Holy Week: National Geographic reveals Vatican secrets

Our Passover/Holy Week series began Monday: An interview with Lisa Miller on Rob Bell, Part 1
Network TV is airing Passover/Holy Week specials all week. TODAY, we’re recommending two National Geographic documentaries that reveal Vatican secrets on saints and the pope’s security.

MUST-SEE: National Geographic “Mystery of Murdered Saints”

Tuesday, April 19, 10 PM ET & PT (Check local TV listings.)
If you’ve only got time for one memorable hour of TV tonight, don’t miss National Geographic Explorer’s “Mystery of the Murdered Saints.” As a long-time religion reporter, I’ve covered saints, shrines and relics around the world—but I can’t recall a case like this in which the Catholic church allowed scientists to examine the bones of saints in such a detailed and public way. For two years, Catholic leaders from a local bishop to top Vatican officials allowed scientists to study whether the bones of two 3rd-century martyrs are truly preserved in a group of church reliquaries. National Geographic also stages historical recreations of the martyrs’ heroic Christian witness. Combined with the forensic science on the two skeletons, envision Cecil B. DeMille producing an episode of TV’s “Bones.”

The saints were Romans Chrysantha and Darius, who wound up paying for their Christian faith with their lives during a bloody Roman persecution. I won’t spoil the documentary by revealing what scientists finally conclude about this young couple—but here is the most popular version of their lives: Chrysantha was a highly educated young man from a noble family who converted to Christianity. His family was so disturbed that they arranged a marriage with a Roman priestess: Darius. Rather than bringing Chrysantha back to a pagan orientation, Darius joined him in converting to Christianity. They both died for their new faith. For more than 1,000 years, Christians have venerated the courageous couple.

There’s certainly a voyeuristic interest in looking over the scientists’ schoulders as they examine these sacred skeletons. There’s a great love story here, as well. Most importantly, the documentary touches on a major question in Holy Week 2011: How much can we trust what religious leaders have told us?

National Geographic’s narrator says: “Authenticity is a question that haunts the world of holy relics. Most saintly remains have been dismembered, torn into untraceable shreds by the appetites of pilgrims. For millennia the faithful have believed that even the tiniest ragment of a saint can perform miracles—but like anything of value there are frauds among them.” What will scientists determine by the end of the documentary? Are these bones sacred relics—or frauds? And how many scientific avenues will the team explore before drawing final conclusions? All of these questions make for great TV!

Reviewed by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

INSIDE THE VATICAN: “Pope’s Secret Service”

Tuesday, April 19, 9 PM ET & PT (Check local TV listings.)

I’ve covered the Vatican and the pope occasionally since the 1980s and I’ve bumped into the strict rules of Vatican security more than once. The rules are in place for important reasons and they’ve tightened considerably in recent years. Perhaps that’s why Pope Benedict’s staff permitted the production of this documentary. At one point, we watch him prepare for a simple walk in the park—and you’ll think the pope’s team is planning to launch a NASA rocket. The photo at right from the documentary shows one of the high-tech control rooms used by the security team. I suspect the Vatican staff concluded that showing off their heightened level of security may ward off a few nuts who’d like to make mischief in the Vatican grounds.

Note: This documentary airs earlier in the evening than the “Murdered Saints” documentary. Between the two, the forensic investigation of the relics is truly must-see TV. “The Pope’s Secret Service” is recommended, too, especially if you’re Catholic or you’ve visited the Vatican and want to learn more about the city-state’s inner workings.

Reviewed by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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