Is This Chalice The Holy Grail? | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Janice Bennett
Janice Bennett's first book,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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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