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The Pope’s Newest Latin Letter

Two days ago, the Church marked the fourth centenary of the death of St Francis de Sales, one of the great spiritual writers of the Counter-Reformation. Born to a noble family of the Duchy of Savoy in 1567, and educated by the Jesuits (then still a very new order) in Paris, he renounced the succession to his father’s title, entered the clergy of the diocese of Geneva, and was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 26. As a young priest, he was converted tens of thousands of Calvinists to Catholicism through his writing and preaching. In 1602, he was appointed bishop of Geneva, and governed his see very successfully until his death just over 20 years later. Since he died on the very ancient feast of the Holy Innocents, his feast day has been kept in January since his canonization in 1665; in 1877, Bl. Pius IX declared him to be a Doctor of the Church, and Pius XI made him the patron of writers and journalists.

As is customary on such anniversaries, the Vatican issued a letter in the Pope’s name to mark the occasion. We here offer an excerpt as just a small example of the Church’s very newest Latinity, chosen in reference to one of his most important books, The Introduction to the Devout Life. The full text can be read at the Vatican’s website.

“Novitas ac devotionis veritas … inveniuntur, in quadam radice penitus ad vitam divinam in nobis adstricta. Hoc in modo «vera vivaque devotio amorem Dei praesupponit, nec quid aliud est, quam verus quidam Dei amor; non tamen qualiscumque et talis qualis amor». Quae in fervida eius cogitatione nec quidquam aliud est praeter, «ne multa dicamus, quandam agilitatem et vivacitatem spiritualem, cuius adminiculo caritas suas in nobis actiones, aut potius nos per illam, prompte affectuoseque exsequitur et operatur». Ea, ergo, caritati non assistit, sed eiusdem est ostensio, quae pariter ad illam adducit. Sicuti flamma est prae igne: excitat enim vehementiam eius sine qualitatis variatione. «Itaque caritas et devotio non plus inter se differunt, quam ignis et flamma; quod caritas, cum spiritualis quidam ignis sit, quando vehementer inflammata et accensa est, dicatur devotio; adeo, ut devotio ad caritatis ignem aliud non addat, praeter flammam, quo caritatem et alacrem, et promptam et diligentem, non modo ad divina mandata observanda, verum etiam ad consilia et inspirationes coelestes exercendas reddat». Devotio sic percepta nihil reconditi habet. Conversatio vitae potius est, mos quidam agendi in certis cotidianae exsistentiae adiunctis. Quae parva dierum, sicut alimentum et vestitum, negotium atque otium, amorem ac procreationem diligentiamque erga officia ad artem exercendam pertinentia colligit atque interpretatur; breviter, vocationem uniuscuiusque illuminat.

(St Francis de Sales in His Study; 1760, by Peter Antonin Lorenzoni, in the parish church of Sigismund in Strobl, Austria. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The newness and truth of devotion are found … in a root which is deeply bound to the divine life within us. In this way, “a true and lively devotion presupposes the love of God; indeed, it is nothing other than a true love of God, not ‘love’ understood generically” And in his fervent way of thinking, it is nothing other than “, to speak briefly, a sort of spiritual agility and vivacity, by means of which charity acts within us, or rather, we act by means of it, with promptness and affection. For this reason, devotion does stand alongside charity, but is a manifestation thereof, which at the same time leads us back to it. It is like a flame with regard to fire: it increases its intensity without altering its quality. “Therefore, charity and devotion differ from one another no more than fire does from a flame, because charity, since it is a spiritual fire, when it is mightily fanned into flame and enkindled, is called devotion, which adds to the fire of charity only the flame which makes charity active, prompt, and diligent, not only in the observance of the divine commandments, but also in the exercise of heavenly counsels and inspirations.” Devotion thus understood is in no way something abstract. It is rather a way of life, a manner of living amidst the affairs of our concrete daily existence. It embraces and interprets the little things, such as food and dress, work and leisure, love and parenthood, conscientiousness in the fulfilment of our duties of employment; in a word, it illuminates the vocation of each person.”

Macrobius on the Massacre of the Innocents

The late antique Latin writer Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius is usually referred to by his first name only, in part, perhaps, because he shares his other names with two of the most prominent men of the late 4th century, St Ambrose of Milan and the Emperor Theodosius. Almost nothing is known about him; his birth is placed at the end of the 4th century, and his death in the mid-5th. Like many literary men of his age, he was a compiler more than an original writer, and his writings are now considered important primarily because they have preserved a great many citations of texts that would otherwise be lost. For example, his commentary on The Dream of Scipio, the surviving part of the sixth and final book of Cicero’s De Re Publica, preserves some of the original that is otherwise lost, a fact which made it very popular in the Middle Ages.

His other major work is called the Saturnalia, since it is framed as a conversation that takes place over several days in the house of one of the interlocutors, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, during that feast. As in similar works like as Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights and Athenaeus’ Sophists at the Banquet, the conversation ranges all over the place, with many digressions. The first book discusses the origin of the Saturnalia, segueing into a discussion of the Roman calendar and the origins of religious feasts in general. The third through sixth books are largely occupied with literary criticism of Virgil’s writings, while the seventh mostly discusses various aspects of physiology.

Of the second book, only a relatively small portion is preserved in its original place, while another section of it seems to have been displaced into the third. It consists largely of jokes and anecdotes attributed to various authors; Cicero and the emperor Augustus are each mentioned more than twenty times. But one of these is strangely pertinent to today’s feast of the Holy Innocents, the children in the town of Bethlehem massacred by King Herod, as recounted in Matthew 2, 13-18.

“Cum audisset inter pueros, quos in Syria Herodes rex Iudaeorum intra bimatum iussit interfici, filium quoque eius occisum, ait: Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium.

When (Augustus) heard that among the boys two years old or younger whom Herod, the king of the Jews, ordered to be killed in Syria, his own (i.e. Herod’s) son was also slain, he said, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.’ ”

In Greek, which Augustus knew well, these words would also make a pun, since the word for “pig” is “hus (ὗς)”, while the word for “son” is “huios (υἱός).” This refers to the fact that as a Jew, King Herod would have no reason to kill a pig, since he could not eat it. (Non-Jewish writers in the Greco-Roman world often remarked upon this aspect of the Mosaic dietary laws.) However, he did not scruple to massacre the children in Bethlehem, and several of his own relatives; the introduction to the article on him in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia says that he was “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”

In the church of the Servite Order in Siena, Italy, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents was depicted in fresco in the 1330s by three local artists working together, Pietro Lorenzetti, and the brothers Francesco and Niccolò di Segna. The scene is set in Siena itself, with the city’s famous cathedral at the middle of the top; below the border is an abbreviated version of the quotation from Macrobius given above.

Two Legends of St John the Evangelist

The very earliest sources of the Roman Rite attest to the custom by which the feast of the Lord’s Birth is followed immediately by three feasts of Saints of the New Testament. St Stephen the first martyr is celebrated on December 26th, followed by the apostle St John, the evangelist who speaks most clearly about the Incarnation, and then the Holy Innocents, the children killed by King Herod in Bethlehem, as narrated in Matthew 2, 13-18.

In the Roman Breviary, one of the Matins lessons for St John tells this beautiful story about the end of his life, as recounted in St Jerome’s commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (3, 6).

“Beatus Joannes Evangelista, cum Ephesi moraretur usque ad ultimam senectutem, et vix inter discipulorum manus ad ecclesiam deferretur, nec posset in plura vocem verba contexere; nihil aliud per singulas solebat proferre collectas, nisi hoc: Filioli, diligite alterutrum. Tandem discipuli et fratres, qui aderant, taedio affecti quod eadem semper audirent, dixerunt: Magister, quare semper hoc loqueris? Qui respondit dignam Joanne sententiam: Quia præceptum Domini est; et, si solum fiat, sufficit.

The blessed evangelist John, while he was staying at Ephesus until his extreme old age, and could only with difficulty be carried to the church by the hands of his disciples, and was unable to speak at length, was wont to nothing else at each meeting but this, “My children, love one another.” At last, the disciples and brethren who were present, having grown weary at always hearing these same words, said, “Master, why do you always say this?” And he answered with a saying worthy of John: “Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.”

St John is traditionally said to have spent much of his life in Asia Minor, and to have established the Church in many of the great cities in that region, including Ephesus. The Golden Legend, a tremendously popular  13th century collection of legends of the Saints, contains this story about his career there. As the number of Christians grows, and they begin to clash with the local pagans, John by his prayers causes the great temple of Diana to collapse, and its cult image to break. He is therefore arrested by one of the pagan priests, a man named Aristodemus, who proposes a contest to determine which is the true God.

“ ‘si vis, ut credam in Deum tuum, dabo tibi venenum bibere et si nullam in te laesionem videro, verus Deus Dominus tuus apparebit.’ Cui apostolus, ‘Fac ut locutus es.’ Et ille, ‘Volo ut ante alios morientes videas, ut sic amplius pertimescas.’ Pergens igitur Aristodemus ad proconsulem, duos viros decapitandos petiit, et coram iis omnibus venenum dedit, qui mox ut venenum dedit, biberunt et spiritum exhalaverunt. Tunc apostolus calicem accipiens et signo crucis se muniens totum venenum bibit, et nullam laesionem incurrit; quapropter Deum omnes laudare coeperunt. Aristodemus autem dixit, ‘Adhuc mihi inest dubietas, sed si veneno mortuos suscitaverit, absque dubio vere credam.’ Tunc apostolus ei tunicam suam tribuit. Cui ille, ‘Cur mihi tunicam tuam dedisti?’ Cui apostolus, ‘Ut sic confusus a tua infidelitate discedas.’ Cui ille: ‘Numquid tunica tua me credere faciet?’ Et apostolus, ‘Vade et mitte eam super corpora defunctorum, dicens, “Apostolus Christi me misit ad vos, ut in Christi nomine exsurgatis.” ’ Quod cum fecisset, illico surrexerunt. Tunc Apostolus pontificem et proconsulem credentes cum omni parentela sua Christi nomine baptizavit.

(The Death of St John at Ephesus; fresco in the parish church of Scheffau am Wilden Kaiser, Austria, which is dedicated to the two Saints John, the Baptist and the Evangelist. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

If you want me to believe in your God, I will give you poison to drink, and if I see no harm befall you (as Christ says in Mark 16, 18), your Lord will appear as the true God.’ To this the Apostle said, ‘Do as you say have said,’ and he answered, ‘I want you to see others die first, so that you may thus fear the more.’ Aristodemus therefore went to the proconsul and asked for two men who had been condemned to death, and before everyone gave them poison; and as soon as he gave the poison, they drank it and gave up the ghost. Then the apostle, taking the cup and fortifying himself with the sign of the cross, drink all the poison, and incurred no harm, wherefore all began to praise God. But Aristodemus said, ‘I still have a doubt, but if he shall raise up the men who were poisoned to death, without doubt I will truly believe.’ Then the Apostle gave him his tunic, to which he answered, ‘Why have you given me your tunic?’ And the Apostle answered, ‘That you may thus be confounded and depart from your infidelity.’ To whom he answered, ‘Surely your tunic will not make me believe?’ And the apostle answered, ‘Go and put it on the bodies of the dead men, saying, “The apostle of Christ has sent me to you, that you may rise in the name of Christ.” ’ And when he had done this, they rose at once. Then the Apostle baptized the priest and the proconsul with all their family in the name of Christ.”

This episode gave rise to the artistic tradition of depicting St John holding a chalice with a serpent or a dragon coming out of it, which symbolizes either the poison or its effectiveness leaving the cup. And likewise, a custom is still observed in many places to this day of blessing wine in honor of the Saint on his feast. One of the prayers of this blessing in the Roman Ritual therefore says, “Et sicut beatus Joannes de calice bibens venenum, illaesus omnino permansit, ita omnes, hac die in honorem beati Joannis de calice isto bibentes, meritis ipsius ab omni aegritudine veneni, et noxiis quibusvis absolvantur… And just as the blessed John, drinking poison from a cup, remained altogether unharmed, so may all who drink of this cup today in his honor, be set free by his merits from every illness (inflicted by) poison, and all other harmful things…”

(St John the Evangelist, ca. 1605, by El Greco. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

St Servulus of Rome

The Dialogues of St Gregory the Great are a collection of stories and miracles of Saints whom the author knew personally, or were known by people whom he knew, written as a conversation between himself and his deacon Peter. The work was translated into Greek early on, and became very popular in the East, whence St Gregory’s nickname in the Byzantine tradition, “the Dialogist.” The second book is occupied entirely by the life and deeds of St Benedict, for which it is earliest and the most important source.    

In the fourteenth chapter of the fourth book, Gregory gives this touching story of a paralyzed beggar named Servulus, who was wont to spend much of his time in the portico of the basilica of St Clement in Rome. Servulus’ death, which took place on December 23rd, was witnessed by a member of the monastic community which Gregory had led prior to his papal election; this unnamed man was still alive at the time he wrote.

“… saepe animabus exeuntibus electorum, dulcedo solet laudis coelestis erumpere, ut dum illam libenter audiunt, dissolutionem carnis ab anima sentire minime permittantur. … in ea porticu quae euntibus ad ecclesiam beati Clementis est pervia, fuit quidam, Servulus nomine, …  qui quidem pauper rebus, sed meritis dives erat, quem longa aegritudo dissolverat. Nam ex quo illum scire potuimus, usque ad finem vitae paralyticus jacebat. Quid dicam quia stare non poterat, qui nunquam in lecto surgere vel ad sedendum valebat, nunquam manum suam ad os ducere, nunquam se potuit ad latus aliud declinare? Huic ad serviendum mater cum fratre aderat, et quidquid ex eleemosyna potuisset accipere, hoc eorum manibus pauperibus erogabat. Nequaquam litteras noverat, sed Scripturae sacrae sibimet Codices emerat, et religiosos quosque in hospitalitatem suscipiens, hos coram se studiose legere faciebat. Factumque est ut juxta modum suum plene sacram Scripturam discere… Studebat semper in dolore gratias agere, hymnis Deo et laudibus diebus ac noctibus vacare. … Cumque jam se morti proximum agnovisset, peregrinos viros, atque in hospitalitatem susceptos, admonuit ut surgerent, et cum eo psalmos pro exspectatione sui exitus decantarent. Cumque cum eis et ipse moriens psalleret, voces psallentium repente compescuit cum terrore magni clamoris, dicens: Tacete; nunquid non auditis quantae resonent laudes in caelo? Et dum ad easdem laudes quas intus audierat, aurem cordis intenderet, sancta illa anima carne soluta est. Qua scilicet exeunte, tanta illic fragrantia odoris aspersa est, ut omnes qui illic aderant inaestimabili suavitate replerentur, ita ut per hoc patenter cognoscerent quod eam laudes in coelo suscepissent. Cui rei monachus noster interfuit, qui nunc usque vivit, et cum magno fletu attestari solet, quia quousque corpus ejus sepulturae traderent, ab eorum naribus odoris illius fragrantia non recessit.

… often when the souls of the elect go forth, a sweet sound of heavenly praise is wont to burst forth, so that, as they willingly listen to, they may be permitted by the soul to barely feel the dissolution of the flesh. … in that porch which leads the way to the church of the blessed Clement, there was a certain man called Servulus … who was poor in wealth, but rich in merits, and whom a long sickness had afflicted. For from the time when I first came to know him, to the end of his life he lay paralyzed What can I say, but that he could not stand, and was never able to sit up in his bed, could never put his hand to his mouth, or turn from one side to the other. His mother and brother attended and served him, and whatever he could get in alms, by their hands he bestowed upon other poor people. He could not read at all, yet he had bought for himself the books of Sacred Scripture, and taking in as guests any religious men, he eagerly had them read them to him; and thus it came about that he fully learned the Sacred Scripture in his own way. … He always took care in his pains to give God thanks day and night with hymns and praises, and when he knew that he was close to death, he urged all the strangers lodged in his house to rise and sing psalms with him as he awaited his departure. And as he, though dying, was singing with them, of a sudden he restrained the voices of the singers, starting them with a loud cry, and saying, “Be silent! Do you not hear the great praise that resound in heaven?” And while he lay the ear of heart to those praises which he heard inwardly, his holy soul was released from the flesh, and as it went forth, so great a fragrance filled the place, that all who were present were filled with an unfathomable sweetness, and thus did they clearly learn from this that those praises had received his soul in heaven. One of our monks who is still living was present for this event, and bears witness to it with great weeping, for until they gave his body over for burial, they smelled that fragrance continually.”

Believing Thomas

On the calendar of the usus antiquior, today is the feast of the Apostle St Thomas. This feast was instituted in the West in the 9th century; the reason for the choice of date is unknown, but it is likely not a coincidence that nine other months have the feast of an Apostle or Evangelist within their last ten days, thus distributing them more or less evenly through the year.

The Gospel of his feast, John 20, 24-29, recounts his meeting with the Risen Christ on the eighth day after the Resurrection. The homily on this Gospel read in the Roman Breviary is taken from one preached by Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) on Low Sunday, but nevertheless fits perfectly with the tenor of the Advent season in which St Thomas’ day is celebrated.

“Plus … nobis Thomae infidelitas ad fidem, quam fides credentium discipulorum profuit; quia dum ille ad fidem palpando reducitur, nostra mens, omni dubitatione postposita, in fide solidatur. Sic quippe discipulum Dominus post resurrectionem suam dubitare permisit, nec tamen in dubitatione deseruit; sicut ante nativitatem suam habere Mariam sponsum voluit, qui tamen ad ejus nuptias non pervenit. Nam ita factus est discipulus dubitans et palpans, testis verae resurrectionis, sicut sponsus matris fuerat custos integerrimae virginitatis.

Palpavit autem, et exclamavit: Dominus meus, et Deus meus. Dicit ei Jesus: Quia vidisti me, credidisti. Cum Paulus Apostolus dicat, Est autem fides sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium; profecto liquet quia fides illarum rerum argumentum est, quae apparere non possunt. Quae etenim apparent, jam fidem non habent, sed agnitionem. Dum ergo vidit Thomas, dum palpavit, cur ei dicitur: Quia vidisti me, credidisti? Sed aliud vidit, aliud credidit. A mortali quippe homine divinitas videri non potuit. Hominem ergo vidit, et Deum confessus est, dicens: Dominus meus, et Deus meus. Videndo ergo credidit, qui considerando verum hominem, hunc Deum, quem videre non poterat, exclamavit.

(St Thomas and the Risen Christ, 1640s, by the Dutch painter Matthias Stom)   

Thomas’ lack of faith benefited our faith more than the faith of the disciples who believed, for while he is brought back to faith by touching (the Lord’s side), our minds are strengthened in faith, every doubt being laid aside. Indeed, the Lord permitted His disciple to doubt after His resurrection, and yet, did not abandon him in doubt, just as He willed before His birth that Mary should have a spouse, who nevertheless did not consummate their marriage. For thus did the disciple, by doubting and touching, become a witness of the truth of the Resurrection, just as His Mother’s spouse was the keeper of Her untouched virginity.

He touched, and cried out. “My Lord and my God.” Jesus said to him, “Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed.” When Paul the Apostle says (Heb. 11, 1), “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of matters that do not appear”, he plainly means that faith is the evidence of things that cannot be seen. For things which are seen are not the object of faith, but of knowledge. Therefore, since Thomas saw when he touched, why is it said to him, “Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed?” But he saw one thing, and believed another, for divinity cannot be seen by a mortal man. Therefore, he saw a man, and confessed Him to be God, saying ‘My Lord and my God.’ Therefore, in seeing, he believed, while, considering the true man, he acclaimed Him to be God, whom he could not see.”

Pace Pessimus, Bello Non Spernendus

The first civil war of the Roman Empire is famously known as the year of the Four Emperors. After the last of the Julio-Claudians, the horrifying Nero, was declared a public enemy and committed suicide in June of 68 AD, he was succeeded over the following ten months by three men, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. Two years earlier, when the Jews of the Holy Land had rebelled against Rome, the general Vespasian had been sent to subdue them. In June of 69, he was proclaimed Emperor by the legions in the eastern parts of the Empire, and decided to march on Rome. On December 20th of that year, the city was taken on his behalf by troops under the command of one Antonius Primus, and Vitellius was killed. The following day, the Senate formally recognized Vespasian as emperor; he would reign for 9½ years, and peacefully leave the throne to his son Titus, who was quickly succeeded by his brother Domitian.

Antonius Primus is supposed to have been either a descendent of Marc Antony, or of a Gaul enfranchised as a Roman citizen during Antony’s campaigns in that region. In his Histories (2.86), Tacitus gives a sketch of Primus’ character, one of the best examples of his remarkable command of the Latin language, and its ability to saying a great deal very tersely.

“At in Pannonia tertia decima legio ac septima Galbiana … haud cunctanter Vespasiano accessere, vi praecipua Primi Antonii. is legibus nocens et tempore Neronis falsi damnatus inter alia belli mala senatorium ordinem reciperaverat. praepositus a Galba septimae legioni scriptitasse Othoni credebatur, ducem se partibus offerens; a quo neglectus in nullo Othoniani belli usu fuit. labantibus Vitellii rebus Vespasianum secutus grande momentum addidit, strenuus manu, sermone promptus, serendae in alios invidiae artifex, discordiis et seditionibus potens, raptor, largitor, pace pessimus, bello non spernendus.

(A bust of Antonius Primus by the French sculptor Marc Arcis, ca. 1674.)

But in Pannonia the thirteenth legion and the seventh Galbiana … joined Vespasian’s cause without delay, especially because of the force of Primus Antonius. This man, a violator of the laws, who in Nero’s time had been condemned for fraud, had recovered his senatorial rank as one of the evil effects of the war. Having been put in command of the seventh legion by Galba, it was believed that he had written to Otho several times, offering himself as a leader of his cause, but was ignored by him, and gave no service in the war. Once Vitellius’ fortunes had begun to fall, he followed Vespasian and gave his cause great momentum, for he was vigorous in action, ready of speech, an artist in the sowing of ill-will in others, powerful in stirring up discord and strife, skilled in theft and bribery; the worst kind of man in peace, but not to be despised in war.

Although it was Primus who effectively handed the capital, and thus the imperial throne, to Vespasian, the latter clearly mistrusted him, and his star quickly faded. But it remains a testament to the latter’s character that he did not dispatch his supporter violently to the netherworld, as the gratitude typical of the Julio-Claudians almost certainly would have.

Primus was a friend of the poet Martial, who dedicated four of his epigrams to him, and from these, we know that he was still alive at the beginning of Domitian’s reign in 81 AD. When he was 75, a very old man by the standards of the era, Martial wrote of him thus, either dissenting from Tacitus’ judgment of him, or perhaps more likely, knowing him to be a different man after the passage of so many years out of the political limelight.

“Iam numerat placido felix Antonius aevo
   Quindecies actas Primus Olympiadas
Praeteritosque dies et tutos respicit annos
   Nec metuit Lethes iam propioris aquas.
Nulla recordanti lux est ingrata gravisque;
   Nulla fuit, cuius non meminisse velit.
Ampliat aetatis spatium sibi vir bonus: hoc est
   Vivere bis, vita posse priore frui.

The happy Antonius Primus now numbers fifteen Olympiads (75 years) passed in tranquility; he looks back upon the days that are gone, and the whole of his past years, without fearing the waters of Lethe to which he daily draws nearer. Not one day of his brings remorse or an unpleasant reflection; there is none which he would be unwilling to recall. A good man lengthens his term of existence; to be able to enjoy our past life is to live twice.”

Pope St Leo the Great Preaches on the Ember Days of December

The Ember days are fasting days that each occur toward the end of each season, on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the third week of Advent, the first week of Lent, Pentecost week, and the third week of September. St Leo I, who was Pope from 440 to 461, preached on them frequently, and believed them to be of Apostolic origin; while we cannot be certain that this is indeed the case, they are certainly very ancient. In Sermon 93 on the Ember fast of September, he says “licet tempus omne sit congruum, hoc tamen habemus aptissimum, quod et apostolicis et legalibus institutis videmus electum, ut sicut in aliis anni diebus, ita in mense septimo spiritalibus nos purificationibus emundemus. – Although every time is suitable for the medicine (of fasting), this time is most fit because we see it as chosen by the decrees of the Apostles and the laws, so that just as on other days of the year, so in the seventh month (i.e. September), we should cleanse ourselves by spiritual purifications.

Here is an excerpt from one of his sermons for the Ember days of December; in his time, the church of Rome seems not to have yet instituted the season of Advent, but the theme of his preaching nevertheless looks forward to Christmas as the beginning of the redemption of the human race.

“Si fideliter, dilectissimi, atque sapienter creationis nostrae intelligamus exordium, inveniemus hominem ideo ad imaginem Dei conditum, ut imitator sui esset auctoris; et hanc esse naturalem nostri generis dignitatem, si in nobis quasi in quodam speculo divinae benignitatis forma resplendeat. Ad quam utique nos quotidie reparat gratia Salvatoris, dum quod cecidit in Adam primo, erigitur in secundo. Causa autem reparationis nostrae non est nisi misericordia Dei: quem non diligeremus, nisi nos prior ipse diligeret, et tenebras ignorantiae nostrae, suae veritatis luce discuteret. Quod per sanctum Isaiam Dominus praenuntians, ait: Adducam caecos in viam quam ignorabant, et semitas quas nesciebant faciam illos calcare. Faciam illis tenebras in lucem, et prava in directa. Haec verba faciam illis, et non relinquam eos. Et iterum, Inventus sum, inquit, a non quaerentibus me, et palam apparui iis qui me non interrogabant. Quod quomodo impletum sit, Joannes apostolus docet dicens: Scimus, quoniam Filius Dei venit, et dedit nobis sensum, ut cognoscamus verum, et simus in vero Filio ejus. Et iterum: Nos ergo diligamus Deum, quoniam ipse prior dilexit nos. Diligendo itaque nos Deus, ad imaginem suam nos reparat, et ut in nobis formam suae bonitatis inveniat, dat unde ipsi quoque quod operatur operemur, accendens scilicet mentium nostrarum lucernas, et igne nos suae charitatis inflammans; ut non solum ipsum, sed etiam quidquid diligit diligamus. Nam si inter homines ea demum firma amicitia est, quam morum similitudo sociarit, cum tamen parilitas voluntatum saepe in reprobos tendat affectus, quantum nobis optandum atque nitendum est ut in nullo ab iis quae Deo sunt placita, discrepemus!

(A statue of Pope St Leo I in the basilica of St Ann in Altötting, Bavaria. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Matana, cropped, CC BY 2.0)

If, dearly beloved, we comprehend faithfully and wisely the beginning of our creation, we shall find that man was made in God’s image, to the end that he might imitate his Creator, and that our race attains its highest natural dignity, by the form of the Divine goodness being reflected in us, as in a mirror. And assuredly to this form the Saviour’s grace is daily restoring us, so long as that which, in the first Adam fell, is raised up again in the second. And the cause of our restoration is naught else but the mercy of God, Whom we should not have loved, unless He had first loved us, and dispelled the darkness of our ignorance by the light of His truth. And the Lord foretelling this by the holy Isaiah says, I will bring the blind into a way that they knew not, and will make them walk in paths which they were ignorant of. I will turn darkness into light for them, and the crooked into the straight. These words will I do for them, and not forsake them. (42, 16) And again he says, I was found by them that sought Me not, and openly appeared to them that asked not for Me. (65, 1) And the Apostle John teaches us how this has been fulfilled, when he says, We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true, and may be in Him that is true, even His Son,  (1 Jo. 5, 2) and again, let us therefore love God, because He first loved us. (1 Jo. 4, 19) Thus it is that God, by loving us, restores us to His image, and, in order that He may find in us the form of His goodness, He gives us that whereby we ourselves too may do the work that He does, kindling that is the lamps of our minds, and inflaming us with the fire of His love, that we may love not only Himself, but also whatever He loves. For if between men that is the lasting friendship which is based upon similarity of character notwithstanding that such identity of wills is often directed to wicked ends, how ought we to yearn and strive to differ in nothing from what is pleasing to God.” 

The Pope Who Gave Us the Agnus Dei

On this day in the year 687, St Sergius I was elected to the papacy; he would reign for nearly 14 years. Like that of his contemporary St Theodore of Tarsus, his life and career show the endurance of the transnational culture created by the Roman Empire, and the role that culture played in spreading the Gospel, which St John XXIII spoke of in his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia.

He was born ca. 650, the son of a Syrian merchant from Antioch who had moved to Palermo, Sicily. Around the age of twenty, he came to Rome and entered the clergy, ascending through the ranks until he was made a cardinal by Pope St Leo II in 683, then elected Pope four years later. At the time, Rome and central Italy were part of the Byzantine province known as the Exarchate of Ravenna, and subject to its authority in civil matters. However, the Byzantine Empire had a bad habit of unduly interfering in the Church’s internal affairs, a fact which would play a significant role in Sergius’ papacy.

The Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, both held in Constantinople, the former in 533, and latter in 680-1, had both adjourned without issuing any disciplinary legislation. In 692, therefore, the Emperor Justinian II called a council to finish their work, which is therefore known by the curious name “Quinisext – fifth-sixth.” But he also pretended that despite the absence of representation from the West, this council should be recognized as ecumenical, and that its legislation should be regarded as universally applicable, even in Rome itself, and in the western churches that formed its patriarchate. The Church of Rome was always perfectly content to let local churches legislate most matters for themselves, but in the eyes of the papacy, Justinian’s council was an unjustifiable usurpation of its own jurisdiction. Pope Sergius therefore took several steps in defiance of its decrees, first and foremost by refusing to sign them for formal approval, as the emperor demanded.

One of the Quinisext decrees forbade any representation of Christ as an animal; Sergius therefore had mosaic images of Christ as the Lamb of God added to or restored in various Roman churches. He also added the Agnus Dei to the Mass, the last of the fixed chant parts to be incorporated into the Roman Ordo Missae. We may also note here in passing his other major contribution to the Roman liturgy, the adoption from the Byzantine Rite of the first four feasts of the Virgin Mary: that of Her Birth on September 8th, the Annunciation on March 25th, the Purification on February 2nd, and the Assumption on August 15th.

(The mosaics of the proscenium arch of the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian in Rome, installed by Pope St Sergius I, with a prominent figure of the Lamb of God in the center.)

It should be remembered that around the time when Sergius was born, the Byzantine emperors were promoting a heresy called Monotheletism as the official theology of the Empire. (The Sixth Ecumenical Council was called to formally repudiate this teaching, that Christ had no human will.) And when Pope St Martin I (649-55) not only refused to approve it, but held a synod in Rome that condemned it, he was arrested by agents of the emperor Constans II, brought to Constantinople for trial, held in a harsh imprisonment for several months, and eventually banished to Crimea. These prolonged sufferings brought on his death, and the Church therefore honors him as a martyr, the last Pope to bear that title. Sergius thus defied the emperor knowing full well that he might face a similar fate; and indeed, a contingent of imperial bodyguards, led by one Zachary, was sent to Rome to arrest him and bring him to the capital.

Fortunately, the exarch of Ravenna himself and the population of Rome were fiercely opposed to the emperor, and Zachary was greeted on his arrival by a riot that forced him to seek Sergius’ protection. The Pope addressed the rioters and successfully restrained them from visiting any violence on Zachary, but they insisted that the latter be forced to leave the city. From what is known of Justinian II’s career and temperament, he certainly would not have taken this affront to his power peaceably, and the situation might well have deteriorated into greater violence, but he was deposed in 695. (He would return to power a decade later, but rule so violently and despotically that he was deposed again after six years by a general rebellion, and executed.)

St Sergius also played an important role in the evangelization of northern Europe. He consecrated as bishop an Anglo-Saxon from Northumbria named Willibrord, who was then preaching in Frisia, the coastal region of the modern Netherlands and north-west Germany. Willibrord thus became the first bishop of Utrecht, and established one of the most important monasteries in early medieval Europe at Echternach, in modern Luxembourg. Sergius was also visited by monks from the English monastery of Jarrow, one of the great centers of the mission established under St Gregory the Great, and confirmed by St Theodore of Tarsus.  In 701, he wrote to the abbot of Jarrow, St Ceolfrid, asking that the most famous members of his monastery, St Bede the Venerable be sent to Rome to advise him, but this never took place.

The Resignation of Pope St Celestine V

On this day in the year 1294, Pope St Celestine V abdicated from the Papacy in the fifth month of his reign, a strange denouement to one of the strangest episodes in the Church’s long and complex history.

He was born in 1215 with the name Peter Angelerio, in a tiny town in south-central Italy roughly 110 miles east of Rome. From a young age, he showed a strong attraction to an ascetic and solitary life, and was more commonly known as Peter of Morrone, from the name of the rough mountains in the Abruzzi to which he withdrew when he was in his twenties. From there, he moved to an even more remote place, where he founded a monastic community that followed the Rule of St Benedict, but with a greater emphasis on solitude and penance than was typical at the time. This foundation proved highly successful, and in only a few years, grew to include dozens of monasteries and hundreds of monks. Peter himself, however, passed the governance of it to another as soon as he could, and withdrew from it almost entirely. This order, which was later called Celestine after his papal name, continued in existence until the later 18th century.

(The abbey of the Holy Spirit, the mother house of the Celestine Order, outside Sulmona, Italy. The church that St Celestine would have known was destroyed by an earthquake in 1706, and subsequently rebuilt as seen here. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pietro, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Following the death of Pope Nicholas IV in April of 1292, the cardinals met at Perugia to elect a successor; they were only twelve in number, but the ensuing election went on so long, 26 months, that one of them died while it was still happening. The process was delayed not only by an even deadlock between two factions supporting opposed political interests, but also by a great deal of outside civil disturbance. By the summer of 1294, only six of them remained in Perugia.

News of the chaotic situation and the long period of the sede vacante reached Peter of Morrone in his mountainous solitude, and in June of 1294, he decided to intervene by sending a letter to the cardinals. In it, he rebuked them for their failure to provide the Church with a chief shepherd, and threatened them with God’s punishment if they allowed the absurd delay to go on. In response, one of the cardinals was inspired in a fit of ill-judged enthusiasm to propose Peter himself, now in his eighties, and well-known for his holiness and humility, for the papacy. This proposal was happily received by the rest of the college, but far less than happily by Peter. After a great deal of persuasion, he accepted, taking the name papal Celestine V, and was crowned at the end of August in the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, Italy, where his body now rests.

Unsurprisingly, he proved at once to be completely and hopelessly inadequate to the many administrative duties of the papacy, duties for which his previous life had in no way prepared him. From the very beginning, he was also de facto a prisoner of the king of Naples and subservient to his political interests, a fact for which he was sharply criticized. The resulting chaos left the poor elderly man bewildered and miserable, and filled with regret for leaving the monastic life. Following the advice of some of his cardinals, he called a consistory, and on December 13, presented his abdication to the college.

(The tomb of Pope St Celestine V in the basilica of Santa Maria in Collemaggio. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Beatrice, CC BY-SA 2.0 IT.)

His successor, Card. Benedetto Caietani, who took the papal name Boniface VIII, was chosen because he was known to be an extremely effectively administrator and very well-versed in canon law; in other words, just the man to clean up the terrible mess created by Celestine. Finding the registers of his predecessor’s acts to be in a state of irremediable chaos, he simply had them destroyed, and for this reason, the ipsissima verba of Celestine’s abdication speech are lost to us. However, the substance of them is preserved in a decree which Boniface included in a collection of canons known as the Liber Sextus Decretalium, which he himself compiled to update the older collections then used throughout the Church as its code of Canon Law. Note that this canon consists of only two sentences: the first of them, a period of exactly 100 words, shows very nicely how well the study of Latin was cultivated in the high Middle Ages.

“Quoniam aliqui curiosi disceptantes de iis que non multum expediunt, et plura sapere quam oporteat contra doctrinam apostoli temere appetentes, in dubitationem solicitam, an Romanus Pontifex, maxime cum se insufficientem agnoscit ad regendam universalem ecclesiam et summi pontificatus onera supportanda, renunciare valeat papatui ejusque oneri et honori, deducere minus provide videbantur: Cælestinus papa quintus predecessor noster, dum ejusdem ecclesie regimini presidebat, volens super hoc hesitationis cujuslibet materiam amputare, deliberatione habita cum suis fratribus ecclesie Romane cardinalibus (de quorum numero tunc eramus) de nostro et ipsorum omnium concordi consilio et assensu, authoritate apostolica statuit et decrevit, Romanum pontificem posse libere resignare. Nos igitur, ne statutum hujusmodi per temporis cursum oblivioni dari, aut dubitationem ulterius deduci contingat, ipsum inter constitutiones alias ad perpetuam rei memoriam de fratrum nostrum consilio duximus redigendum.

Since some men in their curiosity, disputing about matters which are not very useful, and boldly seeking to know more than they ought, against the teaching of the Apostle (Rom. 12, 3), seemed to be imprudently calling into troublesome doubt whether the Roman Pontiff, especially when he recognizes himself to be inadequate to govern the universal Church, and bear the responsibilities of the supreme pontificate, can renounce the papacy and its responsibility and honor: Pope Celestine V, our predecessor, while he presided over the rule of that same Church, wishing to remove grounds  for any hesitation concerning this matter, having consulted with his brothers, the cardinals of the Roman Church, among whose number we then were, following the agreed council and consent of ourselves and all of them, established and decreed by Apostolic authority that the Roman pontiff can freely resign. Lest it happen that this decree be forgotten over the course of time, or such doubt be further protracted, We have therefore decided that it should be placed among the other constitutions for a perpetual reminder of the matter, following the council of our brothers.”

“Non Fecit Taliter Omni Nationi!”

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which celebrates the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to St Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in what is now Mexico City, in the year 1531. These apparitions were a crucial event in the conversion of the Americas. In many Mexican churches, their uniqueness and importance are emphasized by the use of a Latin motto taken from Psalm 147: “Non fecit taliter omni nationi. – He hath not done so for every nation.”

(The Holy Trinity Paints the Tilma; ca. 1750, attributed to the Mexican painter Joaquín Villegas. The angel on the right is holding a banderole with the motto “Non fecit taliter…”

The complex which has grown up over the centuries on the site of the apparitions is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world. The main modern basilica houses the famous tilma, the cloak of Juan Diego upon which an image of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared, and miraculously remains, despite the fragility of its material and the passage of nearly four centuries. But there are several other churches and buildings on the site as well. One of them which is reached by walking up the hill behind the basilica is known in Spanish as the “Capilla del Cerrito – the chapel of the little hill”, and marks a place where St Juan Diego, following the instructions of the Virgin, gathered some fresh roses in the middle of a cold December. By presenting them to the local bishop, he was thus able to prove the authenticity of the apparitions.

I visited the complex during a pilgrimage visit to Mexico last year, and spent a few enjoyable minutes with a colleague puzzling out this Latin inscription in elegiac couplets on the façade of the little chapel. It is quite cleverly constructed, although one wishes the author had been a bit more careful with his elisions.

“Qui pedibus laetor calcatus Virginis olim,
   Qui angelicos comites vidi et adesse choros,
Qui tamen audivi divino ex ore parentis
   Almae, quam suavis venerat indigenis,
Qui demum illius ad jussum prodicere flores
   Felix non renui, queis bene picta fuit,
Mons sum, atque Armeniis praestans subeuntibus arcam
   Foederis haud veram, veram ut ego subii.
Prodigia obtestor, jam quorum conscius ex tunc,
   Sum quoque nunc pignus, praecoque semper ero.

I am the mountain who rejoice that I was once trod on by the Virgin’s feet, who saw that Her angelic companions and choirs were present, who yet heard from the loving Mother’s divine mouth of the how sweetly she had come to the natives (of that place), who at last happily agreed at Her command to bring forth those flowers with which She is well depicted, surpassing those (mountains) of Armenia that came up under the false ark of the covenant, since I held up the true one. I bear witness to the miracles of which I was aware since that time, and am now their pledge and herald.”

The “false ark of the covenant” means the ark of Noah, which is considered false in the sense that it was only a prefiguration of the true ark, the Church, of which the Virgin Herself is a type. Mt Ararat, the place where Noah’s ark came to rest (Gen. 8, 4) is in Armenia; the hill of Tepeyac boasts that it is superior because the greater ark, the Mary the Mother of God, came to rest upon it.

(The façade of the Capilla del Cerrito; the Latin inscription quoted above is on the plague to the right of the door, with a Spanish translation on the plaque on the other side. Image from Wikimedia Commons by GAED, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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