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Is This Chalice The Holy Grail? | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Janice Bennett

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Janice Bennett's first book, Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: The Sudarium of Oviedo, was a thorough historical, cultural, and Biblical study of the Sudarium of Oviedo, the ancient cloth believed to have covered Christ's head after his crucifixion. Her most recent book is St. Laurence and The Holy Grail: The Story of The Holy Chalice of Valencia, which is an exhaustive, provocative examination of the history and identity of the Holy Chalice of Valencia, believed by many to be the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.

IgnatiusInsight.com talked with Janice about her research into the story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia, what she discovered, and what she now believes about the Chalice.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Tell us a bit about your background, your education, and your interest in Spanish life and culture.

Janice Bennett: I was educated in Catholic grade and high schools, and then studied graphic design and journalism at Northern Illinois University. I married shortly after graduation, and our son was born nine and a half months later, in July of 1974. My husband and I moved to Colorado a year later. I worked in graphic design and typesetting for many years, until the rapidly changing industry made it difficult to continue without major reeducation in computer design. Our daughter was born in 1982, and by 1988 I had made the decision to close my small business.

The following year I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a Hispanic group and fell in love with the Spanish language. I felt called to study it, and almost immediately began to take classes at a local community college. I thought that I would continue as long as I did well, and ended up receiving my Masters Degree in Spanish Literature from the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1997. I wanted to go on for a Doctorate, but I think that God had other plans for me. My father was very ill and passed away the following year, which made it impossible for me to enter the program.

Not long afterwards I found the publications of the Spanish Center for Sindonology, began to translate them, and started to think about writing a book about the Sudarium of Oviedo, a cloth that is believed to have covered the head of Jesus after the Crucifixion. That pretty much ended any thoughts of continuing my education in Spanish. If I had been able to continue, my books wouldn't exist, so it has really turned out to be an act of Divine Providence. I've also completed four years of study with the Catholic Biblical School of Denver, and eighteen hours toward a Masters Degree in Theology with the Institute of Pastoral Theology, formerly affiliated with Ave Maria University. I hope to return to my studies with them next fall.

My husband and I started traveling to Spain in 1991, shortly after I began to study the language. On one of our first trips we visited the Cathedral of Valencia, and I remember very clearly seeing the little Chapel of the Holy Grail to the right of the main entrance. It seemed rather strange to me that I had never heard of the Holy Grail being located in Valencia, Spain. After all, it is such an important and transcendental relic for Christianity. I looked for more information in the small bookstore next to the chapel, but aside from a few books written in Spanish, which were still difficult for me, there was only a very small leaflet, written in very poor English. It briefly described the history of the Holy Chalice that is now in the Cathedral, mentioning that it was given to St. Laurence by St. Sixtus II in 258 A.D. Many years later, while researching the Sudarium and other relics in the National Library of Madrid, I remembered that small leaflet. I did a search on St. Laurence and found the translation of St. Donato's manuscript.

My interest in Spanish life and culture began when I began to study Spanish. I've also studied French and Latin, but never experienced the same passion for those languages. The more I studied Spanish literature and culture in my classes, the more I wanted to go to Spain. I ended up doing a considerable amount of foreign study programs in Spain, as well as in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru. Spain has always held a special attraction for me, however — I believe it is a combination of its fascinating history that has involved fighting for Catholicism, its wealth of relics, monasteries, cathedrals and other treasures, great geographical diversity, and literature that deeply reflects the importance of religion for Spaniards. Not to mention their cordero asado, or roast lamb, chorizo, pimentón, olives, turrón, polverones, and all the other delicacies that I've come to love so much.

IgnatiusInsight.com: How and when did you first become interested in the Holy Grail?

Bennett: As mentioned, I started studying Spanish in 1990, and shortly after that we began traveling to Spain. I first discovered the Grail Chapel on one of our first trips. As time went on, the number of visits to Spain increased, along with my knowledge of the language. I started to work on my Master's Degree in Spanish in 1994. By this time I was now familiar with Oviedo, where the Sudarium of the Lord, the cloth believed to have covered his head after the Crucifixion, is supposedly kept in the Cathedral.

In December of 1993 I happened to read an article in the popular Spanish magazine ¡Hola! about how the relic was being studied by a group of scientists based in Valencia. I had never even heard of the Sudarium before, and I was completely fascinated. It is not the Shroud of Turin, but a companion cloth, mentioned in the Gospel of John. I searched for more information, but without success, so the following year we visited the Cathedral of Oviedo. I was so disappointed when the guide told me in Spanish about all of the relics in the Holy Chamber, but didn't even mention the Sudarium. I couldn't imagine how I had made such a mistake. When he finished, I politely asked him where the Sudarium was being kept, and was surprised when he replied that it was in this very room. It seemed unfathomable to me that he didn't see fit to even mention it.

I finished my degree in 1997, which had involved considerable sacrifices for my family. It also made me feel rather guilty that we were able to travel so often to Spain, and I hoped that perhaps there was some way I could use my travels and study for the benefit of the Church. I had been praying for this intention for quite some time. My father was very ill that year, and his declining health occupied much of my attention until he finally passed away in June of 1998. The estate was divided among the four children (my mother had passed away from cancer in 1994), leaving me with enough money to publish.

I had been thinking of trying to write a book about some of the many relics in Spain. Toward the end of the year, after my parent's house had been sold, I began to start thinking about this more seriously, and decided to look once again for information on the Sudarium. This time I immediately found the website of the Spanish Center for Sindonology. By now they had published two books on the Sudarium. The first was a large volume of scientific studies, published in 1994, and the second was a collection of scholarly articles that had been published earlier that year. After translating most of the two books, I began to do my own research.

As I told friends about the relic, I realized how much interest there would be for a book that would explain the work in terms that a lay person could understand. The history of this relic is absolutely amazing, and the scientific studies support it completely!

On a trip to Spain in June, 1999, I decided to spend several days in the National Library of Madrid while my husband went on to England, in order to look for information on the Sudarium, as well as other relics. I confidently marched up to the entrance, where I was greeted by metal detectors and security officers. Since I couldn't produce a library card, I was directed to a small room for interrogation. They told me that this is a private research library, and that I should go to the public library instead. I knew that I wouldn't find anything there because the sources I was looking for were too old.

I panicked, because I had no idea what I would do in Madrid for three days if I couldn't get into the library. So, I prayed. At that very moment, the man looked at me and asked what I wanted to research, and if I had any identification. I didn't have anything other than my passport, but I did have a list of sources from a bibliography I had found in the Auraria library here in Denver. He examined it, and replied that I wouldn't find any of these sources in the public library, so he agreed to issue a temporary card.

That experience was only the first hurdle. The library was being renovated, so nothing was in the right place, and I had no idea of the procedures used to request books. Many of the employees weren't at all helpful, perhaps because they thought I should know what I was doing. Somehow, I managed to survive as I made my way down dark corridors covered with scaffolding. I found nothing on the Sudarium, and exhausted my other sources by the end of the second day.

The final day, I happened to find a room containing the manual card catalogues. I remembered the story of St. Laurence and the Holy Chalice of Valencia, and decided to look for more information. I found the booklet explaining the incredible story of the Chalice during the Spanish Civil War, and then started flipping through the cards for Lorenzo. I wrote down a few references, and went to the Cervantes Room to find the first source on the list. I didn't even realized how old the source was, or I probably wouldn't have done it.

The Cervantes Room houses old manuscripts, and I was already quite intimidated by the whole experience of being in the library. I ordered the document, and waited at a small desk until it was delivered. It was a tiny book, a copy of an original that is in Valencia. I was dismayed at first to find that it was in old Spanish manuscript type with a rather obscure vocabulary, but as I began to read, I found that it wasn't too terribly difficult.

Two things made me literally shiver: the detailed description of Laurence's childhood, which I had never heard of before, and the reference to the Holy Grail. I knew that there supposedly were no written references to verify the tradition that Pope Sixtus II entrusted the Holy Grail to St. Laurence, but here it was stated explicitly. I didn't fail to notice that the translator never took credit for any of the biographical information, which he claimed came from St. Donato, who lived near Valencia during the time of King Leovigild, where he claimed that St. Laurence had been born. His information on St. Laurence's early life is not found in any of the traditional sources, and it made sense that Donato would have known these details, because he regularly went to Valencia, where the details of Laurence's life were still being kept alive, thanks to oral tradition.

The translator obviously didn't let his personal bias enter into it — he was a professor from Huesca, and the people there are absolutely convinced that St. Laurence was born in their city, not Valencia, that his parents died there, and that he had a twin brother. I ordered copies so that I could study the entire document at my leisure once I got back home, and found that I was the first to do so. I started to translate it that summer, but found it to be much more difficult than I had originally thought it would be. I finished the book on the Sudarium, and in January of the following year began the work again in earnest. I started translating the books written by Spanish authors on the Chalice, and my husband and I visited all of the monasteries believed to have sheltered the relic over the years. The more I read about this relic, the more captivated I became.

I knew that I had to find more information on St. Donato, and didn't have a clue where to look for it. I went back to the National Library to do more research. Among other things I wanted to find the complete description of the Holy Grail from an old source that had been mentioned by one of the Spanish authors. I just happened to open the large, ancient manuscript book to three chapters describing the life of St. Donato! Working on this project has been a wonderful experience, from start to finish. I really believe that the hand of God has been behind it all, as I couldn't possibly have known about the renewed interest in this relic in the last few years — the timing has been incredible.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the central story and purpose of your book, St. Laurence and the Holy Grail? How did you go about writing it?

Bennett: I think I described writing the book as working on a jigsaw puzzle, but I hope it doesn't come across that way. I translated the books written in Spanish by many of the priests who have been involved with the custody of the relic over the years, as well as the sixteenth-century Spanish translation of St. Donato's Latin manuscript.

I found so many other interesting documents and books in the National Library, such as the history of the relic during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which is one of the stories that impressed me most. I remember feeling absolutely amazed when I saw the photos of the sofa where the Holy Chalice had been hidden under the cushions, and the wardrobe with the secret compartment. I think that I pretty much pieced things together as I found them, and I was amazed at the result.

I also visited all of the old monasteries and hermitages where the relic had been kept throughout the years — it was an awesome experience. We just returned to San Adrián de Sasabe in September, the small hermitage in the Pyrenees where the Holy Grail was hidden for some time. It has already changed so much — there is reconstruction work going on, and there are now signs clearly explaining how it safeguarded the Holy Grail. The narrow road has even been paved.

I think the central story of the book is the importance that this relic has had for the Church, beginning with the first popes who used it to say Mass because it was the very cup that Jesus had held in his hands to institute the Eucharist.

I had heard the basic story of St. Laurence before, but it took on new meaning when I learned that one of the treasures that he refused to hand over to the Romans was this very cup, which led to his terrible martyrdom by fire. The Holy Grail went to his homeland, Spain, where it has suffered so many threats to its very existence: the invasion of the Moors, the War of Independence when it was nearly melted for coins, and the burning of the Cathedral of Valencia, to mention only a few.

It has survived thanks to the courage of all those who like St. Laurence were willing to risk martyrdom and death to save it, and its crowning glory seems to have been when the Holy Father, John Paul II, said Mass with it, the first Pope to do so since St. Sixtus II so many centuries earlier. And now its story is finally being told!

The purpose of St. Laurence and The Holy Grail: The Story of the Holy Chalice of Valencía is to let people know that the Holy Grail does exist, that it has a long and fascinating history, and that it has always had great importance for the Church. It was not merely discarded after the Last Supper, as if it were a worthless old piece of china, or handed over to those who would have loved to destroy it in order to eradicate any tangible evidence of the mysteries of our faith. It is certainly not a deep dark secret that denies the divinity of Christ, as so many authors claim today. The Holy Grail is the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper to institute the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which in the words of Vatican II is the source and summit of life in the Church. This cup is the visible sign and symbol of the Bread of Life, and for this reason it has been saved, protected and venerated. It should be well noted that of all the priceless objects in the Cathedral of Valencia, it was the Holy Chalice that was chosen to be spared destruction at the hands of the Marxists, not because of its monetary worth, but because of what it represents for Christianity.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some of the common legends about the Holy Grail and how did they develop?

Bennett: I'm not really very knowledgeable concerning Grail legends, so I can't really answer this question with any degree of confidence or expertise. Although familiar with the stories of King Arthur, I certainly haven't read them all — for some reason, I never found them very captivating.

Rosslyn Chapel is often connected with the Holy Grail, and I did find a book about it, but it hardly seemed worth the effort to read it because it follows the general vein of so many other books now in print, none of them credible in my opinion. I am familiar, of course, with the legend that claims that Joseph of Arimathea took the cup to England, but I haven't read much that substantiates it. Andrew Sinclair largely bases his information on what is provided by the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron, but when I read that he appeared to borrow from the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes and claimed that Joseph of Arimathea provided the lineage of the Fisher King and the heroic knights, I could no longer take it seriously. For me, literature is not a credible source for historical events.

Read Part 2 of this interview here.

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