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Is This Chalice The Holy Grail? | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Janice Bennett | Part 1

IgnatiusInsight.com: Who is St. Laurence and what role does he play in the story of the Holy Grail

Bennett: St. Laurence was the deacon and treasurer of the Church when Sixtus II was Pope. He was born in Valencia, Spain, but spent most of his life in Italy during the Roman persecutions of Valerian and Decius, who decreed that the Church could not have property or possessions of any kind because they were jealous of her wealth, which came from her many Christian benefactors. The Romans claimed to be tolerant of all religions, but demanded that everyone worship the Roman gods, in addition to their own, because they believed these gods could prevent droughts and other calamities. This, of course, was unacceptable to the Christians, who were promptly declared intolerant and a danger to public well-being.

St. Laurence was a young and idealistic Christian, the only son of parents who have also been canonized by the Church. After Sixtus II refused to hand over the treasures of the Church and was beheaded, the Romans quickly discovered that they were now in the hands of Laurence, his deacon and treasurer. When he not only refused to turn them over, but declared that the poor were the real treasures of the Church, they were outraged, as anyone can imagine, especially because he was young and the only surviving deacon. He certainly knew that he would be put to death, and it angered the pagan Romans that he actually wanted to die as a martyr because he believed so strongly in the eternal life promised by Christ.

In obedience to the request of Pope Sixtus II, he had already turned the Holy Cup over to a Spaniard in Rome at the time, with instructions to take it to Spain, where Laurence knew that his family would care for it. St. Laurence was burned on a gridiron for his noncompliance to the Romans’ request. Although this form of death was rare at the time, I believe they not only wanted to make an example of him, but they also hoped to make the martyrdom that he desired so much as painful as possible.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You note in the book that Americans have paid little, if any, attention to the Holy Chalice of Valencia. Why is that?

Bennett: I believe that most Americans have never heard of the Holy Chalice of Valencia, for the simple reason that until now there has been next to nothing written about it in English. On the other hand, it seems to be common knowledge in Spain — no one even questions the fact that the Holy Chalice of Valencia is the Holy Grail. As I mentioned in the book, I saw a documentary on television about the Holy Grail, and I was shocked at the superficial treatment it was given. The Holy Chalice of Valencia was not even mentioned, but a perfume bottle found in an attic in England was featured as a strong possibility of being the authentic Holy Grail. Sir Galahad and Percival, who are clearly literary figures, were discussed as if they were real, historical people.

And now, of course, we have all the nonsense about how Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail. It keeps getting more and more absurd. Like Don Quixote, the popular Spanish literary figure who read so many books about the Knights of the Round Table that he could no longer distinguish between reality and fiction, modern man in the so-called Age of Reason finds himself in the very same situation. As an example, Andrew Sinclair, in his book The Discovery of the Grail [London: Arrow Books Limited, 1999] has a chapter entitled "The Grail in Spain." He intertwines erroneous historical details about the Holy Chalice and the relics of Oviedo with Galahad and Don Quixote, and even claims that "Saint Theresa of Avila continued these beatific visions [of Saint Gertrude of Helfetha] of a holy chalice and a jeweled Grail Castle into the sixteenth century, before Cervantes in Don Quixote struck them down" (p. 192). It is incredible that someone would interpret St. Teresa’s The Interior Castle in such a manner, and then claim that Cervantes somehow "struck down" her visions of a castle that serves as a metaphor for union with God!

I can’t tell you how many people have remarked to me that they thought the Holy Grail was lost — it must have been, because Sir Galahad and Percival embarked on a quest to find it. Likewise, thousands read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as a scholarly work. Who can blame them, based on the claims made on the dust jacket: "An astonishing truth concealed for centuries. . .unveiled at last," "perfect for history buffs," "pure genius," "intelligent," and "intricately layered with remarkable research and detail." Brown’s book contains such a mixture of distorted facts and fiction that at least ten authors have written books to debunk it. It becomes more and more difficult for the average person to separate the nonsense from history and truth, so they tend to walk around in a fog of unreason that makes the Middle Ages seem like the Age of Enlightenment by contrast.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What sorts of misunderstandings exist about relics and their place in the Church, and how do they affect people’s view of authentic relics?

Bennett: I am now working on my third book, this one on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, which includes a discussion of the authenticity of the relics of St. James, believed to be safeguarded in the crypt of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The evidence for authenticity is compelling, but unfortunately it is not presented in a single book in English about the Camino.

Instead, authors like Edwin Mullins, who wrote the classic account entitled The Pilgrimage to Santiago [New York: Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., 1974, 2001], refers to the veneration of relics as a "morbid mediaeval cult" and calls the Santiago legend nothing more than "folk-lore brushed up for the tourist industry," given official recognition by Pope Leo XIII in 1884 as a political move to sugar a legend that is "so improbable, so flawed, so disreputable," that it is "amazing and ironical" that this legend "should have trodden a path through the history of western Europe that is flagged by some of the brightest achievements of our civilization" (p. 16). He even suggests that pious scribes, due to a psychological longing, created "the foundations of a useful Christian legend where those foundations were unfortunately lacking" (p. 8-9).

Another example is Spanish Steps by Tim Moore [London: Jonathan Cape, 2004] about a man and his donkey on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago. If you’re looking for any useful information about the Camino, don’t buy this book — it contains 328 pages of donkey jokes intertwined with misinformation, among them disdain for relics, and the absurd claim that the Compostela (the certificate in Latin given to pilgrims at the end of their journey) is a sort of "Get out of hell free" card, followed by the snide comment that he didn’t make the rules. Unfortunately for him, the Church didn’t make that rule either. Pilgrims who walk the entire route don’t even get the plenary indulgence unless they receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist at the end, while those who simply visit the Cathedral and fulfill these conditions do. One doesn’t have to walk a single step along the Camino to be saved. This author reflects the incredible misinformation floating around about the Catholic Church, among them relics, indulgences, and pilgrimages. It is not surprising that he shows no respect for the Eucharist either, saying that when "a queue began to form for the bread and wine, a sudden exhaustion had pinned me to my seat, and I’m glad it did…" (p. 323).

The prevalent attitude seems to be that the veneration of relics was a morbid mania that prevailed in a climate of pious unreason, leading to widespread trafficking as well as the multiplication of thorns, sweat cloths, grails, fragments of the True Cross, bones of the saints, and other relics. If this went on, they reason, all relics must be false, and if not, who cares, because the veneration of relics is little more than a morbid fascination anyway, practiced by simple, illiterate people in the Middle Ages who were indoctrinated by a Church that was obsessed with the Last Judgment.

Someone once suggested to me that my books were a "waste of time," because the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper would not have been preserved by the early Christians, nor would the cloth containing His blood, without offering a bit of evidence for his strong opinions. Ironically, this same person also gave me a relic of a saint before my surgery, and this has always been at the heart of their veneration — the belief in divine intervention and miracles. Some Christians, usually non Catholic, remark that relics have nothing to do with their faith, and while this is true, what is wrong with knowing more about them? No one objects to the study of ancient artifacts and burial sites, but for some reason the mention of relics brings on some rather strong opinions that seem to have been formed by the attitude of non-Christian authors toward the Catholic Church.

I recently translated the story of the Christ of Burgos, a life-like crucified Christ that is kept in the Cathedral of Burgos. It is not even a relic, really, although legend claims that it was made by Nicodemus at the foot of the cross. It has been venerated by pilgrims on their way to Santiago. Recent studies confirm that it dates to the Middle Ages, but the remarkable thing is the extensive documentation pointing to miracles worked through the veneration and faith of the pilgrims. The story is so inspiring and interesting that it is given an entire chapter in my next book.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What miraculous events, if any, have been connected to the Holy Chalice of Valencia?

Bennett: Unfortunately, I didn’t investigate any miraculous events that may have been connected to the Holy Chalice. It is possible that the Cathedral of Valencia has a record of these, but they weren’t mentioned in any of the books by the Spanish priests connected with the Cathedral, nor in any of my other sources.

The only miracle I know of was mentioned briefly by Elias Olmos Canalda, the Archivist Canon of the Cathedral who was responsible for saving the Holy Chalice at the start of the Spanish Civil War. He mentions that part of the cotton with which the Holy Chalice was wrapped when it was hidden in a stone wall at Carlet was divided among several young men who were marching in the front lines. They were told to have faith in what was being given to them because it had covered a relic. Not one suffered the least mishap or injury. I think the greatest miracle, however, is that this relic has survived to the present day. The odds were obviously against it.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What has been the reaction to your book among scholars and students of the Holy Grail?

Bennett: I haven’t really received all that much feedback, but the reaction so far has been excellent. One woman, who has a doctorate in Romance and Germanic Languages and Literatures, said that the book was a joy to read and a "great contribution to scholarship," and remarked that it should keep other writers from misidentifying Orencio and Paciencia as "two priests of the Church of Huesca" as did Mark Amaru Pinkham in Guardians of the Holy Grail [Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited, 2004], p. 31.

Another man (Christian, but not Catholic) wrote: "We appreciate the fine work that you are doing in the field of publishing. It is encouraging that there are talented individuals who can make a difference in so many ways to improve the lives of people in our world." One young man from Tennessee, who happens to be a big fan of the Holy Grail legends, thought that it was an excellent book that "surpasses all the legends" he has ever read and heard. He said that he had never heard of St. Laurence and knew nothing of this tradition. He has "read many books on the Holy Grail, some romantic and some really so fantastic as to be easily recognizable as mere legend." He thought that my book on the Sudarium of Oviedo was also excellent, and a great asset to his faith.

I doubt that some of those who have written about the Grail being Mary Magdalene would find my book at all interesting, as their agenda seems to be to deny the divinity of Christ and discredit the Church. I still can’t bring myself to read Holy Blood, Holy Grail in its entirety, which happened to serve as inspiration for Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, although I did read Brown’s book, simply because so many people were asking me what I thought of it. They weren’t really satisfied when I would reply, "It’s fiction." Now I have a bit more to say about it, none of it good.
Unlike Dan Brown, who hides his agenda under the cloak of "fiction," Holy Blood, Holy Grail, [New York: Bantam Dell, 2004; first published by Delacorte Press in 1982], which happens to be a New York Times bestseller, claims to be more revealing than any fiction, and provides source material for the many books being circulated today, even in Spain. Just like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, nearly all claim that Christ did not die on the cross, was married and a father, and that his bloodline still exists in France. The trend these days is to connect all of this with St. Mary Magdalene, and to make the blasphemous and diabolical claim that she is the Holy Grail, the "receptable" for Christ. These so-called scholars are certainly not interested in the truth, but I’m sure that they all hope to become rich by circulating a controversial and illogical hypothesis that they claim is "probably" true, although based on absolutely nothing substantial.

I should mention that there is a big difference between St. Donato’s manuscript and this book’s claim that parchments found in the South of France a century ago reveal one of the best-kept secrets in Christendom. While I certainly can’t prove the authenticity of Donato’s manuscript, it is included because it does contain a written reference to the fact that St. Sixtus II gave the Holy Grail to St. Laurence for safekeeping. It is translated in its entirely because it provides new details about Laurence’s early childhood that not only make sense, but do not appear to have been taken from any other source. If it did happen to be a fake, it is brilliantly done, but I seriously doubt it because I’ve been able to support it with information from many, many other sources.

The translator goes against the tradition of his place of birth, Huesca, so he is obviously not trying to support his hometown. St. Donato is a real person mentioned in ancient Spanish history books, who also happened to be from the same Augustinian order as the translator, and his explanation of how he came across the work is quite logical. If, for some unknown and unforeseen reason, it was fake — although I don’t believe that anyone could ever prove that is was — it wouldn’t change any of the evidence for the authenticity of the Holy Chalice of Valencia. That is strongly based on the Canon of the Mass, Spanish tradition concerning St. Laurence, the history of the relic in Spain, archaeological studies, and the very fact that not very long ago, some people were so convinced that it is the real Holy Grail that they were willing to suffer martyrdom to save it.

It also happens to be the only possible Holy Grail in existence, because it is a cup, and the Gospels state very explicitly that Jesus took a cup of wine to institute the Sacrament of the Eucharist, not a perfume bottle or a green plate. The translation of Donato’s manuscript certainly exists, because I have copies of every single page, I have translated them, and one of these copies is included in the book. On the other hand, how can anyone know for certain if these supposed parchments even exist, let alone reveal some bizarre and far-fetched secret about Christ that flies in the face of two thousand years of Tradition? Yet, the book cover claims that it is "meticulously researched."

Martyrs do indeed exist, and they certainly wouldn’t have given their lives for a faith that doesn’t even offer eternal life, because if Christ did not die on the cross, we are not saved. Furthermore, a document can easily be faked, but it is impossible to do that to tradition. Tradition is what it is, and in the case of the Holy Chalice, it leaves no other possibility than the fact that the relic is very likely authentic.

Also read: Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: An interview with Janice Bennett about the Sudarium of Oviedo



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