The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary was celebrated by the Church with a feast on December 8th for centuries before it was formally defined as a dogma of the Faith by Bl. Pope Pius IX in 1854. Up until that point, there were various version of the Divine Office and Mass for the feast used in various places, and this continued to be the case for nine years after the definition. In 1863, however, the Pope promulgated a new version of both which supplanted all others, and which are part of the usus antiquior to this day. During the octave of the feast, a series of the readings for Matins are taken from his bull Ineffabilis Deus, the dogmatic proclamation of 1854. It is pleasant to remember that there was a time when papal bulls were written in such beautiful Latin that the Church might rightly deem them worth to be incorporated into her official prayer books. Here is just a small sample, the opening sentence of 116 words, which is long enough to occupy a full lesson on its own in the breviary.
“Ineffabilis Deus, cujus viæ misericordia et veritas, cujus voluntas omnipotentia, et cujus sapientia attingit a fine usque ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter, cum ab omni æternitate præviderit luctuosissimam totius humani generis ruinam ex Adami transgressione derivandam, atque in mysterio a sæculis abscondito, primum suæ bonitatis opus decreverit per Verbi incarnationem sacramento occultiore complere, ut contra misericors suum propositum homo diabolicæ iniquitatis versutia actus in culpam non periret, et quod in primo Adamo casurum erat, in secundo felicius erigeretur, ab initio et ante sæcula unigenito Filio suo Matrem, ex qua caro factus in beata temporum plenitudine nasceretur, elegit atque ordinavit, tantoque præ creaturis universis est prosecutus amore, ut in illa una sibi propensissima voluntate complacuerit.
(The Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, by Francesco Podesti, 1859-61.)
The ineffable God whose ways are mercy and truth, whose will is omnipotence, and whose wisdom reacheth mightily from one end (i.e. of creation) to another, and sweetly ordereth all things, (Wisdom 8, 1), since from all eternity he foresaw the most sorrowful ruin of the whole human race that would derive from the transgression of Adam, and, in a mystery hidden from the ages, determined to fulfill the first work of His goodness through the incarnation of the Word, in a more hidden secret, to the end that man, who against his merciful purpose had been driven by the fraud of the devil to sin, might not perish, and that what was to fall in the first Adam, might be raised up the more happily in Christ, from the beginning and before the ages chose and arranged for His Only-begotten Son a Mother, from whom, having become flesh, He might be born in the blessed fullness of time, and honored Her above all other creatures with with such great love that in Her alone He was well-pleased with a most ready will.”
And likewise, the single sentence of over 120 words towards the end of the bull that contains the formal definition:
“…postquam numquam intermisimus in humilitate et jejunio privatas nostras et publicas Ecclesiæ preces Deo Patri per Filium ejus offerre, ut Spiritus Sancti virtute mentem nostram dirigere et confirmare dignaretur, implorato universæ cælestis curiæ præsidio, et advocato cum gemitibus Paraclito Spiritu, eoque sic aspirante; ad honorem sanctæ et individuæ Trinitatis, ad decus et ornamentum Virginis Deiparæ, ad exaltationem fidei catholicæ et christianæ religionis augmentum, auctoritate Domini nostri Jesu Christi, beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli, ac nostra, declaramus, pronuntiamus et definimus: doctrinam quæ tenet beatissimam Virginem Mariam in primo instanti suæ Conceptionis fuisse singulari omnipotentis Dei gratia et privilegio, intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis, ab omni originalis culpæ labe præservatam immunem, esse a Deo revelatum, atque idcirco ab omnibus fidelibus firmiter constanterque credendam.
After in having never ceased to off to God the Father though His Son our private prayers and the public prayers of the Church, in fasting and humility, that he might deign to guide and confirm our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit, having implored the aid of the whole court of heaven, and called with groanings upon the Spirit, the Paraclete, and with His inspiration: for the honor of the holy and undivided Trinity, for the praise and glory of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and the increase of the Christian religion; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and Our own, we declare, pronounce and define that doctrine which holds that the most blessed Virgin Mary was, in the first instant of her Conception, preserved, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus, the Savior of the human race mankind, preserved free from every stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God, and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
In the western Church, feasts of Old Testament Saints are not unheard-of, but they are extremely rare, and only one has ever been generally observed. (This is on August 1st, the feast of the scribe Eleazar and the mother and seven sons whose martyrdom is described in 2 Maccabees 6 and 7.) The Byzantine Rite, on the other hand, has many such feasts, including those of most of the Prophets. Several are kept in the period leading up to Christmas, as a sign that Christ is the one whose coming they foretold, and today belongs to Habakkuk, the eighth of the Twelve Minor Prophets. His role in the liturgy as a prophet of the Incarnation is indicated by this hymn sung at Vespers of his feast: “Standing on divine watch, the honored Habakkuk heard the ineffable mystery of Thy coming unto us, o Christ, and he prophesied most clearly the proclamation of Thee…”
His brief book gives no details about him; from its subject, the invasion of Judea by the Chaldeans, it is dated to the late 7th century BC. He also makes an appearance in the Deuterocanonical 14th chapter of the book of Daniel, the episode known as Bel and the Dragon, in which an angel carries him by the hair to Babylon to deliver food to Daniel in the lions’ den. However, despite his fairly minor part in the canon of Scripture, he has a very significant place in the history of the Christian liturgy. The whole of his third chapter is a canticle which has been used from the most ancient times in most historical rites.
(The Prophet Habakkuk and the Angel; sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1656-61, in the Chigi chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Image from Wikimedia Common by Peter 1936F, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The opening verses of this canticle in particular played a very important role in the Christian liturgy and art. The Greek translation known as the Septuagint, which was the Church’s original Bible, read the difficult Hebrew text of verse 2 as, “Lord, I heard Thy report, and grew afraid; Lord, I knew Thy works, and was amazed. In the midst of two living beings, Thou shalt be made known.” The “two living beings” were variously taken to mean the Prophets Elijah and Moses, who appeared to either side of Christ at the Transfiguration (Tertullian, Against Marcion 4, 22), or the two Seraphim whom Isaiah sees (6, 2-3) with God in his vision in the temple (Origen, On First Principles, 18). St Augustine accepts Tertullian’s interpretation, but also took the verse to signify the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ (City of God 18, 32). From this derives the Roman tradition of singing the canticle on Friday, the day of the Crucifixion, and the first part of it at the liturgy of Good Friday.
However, the Greek word “ζῴων – living beings” can also mean “animals”, and in this sense, the opening words of Habakkuk’s canticle could be referred not to the circumstances of Christ’s death, but of His birth, when He was laid in a manger. Cross-pollinated, so to speak, with Isaiah 1, 3, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the donkey his master’s manger”, they gave rise to the artistic tradition of having an ox and a donkey in Nativity scenes, a tradition already well-established and widely known by the end of the 4th century.
In that same era, however, the great Biblical scholar St Jerome realized that both the Septuagint and the older Latin translations derived from it were in many ways very inaccurate, and set out on his great project to give the Latin-speaking Church a better translation of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the older version of Habakkuk 3, 1-2 was changed from:
“Domine, audivi auditum tuum, et timui: consideravi opera tua, et expavi. In medio duorum animalium innotesceris: dum appropinquaverint anni, cognosceris: dum advenerit tempus, ostenderis. – Lord, I heard Thy report and grew afraid,; I considered Thy works, and was astonished. In the midst of two living being Thou shalt be made known; when the years shall have come nigh, Thou shalt be known; when the time shall come, Thou shalt be shown.”
to: “Domine, audivi auditionem tuam, et timui. Domine, opus tuum, in medio annorum vivifica illud; in medio annorum notum facies: cum iratus fueris, misericordiæ recordaberis. – O Lord, I have heard thy hearing, and was afraid. O Lord, thy work, in the midst of the years bring it to life; in the midst of the years thou shalt make it known: when thou art angry, thou wilt remember mercy.”
Aware that his new translation was depriving the Church of a text with an important exegetical tradition attached to it, it seems that St Jerome tried to balance this by giving the canticle a more explicit reference to Christ. He therefore translated the Hebrew word “b’Ēlohēi yish‘ī” in line 17, “in the God of my salvation”, as “in Deo, Jesu meo – in God, my Jesus”, since the Lord’s personal name means “salvation.”
St Jerome’s new translation swiftly found broad acceptance in the Latin-speaking world, and has been the standard form of the Latin Bible for well-over a millennium. It is a tribute to the weight and force of tradition within the Church that nevertheless, the ox and the donkey, who were given their place in Christmas manger scenes by the older version of this text, still have it to this day, as we will see in our churches and homes over the coming weeks.
(A Nativity scene on a Roman sarcophagus made at the end of the 4th century. Note that by this period, the ox and the donkey, the “two animals” of Habakkuk 3 and Isaiah 1, are so well-known that they suffice to indicate what the scene is, without the presence of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the magi, the star, or even the stable.)
Most of France has traditionally kept December 1st as the feast of St Eligius (“Éloi” in French), who was born near Limoges in about 590, and died on this day in 660 after serving as bishop of Noyon for 19 years. In youth, he was trained as a goldsmith, and he has long been honored as the heavenly Patron of that art; his biography attributes to him reliquaries of several prominent Saints of the Gallic church, including Martin of Tours, and Denys and Genevieve of Paris. Under the Merovingian Kings Dagobert I (629-39) and his son Clovis II (639-57), he served as the royal treasurer, and several coins with his name on them are still extant. When he was elected bishop of Noyon in 641, most of the inhabitants in the regions to the north of that city, which are now the southern part of Flanders, were still pagan; it was in no small measure his preaching, and the example of his great charity to the poor and sick, that helped to convert them to Christianity. He was also the founder of several monasteries, including an enormous convent at Paris which housed 300 nuns.
An episode from his early life has often been celebrated in art as the launching of his public career, and a demonstration of his honesty, one of the characteristics that led to him being chosen as a bishop. When the young Eligius had finished his apprenticeship as a goldsmith with the master of the mint in Limoges, the treasurer of King Clotaire II hired him to make a “sella” (understood to mean either a saddle or a throne) out of gold and gems. With the amount of such material provided to him, Eligius was able to make two seats, which, when weighed together, proved both his skill and his honesty, since he might easily have made just one, and pocketed the difference in the valuable materials for himself. It is recounted thus in the biography of him attributed to another Saint and friend of his, a man called Audoënus in Latin, Ouen in French, who later became the bishop of Rouen.
(St Eligius presents the saddle to King Clotaire; a panel from the doors of an altarpiece dedicated to him, by the Portuguese painter Pere Nunyes, ca. 1526-9. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
“Volebat (Clotharius) rex sellam urbane auro gemmisque fabricare, sed non inveniebatur in eius palatio, qui huiusmodi opus, sicut mente conceperat, posset opere perficere. Cum sciret ergo … regis thesaurarius Eligi industriam, coepit eum explorare, si quo modo opus optatum possit perficere, … Tunc rex mente gratissima tradidit ei copiosam auri impensam, sed et ipse … tradidit Eligio; at ille accepto opere cum celeritate inchoavit atque cum diligentia celeriter consummavit. Denique quod ad unius opificii acceperat usum, ita ex ea duo conposuit, ut incredibile foret, omnia ex eodem pondere fieri potuisset; nam absque ulla fraude vel unius etiam siliquae inminutione commisso sibi patravit opere, … (‘siliqua’ is here used in its later sense of ‘a very small unit of measure.’)
Opus ergo perfectum defert protinus ad palatium traditque regi quam donaverat sellam, alteram penes se, quam gratuitu fecerat, reservatam. (Note here the early medieval use of an accusative absolute, where the classical language would require the ablative.) Coepit autem princeps mirari simul et efferre tantam operis eligantiam, iussitque ilico fabro tribuere mercedem laboris dignam. Tunc Eligius, alteram sellam in medio prolatam (another accusative absolute), ‘Quod superfuit’, inquit, ‘ex auro, ne neglegens perderem, huic opere aptavi.’ … Ex hoc nempe adauctius consurgens factus est aurifex peritissimus atque in omni fabricandi arte doctissimus, invenitque gratiam in oculis regis et coram cunctis obtimatibus eius. Domino iuvante, roborabatur in fide, et a rege provocatus, crescebat in melius cottidie.
(Another version of The Honesty of St Eligius, 1614, by Jacopo Chimenti, usually known as Jacopo da Empoli (1551-1640), painted for the confraternity of goldsmiths in Florence; in this version, Eligius has made two thrones for the king, rather than two saddles as above. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
King Clothaire wanted a finely-made seat of gold and gems, but no one could be found in his palace who could do the work as he conceived it. But when the … king’s treasurer had learned of Eligius’ skill, he began to investigate whether he might be able to complete the desired work, … Then the king most readily gave him a great weight of gold which he in turn gave to Eligius, and he, having taken it, began the work immediately and with diligence speedily completed it. And from that which he had taken for one piece of work, he was able to make two in such a way that it was hard to believe that it could all have been made from the given weight; for he completed the work commissioned from him without any fraud or the loss of a single gram…
Therefore, he brought the completed work to the palace at once, and gave to the king the seat which he had commissioned, keeping back the other which he had freely made. The king began to marvel and praise such great elegance in the work, and ordered that the craftsman be given at once a reward worthy of his labor. Then Eligius produced the other seat and said, ‘What was left over of the gold, I have made into this piece, so that I might not lose any of it by negligence.’ … From this of course, the most skilled goldsmith became ever more ascendant, and most learned in all the arts of manufacture, and found grace in the king’s eyes and before all his leading men. With the Lord’s help, he grew stronger in the Faith, and driven on by the king, grew better every day.”
Today marks the anniversary of the birth in 1463 of Cardinal Andrea della Valle, a scion of an old Roman noble family, named for St Andrew, on the vigil of whose feast he was born. Many years after his death, a major church dedicated to the Apostle was built in a part of the center of Rome named for his family, and hence called in Italian, by a happy coincidence, Sant’ Andrea della Valle.
After entering the clergy at a young age, he had an ecclesiastical career very typical for his era. He was appointed bishop when he was only 33, and served in various administrative positions; for two years, he held the highly important role of director of the Roman curial chancery. He participated in the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Lateran from 1512-17, and was made a cardinal shortly after its conclusion. As such, he participated in two papal elections, the first in late December and early January of 1521-2, and the second in October and November of 1523. He died at the age of 70 in August of 1534, about 6 week before Pope Clement VII.
In those days, ancient sculptures were literally coming up out of the ground in Rome, and the market for them was saturated by enterprising excavators (and, to be sure, by forgers as well!) Having inherited a collection of such pieces from his family, Cardinal della Valle added a great many new items to it, and then hired a Florentine sculptor called Lorenzo Lotti (1490-1541) to arrange them within the garden of his Roman palace. (Lotti is generally known by the nickname “Lorenzetto – Little Lawrence”, and is not to be confused with the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto.) Of course, being made of naturally brittle marble, such sculptures were never found intact, and Lotti’s job was not just to arrange them, but also to repair them where they were broken.
Prior to this project, such restorations had only been done occasionally for certain very specific commissions. In his Lives of the Artists, the art historian Giorgio Vasari describes the arrangement of the collection, and notes that Lotti’s fixing of broken sculptures began a trend which would be systematically imitated by many others. This practice of completing ancient fragments with newly created additions continued from the High Renaissance until fairly recent times; the results of it can still be seen all over the museums of Europe.
“(I)n architecture, (Lorenzetto) made the designs for many houses; … in the Valle, for Cardinal Andrea della Valle, the inner façade, and also the design of the stables and of the upper garden. In the composition of that work he included ancient columns, bases, and capitals, and around the whole, to serve as base, he distributed ancient sarcophagi covered with carved scenes. Higher up, below some large niches, he made another frieze with fragments of ancient works, and above this, in those niches, he placed some statues, likewise ancient and of marble, which, although they were not entire – some being without the head, some without arms, others without legs, and every one, in short, with something missing – nevertheless he arranged to the best advantage, having caused all that was lacking to be restored by good sculptors.
(The Della Valle collection in an engraving of the mid-16th century.)
This was the reason that other lords have since done the same thing and have restored many ancient works; as, for example, Cardinals Cesi, Ferrara, and Farnese, and, in a word, all Rome. And, in truth, antiquities restored in this way have more grace than those mutilated trunks, members without heads, or figures in any other way maimed and defective.”
This collection became quite famous, and was frequently studied and imitated. Fifty years after the cardinal’s death, however, it was purchased by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, who moved most of it to his family’s Roman villa, but sent several pieces to Florence, where they are can still be seen to this day in the various sites of their vast collections such as the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace.
The word “museum” derives from the Greek word “muses”, the goddesses of artistic inspiration, and the point of a museum in those days was not to preserve ancient pieces merely for the sake of preserving them, but to provide inspiration for working artists. The standard of that age was that a complete work was by definition more beautiful than an incomplete or broken one, and therefore, more inspiring. Hence it was only natural that people would rather have a collection of complete but only partially ancient statues, rather than a collection of only partial but completely ancient statues.
Without condemning men of the past for failing to live by the standards of a later age, the fixing of ancient sculptures by adding the missing parts ex novo was not an unmixed blessing for the preservation of Roman antiquities. Many of the “restored” pieces were restored very wrongly, the most famous case being the Laocoon group, now in the Vatican Museums. For over four centuries, it was displayed, studied and imitated with a restored arm pointing in entirely the wrong direction. And in many cases, including the Laocoon, the restorers actually changed the original sculptures by cutting off intact parts in order to complete them more in keeping with how they thought they ought to look.
(The Laocoön group; note the two cuts on the raised arm. The section between the arm and torso was sawn off by a restorer in the 16th century in order to give the figure an arm raised straight above the head. The raised arm with bent elbow was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, and reattached together with the sawn-off shoulder in the 1950s.)
Nevertheless, were it not for the diligence of men like Cardinal della Valle, we would not have many of the artistic and literary treasures that survive from the ancient world, and for this, we owe them our deepest thanks.
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…’ ”
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 completely 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 died 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)ly
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 correspondence 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.”
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)
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!
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.”
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.)
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