History Visits Manhattan

You’re on a busy city street in the morning when everyone’s going to work. The sidewalks are filled, people are rushing by. You don’t know what’s in their heads or hearts. You don’t even know what’s in their briefcases. Probably the usual—memos, papers, smartphone, business cards.

Yesterday just after 9 a.m. a young man in his 20s—blue suit, red tie, thick black hair—rushed up the steps of a club on the west side of Manhattan. He looked like any young businessman. His briefcase was slightly larger than most, and made of light aluminum. Inside it was the personal crucifix of St. Thomas More, which he kept beside him on his desk as he wrote, and which is believed to have been with him in the Tower of London while he was imprisoned. The gold crucifix opens up, or rather is split in two, top to bottom, and on the inside of the top part is an authentic relic of St Thomas the Apostle—Doubting Thomas.

So at one point yesterday morning as people rushed by on West 51st Street, carrying their Starbucks and talking on the phone, they were within a few feet of a piece of physical matter that had been part of the body of the Apostle who put his hand in the wounds of Christ.

You never know what’s passing you by.

Also in the briefcase: a relic of Edmund Campion, the brilliant renegade Jesuit who had, during the reign of Elizabeth I, been the pride of the Anglican Church, and who shocked everyone by converting to Catholicism at the least opportune moment, the Reformation. He broke the law to say mass and distribute the sacraments for England’s Catholics. In 1581 he was hunted down, arrested, tried, and, having been found guilty of treason dragged through the streets, hanged, let down alive, disemboweled, drawn and quartered. The crown wanted to scare everyone out of being Catholic, or at least publicly so, and pretty much succeeded for a good long time. But they created a lot of martyrs and some saints, Edmund being one of them. The Campion relic: a small, almost minute piece of cloth from the cloak he wore when, in hiding and on the run, he could no longer dress as a Jesuit.

The relic of St. Thomas the Apostle within the crucifix of St. Thomas More is the property of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England. In 1593 the Jesuits of England started a school in France for English boys who could not receive such an education at home. While the purpose of the school was to form their minds and consciences, it increasingly found it had an important second purpose: to rescue and keep safe centuries of English Catholic art, literature and symbols of worship. In 1794, the college moved to Stonyhurst.

They have a lot there—manuscripts, artifacts, vestments. A Book of Hours used by Mary, Queen of Scots, and the chasuble Henry VIII wore to meet the king of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. As the years passed the collection became ecumenical: There’s a brass-and-silver globe signed and dated 1623, Quaim Muhammed, and the Shakespeare First Folio, 1623.

The students at Stonyhurst get to see these things all the time, and if you call and make an appointment you can see them too, but Stonyhurst is now trying to create a new, larger, more modern space to which they can invite more of the public, along with a retreat and study center. Members of the group trying to raise attention and support for the project have been on a swing through Washington, Baltimore, Princeton, Boston and New York, where I saw them and their treasures. There, in a club on West 51st Street, I touched something that Thomas More touched, that may have been on his desk as he wrote “Utopia”; and a relic of Campion, that daredevil; and a relic of Doubting Thomas, Apostle of Jesus. That’s not a bad day, when you can say that.

This is the website of the group: http://www.christianheritagecentre.com.

And here, to remind us that history is not static but changes and can be made better, are jolly pictures of Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II. Nothing with Francis yet, but that will come.