catacombs

Mummies and saints: Scientists found 'dark,' 'secret' lair under church altar in Lithuania? Really?

Mummies and saints: Scientists found 'dark,' 'secret' lair under church altar in Lithuania? Really?

If you know anything about the history of sacred architecture, you know there is nothing strange about believers being buried inside church sanctuaries.

In fact, there is an ancient tradition of celebrating the Mass on altars built directly on or over the tombs of saints (see the New Advent online Catholic Encyclopedia). In Eastern Orthodoxy, altars and sanctuaries still contain relics of the saints, usually fragments of bones. Consider this 2014 column I wrote about efforts to rebuild St. Nicholas Orthodox parish at Ground Zero in New York City.

Some people find these traditions creepy. But the whole idea was to link heaven and earth, for believers in this life to worship with the saints of old.

Perhaps this is rather advanced material, in terms of church history. Still, I assumed that some journalists (maybe even at the New York Times copy desk) would know that the altar of the most famous church on Planet Earth -- St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican -- is build directly over catacombs containing the tomb of St. Peter and other popes. Don't these people read Dan Brown novels?

I bring this up because of a strange passage in a recent Times science piece that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Mummies’ Medical Secrets? They’re Perfectly Preserved
Mummified bodies in a crypt in Lithuania are teaching scientists about health and disease among people who lived long ago.

As it turns out, the crypt in question is located underneath an altar in a Catholic church in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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