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St Catherine of Alexandria in the Liturgy of the Church of Milan

St John XXIII’s Constitution on the study of Latin Veterum Sapientia rightly reminds us that it is the key to exploring not only the literary riches of the ancient Roman world, but also those of the Church itself. Among these we may count innumerable treasures from its liturgical tradition, and especially those which through whatever accident of history are no longer in use, and for which there is therefore no modern translation. Today’s feast of St Catherine of Alexandria offers us an example of such a treasure.

The city of Milan has preserved its own unique rite of Mass, known as the Ambrosian Rite, after its patron Saint, Ambrose, who was bishop there from 374 to 397. Like every liturgy, the Ambrosian Mass has undergone various reforms; until the reform of 1594, which gave the Missal its definitive form, this preface was used on the feast of St Catherine. It tells gives a summary of her story, which among other things explains why she is traditionally honored as one of the Patron Saints of philosophers.

“Vere quia dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine, sancte Pater, ominpotens aeterne Deus, per Christum, Dominum nostrum. Per quem triumphatrix nobilissima et egregia martyr virgo Catherina, Prophetarum et Apostolorum atque philosophorum doctrinis imbuta, omnibusque linguis charismate Sancti Spiritus erudita, imperatorem cum rhetoribus, mundum cum vitiis omnibus mirabilia sapientia superavit. Imperatricem augustam cum praefatis rhetoribus, Porphyrium cum sociis omnibus suis, exemplis et doctrinis magnificis convertit ad Christum, omnesque accepta fide cum signo Christi a virgine Catherina, martyrio coronatos, praemisit ad regna polorum. Haec fuit illa sapientia illustrata, quae vincit malitiam, attingit a fine usque ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter. Haec est illa gloriosissima virgo, quae cum centenis fructibus seipsam libando, magnoque purpurata martyrio, representavit Jesu Christo. Ideoque famine Christi et angelorum visitatione confirmata, clavos et rotas, seras acutissimas, tyranni gladium atque minas mirabili constantia superavit. Haec pro cunctis ejus passionem devote colentibus, sanitatem mentis et corporis, fideique firmitatem et rerum abundantiam a Domino postulavit. Haec etiam decollata pro Christi nomine lac fudit pro sanguine, ut sua doctrina et passio nobis eam pura mente venerantibus, esset potus spiritualis et cibus, atque peccatorum remissio. Per eundem Christum, Dominum nostrum. Per quem maiestatem tuam laudant Angeli, venerantur Archangeli, Throni, Dominationes, Virtutes, Principates, et Potestates adorant. Quem Cherubim et Seraphim socia exsultatione concelebrant. Cum quibus et nostras voces, ut admitti iubeas, deprecamur, supplici confessione dicentes: Sanctus…

(St Catherine explaining the truth of Christianity to the philosophers sent to convince her of its falsehood; through the window on the right, we seem them accepting martyrdom with her encouragement. Fresco in the chapel of Ss Ambrose and Catherine in the Roman basilica of St Clement, painted by Masolino da Panicale, 1425-31)

Truly it is worthy and just, meet and profitable to salvation, that we give Thee thanks always and everywhere, Lord, holy Father, almighty and everlasting God, through Christ our Lord. Through whom the triumphant, most noble, and outstanding martyr, the virgin Catherine, instructed in the teachings of the prophets, apostles and philosophers, and taught in all languages by the grace of the Holy Spirit by her wonderful wisdom overcame the emperor with the orators, and the world with all its vices. She converted to Christ the august empress with the aforementioned orators, and Porphyry (her jailer) with all his companions, by her magnificent teachings and examples; and when they had all received the faith together with the sign of Christ from the virgin Catherine, and been crowned with martyrdom, she sent them before her to the kingdom of the heavens. She is the one illuminated by that wisdom which conquers malice, and mightily reaches from end to end (of the word), and sweetly disposes all things. She is that most glorious virgin who with a hundredfold fruits, by her great martyrdom presented herself as an offering to Jesus Christ. And therefore being confirmed by the word of Christ and the visitation of angels she overcame  with wondrous constancy nails and wheels, blades most sharp, the tyrant’s sword and threats. She asked from the Lord for all those who devoutly honor her passion health of mind and body, firmness of faith, and abundance of all things. She also, having been beheaded for the name of Christ poured forth milk instead of blood, so that for us who venerate her with pure mind, her teaching and passion might be spiritual drink and food, and the forgiveness of sins. Through the same Christ our Lord, through whom the Angels praise, the Archangels venerate, the Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities and Powers adore Thy majesty; whom the Cherubim and Seraphim celebrate joined in exultation; and we ask that Thou order our voices also be brought in among theirs, saying with humble confession, ‘Holy…’ ”

The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the Christian apologist and beloved author C.S. Lewis, exactly one week before what would have been his 65th birthday, in 1963. At the time, the news of his death was completed overshadowed by the assassination of the American president John F. Kennedy, which took place less than an hour later; the same befell the writer Aldous Huxley, author of the famous dystopian novel Brave New World, who several hours after Kennedy.

(The Kilns, the house in which Lewis died; he had lived there with his brother since 1930. Image from Wikimedia Commons by jschroe, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1947, an Italian priest named Giovanni Calabria (who was canonized as a Saint in 1999) read an Italian translation of Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and was inspired to write to him. Knowing no English, and assuming correctly that Lewis, an Oxford don who specialized in early English literature, would not know Italian, Don Calabria wrote his letter in Latin. Over the next seven years, they exchanged quite a number of letters in Latin; Lewis’ last to Don Calabria was posted on December 5, 1954, one day after the latter’s death. He continued the correspond with one of the priest’s confreres, Fr Luigi Pedrollo, until January of 1961, when it seems to have broken off because of his badly declining health, worsened by his grief over the death of his wife the previous July.

Unfortunately for posterity, Lewis was in the habit of destroying most of his voluminous correspondence, and therefore, much more of his side of the exchange has been preserved. In the specific case of Fr Giovanni, he did this because, as he himself wrote in a letter to Don Pedrollo, “curiosi scrutatores omnia nostra effodiunt et veneno publicitatis (ut rem barbaram verbo barbaro nominem) aspergunt. Quod fieri minime vellem de Patris Joannis epistolis. – curious researchers dig through all our affairs and sprinkle them with the poison of ‘publicity’ (to name a barbarous thing with a barbarous name), and I would hardly want this to happen to Fr Giovanni’s letters.”

The surviving letters are mostly preserved in the archive of the religious congregation which Don Calabria had founded in his native Verona. They were published, together with an English translation, by Martin Moynihan (Servant Books, Ann Arbor, 1988.) This aspect of Lewis’ long and varied career as a writer demonstrates how recently Latin was still a living means of communication between men of extremely disparate cultural backgrounds, just as St John XXIII said it should be and remain in the encyclical Veterum Sapientia.

Here is an except from one of the letters of Don Calabria, written on Easter Sunday of 1949.

“Tempora bona veniant! Vox quidem Dei continuo ad nos clamat; ad mundum clamat, ut remotis peccatis regnum Dei quaeramus sincere. Utinam omnes audiamus hanc Patris vocem, et tandem aliquando ad Dominum convertamur! Det nobis Dominus Jesus ut his diebus suae Resurrectionis – post Passionem et Mortem pro nobis – adlaborare possimus ut familia humana resurgat in novitate vitae Christi et Domini.

May good times come. Indeed, the voice of God calls to us without delay; it cries out to the world, that we might put aside our sins and sincerely seek the kingdom of God. Would that we might all hear this voice of the Father, and be at last converted to the Lord. May the Lord Jesus Christ grant that in these days of His resurrection, after His death and passion for us, we may be able to work for the rising of the human family in the newness of the life of Christ the Lord. ”

And here is Lewis’ letter to Fr Pedrollo sent on Dec. 16, 1954, after learning of Don Calabria’s death.

“Doleo et vobis condoleo de obitu dilectissimi amici. Ille quidem ex aerumnis hujus saeculi, quas gravissime sentire solebat in patriam feliciter migravit; vobis procul dubio acerbus luctus. Gratias ago pro photographia quam mittendo bene fecisti. Aspectus viri talis est qualem auguratus sum; senilis gravitas bene mixta et composita cum quadum juvenili alacritate. Semper et ipsius et congregationis vestrae memoriam in orationes habebo; et vos idem pro me facturos spero.

I grieve and share your grief at the death of a most beloved friend. He has indeed happily passed from the troubles of this world, which he was wont to feel most gravely, to his fatherland; for you, this is without doubt a bitter grief. I thank you for the photograph which you did well to send. His appearance is that of a man just as I imagined: an elderly gravity well mixed and combined with a youthful liveliness. I will always remember him and your congregation in my prayers, and I hope that you will do the same for me.”

Finally, I believe our friends and readers will find this comment from Lewis in his second letter to Don Calabria (Sept. 20, 1947) particularly interesting. “Utinam pestifera illa Renascentia quam Humanistae effecerunt non destruxerit (dum erigere eam se jactabant) Latinam: adhuc possemus toti Europae scribere. – Would that that pestilential Renaissance which the Humanists brought about had not destroyed Latin (even as they boasted that they were raising it up); we could still write to the whole of Europe.”

St John of Damascus on the Presentation of the Virgin Mary

The feast of the Virgin Mary’s Presentation the originated with the dedication of a new church which the emperor Justinian built to honor Her in Jerusalem in 543. In the Byzantine Rite, it is celebrated as one of the most important solemnities of the year, part of a group known as the Twelve Great Feasts which are second in rank only to Easter. It was adopted into the liturgy in the West beginning in the later 14th century, and its position was only definitively established in 1585, but it has remained on the calendar ever since.

Since it is one of the many enrichments of the liturgy which the western churches have received from the East, it was only fitting that one of the readings in the Divine Office be taken from an Eastern Church Father. In the breviary of the usus antiquior, the following passage is read at Matins from a Latin translation of St John of Damascus’ On the Orthodox Faith. This work was the first attempt to present the whole of the Church’s theology systematically; it was translated into Latin in 1150, and became extremely influential on the medieval scholastics.

“Joachim lectissimam illam ac summis laudibus dignam mulierem Annam matrimonio sibi copulavit. Verum, quemadmodum prisca illa Anna, cum sterilitatis morbo laboraret, per orationem ac promissionem, Samuelem procreavit; eodem modo hæc etiam per obsecrationem et promissionem Dei Genetricem a Deo accepit, ut ne hic quoque cuiquam ex illustribus matronis cederet. Itaque gratia (nam hoc sonat Annæ vocabulum) Dominam parit (id enim Mariæ nomine significatur). Vere etenim rerum omnium conditarum Domina facta est, cum Creatoris Mater exstitit. In lucem autem editur in domo probaticæ Joachim, atque ad templum adducitur. Ac deinde, in domo Dei plantata atque per Spiritum saginata, instar olivæ frugiferæ virtutum omnium domicilium efficitur; ut quæ videlicet ab omni hujusce vitæ et carnis concupiscentia mentem abstraxisset, atque ita virginem una cum corpore animam conservasset, ut eam decebat, quæ Deum sinu suo exceptura erat.

(An icon of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, as the feast is called in the Byzantine Rite. Cretan, 15th century; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Joachim (the Virgin Mary’s father) took to wife that most eminent and praiseworthy woman, Anna. And even as Hannah of old, when she was stricken with barrenness, by prayer and promise became the mother of Samuel, so likewise this woman also through prayer and promise received from God the Mother of God, that in this way also she might not yield (in fame) to any of the famous matrons. Therefore Grace (for such is the meaning of the name ‘Anna’) is mother of the Lady (for such is the meaning of the name ‘Mary’.) For she did indeed become the Lady of all of creation, since she has been the mother of the Creator. She was brought to the light in Joachim’s house at the sheep-pond (cf. John 5, 2), and was brought to the Temple, and there planted in the Lord’s house (cf. Ps. 91, 14), and nourished by the Spirit, made her to flourish in the courts of her God, and like a fruitful olive-tree she became the dwelling place of all the virtues, as one who had drawn her mind away from every desire of this life and the flesh, and thus kept her soul as a virgin together with her body, as became her that was to receive God into her womb.” (De Fide Orthodoxa, 4, 15)

Vir Vespertilio et Hobbitus

As interest in Latin continues to grow, teachers and students of the language are finding all kinds of interesting ways to put new technologies to use in service of the ancient language. One of the best examples of this is Luke Ranieri, who produces all kinds of Latin content on his YouTube channel Scorpio Martianus. (He also does Ancient Greek and Egyptian!) Here is his brief tribute to voice actor Kevin Conroy, who played Batman in several popular and successful animated series, and passed away last week.

After I watched this, YouTube’s suggestion algorithm scored a rare win by bringing up this recording of the first paragraph of Tolkien’s The Hobbit in Latin. Stephen Snyder, the author of this channel (which is called Cor Fidelis), uses the ecclesiastical pronunciation, as we do at VSI; he has also posted lots of useful videos with recordings of various prayers. – Feliciter!

St Gregory the Wonderworker

In the Byzantine Rite, and the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite, today is the feast of St Gregory (ca. 215-70), bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus, a region of north-central Asia Minor. One of his disciples, St Macrina the Elder, was the grandmother of Saints Basil the Great (who later held the same see) and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the most important figures in all the history of the Eastern churches, and it is through their writings of that we know of St Gregory’s episcopal career. By the combination of his preaching and miracles, he converted most of Neo-Caesarea to the Faith. When he arrived there as bishop, there were only seventeen Christians in the city; on his deathbed, he asked how many pagans there were left in the city, and the answer was seventeen.

In the Byzantine liturgy, many Saints have special epithets, such as St Andrew the Apostle, known as “the First-Called”, or St John the Evangelist, known as “the Theologian”, since his Gospel is the one that says the most about Christ’s divinity. The miracles of St Gregory of Neo-Caesarea were so many and so impressive that his epithet is “thaumaturgus – the worker of miracles.” This title has long-since been extended to many other Saints, most notably St Nicholas of Myra. It has also been taken into Italian as “taumaturgo”, and is commonly used of certain Saints who are especially popular in Italy such as Anthony of Padua, Rita of Cascia, and more recently Padre Pio.

The most famous of Gregory’s miracles was the moving of a mountain from a place where it obstructed the building of a church, in keeping with the words of Christ which are read in the Gospel of his Mass, Mark 11, 22-24.

“Have the faith of God. Amen I say to you, that whosoever shall say to this mountain, ‘Be thou lifted up and cast into the sea’, and shall not hesitate in his heart, but believe, that whatsoever he saith shall be done, it shall be done unto him. Therefore I say unto you, all things whatsoever you ask when ye pray believe that you shall receive, and they shall come unto you.”

Here is the telling of the miracle in a passage from the commentary on Mark’s Gospel (lib. 3, cap. 11) written by St Bede the Venerable, which is read in the Roman Breviary on his feast day. Bede was born more than 400 years after St Gregory died, and in England, more 2000 miles away from Asia Minor. The endurance of this story over so long a time and such distance makes for another interesting example of how the international and multi-cultural society created by the Roman Empire endured for centuries after its fall, especially within the Church.

(St Gregory depicted in a collection of lives of the Saints known as the Menologion of Basil II, Byzantine emperor from 976-1025. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any paintings of the most notable episode of Gregory’s life.)

“Solent gentiles qui contra Ecclesiam maledicta scripsere, improperare nostris quod non habuerint plenam fidem Dei, quia numquam montes transferre potuerint. Quibus respondendum est non omnia scripta esse, quæ in Ecclesia sunt gesta, sicut etiam de factis ipsius Christi et Domini nostri Scriptura testatur. Unde et hoc quoque fieri potuisset, ut mons ablatus de terra mitteretur in mare, si necessitas id fieri poposcisset. Quomodo legimus factum precibus beati Patris Gregorii, Neocæsareæ Ponti antistitis, viri meritis et virtutibus eximii, ut mons in terra tantum loco cederet quantum incolæ civitatis opus habebant.

Cum enim, volens ædificare ecclesiam in loco apto, videret eum angustiorem esse … venit nocte ad locum, et, genibus flexis, admonuit Dominum promissionis suæ, ut montem longius juxta fidem petentis ageret. Et, mane facto, reversus invenit montem tantum spatii reliquisse structoribus ecclesiæ quantum opus habuerant. Poterat ergo hic, poterat alius quis ejusdem meriti vir, si opportunitas exegisset, impetrare a Domino, merito fidei, ut etiam mons tolleretur et mitteretur in mare.

Those heathen who have written curses against the Church are wont to reprove against our people that they did not full faith in God, since they have never been able to move mountains. To these it should be answered that not all things that have been done in the Church are written down, as the Scripture also bears witness concerning the deed of Christ our Lord Himself. (John 20, 30 and 21, 25.) Whence this also might come to pass, that a mountain might be lifted up from the earth and cast into the sea, if need so required, as we read was done at the prayers of the blessed father Gregory, bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus, a man outstanding for his merits and virtues, so that a mountain yielded enough space on the land as those who dwell in the city required.

For when he wished to build a church in a suitable place, but saw that it was too narrow … he came  to the place at night, and kneeling down, reminding the Lord of His promise, that He would send a mountain afar, in keeping with the faith of him who asked. And returning in the morning, he found that the mountain had left enough space for the builders of the church as they needed. Therefore this man, or another of the same merit, if the occasion demanded, could obtain of the Lord, by merit of his faith, that even a mountain should be lifted up and cast into the sea.”

The “Secret History” of the Emperor Justinian

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of the Roman Emperor Justinian I in the year 565, the 83rd of his life, and the 38th of his reign. Although he was born in Macedonia, his family was Roman, as evidenced also by his name; he was a native Latin-speaker, likely the very last such among the Emperors of the East. Latin was still an official language throughout the empire in his time, but spoken by very few people in the East outside official circles, and the primary sources for his life and career were all written in Greek.

By far the most important among these are the writings of Procopius of Caesarea, thus called to distinguish him from an important Christian theologian of the previous generation, Procopius of Gaza. One of these is an extensive account of the wars by which Justinian regained control of various part of the western empire (the Italian peninsula, much of Africa, and even part of southern Spain), albeit at enormous and debilitating cost. Procopius was a member of the staff of Belisarius, the general who led this reconquest, and personally witnessed many of the events recounted in the book. Another book, known as The Buildings, is a panegyric on Justinian’s many public works projects throughout the empire, including several of the most important Christian churches of the era. One of these, the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai, is still functioning to this very day.

(The monastery complex of St Catherine on Mt Sinai. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0

The most famous source, however, is generally known as The Secret History in English, but in Greek as the “Anekdota – the things not published”, because unpublishable. This is an account of the innumerable (and in many ways impossible) scandals and misdeeds of Justinian and his wife Theodora, who predeceased him by about 20 years. A good sense of its general tenor may be had from the title of the twelfth chapter, “Proof that Justinian and Theodora were actually demons in human form.” The eighteenth is titled “How Justinian killed a trillion people” (“a myriad myriad of myriads”, one myriad being 10,000). In reality, the population of the entire world in the mid-6th century is guessed (very broadly, of course) to have been around 200 million; the total number of all human beings who have ever lived is roughly 117 billion. Well, therefore, does Procopius write at the beginning of The Secret History, “As I turn … to a new endeavor which is fraught with difficulty and is in fact extraordinarily hard to cope with, being concerned, as it is, with the lives lived by Justinian and Theodora, I find myself stammering and shrinking as far from it as possible, as I weigh the chances that such things are now to be written by me as will seem neither credible nor probable to men of a later generation; and especially when the mighty stream of time renders the story somewhat ancient, I fear lest I shall earn the reputation of being even a narrator of myths and shall be ranked among the tragic poets.”

Human nature being what it is after the fall, what has made the book famous is above all its tale of Theodora’s rise to prominence in Constantinople as a circus performer and prostitute. The stories which Procopius puts forth of this are so unhinged in their obscenity that it was long customary in English editions of The Secret History to veil them “in the obscurity of a learned language” (as Gibbon says in his Decline and Fall, 2, 40) by printing the relevant sections translated… into Latin!

(The Emperor Justinian, with the contemporary bishop of Ravenna, Maximian, and various members of his clergy; mosaic in the basilica of St Vitalis, which was completed and consecrated in 547 A.D., in Ravenna, the capital of the Byzantine exarch who ruled over Italy after the reconquest. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Roger Culos, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Vocabula Mira: “Confessor” and “Cappella”

In the earliest years of Christianity, the vast majority (not the totality) of those whom the Church honored as Saints were those who had witnessed to the Faith by dying during persecution. Such persons were called “martyrs”, the Greek word for “witness”; already by the later 2nd century, this was so well known in the West as a Christian technical term that it was taken into Latin, rather than being translated as “testis.” Those who suffered for the Faith, e.g. by imprisonment or exile, but were not actually killed, were distinguished from the martyrs by the term “confessores”, a Christian invention, from the verb “confiteor – to confess, acknowledge.”

Once persecution ceased to be a regular feature of the Church’s life, the number of martyrs diminished considerably, and Christians began to recognize a new conception of sanctity in the lives of heroically virtuous men and women. This is often erroneously said to be a later development than it really was; it was already in place in the later decades of the 4th century. In 386, St John Chrysostom, while still a priest of Antioch, preached a sermon on St Philogonius, who was bishop of that see from 320 to 323, and not a martyr. “The day of the blessed Philogonius, whose feast we are now keeping, has called our speech to the telling of his righteous deeds.” Among Latin-speaking Christians, the term “confessor” then came to mean any male Saint who did not die as a martyr. Chrysostom’s contemporary, St Gaudentius, who was bishop of Brescia from 387-410, uses it in this sense when speaking of St Basil the Great.

(A 19th century Coptic icon of Anthony the Abbot and Paul the First Hermit, saints of the mid-fourth century who rank among the very venerated as confessors in the newer sense of the term. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St Martin, who was born in the central European Roman province of Pannonia ca. 316, and converted to Christianity in his late teens. After serving for many years as a soldier, he became a disciple of St Hilary of Poitiers and a monk; in 371, he was forcibly drafted to be bishop of Tours, and served in that role until his death in 397. He was one of the very first “confessors” in the new sense of the term to be widely honored as a Saint in the West, thanks to the biography of him written by a friend and disciple named Sulpicius Severus.

In his third chapter, Sulpicius tells this story from St Martin’s soldiering days, which came to be the best-known episode of his career, and the subject of countless artworks.

Quodam … tempore, cum jam nihil praeter arma et simplicem militiae vestem haberet, media hieme, quae solito asperior inhorruerat, … obvium habet in porta Ambianensium civitatis pauperem nudum: qui cum praetereuntes ut sui misererentur oraret omnesque miserum praeterirent, intellegit vir Deo plenus sibi illum, aliis misericordiam non praestantibus, reservari quid tamen ageret? nihil praeter chlamydem, qua indutus erat, habebat: iam enim reliqua in opus simile consumpserat. arrepto itaque ferro, quo accinctus erat, mediam dividit partemque eius pauperi tribuit, reliqua rursus induitur. … nocte igitur insecuta, cum se sopori dedisset, vidit Christum chlamydis suae, qua pauperem texerat, parte vestitum. … mox ad angelorum circumstantium multitudinem audit Iesum clara voce dicentem: “Martinus adhuc catechumenus hac me veste contexit.”

(St Martin giving his cloak to the beggar, and his subsequent vision, depicted in a sacramentary produced at the monastery of Fulda at the beginning of the 11th century. Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, ms. Msc. Lit. 1, f. 170r)

… at a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of a winter which had grown more severe than usual …, at the gate of Amiens he met a poor and naked man, whom as he entreated the passers-by to have compassion upon him, all passed by in his wretchedness; and whom Martin, as a man full of God, understood to be left for himself, since others showed no pity. But what might he do? He had nothing but the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already given away all his other garments. Therefore, taking the sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak in two, and gave one part to the poor man, and clothed himself with the remainder. The following night, when Martin had gone to sleep, he saw Christ covered in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. … Soon after, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to a multitude of angels standing round, “Martin, who is still a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”

In this passage, for “cloak” Sulpicius uses the Greek word “chlamys”, which was already common in Latin in Plautus’ time. In the early Middle Ages, however, it was generally replaced by “cappa”, which is related to the English words “cape”, “cap” and “cope” (the liturgical vestment.)

Although it may seem like a folk-etymology, it is actually true that the Latin word “cappella – a chapel” derives from “cappa” used in reference to a relic of St Martin’s cloak. As explained by the Catholic Encyclopedia, “This cape, or its representative, was afterwards preserved as a relic and accompanied the Frankish kings in their wars, and the tent which sheltered it became known also as cappella or capella. In this tent Mass was celebrated by the military chaplains (capellani). When at rest in the palace the relic likewise gave its name to the oratory where it was kept, and subsequently any oratory where Mass and Divine service were celebrated was called capella (in Latin), chapelle (in French), chapel.” Likewise, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry on the word “chapel”, cites these words from an anonymous life of Charlemagne: “Quo nomine Francorum reges propter capam St. Martini sancta sua appellare solebant. – And by this name, the kings of the Franks were wont to call their holy places, because of the cloak of St Martin.”

Pope St Leo the Great, the Deliverer of Rome

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Pope St Leo the Great in 461, after a reign of just over 21 years, the tenth longest in the Church’s history. His feast day was traditionally kept on April 11th, the anniversary of the placement of his relics in the basilica of St Peter, where they still rest in a side-altar at the church’s south-west corner. In the calendar of the Novus Ordo, it was moved to today.

(The altar of Pope St Leo the Great in St Peter’s Basilica, photographed on his feast day in 2010. Above it stands a relief sculpture by Alessando Algardi (1646-53) of the encounter between Pope Leo and Attila the Hun, described below. Photo courtesy of New Liturgical Movement.) 

The Church honors him as a pillar of orthodox teaching in the midst of the Christological controversies of the 5th century, and since 1754, has formally recognized him as one of her Doctors. But the most famous episode in his long papacy, and the one most frequently depicted in art, belongs to the sphere of politics rather than theology. In 452, Attila the Hun invaded Italy, and after sacking various cities in the north, would have descended though the peninsula and done the same to Rome itself. Three envoys, including Pope Leo, were sent by the Emperor Valentinian III to meet Attila outside the city of Mantua. The details of what they said to him are unknown to history, but he did in fact withdraw, only to die early in the following year.

The contemporary author St Prosper of Aquitaine (better known to posterity as the biographer of St Augustine) states that Attila acted as he did simply because he was “so impressed by the presence of the high priest.” A later and anonymous medieval writer gives the following more detailed account, which is generally regarded by modern scholars as a legendary embellishment.

“Occurrit omnia depopulanti tyranno senex innocuae simplicitatis, et multa idem canitie simul et augustiore habitu venerabilis, mitiorem reddit modesto alloquio, …  atque … ita regem truculentum affatus dicit, ‘Senatus populusque Romanus, quondam orbis victor, nunc vero victus, suppliciter abs te veniam et salutem precatur, Rex Regum Attila. Nihil tibi in tanta rerum gestarum gloria contingere potuit, aut ad praesens decus pulcrius, aut ad posteros memorabilius, quam ut is populus supplex ad tuos pedes jaceret, ante quem olim omnes gentes et reges supplices jacuerunt. Subegisti quidem, Attila, omnem terrarum orbem, cui Romanos omnium victores gentium subigere tributum est. Nunc tantum precamur, ut te ipsum vincas, qui vincis cetera. … Senserunt mali flagellum tuum: sentiant nunc supplices clementiam; vel quia se victos fatentur, vel quia sunt ultro imperata facturi’

Haec bona conscientia invictus Leo dixerat, in cujus habitu venerabilique aspectu contemplando cum tacitus staret Attila, deliberabundo similis; en duo quidam dextera levaque viri, Petrus nimirum et Paulus Apostoli, subito ipsi conspecti sunt, qui non solum augustiore habitu pro Pontifice quoque adstarent, verum etiam supra ipsius caput strictos tenerent intenderentque gladios, ac mortem demum minitarentur, nisi dicto Pontificis obtemperaret. Quamobrem hac Leonis intercessione placatus Attila, quamvis alioqui furiosus, confestim promissa pace firmissima ultra Danubium non rediturus abscessit. Nec enim diu post rebus humanis excessit, et humani generis diutinae vexationi finem aliquando vel mortuus imposuit. … Sub haec ad Urbem rediens (Leo), … in primis Deo optimo Maximo et Apostolis ejus Petro et Paulo gratias dixit; his omnem rei bene gestae gloriam adscribens…

(The Meeting of Pope St Leo the Great and Attila the Hun; fresco by Raphael and students, 1513-14, in the Stanze of Pope Julius II, now part of the Vatican Museums. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

An old man of innocent simplicity, and venerable in the white hair of old age and in a more august demeanor, comes to meet the tyrant who lays waste to all, and renders him more mild by his modest address… and … speaking to the ferocious king, said, ‘The Senate and the people of Rome, once victors over the world, but now themselves conquered, humbly begs from you, forgiveness and deliverance, o Attila, king of kings. Nothing could befall you in the great glory of your deeds more fitting to your present honor, or more memorable to posterity, than that such a people should lie begging at your feet, before whom formerly all peoples and kings lay begging. You have subjected, Attila, the whole circle of lands that were given to the Romans, victors over all peoples, to subject. Now we pray that only that you, who have conquered all else, conquer yourself. … The evil have felt your scourge; let the humble now fell your clemency, both those who admit themselves beaten, and those who will willingly do as you command.’

The unconquered Leo said these things in good conscience, and while Attila stood in silence, contemplating his venerable demeanor and aspect, like as one considering the matter deeply; behold, two men on his right and left, the apostles Peter and Paul, at once were seen, who not only were of more noble demeanor in honor of the bishop, but also held over his head swords drawn out and stretched out, and they threatened him with death at last, unless he obeyed the bishop’s word. Wherefore, being placated through Leo’s intersession, Attila, although elsewhere raging, at once promised a most firm peace and withdrew beyond the Danube, never to return. For not long after, he departed from this world, and in death, at last put an end to the his long troubling of the human race. … After these things, Leo, returning to the city, … said that thanks were due first of all to the great and good God, and to his apostles Peter and Paul; ascribing to them all the glory of this good deed…”

St Cyprian on the Communion of Saints

Although the feast of All Saints on November 1st became a universal custom of the Roman Rite in the mid-9th century, it was not until the later 15th century that it became common to celebrate it with an octave. When the Breviary of St Pius V was promulgated in 1568, a new selection of Matins readings for the feast and octave was made; the feast ends on November 8th with this beautiful passage from the end of St Cyprian of Carthage’s treatise On Mortality. Cyprian wrote this as part of his pastoral response to the terrible plague that afflicted the Roman Empire from 249 to 262, consoling his suffering flock by encouraging them to remember that union with God and the Saints, and reunion with our loved ones, await us in the next life.

“Considerandum est, fratres dilectissimi, et identidem cogitandum, renuntiasse nos mundo, et tamquam hospites et peregrinos hic interim degere. Amplectamur diem, qui assignat singulos domicilio suo, qui nos istinc ereptos, et laqueis sæcularibus exsolutos, paradiso restituit, et regno cælesti. Quis non peregre constitutus properaret in patriam regredi? Quis non ad suos navigare festinans, ventum prosperum cupidius optaret, ut velociter caros liceret amplecti? Patriam nostram paradisum computamus, parentes Patriarchas habere jam cœpimus: quid non properamus et currimus, ut patriam nostram videre, ut parentes salutare possimus? Magnus illic nos carorum numerus exspectat, parentum, fratrum, filiorum frequens nos et copiosa turba desiderat, jam de sua immortalitate secura, et adhuc de nostra salute sollicita. Ad horum conspectum et complexum venire, quanta et illis et nobis in commune lætitia est! Qualis illic cælestium regnorum voluptas sine timore moriendi, et cum æternitate vivendi! Quam summa et perpetua felicitas! Illic Apostolorum gloriosus chorus, illic Prophetarum exsultantium numerus, illic Martyrum innumerabilis populus, ob certaminis et passionis victoriam coronatus. Triumphantes illic Virgines, quæ concupiscentiam carnis et corporis continentiæ robore subegerunt. Remunerati misericordes, qui alimentis et largitionibus pauperum justitiæ opera fecerunt, qui Dominica præcepta servantes ad cælestes thesauros terrena patrimonia transtulerunt. Ad hos, fratres dilectissimi avida cupiditate properemus, et cum his cito esse, ut cito ad Christum venire contingat, optemus.

(The lower central section of the Ghent altarpiece, showing the adoration of the mystical Lamb by the company of the Saints. 1425 ca. – 1432, by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)


We must consider, most beloved brethren, and continually reflect upon the fact that we have renounced the world, and in the meanwhile live here as guests and pilgrims. Let us embrace the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which restores us to paradise and the heavenly kingdom, delivered hence and freed from the snares of the world. What man that has been placed in foreign lands would not hasten to return to his own country? What man that is hastening to sail back to his friends desireth not the more eagerly a prosperous wind, that he might the sooner be able to embrace those dear to him? We regard paradise as our country, already we begin to deem the patriarchs as our parents: why do we not hasten and run, that we may see our country, that we may greet our parents? There a great number of our dear ones awaits us, and a dense crowd of parents, brothers, children, longs for us, already assured of their own immortality, and still solicitous for our salvation. To attain to their sight and their embrace, what gladness both for them and for us in common! What delight there is in the heavenly kingdom, without fear of death, and with eternity of living! How lofty and perpetual the happiness!”

In Hoc Signo Vinces

The half-century after the assassination of the emperor Alexander Severus by his own troops, which took place in 235 AD, was an era of prolonged crisis for the Roman Empire. It is often described as a “military anarchy”, with one general after another contending for the throne, and most emperors meeting a violent death at the hands of their successors after only a few years. The Empire also saw various barbarian invasions, severe economic instability, and a significant plague that lasted for 13 years. By the end of the 260s, it had broken into three separate states; these were reunited by the brief but highly effective reign of the emperor Aurelian (270-5), who was murdered after five years and several astonishingly successful military campaigns.

The man who finally began to restore stability was Diocletian, who became emperor in 284, and is now infamous as the last major persecutor of the Christians. Whatever else his faults, he had the genius to recognize that the empire was too large for a single man to rule, and needed to establish an orderly succession. He therefore created the system known as the Tetrarchy, by which the Empire was divided into two parts, East and West, each ruled by an emperor and a co-emperor, respectively titled “Augustus” and “Caesar.” After twenty years, each Augustus would resign and be succeeded by his Caesar; if he died first, the Caesar would finish his Augustus’ term and appoint a successor.

No one will be surprised to read that this system did not last long beyond the first peaceful transition. When the two Augusti, Diocletian and Maximian, resigned in 305, Constantius Chlorus became Augustus of the West, with a Caesar named Valerius Severus, and Galerius of the East, with his Caesar Maximin Daia. Chlorus died in Gaul the following year, and his troops refused to recognize anyone other than his son Constantine as emperor, leading to another round of civil war.

(Constantine’s Vision of the Cross, depicted in the Room of Constantine within the so-called Stanze of Raphael, now part of the Vatican Museums; 1520-24, by the students of Raphael. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The struggle that ensued is an extremely complicated matter; suffice it to say here that over the next six years, Italy and Africa recognized a usurper named Maxentius as Augustus of the West. By 312, Constantine had consolidated his position sufficiently well to invade Italy and assert his claim as emperor. Over the summer and early fall, he defeated the forces which supported Maxentius in several places in northern Italy, and by October, was ready to march towards Rome. Maxentius fortified the city, which was essentially impossible to besiege, surrounded by 19 kilometers of very high and very new walls, with an unstoppable water supply running through it, and a very large store of grain. Many sieges of great cities have ended with the besiegers themselves starving, and this could well have turned out to be one of them.

But Maxentius inexplicably decided to take his troops out of Rome, and meet Constantine near the Milvian Bridge, a bit more than a mile and a half north of the Flaminian Gate. He then positioned his troops with the Tiber behind them, leaving them too little room to maneuver, and his opponents smaller force was basically able push them into the river. This would pave the way for Constantine to end the Tetrarchy and become sole master of the Empire.

The Christian writer Lactantius offers this account of the famous vision which Constantine had on the eve of the battle, October 27, which place himself under the protection of the Christian God. Less than four months later, Constantine would issue the Edict of Milan, which ended the official persecution of the Church within the Empire.

“Iam mota inter eos fuerant arma civilia. Et quamvis se Maxentius Romae contineret, quod responsum acceperat periturum esse, si extra portas urbis exisset, tamen bellum per idoneos duces gerebatur. … Dimicatum, et Maxentiani milites praevalebant, donec postea confirmato animo Constantinus et ad utrumque paratus copias omnes ad urbem propius admovit et a regione pontis Mulvii consedit. … Commonitus est in quiete Constantinus, ut caeleste signum Dei notaret in scutis atque ita proelium committeret. Facit ut iussus est et transversa X littera, summo capite circumflexo, Christum in scutis notat. Quo signo armatus exercitus capit ferrum. … manus Dei supererat aciei. Maxentianus proterretur, ipse in fugam versus properat ad pontem, qui interruptus erat, ac multitudine fugientium pressus in Tiberim deturbatur.

(The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, also in the Room of Constantine; also 1520-24, by Giulio Romano and other assistants of Raphael. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

And now a civil war broke out between them, and although Maxentius kept himself within Rome, because he had received a prophecy that he would perish if he went outside the city gates, nonetheless, the war was conducted by able generals. … They fought, and Maxentius’ soldiers prevailed, until Constantine, with steady mind, and prepared for every event, moved all his forces closer to the city, and encamped them by the Milvian bridge. … Constantine was advised in a dream to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields (of his soldiers), and thus join the battle. He did as he was commanded, and he marked Christ on their shields with the letter Χ, with the top of the upper stroke bent back (to form the Greek letter rho). Armed with this sign (ΧΡ), his army took up its weapons. … the hand of the Lord prevailed in the battle. Maxentius was routed; he fled towards the bridge, which had been broken, and being driven by the multitude of fleeing men, he was driven headlong into the Tiber.” (On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 44)

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