An Irreverent Curiosity by David Farley

I grew up in Texas and was raised in a Protestant church. On my first trip to Rome, I found one thing most shocking: the prevalence of relics. Growing up in a Southern Methodist church, I had never thought that perhaps the heads of John the Baptist or St. Valentine might be hanging around – or that they might have spiritual significance. But I quickly learned.

Author David Farley has a leg up on me in the relics department. He was raised in the Catholic church, so at least the concept of relics and their adoration was not so foreign for him. And in his new book, An Irreverent Curiosity (Gotham Books, 2009), Farley takes his readers in search of “the church’s strangest relic in Italy’s oddest town.” Namely, Farley is off on a hunt for the Holy Foreskin – as in the foreskin of Jesus

As the Christian church emerged from the shadow of the Roman Empire and spread throughout Europe, a competitive spirit developed between cathedrals and other places of pilgrimage. For where pilgrims go, money follows. Churches started to compete for the best relics – those which drew the most pilgrims. As Farley recounts, the Holy Foreskin emerged from the folds of history, wrapped up in legends of Charlemagne until a dozen or so churches in Europe claimed to hold the Holy Foreskin – “the only remnant of the Christ remaining on the planet.”

Farley, his wife, and their dog, Abraham Lincoln, move to Calcata, a small town outside of Rome, in search of the town's one claim to fame: the true Holy Foreskin.  At least, the Holy Foreskin had been in Calcata until it was stolen in 1983… or was that 1986?  And thus begins Farley's quest.

As a resident of Calcata, Farley becomes as fascinated with the interior lives of the town’s eccentric population as he is with the mysterious disappearance of the relic. Don’t expect sunburned, Tuscan rhapsodies. Farley is neither lovelorn nor scorned. He balances both humor and reverence, and he removes the romantic veil over Calcata, revealing it to be a rather unusual Italian town. He eschews the common Italian stereotypes, and paints vivid portraits of the town’s residents. Not everyone in Calcata, for example, is a good cook. Take Palma… 

She pushed a bowl toward us and, in her usual bossy manner, ordered us to eat. The crunchy, unidentifiable objects had that bitter, wrong-part-of-the-animal taste. I’m an adventurous eater, however, so I kept chewing. Finally, Jessie asked Scot, who was sitting across from us (and happened to be going out with Palma at the time) what we were eating. Scot had an annoying habit of staring back at you for a long five seconds before answering your question, but this time it seemed like he was really struggling to come up with adequate words. Finally he opened his mouth and cavalierly said, “Fried cow nerves.” Jessie spit and I swallowed. “It’s a typical Roman dish,” he said, with just enough condescension to make us both feel like uncultured ignoramuses for not wanting to eat more. Of course, I didn’t see him digging into the cow’s nerves much.

Farley is also writing about a religious relic – a subject which might make some squeamish and which, in the hands of a less-skillful writer, might become a farce. The residents of Calcata had been burned by journalists who set out to make a mockery of their relic. Patrizia won’t even speak to Farley at first because “she once cooperated with a journalist from Britain who then wrote a piece for a magazine totally making fun of the relic and making fun of her.” But Patrizia does speak with him in the end, and her cooperation is just one illustration of the delicate balance Farley is able to achieve between faithful reverence, solid research, and artful humor.

In the months he spends in Calcata, Farley makes some interesting discoveries about the history and legend of the Holy Foreskin. He elegantly weaves a tale of religious and political maneuverings together with character sketches of the people and places he encounters in Italy. And in the end, he comes to a rather incredible conclusion of just what did happen to the Holy Foreskin when it was stolen in 1983. 

Or was that in 1986? 

Only the priest, Don Dario, knows for sure.