Searching for devotional articles to give as Christmas gifts? You'll find a wide selection at your local Catholic religious-goods shop, where you might pick up a sterling-silver scapular medal or a delicate rosary. Or try the mail-order catalog from a monastery or from Our Sunday Visitor, where you may purchase a nice prayer book with a leatherette cover and gilded pages.
You could also try eBay, where you'll see similar items and other collectibles. Perhaps you'll get a bargain on a unique gift like a 19th-century Douay-Rheims Bible, or an ornate reliquary that holds a bone chip from a canonized saint -- a first-class relic.
Caveat emptor -- "let the buyer beware" -- is sound advice when it comes to any purchase. In the case of online auctions and other private-party transactions involving alleged relics of the saints, the Catholic shopper's alarm should rise, in the parlance of today's national-security warnings, to at least an "orange alert."
That's because there are two major problems with buying relics on eBay or from any vendor. First, the selling of first-class relics is prohibited by the Church's canon law. Second, buying presumed "relics" from private sources is a lot like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get.
The online auction site eBay has been under fire from Catholics for several years for not doing more to halt the sale of sacred items. Last year, OSV reported the listing by one eBayer of a consecrated host that purportedly had been saved after the seller, a non-Catholic, had received Communion in the hand from Pope John Paul II some years earlier. The eBay vendor finally acquiesced with an apology and turned over the host to the custody of Church officials.
Meanwhile, policy-setters at eBay stood pat at first, citing the lame excuse that although it may be "offensive to some people," the sale of a host does not violate eBay's "offensive materials" policy. Weeks later, after thousands of e-mail protests and many public cries of indignation -- not to mention threats of a boycott -- eBay relented and announced it had "broadened" its policy to explicitly ban future auctions of consecrated hosts and "similar highly sacred items."
Apparently, eBay does not consider such protection to extend to saints' relics. That's why Thomas Seraphin and his group, International Crusader for Holy Relics, called for another eBay boycott last month.
Technically, only first-class relics -- bone, flesh, hair and other body fragments of saints -- are canonically prohibited from sale. Arguably, these are items that eBay also should prohibit, as its stated policy forbids the sale not only of sacred items, but also of "human parts and remains."
Some eBayers try to get around that by pricing only the reliquary and offering the relic within for "free," but that's still transferring the relic as a condition of sale. Enforcement is difficult, eBay officials say, due to the sheer volume of business: Seven million new items are posted daily.
Illicit trading in relics stolen from churches has gone on for centuries. Most dealers may not be able to describe or authenticate what they have, and there is ample opportunity for fraud and forgery. What's a Catholic to do?
If you choose to boycott eBay, write eBay officials to tell them why. If not, and you notice what may be a first-class relic for sale, write both eBay and the vendor to register a courteous protest.
For more information on relics, visit Seraphin's website at www.ichrusa.com.