The Catholic Thing
A Wikipedian Pilgrimage Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 07 May 2012

Wikipedia is among my frequent stops in daily excursions across (or is it into) the Internet. In its decade-and-a-year of existence, Wikipedia has exceeded my expectations and confuted my initial concerns about its potential truthfulness and integrity.

I’d asked myself: Can an open-source encyclopedia really be accurate? Over the years, I have seen a few examples of wild imprecision (including “political” editorializing that is usually caught quickly and taken down). And it is not uncommon to see warnings in a given article that its accuracy is disputed, that more citations are necessary, or that editing is closed temporarily. Time cools hotheads, apparently.

A hundred-thousand “active contributors” are responsible for Wikipedia’s content, and not all of them have their feet firmly on the ground; a few figure that a lie becomes true if it appears in Wikipedia, even if only briefly. But the collaborative editing seems to catch most errors – no mean feat in its English edition, which now has nearly 4,000,000 entries (and two-billion words).

It’s about fifty times the size of the last print edition (and I do mean last) of Encyclopedia Britannica. So kudos to founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger who, following web developer Ward Cunningham’s coinage, chose the name “wiki” from the Wiki Wiki Shuttle Bus at the Honolulu Airport (wiki = fast). Their creation is now online in 284 different languages and is the sixth largest site on the Web. (It’s instructive to read the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia, which deals in large measure with concerns about its accuracy.) 

Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

But I love to tumble into Wikipedia and to follow its links. To wit:

Thanks to a recent post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker at his blog, Standing on My Head, I learned about the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme), a church in Rome of which I’d never heard. And quite a place it is, as Fr. Dwight’s post explains:

In a side chapel there are relics of the crucifixion: the complete crossbeam of the good thief, a fragment of the true cross, a nail used to crucify Christ, a thorn from the crown of thorns, the titulus (the name plate which hung over the Lord) and the finger bone of St. Thomas which was put into Our Lord’s wounds.

Such assertions, making Holy Cross seem a bit like a big-box retailer of the Passion, may make some Catholics wince. Not I. More and more this is one aspect of our faith that makes me love Catholicism – and exceedingly so. There is an ancient concreteness that makes Catholicism unlike other faiths and roots us Catholics to the ministry of Jesus. Two-thousand years? That’s nothing to us. That was yesterday. And we have the artifacts to prove it.

On to Wikipedia:

Holy Cross is one of the seven “pilgrim” churches in Rome, along with St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major, St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love. (Obviously I’ve used the English versions of the names.) Pretty soon, my own lady of love and I will be visiting Italy, and these will all be stops on our journey. For now, though, I carry my walking staff in cyberspace. 

Saint Helena by Cima da Conegliano, 1495

Nobody will be shocked to learn that the provenance of the relics at Holy Cross are disputed, most especially the Titulus Crucis (literally: inscription of the cross). In the Wikipedia article on it, there is this caution: “It is generally either ignored by scholars or considered to be a medieval forgery.”

Ah, but not so fast. Not so darned wiki quick! At the end of the entry is a link to the website of Rosary Workshop, where the discussion of the relics is singularly lacking in skepticism. Sure, some may argue the Rosary Workshop business model pretty much depends upon credulity. But one may also dispute Wikipedia’s either-or statement: What sort of scholar ignores evidence about the Titulus or any other relic? Is this why “ignore” is the root of “ignorance”?

It’s impossible to read about the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, without following links to info about its foundress, St. Helena, who (if you recall Citizen Kane) was a veritable Charles Foster Kane (i.e. William Randolph Hearst) – she boxed up half the Holy Land and sent it home to Rome. You can do this when you’re the wife of one emperor and the mother of another.

Of course, it’s worth wondering if all the “known” fragments of the True Cross were gathered together, would they be sufficient – placed piece-by-piece as in a puzzle – to reconstruct the original. Perhaps the pieces would render but a fraction of the Cross. Or maybe, in toto, there’d be enough wood to build a cathedral of pine.

These are not a skeptic’s considerations. Whether were talking about the relics of the Passion, including the Shroud of Turin, or pilgrimages along the Camino de Santiago or to Lourdes, these holy objects and practices and places are not themselves reasons for faith but expressions of faithfulness: of love and suffering and sacrifice; ours for Christ and his for us.

And this is true whether you are experiencing them firsthand or in a pilgrimage along the labyrinthine ways of the Internet.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books, and is a former Literary Editor of National Review.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Matthew M, May 07, 2012
This is an interesting take on that popular website. It's not surprising to see that its value varies with subject area. In my own area (art history), wikipedia is relentlessly awful. Nearly every entry I've come across has egregious errors. Caveat emptor.

On the quantity of wood in True Cross relics... you won't find it mentioned in his wiki entry, but there was a late 19th c. architect named Charles de Fleury who tracked down every known relic of the Cross with an eye towards estimating the total volume. Even accounting for a considerable understatement, he showed the known relics would be far, far less than the volume of such a cross.
written by Other Joe, May 07, 2012
The churches of Rome will not disappoint. Man is most in his glory when he attempts to give expression to the glory of God.
written by Ching Yim, May 07, 2012
I am a Catholic and a scientist who teaches at a community college, and I can tell you that Wikipedia articles in physical sciences (physics, chemistry and astronomy) are mostly well written and accurate. The rule is that the more technical and specialized an article is, the better. Physical scientists are mostly metaphysical realists (if materialists) and that, I think, conditions them to write well. Metaphysical subjectivists (e.g. relativists) tend to be disasters in writing any thing in terms of understandability. Unfortunately, I think too many folks in fields of social sciences are relativists.
written by Titus, May 07, 2012
And it gets better: isn't Sancta Croce the one called "in Jerusalem" because the floor the building is actually constructed on dirt that was brought from the temple mount? If you go up the road to (IIRC) Milan, there is a church that houses relics of the Holy Sepulcher, along with a medieval replica of the Church thereof. Enjoy the trip.
written by Chris in Maryland, May 07, 2012
And speaking of St. Helena, when in Rome, we can all go and touch something Jesus touched, indeed, something he walked on Good Friday...The Holy Stairs taken from Fortress Antonia, and relocated by St. Helena to Rome.
written by Harry, May 07, 2012
Wikipedia is very useful for verifying basic facts like the date of a birth or death, historical battles and the like. It's also good for getting information on books, films and music.
What it isn't so good at is providing large scale explanations. The more controversial pages (i.e Science and Religion) tend to be fought over constantly by a variety of editors, each with their own personal agenda. Apparently Shiite and Sunni Muslims clash regularly on the pages concerning their respective movements. One should use to verify the basic facts only.
Still, it's quite fun to trawl through page after page, picking up scraps of information. One of the best methods for this is the Wikipedia Game- start off on a random page and assign yourself the goal of getting to, say, Shakespeare, but only through the linking words in the documents.
written by bt, May 07, 2012
"More and more this is one aspect of our faith that makes me love Catholicism – and exceedingly so. "

Exactly! I have learned so much about our faith and some of these ancient relics by reading the internet, and today your article taught me even more. Thank you!
written by bt, May 07, 2012
"More and more this is one aspect of our faith that makes me love Catholicism – and exceedingly so. "

I'm in total agreement, and I've learned so much about our Faith and these ancient relics on the internet articles such as the one you have written from which I also learned new things. For example, I knew none of this:

"In a side chapel there are relics of the crucifixion: the complete crossbeam of the good thief, a fragment of the true cross, a nail used to crucify Christ, a thorn from the crown of thorns, the titulus (the name plate which hung over the Lord) and the finger bone of St. Thomas which was put into Our Lord’s wounds."

So thanks for the article and spreading the Faith!
written by Leonard, May 11, 2012
Please forgive my grumpiness. I would never want to be disrespectful to believers. But, the provenance of relics is really quite important. If they are real, then they are the physical evidence of the most important event in history - but if they are not then they are lies told by liars. I'm sorry. I know this offends some of you but it is the truth and Christianity makes a claim on truth.
written by Sally, May 15, 2012
ah, Leonard, you are mistaken. The relics of the Cross, if they are real, are still only evidence of the Crucifixion. And hundreds, perhaps thousands of men were crucified under Roman rule. The most important event in human history is the Resurrection. And the evidence of that is the testimony of the Apostles and those who saw and talked and ate with the Resurrected Jesus.

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