Anything to Declare?


Travellers entering Australia are directed to declare every spice, wooden mask and market trinket to one of the most exhaustive customs systems in the world — and to expect a period of quarantine. A single organism buried deep inside woodwork, we are told, could infest our fragile ecosystem with devastating effects.

Australian Customs, however, apparently decided that an 80-year-old human corpse and its coffin required no quarantine period at all.

Pier Giorgio Frassati is considered a role model for Catholic youth and is a potential saint. He died from polio at the age of 24 in 1925. His remains were flown into Sydney last month for World Youth Day. The coffin is being housed at St Mary’s Cathedral — Headquarters of Archbishop George Pell and the Sydney Diocese — for public viewing. Catholics maintain that his body has not begun to decompose, although to the disappointment of more zealous pilgrims, the casket lid will not be opened publicly

The mishandling of public viewing of saints in years past is one reason why parishioners might be refused a glimpse of Frassati by the Church. In Goa the Catholic Church used to allow the viewing of the remains of St Francis Xavier every 10 years. Pilgrims and parishioners would touch and kiss the flesh of the saint. A missionary on the move and a founding member of the Jesuit order, St Francis travelled from western Europe through Asia. He died on an island in the South China Sea in 1552 and his remains were eventually set to rest in Goa. In 1634 a woman was followed home by guards who found her in possession of a human toe — Francis Xavier’s — which she had bitten off in a moment of religious fervor. The toe remains on display at her family estate.

Church officials may be right to take precautions for the exhibition, lest a particularly faithful follower try to nibble an ear or pull a tooth from the beatified Italian.

Aside from the rather macabre gastronomic appeal of Catholic relics, only one person in NSW Parliament raised the issue of bio-security. Greens MP Sylvia Hale asked whether any precautions had being taken regarding the importation or public showing of the human remains. In response, Ian MacDonald — with all the grace one would expect from the Honourable Minister — sarcastically replied "I think I should do the right thing and refer the question immediately to Tony Burke, who is in charge of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service, which is responsible for bio-security issues — particularly the importation of corpses from Italy".

The Greens received no serious response, although Hale stressed to that they are more concerned with more than $100 million of State funding for an organisation that holds questionable policies on contraception and abortion than the "Catholic fascination with worshiping corpses and body parts". asked Ian Robinson, former Editor of The Rationalist, what message the display of the coffin sent to Catholic youth. "You’d have to ask them," he said. "The message it sends to me is that they’re a pack of nutters."

"Most intelligent Catholics are not impressed by it and don’t really believe in it," said Robinson. "The cynical church leaders see it as sop to the masses who are more impressed with a relic than a theological position."

What, then, is the point of this exercise? Is displaying the corpse of an Italian student to the Catholic youth of the world an exercise in good influence? Will Prime Minister Rudd or Premier Iemma condemn the public exhibition of corpses as "disgusting"? Or would the body have to be in a photograph?

The Pilgrim is’s World Youth Day correspondent. Stay tuned for daily updates.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.