What is the Holy Grail?
The Holy Grail has come to mean anything desirable and difficult to obtain. The term has even been applied to hockey’s Stanley Cup. Traditionally, of course, the Holy Grail is a vessel used at the Last Supper, either the chalice of the Precious Blood or a dish that held the eucharistic Bread or the Paschal Lamb. In some versions, Christ’s blood also was collected in the Grail at Calvary or during the entombment. Medieval German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach took the story in a very different direction. His Grail is a white stone on which a heavenly dove lays a sacred Host each Good Friday. Over the centuries, the Grail has gained other connotations, as a source of healing, enlightenment, cosmic renewal, or contact with ultimate reality. People dissatisfied with Christianity connect it with heretical mysteries, occult knowledge, and magic. Even neo-pagans have tried to claim the Grail as a pre-Christian ritual vessel linked to their mother goddess.
Are Catholics required to believe it exists?
Obviously, there was tableware at the Last Supper. No one knows if any of it was saved or still survives. The Church has no official position on the Grail. In medieval times, when the stories were taking shape, they were popular with the laity but the Church simply ignored them.
The authenticity of objects that claim to be the Holy Grail is to be judged by ordinary human prudence. It is not — and cannot be — a matter of faith. The same principle applies to all items that claim to be holy relics. For instance, no Catholic is commanded to accept the Shroud of Turin as the actual burial cloth of Christ, despite its long history of veneration and modern forensic studies. On the other hand, it would be ridiculous to deny that the actual bones of St. Thérèse are enshrined at Lisieux.
I read in the news that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI used the Holy Grail at Masses in Valencia, Spain. What’s that all about?
If the Holy Grail still existed, you could easily picture it looking like the dramatic santo caliz (“holy chalice") of Valencia, a glowing, blood-red stone cup from the time of Christ. During the Middle Ages it acquired a stem and handles of gold with another red stone vessel forming its jeweled base.
Fanciful legends — unrelated to any Grail romance — say that the holy chalice was brought to Rome by St. Peter and later given to St. Lawrence, who sent it to Spain, where it was long hidden. It enters history in 1399, when the King of Aragon obtained it from a Catalan monastery. A successor pawned it in 1437 with the Cathedral of Valencia. There the santo caliz still resides in its own chapel, and a giant replica graces the city’s spectacular Corpus Christi procession. Papal use of a beloved local treasure doesn’t make it genuine.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code claims that the Holy Grail isn’t a cup, but a person. Where does that idea come from? Did he just make that up?
Dan Brown’s principal source was Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln (1982). This best-selling piece of pseudo-history claims that Mary Magdalene was the true Holy Grail because she was the wife of Jesus who “carried" his blood by bearing him at least one child. This bloodline passed through Dark Ages kings of France and continues today despite the Church’s efforts to obliterate it. Grail quests, the book claims, were really searches for the “lost divine feminine" represented by Mary Magdalene.
Some other esoteric writers who influenced Brown are Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince, and Margaret Starbird. Baigent and Leigh resented Brown’s borrowings so much that they sued him for plagiarism but lost.
How should we as Catholics look at the idea of the Holy Grail? What does the search for it mean for our faith?
The Holy Grail points to the Holy Eucharist. Literally and uniquely, Mary the God-Bearer was the living Grail. But the sacred vessels of the Mass are also Grails, and our own Grail quests succeed each time we receive the Body and Blood of Christ.