic custom that after death parts of the body of known and loved people be placed in important places,” Macharski said. “This tradition is no longer ours. Respect for the human body says that it ought to be laid in a grave.”

I’m not sure how the cardinal in question indicated that there was a capital letter on the front of the word ‘Romantic’. Maybe it’s like how some folks can put a capital H in front of Him or He when talking ostentatiously about their connection to the Lord. But with the capital there, it looks like we’ve got a weird case of the press attributing something weird and gruesome to a post-medieval age!

Too bad this custom is very medieval. The list of nobles who wanted one part of them buried here and another there is too long to list off here, but it’s the sort of thing that was on the Church’s (note the capital C) mind since at least the time of Pope Boniface VIII, who outlawed the practice in a papal bull in 1299 called ‘Detestande feritatis’ or ‘abhorred wounds’. It prohibited carving up the body and shipping it around, as well as the practice of cutting up a corpse and boiling it so as to remove the bones for easy shipment, something Crusaders were wont to do. So when the cardinal says “that tradition is no longer ours” he means it. For over seven hundred years. Not that the papal bull ended the practice entirely. Even in Romantic times, folks like Chopin had this sort of thing done to them.

*Occasionaly there has been a cringeworthy construction, like San Francisco’s Sun Sentinel‘s describing the Pope’s funeral rites as being both “majestic and medieval,” which, while technically correct, irksomely suggests that being majestic and being medieval are two different things rarely juxtaposed. All the kings who insisted on being called “Your Majesty” (In England that’s at least two hundred years of kings from Richard II on.) must have been very pre-modern. Or maybe they think that the normal medieval funeral rites involved throwing dung or something.

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