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St Benedict, Patron of Europe (Part 1)

Today marks the anniversary of the death of St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and is the traditional date of his feast, still kept as such by many houses of his order. In 1964, Pope Paul VI, by the Apostolic Letter Pacis nuntius, declared him to be the patron Saint of Europe, in recognition of the vast contribution which Benedictine monasticism made to every aspect of European civilization. What is particularly interesting about this is the degree is that it shares many of the same concerns which Pope St John XXIII outlines in Veterum Sapientia. Like his predecessor, Paul VI talks about how the preservation and cultivation of classical languages and literature, so characteristic of the Benedictines, was essential to fostering the unity of both the Church and the various human societies within it.

Since there does not appear to be any translation of Pacis Nuntius readily available, we here offer own in honor of St Benedict. The second part will be published tomorrow.

(A statue of St Benedict in the main public square of the town of Norcia, where he was born. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

“St Benedict the Abbot is most deservedly proclaimed to be a messenger of peace, a creator of unity, a teacher of civilization, and most especially herald of the Christian religion and the father of monastic life in the West. When some regions of Europe seemed to be falling into darkness, as the Roman Empire, corrupted by old age, was collapsing, while others had no part in the achievements of education or the goods of the spirit, by the strenuous effort of his most constant virtue, brought a new dawn, as it were, to shine upon the continent. For by the Cross, by the book, and by the plow, he above all, by his own effort and those of his sons, brought Christian civilization to those people which dwell in the lands from Mediterranean Sea to Scandinavia, and Spain to the broad reaches of the Poland.

By the Cross, which is to say, by the law of Jesus Christ, he strengthened and increased the institutions of both private and public life. It is also pleasing/helpful to remember also that by the ‘work of God’, which is to say, a fixed and regular rule of prayer, he taught that the worship of God is of the greatest importance in human fellowship.

In this way, therefore, did he firmly join together that spiritual union of Europe by which nations that differed in language, descent, and temperament felt themselves to be the one people of God. And this unity, towards which the monks faithfully strived, learning from the discipline of so great a parent, became a particular characteristic of the Middle Ages. In our times, all men of goodwill labor to restore that unity, which, as Saint Augustine says is the form of all beauty, but which was torn apart by the deplorable vicissitudes of human affairs.

‘By the book’, which is to say, by the cultivation of character, that same venerable patriarch from whom so many monasteries drew their name and their activity, with diligent care preserved the ancient works of literature, when the liberal disciplines and arts were being overwhelmed with darkness, and transmitted them to posterity, diligently cultivating their teachings.

In this way, therefore, did he firmly join together that spiritual union of Europe by which nations that differed in language, descent, and temperament felt themselves to be the one people of God. And this unity, towards which the monks faithfully strived, learning from the discipline of so great a parent, became a particular characteristic of the Middle Ages. In our times, all men of goodwill labor to restore that unity, which, as Saint Augustine says is the form of all beauty, but which was torn apart by the deplorable vicissitudes of human affairs.

Finally ‘by the plough’, that is, by farming, and by other useful activities, he changed vast and wild spaces into fertile fruits and pleasant gardens, and by joining skilled work to prayer, according to the words ‘Pray and work’ (the motto of the Benedictine Order) brought greatness to man’s work. Deservedly, therefore, did Pope Pius XII call Saint Benedict ‘the father of Europe’, since he inspired in the peoples of that continent the love and zeal for right order upon which their social life depended.”

Marcus Aurelius and the Thundering Legion

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ death, we saw the equestrian statue of him on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the only one of its kind that survives intact from antiquity. Today we will look at the city’s other great monument dedicated to him, the giant victory column in the center of the city which dominates the modern piazza Colonna, right in front of the Italian Prime Minister’s official residence, the Palazzo Chigi.

After the mostly peaceful reign of his predecessor Antoninus Pius, Rome was engaged in significant military conflicts for the entire reign of Marcus Aurelius, first with her long-standing enemy on her eastern border, Parthia, from 161 to 166. But even before the Parthian campaign had ended, various Germanic tribes had begun pushing into Roman territory across various parts of its frontier on the Danube river, north of the Balkan peninsula. The conflicts resulting from Rome’s ensuing attempts to repulse them are now usually called the Marcomannic Wars after one of the most important such tribes, the Marcomanni, but there several other tribes were also involved. These wars would occupy the rest of Marcus’ life.

After a particularly disastrous defeat in 170, the Marcomanni attacked the northern Italian town of Opitergium (the modern Oderzo) and laid siege to Aquileia, the first time a foreign army had touched Italy in 270 years. Marcus Aurelius personally went to the frontier to organize Rome’s defenses. Within a year, the siege of Aquileia had been lifted; shortly thereafter, the Germans were driven out of Roman territory, and the Romans had crossed the Danube to beat them into long-term submission. By 176, Marcus was able to return to Rome and celebrate a triumph for his victories. In 177, war broke out again, and Rome was victorious again, thoroughly routing her enemies, but as the campaign neared its end, the emperor died, and it was left to his son Commodus to conclude a peace treaty with the Germans and celebrate another triumph.

The great column which celebrates these victories no longer has its dedicatory inscription, and so we cannot be certain whether it was made after the celebration of the triumph in 176, or after Marcus’ death in 180, when he divinized. In imitation of the earlier column of Trajan, the events of the campaign are depicted in a continuous frieze about five feet in height, spiraling upwards through twenty-one turns. The column by itself, including its torus and capital, is about 100 feet high, and an ancient inscription refers to it as the “centenaria – the hundred-footer.” However, this does not count the base, part of which is still buried, or its pedestal, which is completely buried, or the statue of the Emperor which originally stood on top. (Amanda Claridge, Oxford Archeological Guide to Rome, p. 219. This last disappeared long ago, and was replaced by a statue of St Paul in the later 1580s.)

The column of Marcus Aurelius; photo by Radomil from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The chronology of the events depicted on the column is a matter for scholarly debate; there is one particularly famous episode, however, the depiction of which unmistakable. In 173 or 174, while the Romans were fighting against a tribe called the Quadi, one of their legions, the Twelfth, was surrounded by a much larger Quadi force after much fighting, but laid low by fatigue, combined with extreme heat and lack of water. Their position was in fact so unfavorable that the Quadi drew back to let the heat and thirst do most of their work for them. As the legion faced the prospect of surrender or destruction, a sudden storm not only brought them water, but, in the account of the historian Cassio Dio, severely damaged the ranks of their enemies with both hail and lightning.

Within a generation, Tertullian attributed this unexpected deliverance to the prayers of the Christians among the legionaries. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea repeats the story, citing both him and a pagan historian called Apollinaris of Hierapolis, “who says that from that time the legion through whose prayers the wonder took place received from the emperor a title appropriate to the event, being called in the language of the Romans the Thundering Legion.” (“fulminata” or “fulminea”, but in reality, this nickname of the Twelfth legion dates back to the time of Augustus.) The story is repeated by several other writers, both Christian and pagan; the latter, of course, attribute it to the pagan gods, with Dio saying that it was done by an Egyptian magician who accompanied Marcus Aurelius.

Detail of the column’s frieze, with the episode of the thunderstorm. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Barosaurus Lentus; CC BY 3.0 

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, a few days after the 19th anniversary of his accession to the throne. His reign is traditionally grouped with that of his four predecessors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius), going back to the year 96, as the period of the Five Good Emperors; this is an historiographic conceit of the later Italian Renaissance, of Machiavelli specifically, and reinforced by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, one that has long outlasted its usefulness. It is fair to say, however, that his reign marks the end of a long period of relative peace for the Roman Empire; he himself spent a good part of his reign commanding troops on the German frontier to push back new waves of barbarian invaders. It is also fair to say that the accession to the throne of his son and successor Commodus represented as much of a decline for the Antonine dynasty as Nero had for the Julio-Claudian.

One of the most famous monuments in Rome today is the large bronze equestrian statue of him which sits in the middle of the main plaza on the Capitoline Hill. This is the only one of its kind that now survives, although we know of the existence of several others from literary sources and images on coins. Its original location in Rome is unknown, as is the precise time of its making, whether towards the end of the emperor’s life, when he had successfully halted (for a time) further incursions into the empire, or after his death and divinization. Sometime in the 8th century, for reasons also unknown, it was moved to an area very near the cathedral of Rome, which is traditionally called “St John in the Lateran”, but officially, the archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior.

In the Middle Ages, for lack of any other source for most metals, it was common practice to recycle them from ancient Roman objects of various kinds. Hence, the numerous other equestrians statues in Rome and other Italian cities were almost all destroyed, although fragments of some of them have survived. The statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran, however, was preserved because it was believed to be an image of Constantine, the liberator and great benefactor of the Church, who had donated the property and palace of the Lateran to become the cathedral of Rome and the first official Papal residence.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Burkhard Mücke; CC BY-SA 4.0)

By the end of the 15th century, scholars had come to realize that the statue could not be of Constantine, since the figure is bearded, where other surviving images of Constantine, including a colossal marble head now on display in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums, always show him clean-shaven. It was rather Marcus Aurelius who wore the beard which was one of the marks of a philosopher, and indeed, he is also known to posterity as the last writer of the Stoic school, although his Meditations were not intended for publication, and are really more of a private, philosophical diary.

In 1538, as part of a complete reorganization of the Capitoline Hill, Pope Paul III had Michelangelo bring the statue there from the Lateran, and set it up on the middle of the new piazza that now dominates the place. This decision may have been motivated at least in part by the fact that persecution of the Church intensified notably in Marcus Aurelius’ reign, although it very much debatable whether or to what degree he was personally responsible for this. It remained there until 1981, when it was removed for preservation reasons, and has now been replaced on its pedestal by an exact copy. The original stands in its own room, along with several other fragmentary bronzes, in the Capitoline Museums. When it was first made, it was completely gilded, but the gilding has largely worn off, and the bronze is now oxidized, and hence green. A popular tradition in Rome would have it that when all of the gilding is finally worn off, the horse will speak, and the world will end; this has now been staved off for a good long while by its being kept indoors.

Although, as noted above, the majority of equestrian statues were destroyed by medieval recycling, there was another that survived much closer to our own time, in the northern Italian city of Pavia, known as the “Regisole – the Sun King.” Its age and subject are unknown; Petrarch expressed his admiration of it in a letter to Boccaccio, and a drawing of it by Leonardo da Vinci survives. Sadly, as an image of a monarch, it was destroyed by Jacobins in 1796, and it now represented by a copy based on the various drawings of it.

(The reconstructed Regisole in front of the cathedral of Pavia; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Saint Cecilia and the Bona Dea

Today, the Lenten station in Rome is kept at the basilica in the Trastevere region dedicated to St Cecilia, the patron Saint of musicians. She was a Roman noblewoman martyred for the Faith around the year 220, and the traditional account of her life states that she requested the contemporary Pope, St Urban I, to consecrate her house as a church after she had received the crown of martyrdom. While the historicity of all the details concerned with Cecilia and her martyrdom is highly doubtful, there can be no doubt that the church is one of the oldest Christian sites in the city, and was certainly an important parish already in the 5th century.

In the traditional Roman Rite, the Epistle on this day is taken from the deuterocanonical additions to the book of Esther, the only reading from that book in the Missal. In chapter 13 (vss. 9-11 and 15-17), Mardochai prays for the delivery of the Jewish people from their enemy Haman, who has arranged for the Persian Emperor to order the massacre of all the Jews in his dominions.

“In diébus illis: Orávit Mardochaeus ad Dóminum, dicens: Dómine, Dómine, Rex omnípotens, in dicióne enim tua cuncta sunt pósita, et non est, qui possit tuae resístere voluntáti, si decréveris salváre Israël. Tu fecisti caelum et terram, et quidquid caeli ámbitu continétur. Dóminus omnium es, nec est, qui resistat maiestáti tuae. Et nunc, Dómine Rex, Deus Abraham, miserére pópuli tui, quia volunt nos inimíci nostri pérdere, et hereditátem tuam delére. Ne despicias partem tuam, quam redemisti tibi de Aegypto. Exaudi deprecatiónem meam, et propitius esto sorti et funículo tuo, et converte luctum nostrum in gaudium, ut viventes laudémus nomen tuum, Dómine, et ne claudas ora te canentium, Dómine, Deus noster.

In those days, Mardochai prayed to the Lord, saying, ‘O Lord, Lord, almighty king, for all things are in thy power, and there is none that can resist thy will, if thou determine to save Israel. Thou hast made heaven and earth, and all things that are under the cope of heaven. Thou art Lord of all, and there is none that can resist thy majesty. And now, O Lord, O king, O God of Abraham, have mercy on thy people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us, and extinguish thy inheritance. Despise not thy portion, which thou hast redeemed for thyself out of Egypt. Hear my supplication, and be merciful to thy lot and inheritance, and turn our mourning into joy, that we may live and praise thy name, O Lord, and shut not the mouths of them that sing to thee, O Lord, our God.’ ”

Esther and Mardochai Write the First Purim Letter, 1675, by the Dutch painter Aert de Gelder (1645-1727); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Originally, however, this reading began with the words, “In those days, Esther prayed to the Lord, saying…”, despite the fact that it is Mardochai who offers this prayer in the Bible. This probably seemed like nothing more than a mistake to the editors who reformed the Missal at the behest of Pope St Pius V, and so “Esther” was changed to “Mardochai” in the edition which he promulgated in 1570, to conform the reading to the Biblical text. Subsequently, archeological research has revealed that the original reading was actually quite deliberate.

In 1744, three inscriptions were found very close to the basilica, each of which refers to the presence of a small shrine of the “Bona Dea”, as she was called, “the good goddess.” Although she was quite popular in ancient Rome, we know very little about her, since it was forbidden to write down any of what took place at her two annual festivals. In point of fact, “Good Goddess” is a euphemistic name, since men were absolutely excluded from any participation in either of her two festivals, and not allowed to speak or even know her true name. One of these festivals was held at a temple dedicated to her on the Aventine hill, the other in the house of the senior magistrate of the Republic, presided over by his wife. A famous episode of the late Roman Republic, involving all of the leading political figures of the day, including Cicero, Pompey and Julius Caesar, took place when these rites were held in the latter’s house in 62 BC. A man named Clodius Pulcher dressed as a woman in an attempt to sneak into the rites and seduce Caesar’s wife, creating an enormous and long-lasting scandal.

The Bona Dea was a goddess very much associated with female chastity, and therefore, anything to do with the goddess of sexual desire, Venus, was also removed from the house where the rites of the Bona Dea were held. This included any statues and images of Venus, and most particularly the plant myrtle, which was woven into crowns and worn on the head by her worshippers at her principal festivals.

It might seem that by taking the words of a man and putting them in the mouth of a woman, the Church had somehow adopted or absorbed an aspect of the Bona Dea cult when reading them at the basilica of St Cecilia right next door to her shrine. However, the exact opposite is the case. In the Biblical book, chapter 2, verse 7, states that Esther, who becomes the Queen of Persia, and saves the Jews from Haman, was called “Hadassah,” (הֲדַסָּה) which is the Hebrew word for “myrtle”, the plant of Venus that was excluded from the rites of the Bona Dea. This reading would therefore be a deliberate critique of the cultus of the Bona Dea, and a statement of rejection of the many pagan cults that excluded one class of persons or another, while Christianity accepted all persons without regard to their class, status, or condition of life.

By coincidence, this evening is the beginning of the feast of Purim, by which the Jewish people commemorate their deliverance from destruction as recounted in the book of Esther. This feast has sometimes been described as the Jewish Mardi Gras. It has been a common custom since the late 15th century for people to dress up in costume on Purim, as it was formerly very common to do during the Catholic carnival. During the liturgy of Purim, the whole Biblical story of Esther is read at one go; harsh-sounding rattles are passed to out to all the children, and each time the name of Haman, the villain of the story, is said, they use them to drown it out. To all our Jewish readers, Chag Purim Sameach!

(A building in the city of Hamadan in west-central Iran, traditionally venerated as the tomb of Esther and Mardochai. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Philippe Chavin: CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Salvete, Amici Caesaris!”

Today is the anniversary of one of the most famous events in ancient Roman history, the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. According to the Roman dating system, this day was known as the Ides of March, and had some important religious observances linked to it. The Ides of every month (the 15th in March, May, July and October, the 13th in all the rest) were dedicated to Jupiter, and marked by special sacrifices at his great temple on the Capitoline hill. Those of March were also the feast of a goddess called Anna Perenna, a final festival to mark the beginning of the New Year, which for the Romans, originally started on March 1st. To the superstitious Romans, it was therefore an auspicious day to hold a meeting of the senate, and it was during just such a meeting that the assassination took place. There were various locations at which the meetings of the senate could be held, and this one took place at the senate house (or “curia”) built by Caesar’s long-time political rival Pompey the Great. The Ides of march that year were also just two days shy of the first anniversary of Caesar’s defeat of the very last of Pompey’s supporters, his sons Sextus and Gnaeus, at a battle in southern Spain.

Plutarch recounts that several days earlier, Caesar had been told by a seer to be on his guard against some great danger on that day; while making his way to the meeting of the senate, he happened to meet the man, and said to him, “Well, the Ides of March are come”, to which the latter replied, “Aye, come, but not gone.” This meeting is famously dramatized in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1, 2), in which the soothsayer tells him, “Beware the Ides of March!” Several other omens are also reported by both Plutarch and Suetonius, most notably, that Caesar’s wife Calpurnia had dreamt that she held her husband’s murdered body. The Romans were great believers in seeing omens in the activities of birds, and Suetonius also records that one the day before the Ides, “birds of various kinds from a neighboring grove, pursuing a wren which flew into Pompey’s curia, with a sprig of laurel in its beak, tore it in pieces”, a decidedly bad omen.

The site of Pompey’s Curia is now a traffic square in the center of Rome known as the Largo Argentina; it was excavated in the 1930s, but very little of the building remains beneath the street. Further excavations in 2012 led to the precise location of the assassination, which the Emperor Augustus had marked with a marble plaque, although he later had the whole site walled up. Efforts to make the place visitable have not yet been brought to fruition, and most people rushing to catch a bus or tram in the Largo (or more likely, waiting with ever-increasing frustration for one to show up), have no idea that they are standing on the very spot where Caesar met his violent end. Each year, on the Ides of March, a company of actors reenact the whole scene within the archeological zone in the middle of Largo Argentina, doing so as close as they can to the place where it all actually happened.

The Death of Caesar, by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1804 ca.; Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

I first went to Rome in 1995 to do Fr Reginald Foster’s summer Latin course, one of the best features of which was the historical visits he would organize on weekends. For these, he would provide the students with a packet of Latin readings from a wide variety of sources, related to the places we would be visiting. One of these visits was dedicated to Julius Caesar, and took us to several locations associated with him, including the Largo Argentina. Since it is one of the highest-traffic zones in Rome, and incredibly noisy, it was impossible for us to stop and do our readings there, and so we withdrew a little way down a nearby alley. As we were going through one of the ancient accounts of the assassination, someone shouted down from one of the windows above us, “Salvete, amici Caesaris!”, to which one of the students, and a good friend of VSI, Mr John Kuhner (who is now writing Fr Foster’s biography), shouted back, “Salve, amice Caesaris!” And of course, our dear Reginaldus observed immediately, “You see, my friends, Latin really is a universal language!”

The Ancient Basilica of St Clement

Ten days ago, when the Lenten station was at the basilica of Ss John and Paul on the Caelian hill, we saw some of the rooms of the Roman houses which were discovered underneath the church in 1887. I imagine that the church’s rector who made that discovery must have been inspired by the events that took place thirty years earlier less than half a mile away at the basilica of St Clement, where the station is today.

St Clement was the third Pope after St Peter, and the author of one of the very first Christian writings after the New Testament. A church was dedicated to him on the site of the current basilica already in the 4th century, but was badly damaged by a fire at the end of the 11th century, and magnificently rebuilt in the early decades of the 12th. In the 1620s, Pope Urban VIII turned the basilica over to the Irish province of the Dominican Order, which still runs it to this day.

In the 1840s, the Dominican prior, Fr Joseph Mullooly, was doing research on the basilica and its history, and became convinced that the medieval structure which he knew could not be the same one referenced in several ancient documents. Knowing that many buildings in Rome have older version of themselves beneath them, he began to dig underneath St Clement in search of the ruins of an earlier church. Not only did he find that there were indeed extensive remains of the 4th century-church under the medieval one; he also found two buildings underneath that, of uncertain date and function. Within one of these, he discovered a shrine of the god Mithras, a Persian divinity about whom not very much is known, but who was particularly popular with Roman soldiers in the 1st – 4th centuries.

Shortly before the lower basilica was destroyed, a couple named Benno and Maria had commissioned extensive new frescoes for the church. Since these were relatively new at the time of the fire, they are in an unusually good state of preservation for their era. As an example, this image shows Saints Cyril and Methodius bringing to Rome the relics of St. Clement which they had to discovered during their missionary activities in modern Ukraine.

In a recent Vocabula Mira post, we discussed terms the collecta and statio, in reference to the liturgical customs of the city of Rome. When a procession was held before a Lenten station, it departed from another nearby church which was called the collecta, but this custom fell into disuse a long time ago, and has been only very partially in modern times. The collecta for today’s station at St Clement was originally at the basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian, on the modern via dei Fori Imperiali; to hold such a process today would require holding up traffic on one of the most crowded streets in the city, and that at rush hour. Nowadays, therefore, the rediscovered lower basilica serves as the collecta, and a procession is held in it which then ascends to the upper basilica for the Mass. Here are some pictures of the ceremony taken in 2016 and 2019, courtesy of the photographer, Agnese Bazzuchi, and the website New Liturgical Movement.

On the left of this image can be seen some of the fresco work which survives in the 4th-century basilica.

St Gregory the Great, Puntifex Maximus

Today is the anniversary of the death of Pope St Gregory the Great in 604 AD, and the traditional date of his feast. In the post-Conciliar reform of the liturgical calendar, he was moved to September 3rd, the anniversary of his consecration as bishop of Rome, which took place in 590.

Prior to his election as Pope, he had lived in a monastery on the Caelian hill in Rome, which is now a church dedicated to him, a short walk away from the church of Ss John and Paul, which we discussed last week. One of the great achievements of his pontificate was to send a group of monks from his former monastery, led by the prior, a man named Augustine, as missionaries to England. There had been Christians in England long before they arrived, but they were a small and isolated group, and had made little to no headway in converting the Anglo-Saxons and other tribes that come to the island since its abandonment by the Romans in 410 A.D. The missionary efforts of Augustine and his companions led to the conversion of many of them, as well as the establishment of the church hierarchy in England and some of its oldest institutions. He himself was the first archbishop of Canterbury, and another member of the company named Lawrence was the second, while one named Mellitus became the first bishop of London, and Justus the first of Rochester; all of them are now venerated as Saints.

The success of this mission may be judged in part by the career of St Bede the Venerable, who was born roughly 70 years later, and became a monk in an abbey called Jarrow in the north of England. The English historian Christopher Dawson observes, “No one could guess from the study of his work that a man like Bede … was hardly two generations removed from pagan barbarism.” (Medieval Essays, p. 144)

Among his voluminous and learned corpus is a History of the English Church, which contains this famous anecdote about how Pope Gregory came to be inspired to send missionaries to England.

When he was still a monk in Rome, “…some merchants had arrived (there… with) some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair. On seeing them, (Gregory) asked … from what region or land they had been brought. He was told that they came from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were like that in appearance. He asked again whether those islanders were Christians or still entangled in the errors of heathenism. He was told that they were heathen.

Then with a deep-drawn sigh he said, ‘Alas that the author of darkness should have men so bright of face in his grip, and that minds devoid of inward grace should bear so graceful an outward form.’ Again he asked for the name of the race. He was told that they were called Angli. ‘Good’, he said, ‘they have the face of angels (angeli), and such men should be fellow-heirs of the angels in heaven. What is the name’, he asked, ‘of the kingdom from which they have been brought?’ He was told that the men of the kingdom were called Deiri. ‘Deiri’, he replied, ‘De ira! good! snatched from the wrath of Christ and called to His mercy. And what is the name of the king of the land?’ He was told that it was Ælle; and playing on the name, he said, ‘Alleluia! The praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.’ ” (transl. Bertram Colgrave, Oxford, 1969)

According to Bede, Gregory himself would have gladly undertaken the mission to England, but the people of Rome would not allow him to leave the city. (He was a highly talented administrator, and this was perfectly understandable, given the beleaguered state of the city in the later decades of the 6th century.) He therefore had to wait until he himself became Pope to send the mission.

(A mosaic in one of the side-chapels of Westminster Cathedral in London, depicting the episode narrated above. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

A Miracle of St John of God

Today is the feast of a Portuguese saint whose secular name was João Duarte Cidade, but is now known simply as St John of God. Born in 1495, and orphaned at the age of 8, in his youth he worked as a shepherd, a soldier and a bookseller. A sermon by the preacher St John of Avila, who was made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, inspired him to devote his life to the care of the poor and sick; this would eventually lead him to found a religious order, today known as the Brothers Hospitallers of St John of God. He died on this day in 1550; the order was officially recognized and approved by Pope St Pius V twenty-two years later. In Italian, they are known as the “Fatebene Fratelli – the you-do-good brothers”, and in German as the “Barmherzigen Brüder – the mercy brothers.”

John of God was declared a Saint in 1690 by Pope Alexander VIII, along with four other men, two of whom were also called John (of Capistrano and of Sahagún); this was the only canonization of that Pope’s brief reign of less than ten months. In those days, whenever a Saint was canonized, an account of his life was composed in Latin to be read at the hour of Matins in the Divine Office. The names of the authors of these accounts are mostly unknown, but whoever did the life of St John of God was a very talented Latinist indeed. Try your hand at translating this beautifully composed periodic sentence, which describes one of the Saint’s miracles.

“Cum autem maximum in regio Granatensi valetudinario excitatum fuisset incendium, Joannes impavidus prosiliit in ignem, huc illuc discurrens, quousque tum infirmos humeris exportatos, tum lectulos e fenestris projectos ab igne vindicavit, ac per dimidiam horam inter flammas, jam in immensum succrescentes, versatus, exinde divinitus incolumis, universis civibus admirantibus exivit, in schola caritatis edocens, segniorem in eum fuisse ignem qui foris usserat, quam qui intus accenderat.”

(St John of God Saves the Sick from the Fire in the Royal Hospital, by Manuel Gómez-Moreno González  (1834–1918); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

St Thomas Aquinas and Pope Leo XIII

Today is the anniversary of the death of St Thomas Aquinas in 1274, and the traditional date of his feast. In the post-Conciliar revision of the calendar, he was moved to January 28th, the anniversary of the translation of his relics to the Dominican Friary of Toulouse, France, but many of the Dominican Order’s houses still keep his feast on this older day.

In 1879, about a year and a half into his long reign (over 25 years, the third longest in the Church’s history), Pope Leo XIII issued one of his most important encyclicals, titled Aeterni Patris, on the revival of scholastic philosophy. (The date of its publication, August 4, was in those days the feast of St Dominic, the founder of St Thomas’ religious order.) It begins with a long explanation of what the Church teaches about the utility of philosophy, and its traditional role as “the handmaid of theology,” which may briefly be summed up with this quote from paragraph 4. “(P)hilosophy, if rightly made use of by the wise, in a certain way tends to smooth and fortify the road to true faith, and to prepare the souls of its disciples for the fit reception of revelation; for which reason it is well called by ancient writers sometimes a stepping-stone to the Christian faith, sometimes the prelude and help of Christianity, sometimes the Gospel teacher.” The Pope then traces out what the Church Fathers “added … to the patrimony of philosophy”, an intellectual tradition which culminates in the medieval Scholastics, who “addressed themselves to a great work – that of diligently collecting, and sifting, and storing up, as it were, in one place, for the use and convenience of posterity the rich and fertile harvests of Christian learning scattered abroad in the voluminous works of the holy Fathers.”

Among the Scholastics, St Thomas is “the chief and master of all”, and it was the special purpose of this encyclical to encourage the rediscovery of him as the Church’s most important teacher of philosophy. It is he who “collected together and cemented, (and) distributed in wonderful order” the teachings of all the most important philosophers and theologians who had preceded him, and “so increased (them) with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.”

“Philosophy has no part which he did not touch finely at once and thoroughly; on the laws of reasoning, on God and incorporeal substances, on man and other sensible things, on human actions and their principles, he reasoned in such a manner that in him there is wanting neither a full array of questions, nor an apt disposal of the various parts, nor the best method of proceeding, nor soundness of principles or strength of argument, nor clearness and elegance of style, nor a facility for explaining what is abstruse. … single-handed, he victoriously combated the errors of former times, and supplied invincible arms to put those to rout which might in after-times spring up. Again, clearly distinguishing, as is fitting, reason from faith, while happily associating the one with the other, he both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each.”

The Pope goes on to note the many ways in which the Church has commended Thomas’ teachings, such as the religious orders that have made the study of him a requirement for the whole order in their statues, and particularly those which have a reputation for learning, such as the Dominicans, who count Thomas as one of their own, the Benedictines and the Jesuits. Likewise, many Popes have “celebrated his wisdom”, among them, his confrere St Pius V, who made him the first medieval Doctor of the Church. Likewise, the various ecumenical councils, and particularly the great council of the Catholic Reformation held at Trent, during the sessions of which St Thomas’ Summa Theologica was kept on the altar alongside the Bible.

Finally, the Pope exhorts the bishops of the world “to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”

Aeterni Patris was a rousing success at the time of its promulgation, and did lead to an authentic and extremely fruitful revive of the study of scholastic philosophy in general, and of St Thomas in particular. We cannot help but wonder how much better the Church’s intellectual culture would be today if the same heed had been paid to St John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia.

The Vision of St Thomas, by Santi di Tito, 1593, in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence. 

One of the most famous episodes of St Thomas’ life was beautifully described by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI during a general audience held on June 2, 2010, part of a long series of audiences on great theologians and other important figures in the Church’s history. I had the great fortunate to be present for this; Pope Benedict spoke like the kind of professor whose lectures people remember 20 years after they graduate, learned and passionate about his subject, and eager to share that passion with his listeners. The most beautiful moment, though, was at the end, when the Pope told the following story.

The life and teaching of St Thomas Aquinas could be summed up in an episode passed down by his ancient biographers. While, as was his wont, the Saint was praying before the Crucifix in the early morning in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, Domenico da Caserta, the church sacristan, overheard a conversation. Thomas was anxiously asking whether what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. And the Crucified One answered him: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What is your reward to be?”. And the answer Thomas gave him was what we too, friends and disciples of Jesus, always want to tell him: “Nothing but Yourself, Lord!”

The Roman Houses on the Caelian Hill

The Lenten station church in Rome today is a basilica on the Caelian Hill dedicated to two martyrs named John and Paul, brothers killed for their Christian faith by the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who reigned from 361-63. They are said to have been military officers under Constantine, then to have served in the household of his daughter, Constantia, who at her death left them her large fortune with which to take care of the poor. When Julian, the son of Constantine’s half-brother, came to the throne, they refused to attend him at the court because of his apostasy from the Faith. The emperor would have used this as a pretext to seize the money left by Constantia, but granted them ten days to reconsider; the two Saints therefore gave all the money away for its intended purpose. Terentian, the captain of Julian’s bodyguard, came to their house, bearing a statue of Jove and the Emperor’s promise that they would be greatly honored if they would worship it; otherwise, they would be immediately killed. On their refusal, they were beheaded at once, and buried within their own house on the Caelian hill, directly across from the imperial residence on the Palatine.

Not long after, Julian was slain during a military campaign against Rome’s ancient enemy, Persia, a campaign which he had instigated and in which he apparently believed the pagan gods would grant him victory as a vindication of his “revival” of their worship. His successor Jovian converted the Saints’ house into a church, and many possessed persons were healed there, including the son of Terentian; the latter became a Christian, and wrote the passion of the Martyrs. Scholars of hagiography do not regard the details of this traditional account as historically reliable, but there can be no reasonable doubt that devotion to Ss John and Paul is extremely ancient.

The basilica was completely rebuilt in the late 11th century, and rather unfortunately refashioned in the 18th, in which period it was given to the Passionist Order. The order’s founder, St Paul of the Cross, had a brother named Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist), to whom he was very close, and who was instrumental in helping him found it. Pope Clement XIV (1769-74) gave the basilica to St Paul to be the order’s first Roman house in remembrance of his beloved brother, since the martyrs John and Paul were also brothers.

In 1887, the rector of the basilica, Fr Germanus of St Stanislaus (his religious name), was inspired by the story given above to go looking for the remains of the martyr’s house, and possibly their original tomb, under his church. What he discovered went beyond his wildest expectations: including the spaces discovered by archeologists working after him, there are more than 20 different environments, 13 of which preserve remains of ancient frescoes. Visitors to the site today may well find it puzzling to understand, since it consists of parts of at least two different buildings of the early 2nd century, as well as part of a street. Sometime in the early 3rd century, these were incorporated into a single very large and richly decorated house. The frescoes were preserved in the rooms when they were transformed into foundations for the Christian basilica built on top of them.

The Confessio, where Ss John and Paul were originally buried, together with three other martyrs named Crispus, Crispinian and Benedicta, whose relationship to them is not at all clear. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Natyss, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A nymphaeum, part of one of the 2nd century buildings. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Lalupa)

A room decorated with very high-quality frescoes, painted to imitate the mosaic of inlaid marble. This would be from the 3rd century transformation of the buildings into a single large house. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Natyss, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The room of the praying figure (orans – not shown here) another painted environment from the 3rd century transformation of the earlier buildings. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Lalupa)

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