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Netflix's 'Mysteries of the Faith' Explores Sacred Catholic Relics

January 23, 2024 | By

I recently watched Netflix’s Mysteries of the Faith documentary series. For a mainstream, secular streaming service, I was pleasantly surprised with the respect, fascination, and even appreciation, the producers afforded the Catholic faith.

Holiness You Can See

At the outset, the show looks at venerated relics that are particular to the Catholic faith. In this truly incarnational belief system, sacramentality can infuse the very “stuff” of the world.

We’re probably very familiar with water, oil, sacred chrism, bread, and wine as the form of the Sacraments. This show traces the less-encountered sacred objects considered below.

The show will appeal to any history buff, as the show globe-trots around Europe and Latin America. It reminded me of my own religious order’s publishing house Ave Maria Press, and their book, A History of the Church in 100 Objects, by Mike Aquilina. The show provides the heart of the matter, as many of the faithful, lay and clerics testify to the power the relics have in their lives.

The Crown of Thorns

The first episode sets the tone for the series. Various academics follow the journey of the Crown of Thorns from Jerusalem to its current residence: the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.

The commentary avoids the sensationalism of History Channel shows, yet doesn’t put a viewer to sleep, either. The drama culminates in the scaffolding fire at the cathedral in 2019.

More than one interviewee becomes emotional in their recollection of the tragic event. The true hero is a Parisian firefighter who, facing the potential of the ceiling falling in on him, rescued the Crown of Thorns. He saved not only a historic artifact of France, but part of its soul as well.

The Holy Grail

As much as I loved Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this episode disabused me of any notion the Holy Grail is in Petra, Jordan. In reality, two rival cities in Spain claim the Cup of Christ, with Valencia forming the academic consensus as its resting place.

One Spanish professor cites the Harrison Ford film as her inspiration for studying history. The inspiring part of this episode for me was the B-roll footage of professors participating in religious services and mini-pilgrimages.

It’s a reminder that, no matter our education and informally acquired wisdom, our Lord still calls us to childlike faith.

Holy Cross of Brazil

An old adage jokes that, if you assembled all relics of the Cross of Christ, you could rebuild Noah’s Ark.

But in the latter half of the 19th Century, independent French scholar Charles Rohault de Fleury decided to track down and measure every proclaimed fragment of the True Cross. Even by his most generous calculations, they added up to less than a fifth of what he mathematically estimated to be the mass of the original Cross.

The episode begins with St. Helena, mother of Emperoor Constantine, traveling to Jerusalem and unearthing the Cross of Jesus. The splinters and shards were then distributed throughout the Roman Empire.

Via the Portuguese, one fragment ended up in Rio de Janeiro and is forever under lock and key in the cathedral.

But, the priest-vicar responded to Pope Francis’ call to bring God to the marginalized and subsequently held processions with the splinter of the True Cross in Rio’s impoverished favelas.

A Modern Hero of the Faith: Blessed Rosario Livatino

The fourth and final episode doesn’t consider a relic of our Lord from two millennia ago, but a martyrdom occurring within my own lifetime. (I have a feeling the producers are thus setting up a second season.)

Judge Rosario Livatino, a magistrate in Sicily, crediting his Catholic faith, stood up to mob corruption in southern Italy. He received two bullets in his chest for his efforts.

The relic then is a gruesome blood-stained shirt in a capsule.

The Idea of Relics

The show reminded me of something a seminarian (now a priest) said to me in theology studies: “Don’t you think that’s one of the more macabre traditions of the Church -- dividing up clothing or, in some cases, pieces of the actual saint, and sending them across the globe?” I think I remember nodding in agreement.

Mysteries of the Faith additionally makes the case that relics may just comprise the coolest and most glorious traditions in the whole Church. It should make fascinating viewing as we approach Lent in a few weeks.

The series is rated TV-PG, for references to the violence of the Crucifixion (English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese languages, with subtitles)


Image: Relic of the True Cross, Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

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