Tag Archives: Christendom

I had originally written this reflection for publication in an online magazine, but I didn’t submit it in time.  So I’ll publish it here!

Happy Feast of the First Martyrs of Rome

On a late July night in AD 64, hidden in the imperial palace, Emperor Nero’s dark thoughts stirred.  A substantial portion of the great city of Rome lay under ashes.  Outrage spread throughout the streets of the empire’s capital.  Like any outraged populous, the people of Rome called for answers.  They needed answers.  For many, their lives seemed utterly ruined.  The emperor, that sick and twisted man who had murdered his wife and his mother, must be to blame.  So the rumbling crowds shouted.  Nero needed an answer for them, something that would divert their anger from him to someone, or some group, of no consequence.

Perhaps it was an aide to him who made the suggestion.  Perhaps he had heard tales of a strange group that had trickled out from Palestine, a group that adhered to strange rituals and bizarre teachings.  They were a relatively unpopular group, often at odds with the traditional Roman priests.  Perhaps reports came to Nero’s court that these new zealots had stirred up trouble in Greece a few years earlier.  The more the emperor thought on this, the more he knew he had his scapegoat.

He announced by imperial decree that this radical group was to blame for the fire of Rome.  The religion became illegal, and for the 250 years that spanned the fire of Rome in AD 64 and the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians throughout the empire lived and preached under that ban.  The hunt began, and it was not long before the first Christians appeared in a Roman court for that most persistent of crimes: faithfully following Jesus of Nazareth.

The feast of the First Martyrs of the Roman Church falls on June 30, the day after the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.  It is a fitting placement for such a feast, for if we include in the list of the earliest Roman martyrs those who died before Nero’s bloody suicide in AD 68, then tradition holds that both St. Peter and St. Paul fall into this category of First Roman Martyrs.  On the other hand, this feast celebrates the lesser known martyrs, those whose names or life stories are lost to history.

Their deaths, however, scar the period of the early Roman Empire and provide a blueprint for the persecution of Christians even in more recent years.  Imperial troops scoured the city for Christians.  Arrested Christians often confessed that they were Christian, and under torture often gave the names of other Christians.  The Roman writer Tacitus describes how “an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind” (Tacitus, Annals 15: 44).  Soon this multitude filled the prisons in Rome, and executions followed.

These executions, providing the martyrs with their crowns, stand in history as among the most appalling murders ever recorded.  Men, women, and children died in the circus on the Vatican Hill, near where St. Peter’s Basilica is today.  Some were killed by more traditional Roman methods of execution, such as beheading or crucifixion (St. Paul died through beheading; St. Peter died via crucifixion).  Others died in more diabolical ways.  Nero held grand parties in his private gardens.  There the attendees would see performances of horrific tales from Greco-Roman mythology, particularly ones where the tragic figure would perish at the end.  The part of the helpless victim fell to the Christian prisoners.  In similar fashion, guests of the emperor hunted game in the gardens, though in this scenario the game was a Christian dressed in animal skins.  Nero’s dogs attacked the caught Christian and killed him or her, as they might any wild animal.  The most horrific, however, came after the sun set.  Nero mounted his personal chariot and rode along the garden’s pathways, cheered on by the guests.  As he rode, servants lit torches along his route.  These torches, burning and spitting in the Roman night air, contained not mere pitch or oil, but rather helpless Christians, who being condemned to die, served as Nero’s “Roman candles.”  Many died in such horrible manners, shocking though they may be.  Though the death of Nero granted the Christians some respite from such tortures, it would not be long before another Roman emperor saw reason to wipe out Christians from the empire.  As French historian Henri Daniel-Rops puts it,

Between 64 and 314 every single day held for the faithful believer the ever-present threat of a frightful death: the period is divided fairly evenly into the years of active bloodshed and those of relative quiet.  And every so often, during those two hundred and fifty years of history, we shall hear that cry of distress and agony rising heavenwards again, just as it had risen from the gardens of the Vatican glade in Nero’s day.  But from the moment of the first tortures the faith had known how to transform that cry into a cry of hope.  (Daniel-Rops, The Church of Apostles and Martyrs, 159)

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How do these stories of men and women slain nearly 1950 years ago apply to us today?  Like in the days of Ancient Rome, Christians today face persecution.  While many are not called to martyrdom, as the Christians under Nero were, we are all prepared for it.  By our baptism we are brought into new life in Christ, and by living in Christ, we also share in His death and Resurrection.  We are all called to suffer for the sake of the Name, even if it isn’t to the death.  We are all called to sacrifice our lives for the glory of God.  No matter our vocation, we are called to give up what we once were and embrace a radical new way of living.  This, then, is the ultimate lesson from these earliest martyrs of the Church, the same proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council: the Universal Call to Holiness.  Only when we embrace this call can we stand with the martyrs of the early Roman Church and worship the Triune God for all eternity.

For Further Reading:

Henri Daniel-Rops.  The Church of Apostles and Martyrs

Warren H. Carroll.  A History of Christendom.  Volume 1.  The Founding of Christendom.

Reflection: First Martyrs of Rome

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Review: The Crisis of Christendom by Warren H. Carroll

This is something new for Quidquid Est, Est.  Book Reviews.  As mentioned, I will be reviewing books, some old and some new, that might be of interest for readers of this blog.  They will have their own special category and will be (generally speaking) unrelated to other posts prior to or succeeding them.

And it is my honor to review, for the inaugural Book Review, a work that I have been awaiting probably more than any other person on Earth.  The book is the sixth volume in the late Warren H. Carroll’s History of Christendom series, The Crisis of Christendom (published this year by Christendom Press).  To give you an idea of how long the wait has been for this particular volume, the fifth book of the series, The Revolution Against Christendom, came out in 2005.  The author, an esteemed Catholic historian known worldwide for his devout recounting of key events in Christian history and his role as founder and first president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia (my alma mater), died in 2011.  At the time of his death, news releases from ChristendomCollege assured fans of the series that the volume was near completion, and that its publication would be in June 2012.

June 2012 came and went, and it seemed for a year the publication date of the book pushed forward a month at a time.  I was going crazy.

But I have it now (it came out in July 2013), and have read it, and can say with confidence that it was well worth the wait.

The book contains a Forward written by Carroll’s widow, Anne Carroll, who is the co-author of the last two volumes of Carroll’s history.  She notes that the volume covers the years between 1815 and 2010, a time of immense historical events.  Mrs. Carroll notes, “It is not possible to cover these years with the thoroughness of most of his [Warren Carroll’s] earlier volumes.  But Dr. Carroll had selected the topics he wanted to cover, out of all the events that could have been discussed, and it is those topics that are presented here” (p. ix).  As a result, the structure of this volume differs from earlier volumes.  Whereas the chapters in Volumes I-V covered several events within a set time frame, often switching from one topic to another without clear delineation, Volume VI includes subtopic headings, helping the reader know the main focus of that section.  It is a welcome addition which adds to the book’s value as a reference text.

Volume VI opens where Volume V closed, in Europe following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It traces the historical attempts to reunite and restore a broken Europe from the ashes of Napoleonic conquest.  The major historical players are discussed, kings and queens from throughout Europe.  Carroll then discusses the seeds of a new revolution in the writings of Karl Marx.  Later chapters in the volume will examine in great detail one of Carroll’s favorite historical topics: Communism.  The birth of Communism is documented, and rightly so.  Carroll, however, does not leave the story dark, for great light shone in Europe during the 19th century, namely visitations of Mary (during what Carroll calls the “Marian Century”), the pontificate of Bl. Pope Pius IX, and the climactic meetings of the First Vatican Council.

Also discussed are the trials and victories of the New World, especially in the United States of America.  Carroll devotes an entire chapter to the abolition of slavery in the USA, including a brief examination of the American Civil War (1861-1865).  Carroll also devotes space to examining the results of the Industrial Revolution in America and Europe, deflating the belief in a “Gilded Age” in late 19th-century America.

Then the story of Christendom turns dark again.  The chapter appropriately entitled “The Ditches of Death” recounts the horrors of World War I, while several chapters (from “The Ultimate Revolution” through “The Last Crusade”) recount the takeover of Communism in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe, the spread of eugenics in Europe and America, and the beginnings of Fascism in Germany and Italy.  The main focus of Volume VI is the evils of these totalitarian governments, the history-makers who guided those evils, and those brave men and women who fought valiantly against them.  Carroll adapts much of the material dealing with the 20th century from three of his earlier works: his first book, 1917: Red Banner, White Mantle; his book-length study of the Spanish Civil War, The Last Crusade; and his monumental work, The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution, which presents a penetrating investigation of international Communism from its beginnings to its fall in the early 1990s.  This current Volume borrows heavily from those works.  Many of the same players appear here.  Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot appear as mankind’s enemies, those who made the world-wide revolution, villains worse than any Disney monster.  Winston Churchill, Bl. Karl of Austria, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, and Ronald Reagan stand as those who defied their totalitarian adversaries, heroes to their dying days.

And as with all volumes of Carroll’s History, the popes play a central role in the fight for the Church.  Already mentioned was Bl. Pope Pius IX.  His successors Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XII, Bl. John XXIII, Paul VI, and Bl. John Paul II each play an important part in the history of Christendom.  The key to interpreting the course of the 20th century, Carroll holds, is a vision granted to Pope Leo XIII.  In the vision, God allowed Satan to unleash his worst upon the world for one century, a century which Satan could claim as his own.  The vision went on to show that Satan chose the 20th century as his century.  Carroll uses this vision as a constant refrain throughout this Volume to help explain how men committed the evils that occurred during the past century.  The heroic popes mentioned above all stood against such evil.

Carroll also includes the stories of heroic saints, especially martyrs who stood against the evils of Communism and Fascism and the holy visionaries of Mary.  Saints form an essential part of any study of Catholic history, as Carroll notes in one of the appendices to the Volume.  Also featured is a detailed chapter on the Second Vatican Council and the heresy of Modernism, both of which are greatly misunderstood in the Church today.

Carroll concludes the book with a chapter devoted to the dignity of the human person, a fitting end as both Communism and Fascism attacked this dignity, as did all socially abusive movements in the 20th century, such as the anti-worker laws, the eugenics movement, and, of course, the abortion movement.  There is no happy conclusion to this Volume, as much work is needed in the fight to save Christendom.  Carroll hoped that, in the words of his widow, “each reader of this volume would work to build the culture of life in whatever sphere he can” (p. xi).

This Volume features something unique in the canon of Warren H. Carroll works: Appendices.  There are four appendices at the end of this book, each one echoing, in a sense, Carroll’s hope for this Volume.  The first, “Mission,” is an autobiographical memoir discussing Carroll’s life prior to his founding ChristendomCollege, in particular his education and his conversion to the Catholic Faith.  It is enlightening because it provides readers with an introspective look as to how God worked in Carroll’s life to bring him home, in particular the role his wife Anne played in his conversion.  It is also a brief first-hand account of some key moments in 20th century intellectual and cultural history, such as the conservative movement in the mid-20th century and the work of Triumph magazine (a late-20th century Catholic magazine that had a major impact on Carroll and other Catholic intellectuals during that era).

The second, “Principles for Writing Catholic History,” provides six principles for Catholic historians writing today.  Most are logical: ‘Accepting and Hailing the Supernatural’ (a favorite topic of Carroll’s, as noted in this essay), ‘Seeing All History as Religious and/or Political’ (again, a favorite position of Carroll’s is that history is made by men and women, not social/economic forces), ‘Acknowledging that the Popes Act in History’ (not only that, but the biographies of popes are often good sources for contemporary historical research, especially the multi-volume histories of Horace Mann and Ludwig Von Pastor), ‘Seeing the Impact of the Saints’ (holiness attracts, as one professor of mine would say, and thus holy people have an important historical impact), ‘Eliminating Bias’ (historians should not always write history like hagiography), and ‘The Legacy of Triumph Magazine’ (which Carroll, a former contributor to the magazine, says holds that “the teachings of the Catholic Church alone can explain modern history and culture” [p. 822]).

The third appendix is “Having Done All, To Stand: The Epic of Malta,” a printed version of a lecture Carroll had given at ChristendomCollege several years ago (I was there; it was my first time meeting him).  The essay chronicles the island of Malta’s stand against Turks, Napoleon, and Hitler.  There is passion in Carroll’s chronicle of Malta’s epic history, a passion rarely seen in historical works today.

The fourth appendix is the most unique, an unfinished poem of Carroll’s entitled “The Ballad of the Reconquista: Pelayo at Covadonga.”  It is an epic-style poem reminiscent of G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse.  Here is another way of teaching history, one ancient, yet ever new: through poetry.  I had never read or heard Carroll’s poetry before; after reading this incomplete poem, I wish there was more of it.

The feature of the Volume that struck me the most was how personal Carroll made it.  Other volumes in the series provide digressions and comments by Carroll in the footnotes of the work, though these comments are usually in the third person (i.e., “the author’s work”) rather than first person (i.e., “my work”).  In Volume VI, not only are references to Carroll’s previous works referred to as “my/mine,” but other comments by Carroll in the text of the history, not in the footnotes, are in first person.  This gives the reflections a more personal aspect, as if Carroll is speaking directly to readers about something close to his heart.  It is good to hear from him again.

Above all, this is a labor of love, the result of over thirty years of historical study and research, the fruit of a lifetime of conversion and conversation.  This is more than a volume of history.  It is more than the story of men and women in the “accursed twentieth century,” as Carroll refers to the past century.  It is Carroll’s final work, and it is his lasting literary legacy.

For More Information:

The Crisis of Christendom is available from Christendom Press and from Amazon.

Press Release from Christendom College concerning the book’s publication.

A short biography of Carroll from the Christendom College website.

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Question: Can Catholics celebrate Halloween?

Kristy, who writes at Granola Vogue, asked a question (and to emphasize just how BEHIND I am, I had joked with her that I hopefully wouldn’t be writing about it around Halloween. . . ) about everybody’s favorite candy-giving, creepy movie watching, totally spiritual holiday: “I read your latest post on Christmas [sorry to interrupt again, but this kinda shows just how old this question was] so I was wondering where does the Catholic Church stand on celebrating Halloween? Where does it fit it, if at all into their beliefs?”

A fine question, Kristy.  Let’s look at the history of Halloween first, compare its historical celebrations to today’s, and see what Catholics say about it.

Halloween got its start as a religious feast.  It is the day before All Saints’ Day, one of the holiest feasts of the year, when the Catholic Church celebrates all of the saints in Heaven, especially those who have not been declared a saint by the Church (remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t make someone a saint; she declares that that person is a saint).  The word “Halloween” is adapted from its proper, liturgical title: “All Hallows’ Eve.”  “Hallows” is an older English word that we still use in some contexts (for example, in the “Our Father” we say in the first line “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”).  The word “hallow” means “holy,” and thus “All Hallows’ Eve” celebrates the eve (evening) before the feast of All Saints (the holy ones of God).  The words combine to make Halloween.

The feast of All Saints’ Day wasn’t established in the Church calenders until 615, when Pope Boniface IV established the Feast of All Martyrs to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon in Rome into the Church of “St. Mary of the Martyrs” (“Santa Maria dei Martiri”).  There had been earlier celebrations commemorating the Church’s martyrs, but this was the first time it was made official by the Pope (it was celebrated on May 13).  This feast was later turned into the Feast of All Saints by Pope Gregory IV in 840 and moved to November 1 in 844 by that same pontiff.  Several commentators note that the establishment of both the feast in honor of All Martyrs and the feast in honor of All Saints marked an attempt to turn a sometimes pagan Europe towards God, baptizing the day in honor of the saints, rather than towards pagan gods.  To highlight the importance of the feast, Pope Sixtus IV made the feast a holy day of obligation in 1484, meaning all Catholics were to attend Mass that day.  Pope Sixtus also established a vigil feast for this major feast day (what is now called Halloween) as well as an octave to extend the feast’s celebration.  However, the octave and the liturgies attached to the eve of All Saints were removed before the mid-1950s.

(Above: Raphael’s “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” aka, What they do in Heaven)

All Souls’ Day (November 2) has a much shorter history.  Since the beginning of the Church (and before, as noted in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), the faithful have offered prayers for the dead, so that they might be freed from the stain of sin and brought into paradise.  The feast of All Souls’ Day grew out of this practice, first in local monasteries as a way to pray for those monks and loved ones who had died (particularly from the 6th through 11th Centuries), then in the major cities (Liege by 1008, Milan by 1125), and eventually to the whole world.  Pope Sylvester II recommended the feast for the Universal Church (but did not require the feast be added to the universal Church calender) in the 11th century, and as is often the case in matters liturgical, once the feast gained the support of the Pope, it spread throughout Europe.  It wasn’t until very recently (1915, under Pope Benedict XV), however, that the feast became an official one on the universal Church calendar (and a special exemption from the two-Masses-per-day rule was given to priests).

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass freeing souls from purgatory

(Above: What happens during a Requiem Mass)

So that’s a quick summary of the history behind All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and the creation of Halloween as a liturgical celebration.  Halloween is, as you can see, at its roots a Catholic celebration: remembering the saints who dwell with God in Heaven and the departed who left this world in need of our prayers.  In that way, it is very Catholic to celebrate Halloween.

But what about Halloween today?  Where did we get all the holiday stuff, the ghosts, the monsters, the jack-o-lanterns, etc.?  Is the Church ok with all of that?

First, the party stuff.

The connection with All Souls’ Day reveals right away the emphasis on ghosts and things that go bump in the night.  Ghosts are often connected with souls from Purgatory who cannot find rest.  A church in Rome contains relics of visitors from Purgatory (these and other ghost-like visitations were the subject of a recent book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory), emphasizing the need for prayers for the faithfully departed, especially those who have no one to pray for them.  The accounts attached to those relics are real ghost stories.  It is little wonder, then, that ghosts and other denizens of the night are associated with the two feast days of the Church which focus on the afterlife, not on the lives of heroic men and women but on what happens to us when we die.

Many of the familiar Halloween features stem from pagan European practices.  The most commonly noted is a festival in Celtic areas (Ireland, England, Scotland, etc.) prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries dedicated to Samhain, their god of death.  This feast marked the Celtic New Year.  Rituals included offering burnt sacrifices in huge bonfires and wearing animal skins as costumes.  The hope was that these would keep the god at bay, as well as protect the people of the villages from the evil spirits released into the world by Samhain.  From these Celtic areas, we also find familiar rituals which may be the ancestors of our Halloween celebrations.  In Ireland people joined a parade led by a druidic priest in an animal mask who went from house to house begging for food in the name of another god, Muck Olla (those who would give food were blessed, while those who didn’t were cursed).  The Irish also started carving turnips for the feast.  Scottish peasants wandered the fields at night with torches to keep evil spirits at bay.  When Roman legions conquered the Celtic regions, their Latin customs of autumnal harvest rituals mixed with the Celtic festival.  Christian missionaries attempted to baptize the festivities (as they did with festivals near Christmastime), resulting in a strong emphasis in Celtic Christianity on death and physical mortification.

Similar rituals arose in Frankish and Germanic Christian kingdoms.  French Catholics in particular had a festival known as “Dance Macabre” in honor of departed souls, often dressing in costumes to represent people throughout their life.  French monks in the monasteries in Cluny developed devotions in honor of the souls in Purgatory, offering special Masses for the dead (the Masses of the Clunaic monks inspired Pope Sylvester II, who himself was French, to spread the celebration of Mass for the Dead).  These rites and rituals became popular among the lay faithful, and soon became part of Christian culture.

Our modern understanding of Halloween came about when all of these features mixed together in America, the world’s cultural melting pot.  French, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants lived near each other, intermarried, and formed a new culture.  The Irish tradition of carving turnips and asking for food became our tradition of carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating.  The French devotion to prayers for the souls in Purgatory and their costume-filled “Dance Macabre” mixed with Celtic fears of ghosts and goblins.  Other cultures mixed and mingled, and eventually our modern holiday of Halloween formed.

This leaves the biggest question of them all: can a Catholic celebrate Halloween?  I would say yes, provided they avoid the more disturbing facets that have slithered into the holiday’s celebration in recent decades.  The focus of the holiday turned from remembering the dead, praying for them, and invoking the saints, to a disturbing obsession with evil.  This evil appears in various forms, and its not always as obvious as the evil in a horror movie.  Many children (and those who wish they were children) dress in costumes for trick-or-treating.  Those costumes speak volumes.  A cute costume might draws “awwws” and “how sweet.”  Gory costumes draw the opposite reaction.  Girls dressed in overtly sexual costumes draw a very disturbing reaction.  Costumes of children dressed as witches and zombies seem more appropriate.  Mix this with attempts by modern witches and druids to claim Halloween as their holy day and the water gets murky.  The Christian origins of the holiday fade into obscurity.

Christians are divided into four groups regarding Halloween.  One group just doesn’t celebrate it, not out of any dislike but simply because they don’t want to.  Another wants nothing to do with it, some because of its connection to pre-Christian Europe, some because of how disturbing some of the celebrations of Halloween have become.  A third group, on the other end of the spectrum, celebrates the holiday like anyone else, without any concern over the controversies mentioned above.  The fourth group, which I lean towards, seeks to embrace what is properly Christian, reclaiming, so to speak, Halloween.  Rather than wandering the streets dressed as monsters, children trick-or-treat dressed as saints or religious figures.  Others dress in some heroic costume (knights, soldiers, policemen, etc).  Other costumes work too (I was a shark when I was very young!) and there is room for some monstrosities, gentle ghosts and lovable witches.  However, it is not my place to say in definite terms “this is wrong” or “the parent who allows this or that costume is a bad, sinful parent.”  These, of course, are mere suggestions.

There is a place for terror during Halloween, for it reminds us of the end of our lives.  Halloween brings to our attention a terrifying reality: we will all die.  Even those who emphasize the spiritual aspect of the holiday know that this reality is at the root of the celebration.  The saints, though heroic and in Heaven, had to die to reach their triumphant state.  The souls in Purgatory likewise had to die to reach their state of purification.  Those in Hell suffer the worst fate, for in their death they have separated themselves from God.  It is of this reality that Halloween seeks to remind us.  Horror has its place in reminding us.  Perhaps it is the easiest way to shock us into drawing back to God.

No matter the costume or the celebration, this main focus of Halloween should be maintained.  We should recall those who have gone before us, either celebrating in the triumph of the saints or pray for those who still journey through Purgatory.  Some suggested practices help refocus our attention during the holiday.  Reflections on the saints form a delightful part of the celebration. Readings from the lives of the saints or their writings might help to remind Christians young and old of the great patrimony of our spiritual siblings in Heaven.  In this way, a new generation of Christians can reorient themselves towards Christ through His saints.

For Further Reading (note: most of these websites are articles discussing the history of Halloween in more detail):

http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/hallween.htm

http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost12aa.html#1a

http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Oct2001/Family.asp

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/months/10_2.cfm

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6210

http://www.wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/October-2012/Culture–Time-for-Catholics-to-Embrace-Halloween.aspx

http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/784/Truth_about_Halloween.html

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/all-hallows-eve-or-halloween

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Saints’ Day

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315b.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Souls’ Day

Van Den Aardweg, Gerard J. M.  Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory.  Rockville, IL: TAN Books, 2009.

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Reblog: Dr. Edward Peters on Female Deacons

It seems that the issue of female deacons keeps springing up not just among casual bloggers and commentators on the internet, but by serious priests and canonists (those who deal with canon law, the Church’s legal stuff).  Readers of this blog know I addressed this issue last year, but it keeps appearing, apparently with more vigor.

 

Posted below is a link to Dr. Edward Peters’ blog (Peters is an American canon lawyer well respected in Catholic circles) discussing a recent article by one Fr. Michael P. Orsi, chaplain at Ave Maria Law School in Florida.  Dr. Peters has some issues with some of Fr. Orsi’s assertions, as do I, and does an excellent job explicating them.  The issues are not merely with that female deacons (and thereby priests), but with the understanding of priestly celibacy and Church teaching.

 

I would suggest reading Fr. Orsi’s essay first, for context, and then looking at Dr. Peters’ examination.  Dr. Peters links to Fr. Orsi’s article.  All you need to do is follow the link below!

 

Tea leaves are for brewing tea, not for theological illumination.

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Reflection: On Pope Benedict’s Resignation (part 2)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

 

After much reflection, and after much reading (and much putting off), I have compiled some thoughts on the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy.  The man has been a giant, in his own small way: quiet in demeanor, yet able to move a crowd of thousands to cheers (I’ve seen it happen myself).  He is the first pope of my adult life, having become Supreme Pontiff in 2005, my freshman year of college.  I remember when I heard of his election: I was working in the college’s kitchen, as students ran out of the building and through the trees to the large TV in the school’s gym.  I watched them run, and I couldn’t leave, but someone shouted to me as they left, “There’s white smoke.”  The cardinals had elected a new pope!

Thus was my first interaction with Benedict XVI.

During the ensuing years, I came to love this man.  I helped at a summer conference about him at Christendom College, shook his hand TWICE at two separate Wednesday audiences, and have looked forward eagerly for his encyclicals and books, especially his three volumes       about Jesus.

Then came the morning of February 11, 2013.  Pope Benedict, I heard, was soon stepping down as pope.

I must say, I did not belief the reports that the pope was resigning.  I had heard rumors for years, both with Bl. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and had not put much credence in them.  Few popes in the Church’s history have resigned (as I’ll discuss below), the most recent one, as many news stations have reported, being Gregory XII in 1415 (his resignation helped end one of the greatest scandals in Western Christendom: The Great Western Schism).  Benedict’s resignation, though, struck me as odd and unbelievable at first.  As the day stretched on, and I took advantage of my breaks from teaching to read the news develop over internet, including the Holy Father’s words on resigning, I began to come to a startling conclusion.  Well, for me it was startling.

The Conclusion: I wasn’t surprised.

I wasn’t.  I read the pope’s words, and then read some comments, and I, like several other Catholic writers (several of which are linked to below in the For Further Reading), recalled the quiet teaching moment in 2009 when Pope Benedict put his pallium, the symbol of his authority as an archbishop, on the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V (Peter Celestine), another pope who resigned from the papal throne.  What was he saying?  One finds the answer in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (p. 29-30):

[Question, Seewald]: The great majority of these [sex abuse] cases took place decades ago.  Nevertheless they burden your pontificate now in particular.  Have you thought of resigning?

[Response, Benedict]: When the danger is great one must not run away.  For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign.  Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation.  That is my view.  One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on.  But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.

[Note the circumstances Benedict rejects as times to resign: “When the danger is great,” that is, during a great crisis where fortitude is needed, when the Church needs a warrior pope, one to face the forces of Hell and shout, “I am Peter!  I am the Rock, and you shall not prevail against us!”]

[Question]: Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?

[Response]: Yes.  If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.

Benedict clearly supported papal resignation, under certain circumstances.  His requirements for resignation mentioned here are very similar to the resignation announcement he gave earlier this month.  In his announcement to the cardinals (and to the world), he said, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

In resigning, he is merely following his own teaching, his own philosophy, his own papalogy.

What of these earlier resigning popes?  News reports, secular and Catholic, noted the historical importance of this event because the last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII (mentioned above).  What is the history of papal resignations?  Is there a papal resignation similar to that of Benedict?

First let’s look at a list of papal resignations:

The earliest papal resignation was that of Pope St. Pontian, who resigned on September 28, 235.  He stepped down after being sentenced to the Roman mines on Sardinia, which was the not-so-fun Roman way of killing someone slowly, working them to death mining salt in the hot, Mediterranean sun.  Pontian did die in exile on the island (reconciling the Church’s first antipope, St. Hippolytus, while he was out there).  Those were dangerous times (Pontian’s successor, Pope St. Anterus, died a martyr a mere forty days after his election as pope), and Pontian’s decision to resign to ensure the presence of a visible head for the Church remains a highly prudent decision.

Following Pontian, several popes, according to various sources, resigned, including Pope Liberius (died 366, the first pope NOT declared a saint by the Church), Pope Benedict V (who, in 964, abdicated under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I), and Pope John XVIII (died in 1009, though not before resigning in July of that year).

Perhaps the most confusing case of papal resignation, however, is that of Pope Benedict IX.  He’s the Grover Cleveland of popes; he reigned as pope THREE separate times.  Benedict was elected in October of 1032; he was twenty years old, one of, if not the, youngest popes.  Struggle ensued due to his hedonistic lifestyle.  The people of Rome kicked him out because of his debauchery, put their own antipope (who styled himself Sylvester III) on the papal throne, but were thwarted by Benedict when he returned to remove his rival.  He resigned in 1045, bribed to do so by another priest, who became Pope Gregory VI after Benedict resigned.  Soon after this, Benedict came to regret his resignation, so he attempted to put himself up as pope against Pope Gregory (making himself an antipope).  The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III got involved and had both Benedict IX and Sylvester III (who still claimed to be pope) deposed; he also convinced Pope Gregory to resign, leaving the papal throne open for Pope Clement II.  Benedict was determined to keep the papacy, and following Clement’s death in October 1047, he took back the papal throne.  He remained there for less than a year; troops sent by the Holy Roman Emperor drove him out of Rome for good, allowing for the election of Pope Damasus II.

Confused?  Depressed?  For the latter, don’t worry, because Benedict was supposed to have repented of his sins later, living out the rest of his life in a monastery.  As far as confusion is concerned, this is only slightly less confusing than the Great Western Schism, which we will discuss later.

The first official, canonical papal resignation was Pope St. Celestine V, mentioned earlier.  The Catholic cardinals (all ten of them) had elected Celestine (his baptismal name was Peter) as pope in March of 1294, a compromise move, as these same cardinals had dragged out the papal conclave for over two years.

Imagine that, for a moment.  Two years without a pope.  Many Catholics worry how the Church will function during the few weeks in which we will struggle without a pope; imagine two years as a flock without a shepherd.  It is no wonder that Pope Celestine accepted the papal office, the last hope against schism.

Celestine was eighty years old when he became pope.  His pontiff was short, a mere ten months, as the political intrigues that corrupted the Church wore at him.  He asked his advisors if he could resign.  They were torn; the last pope to resign had been Benedict IX, and there was a mess following that abdication.  The majority of these canon lawyers said, yes, of course the pope can resign.  Celestine made his decision, and on December 13, 1294, he resigned.  His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him placed in prison, an assurance that Peter Celestine would not go back on his abdication; the last thing the Church needed was a former pope acting as an antipope again.

Much chaos came in the ensuing centuries following Pope St. Celestine’s short reign.  One sees several scandals erupt through the Church: The Avignon Papacy (started by Boniface’s successor Clement V) and the Great Western Schism (wherein THREE men claimed to be pope, though only one was the real pope).

The Great Western Schism provided the circumstances for the most recent papal resignation prior to that of Benedict XVI, namely that of Gregory XII.  Following the return of the papacy to Rome, the reigning pontiff (Urban VI) fell out of favor with the cardinals who elected him (that tends to happen when the pope publicly yells at cardinals; Urban VI was not known for his people skills).  Most of the cardinals regrouped and held another election in 1378, selecting a man they claimed to be the new pope.  Never before in Church history had the cardinals set up an antipope against the pope they had elected earlier.  This antipope set up his residence in Avignon, and soon Europe erupted into confused convulsions.  Europe’s princes sided with either the true pope or the Avignon antipope.  Matters worsened when a group of cardinals met in Pisa in 1409, hoping that, by meeting in council, they would elect someone to be pope.  They did elect someone.  Thus the three men claiming to be pope.  Matters worsened until finally the Hungarian King Sigismund (later Holy Roman Emperor) called the bishops of the Church to meet at a council in Constance (in modern-day Germany).  He invited all of the papal claimants to the council.  The true pope was Gregory XII.  He saw the disaster threatening the Church, and he acted: He offered to resign the papacy, leaving the See of Peter vacant, placing in the council’s hands the task of electing a pope to unite Christendom.  He requested that the other two papal claimants, the two antipopes, do the same, that is, resign and abdicate their positions.  After some intrigue, all three claimants relinquished their authority (or what authority they thought they had, in the case of the antipopes), and the Council of Constance elected Martin V as pope.  The Council was only able to do this, in this unique situation, because Pope Gregory had declared they could.  The Council did not have authority over the reigning pontiff.  Only after the pope resigned could the successor be elected.

Thus Pope Gregory XII resigned to preserve the unity of the Church in a time of crisis.

How does all of this compare to Pope Benedict’s resignation?  He resigned in a time of peace for the Church.  Oh sure, the Church faces dangers and enemies in every age, and this age is no exception.  But in the case of Pope Benedict, there was not a great crisis facing the Church.  There isn’t a violent persecution where pope after pope is led to their deaths, or a scandal where Christendom itself is rent asunder.  Nor did Benedict XVI resign for selfish reasons like Benedict IX.  He resigned because he could not continue.  He resigned because, as he said in the announcement that shocked the world this past February 11, he did not have the strength for the “adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”  In this regard, he most closely resembles Pope St. Celestine V, who resigned because he too did not have the strength to deal with the rigors of the papacy.

As I write this, the Church has entered a period of emptiness.  It is an emptiness mixed with excitement for me, as I tear up to say goodbye to a most worthy successor of St. Peter.  I will miss him.  I already miss him.  But at the same time I look forward to the conclave, the meeting of cardinals, and the puffs of white smoke, and the ringing of church bells, to signal the election of a new pope, a new captain in the barque of St. Peter.

Of course, the Pope Emeritus remains in my prayers, as do the cardinals who have already begun to descend on Rome to vote for the next pope.  Holy Spirit, guide them, keep them safe, and do not let the Evil One tempt them away from God’s Will.

 

For Further Reading:

Kirsch, Johann Peter.  “Pope St. Pontian.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 12.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12229b.htm. – There’s not a whole lot we know about this pope, but this article sums it up nicely. 

Mann, Horace.  “Pope Benedict IX.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 2.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02429a.htm. – Makes sense out of the confusion caused by Pope Benedict IX’s reign. 

Shahan, Thomas.  “Council of Constance.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04288a.htm. – Details what led up to the Council and what occurred during it. 

Mirus, Jeff.  “Benedict: Far from the First Pope to Resign.”  Catholic Culturehttp://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otc.cfm?id=1055. – Dr. Jeffery Mirus, a Church Historian (and co-founder of ChristendomCollege) takes a look at the historical record of popes who resigned. 

The Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club, http://www.popebenedictxvifanclub.com/index.html – Has pretty much EVERYTHING by or about Pope Benedict on the web.  Have at it!

Prudlo, Donald S. “Pope Benedict’s Resignation in Historical Context.”  Crisis Magazinehttp://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/pope-benedicts-resignation-in-historical-context – A reflection on Benedict’s resignation not only in light of his historical predecessors, but also in light of the saints-to-be discussed at the canonization consistory where he announced he would retire. 

Carroll, Warren H.  A History of Christendom.  Vol. 3.  The Glory of Christendom.  Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1993. – Chapters 8-12 give, in great detail, the historical context of the papacies of Pope St. Celestine V, the Avignon Papacy, the Great Western Schism, and the Council of Constance. 

Moynihan, Robert.  “The Scandal of Secularism: Pope Benedict XVI & Pope Celestine V” Institute of Catholic Culture (August 29, 2010).  http://www.instituteofcatholicculture.org/the-scandal-of-secularism-pope-benedict-xvi-pope-celestine-v/ – It was in this lecture that I first heard of the connection between Pope Benedict and Pope Celestine V. 

 

Looking towards the future. . . . .

Smith, Bartholomew.  “From Sede Vacante to Habemus Papam: How the Empty Chair of Peter Gets Filled.”  Theology on Tap: Arlington Diocese (Januardy 16, 2012).  http://arlingtondiocese.org/podcasts/2012-01tot_podcast/tot_2012-01-16.mp3 – Fascinating talk about what happens in a papal conclave from the former secretary of the senior cardinal at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. 

 

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Question: Christmas trees and Yule Logs

Yes, yes, Christmas Day has passed us, but we are still in the Christmas Season.  Christmas, like Easter, is SO important a feast that it stretches over weeks, giving its name to an entire liturgical season.  With Christmas we celebrate the manifestation of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, to the world.  For nine months, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity dwelt in the womb of Mary, His mother; on Christmas Day, He was born.  With Easter we celebrate the redemption wrought by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; He died so that our sins might be forgiven.  These are important feasts, so it makes sense that we focus our attention on these mysteries of our salvation.

In light of all of this, Marcy asks: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that?  Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?  Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”

Thanks to Marcy’s excellent questions, we will divide this discussion into two major topics: The dating of Christmas (compared to the dating of Easter) and pagan influences on Christmas celebrations.  We will look at the latter topic in this first post, and will take up the question of dating Easter and Christmas in the next post.

Many Christian religious traditions (not just those involving Christmas) developed from ancient pagan rituals.  It is part of being Catholic.  The word “catholic” means universal, and from the beginning of the Church, from its earliest days of evangelization, Christian missionaries have sought to incorporate the rituals of those converted into the rituals of the liturgy and Christian living.  In a sense, the Church “baptized” these pagan rites to aid the spiritual life of the former pagans, who would more likely than not reject the alien practices of the larger Christian cities (Rome, Constantinople, etc).  Such an embracing of pagan practices made it easier for recent converts to adapt to their new Faith.  It always helps to show catechumens not only the truths of the Faith, but also how their previous beliefs had already prepared them to accept Truth.

One sees this incorporation of pagan practices throughout the missionary activity of the Church, especially following the conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  Pope Gregory the Great encouraged St. Augustine of Canterbury, when evangelizing the British, to convert pagan temples into churches and pagan rituals into Christian festivals to which they might be connected.  Similar stories abound involving the Christianization of Ireland, Germany, and France, the preaching of the Faith in Asia and Africa, and the conversion of the Native Americans in both North and South America.  In all of these cases, the earlier pagan rituals were adapted to the Christian beliefs so that the culture of the people might remain intact.  The Church, as guardian of culture, always seeks to find the best in true culture, rejecting what is evil and elevating what is good.

So it was with Christmas.  Many of the traditions associated with Christmas stem from earlier, pre-Christian practices which the Church saw as beneficial for the faithful.  The Christmas tree is perhaps the clearest example of this.  Stories connect the Christmas tree with the story of St. Boniface, the 8th century missionary to Germany, who chopped down an oak tree worshipped in a pagan village (well, he started to chop it down, but a powerful wind finishes the job for him).  When Boniface didn’t die (the pagan priests said the gods would strike him dead if he chopped down the tree) the people converted.  The story concludes with Boniface pointing to an evergreen fir sprout growing near the felled tree.  No more human sacrifices, Boniface said (human sacrifices were prevalent in pre-Christian Germany), and pointed to the evergreen as a counter to the fallen tree.  The evergreen thus became a symbol for Christ, for just as the evergreen remained green through the dead of winter, so also Christ conquered death and sin.  Now, whether Boniface actually taught this or not does not matter; what does matter is that subsequent Christian generations have adopted the evergreen as a symbol of eternal life in Christ.  The actual practice of decorating the tree didn’t come about until the 15th and 16th centuries in Germany; the History Channel’s website names Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, as the one who first put lights on the trees.  Until the late 19th century, Christmas trees were seen as a specifically German particularism.  Thanks to the mixing of immigrants in America, the popularity of the Christmas tree has spread.

The Yule log, on the other hand, does not have a missionary saint as its legendary origin; it seems that St. Boniface even banned the early ancestors of Yule logs.  It seems that the ceremony stemmed from people lighting their fireplaces during the winter; it was only in the 16th century that Englishmen started holding elaborate ceremonies where a log was burned publicly.  Even then, the Yule remained, for the most part, a household tradition, less connected with religion and more connected with winter.

So why the pagan traditions in Christmas?  Because there was nothing overtly anti-Christian about them.  Having a tree to symbolize eternal life in your house far outshined the ritualistic human sacrifices of the Germanic pagans.  If it didn’t hurt the Faith of the former pagans, then the Church saw such traditions as helpful, and either allowed them to exist or utilized them, leading to cultural flourishing.

For Further Reading:

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia. – Provides some information concerning the background of some Christmas traditions.

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Are Papal tweets infallible?

Are Papal tweets infallible?.  With the Pope’s new Twitter account going live tomorrow, this question seems to have come up in the press.

 

Silly press people.

 

Here’s a good reiteration of Papal authority, over at Improperium Christi.  The post also goes into what exactly the Church means by infallibility, which seems to be a controversial misunderstanding even today, almost 150 years after it was official defined at the First Vatican Council.

 

And if you haven’t seen already, you can follow Quidquid on Twitter @quidquidestest.

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Question: Are similar sacred symbolic signs coincidence or not?

Marcy asks: “What do you make of the similarity of various elements of ritual and their roles in religion?  For instance, many disparate and far-ranging belief systems share the use of fire and/or smoke to purify a space or item.  Similarly, water is often used.  And candles. And music/drumming.  Do you think this is coincidental, invented, or is there some inherent property of these items that compels people to incorporate them into rituals?”

It should not surprise us that similar rituals and symbols span across man’s worship of the divine.  Both monotheistic and polytheistic religions share similar rituals.  From whence do these rituals stem (and, by the way, when was the last time you saw “whence” in a blog post?!)?  Does this in some way cheapen or degrade highly ritualistic religions, such as Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, Hasidic Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, since they all seem, at one glance, the same, with just some variety in their particulars (for some people, not me of course, important points like the number of deities and whether the soul is immortal count more as particulars to a religion rather than fundamental tenets of the faith)?  Or does it point to something higher, something that transcends our rituals?

First, let’s look at worship.

Worship is one of those acts of man that is defined by the Natural Law.  Natural Law is basically the basic, ethical beliefs man can know through reason alone, without the aid of divine Revelation.  Natural Law is not dependent on one set historical time or one physical location.  Most of Natural Law deals with our interaction with other people.  Respecting life falls under the Natural Law.  Monogamy falls under it as well, as does respecting the property of others.  In an intriguing twist of focus, the worship of God likewise falls under the auspices of Natural Law.  Now this worship of God has, of course, manifested itself in different aspects in different places and times.  It is natural for man to worship God, and thus we do it.  We must thank the Creator, and in doing so worship Him.  “It is right and just,” to quote the Roman Missal.  It is fitting to worship God, as He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, all we can sense and all that is beyond our senses.  Is it any wonder that the ultimate form of Christian worship, the ritual instituted by Christ before His death on the Cross, is the Eucharist?  The very word Eucharist, after all, means “thanksgiving.”  Here is worship with thanksgiving as its very heart.

So we all should worship God.  Man has done just that for his entire existence.

Now, let us look at some rituals we mere mortals have used throughout the centuries to address God, to try to thank Him for His greatness.  Marcy notes several universally used items: fire and smoke, water, candles, and music.  I will reflect on these in turn, offering some historical examination, but also dive into some personal thoughts as to why these items are used.

1) Fire and Smoke:

How can one reach Heaven?  If in the sky the gods do dwell, and we mere morals must lie here below, then some other means must be chosen to bear up our burdens to the divine throne.

And so began the wide-spread ritual of burning offerings to the gods, or God, if you are a pious monotheist.

Fire held a strange power for early man.  Here was something which was pleasant and warm when you felt cold, but if you touched it the fire burned, and thus you were hurt.  Man had to control fire, but even when he thought he was in control, fire could still rage beyond stopping.  Fire destroys what it touches, burning and curling its victims until what was once one thing can no longer be recognized as what it once was.  Fire has strength, a wild and uncontrollable aspect to it, which man early on faced with great care.  Surely this fire must have come from God, for only the divine could make something so seemingly invincible.

We don’t know exactly when man first began to use fire, rather than fear it, but we do know it happened in the Old Stone Age, thousands of years before the earliest farming.  It may have been the second great invention of mankind, second only to the making of tools.  Once man controlled fire, he could move out of warmer climates close to the equator and head north; he could cook food, realizing that sweet smells emanated from cooking meat and vegetables.

Then man realized that fire, the sure sign of God’s power, could be a way to give back to God.  Here was the earliest sign of sacrifice.  Sacrifice requires the destruction of a victim, a victim which can replace the one offering the sacrifice.  Fire does the job nicely, destroying the victim beyond recognition.  It also purges away impurities, and can thus symbolize a purifying of our hearts (it is worth noting here that Catholic tradition uses the symbol of purging fire to represent the purgation process of Purgatory).  At the same time, smoke emanates from the fire, rising towards Heaven.  Here all cultures and religions agree: the smoke represents the prayers/sacrifices rising to the divine being, who then delights in the pleasing smell.  Fire thus has a practical purpose (destroying the sacrificial victim) and a symbolic one (raising the prayers to Heaven).

2) Water:

Water is life.  Is it any wonder why Thales, that notorious pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that all matter was, in some way, made up of water?  Early man did not know that life began in the oceans; he did know, however, that if he did not find water, he and his family would die.  Water vivifies, purifies, and beautifies everything.  Dead lands erupt with green after the spring rains.  What was once a desert sprouts into a lush field.  Water brings new life; water brings resurrection.

It should not surprise us, then, that man incorporated water into religious rituals.  If one is to worship God, one must be (at least symbolically) purified.  Thus came washing rituals.  The priests in many religions underwent some sort of washing ritual to symbolize their cleansing themselves of their imperfections and sins, to better prepare themselves to worship God.  This is clearly illustrated in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.  These two books lay out in details the ritual life for the Jewish people, including rituals for washing and purifying garments, items, and people after some sort of defilement.  One sees references to this throughout the New Testament as well (look at the scene during the Last Supper in John 13:1–20, wherein Jesus cleans the Apostles’ feet).  In Christian liturgy, water plays an essential role in the sacrament of Baptism (it is the matter, or physical reality, needed for the sacrament to be valid) but also in the Eucharist, where the priest washes his fingers during the preparation of the altar and also after the distribution of the Eucharist.  As always, water cleans and purifies, but in Baptism in particular, water is not merely a symbol; as in all sacraments, it does what it symbolizes.  With the waters of Baptism, Original Sin is washed away, leaving a soul perfect, purified and ready for God’s grace.

3) Candles:

Candles serve a practical purpose in religious ceremonies: they provide light.  Candles harness the darkness-shattering aspect of fire, but limit it to one small spot, specifically a darkened room in some sacred temple.  Again, usefulness led to symbolism, and the candles originally used for light came to represent some higher reality.  For example, lamps and candles hung in the temple in Jerusalem, illuminating and representing God’s light in darkness.

I don’t normally do this, but I’ll risk my credibility: The Wikipedia article “Ceremonial Use of Lights” does a better job discussing the various traditions and rituals associated with candles in various world religions than I could ever do.

4) Music: 

All religions, as far as I know, incorporate some sort of music into their rituals.  Music moves the heart and mind to focus on higher things, to draw into the divine life with God.  Music proper to worship turns the listener’s attention to God, rather than to the performer.  This is why applause is so out of place during a religious ceremony.  Literally, in such circumstances, the focus turns from divine matters to human achievements.  Worship should unite us with each other through the common worship of God; when we focus on the achievements of others rather than on God, we ignore the entire purpose of worship.  That is also why some music is inappropriate for worship.

Across the various world religions, polytheistic or monotheistic, ancient or recent, one style of liturgical music reappears throughout the centuries: chant.  Buddhists chant, as do Jews and Christians (at least Catholics and Orthodox Christians do; there is very little chant in Protestant Christian communities).  There is something about the melody of chant that speaks to the basic life in man.  It is as if the whole person bursts out in vocalizations to God.  Chanters worship God with their voices in a way that other liturgical music, even choral pieces (and even polyphonic pieces, no matter their breath-taking beauty), cannot match.  Chant is simple and expressive, and in it one feels the whole of human existence, its pains, hopes, and triumphs.

To conclude this post, let us return to our main focus.  Though all religions might share similar symbols, these do not point to some irreligious theory, that all religions are the same.  Even universal religious symbols, such as fire, can take on drastically different roles depending on the religion.  Fire meant something very different to the worshipers of Ba’al, in the days of Elijah the prophet and in the ancient city-state of Carthage, than it does to us Christians (read up on the worship of Ba’al, if you want to see the footprints of Satan in history).  Such differences point to the fundamental truths, the essential realities, which underline all systems of belief.  If only a couple, related systems of belief used these symbols, one could easily dismiss the similarities as sociological coincidences.  The universality of symbols such as water, fire, and music transcend time, and thus the quest to worship and honor the divine, a drive so essential to our human existence, manifests itself in striking similar ways.  Over the centuries, man has tried to worship God.  Some rituals work, and so rituals echo each other throughout time.  In reflecting on this, one should not think that religion is false.  On the contrary, one must confess, with almost the entire population of the planet, that there is a God who is deserving of our honor and worship.

So Marcy, no, it is not coincidence that most religions use the same liturgical symbols.  Mankind turns to reoccurring themes in worship, and so uses the same tools.  We spiritually cleanse ourselves with water; we send our offerings to Heaven with the smoke of incense; we draw our hearts to God through authentic liturgical music.  We are material creatures, and thus we must use the material world to try and reach God in worship and in our daily lives.  Most importantly, of course, is if we approach our daily lives correctly, we can worship unceasingly, for our daily life becomes a prayer, a sort of sacrament through which God works wonders.  We are meant to worship God, and for generations to come, people will use similar symbols not because of some human construction, but because the items themselves are the symbols.  In symbols, therefore, we see the unseen hand of God working and drawing us to Him, where we might worship and sing his praises forever.

For further reading:

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – Though dealing mainly with Catholic liturgical practices, then-Cardinal Ratzinger does address in broad strokes some aspects of man’s universal desire to worship God (there is a whole chapter devoted to Music and Liturgy which ties in with the points made above concerning proper liturgical music).

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Question: Were there women popes?

Marcy asks, “Were there women popes?”  

There is a dark legend in Church history, stemming from the 13th century, of a great scandal that occurred in Rome between the pontificates of Pope Leo IV (847-55) and Benedict III (855-58) (or in the first decade of the 1100s): A woman was somehow elected pope.  The story usually goes thus: A young woman entered a monastery disguised as a monk in order to study.  She took a lover, who moved her up through the rankings of the Church, so that she might be close to him.  Her reputation as a brilliant mind grew, and she was elected pope.  However, she kept her lover (or found another) because the legend continues with her becoming pregnant, hiding the signs of her pregnancy under her papal robes.  She managed to hide this minor detail for the entire length of her pregnancy until one day, during a procession from St. Peter’s on the Vatican to St. John Lateran, she gave birth, much to the shock and horror of the crowd.  She died in one way or another (some say she died in childbirth, others say the crowd killed her, others say she and the baby were burned alive, and one record even states that she was dragged around by a horse and stoned to death), and thus ends the sordid tale of Pope Joan (as post-Reformation Church critics would call her, though the earlier medieval manuscripts all refer to her by the name of “John”).  Her legacy remains, according to those who argue for her existence, in a statue on the Via San Giovanni in Laterano, the road that leads to St. John Lateran (late medieval guides for pilgrims mentioned the statue), in a bust in the cathedral in Siena, and in over 500 medieval manuscripts which mention the story, or at least reference a pope named Joan. 

Pretty convincing, huh?  Lots of historical documents, exact dates, and artistic representations seem to provide ample evidence that there was a woman who reigned as pope and lost the papal throne due to childbirth.  The integrity of the papacy is ruined!  The Catholic Church has lost its claim to authority! 

A closer look, however, proves the claims false.  There was no Pope Joan. 

Our examination of the claims concerning Pope Joan turns to two well-researched sources.  The first is very sympathetic to the Church, an article written by Dennis Barton over at Churchinhistory.org; the other comes from John Julius Norwich’s recent book Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 2011), which is less sympathetic to Catholic history.  Both men come to the same conclusion: Pope Joan never existed. 

The earliest references to a female pope come from Jean de Mailly, a French Dominican who wrote the Chronica Universalis Metensis around the year 1250, who mentioned a female pope “who is not set down in the lists of popes or bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man” (quoted in Norwich, 64).  Mailly claims the whole female pope scandal occurred in 1099, historically when Pope Paschal II began his reign (Mailly postponed Paschal’s reign until 1106, cutting Paschal’s nineteen-year reign by seven years).  The other major source of the legend is another Dominican, Martin Polonus, who in his Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum wrote the most famous record of the female pope (he places her story between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III).  The earliest edition of Martin Polonus’ work does not include the story, however, and it seems that it was added after the monk’s death.  The story appears throughout the Middle Ages, repeated with little variation from Polonus’ work (Polonus had been a chaplain for Pope Clement IV, and had thus earned an air of authority in all things papal).  It is this story that inspired later interpretations of the legend. 

But the Polonus legend falls apart under any serious examination.  The time he gives for Joan’s reign, between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III, leaves Joan only two months to reign, from July 17 – September 29, 855 (this assumes, of course, the impossible: an instantaneous papal election).  This is clearly not enough time to do any/all of the activities attributed to Joan.  The historical circumstances surrounding the election of Pope Benedict (worthy in itself of a short blog post. . . ) were crazy enough without throwing a woman papal claimant into the mix. 

No contemporary historian or writer at that time mentions a woman pope; antipope Anastasius (who also tried to be pope in the confusion) makes no mention of her in the memoirs of his antipope reign.  Likewise, Benedict III’s successor, Pope St. Nicholas the Great, makes no mention of a woman papal claimant, even as antipope, and says he immediately succeeded Benedict, who immediately succeeded Leo.  Likewise, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, no friend of the papacy and papal authority, refers to Pope Nicholas (with whom he was embroiled in a controversy known as the Photian Schism) as following Leo and Benedict in progression of the papal throne.  If he wanted to attack Nicholas’ authority, what better weapon could there be than a scandalous female pope.  No such mention exists in any of Photius’ writings.  In a similar story, Pope St. Leo IX, in the 1050s, wrote to and criticized Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople for allowing eunuchs to be patriarchs in the eastern half of Christendom.  This too easily allowed for women to sneak into the role of bishop, the pope argued; no counter-reply from Constantinople cited the shocking story of a woman pope.  There is simply not enough historical evidence that Pope Joan lived when she was supposed to have lived. 

But what of the multiple documents that refer to her existence?  Dennis Barton notes that all of these major works, from the 9th century through the early decades of the 13th century, do not mention the story of the female pope in their earliest manuscripts; mention of a female pope does not appear in copies of the documents before 1275.  It was after the publication of Martin Polonus’ story that these earlier documents included their own copy of Polonus’ account. 

Also, upon examining the medieval guides for pilgrims in Rome, one does not see any reference to the story of a woman pope nor the statue that marked where she supposedly gave birth until after 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome from France (definitely the topic of another post).  Perhaps the return of the popes sparked an interest in sensational stories, and a woman pope would fit perfectly into the pilgrims’ curious mindset.  As for the notorious sedes stercoraria, large porphyry thrones with a large hole in the seat supposedly designed to check if a pope was a man, there is no mention of their use in any of the papal ceremony texts of the Church. 

So there we have it.  The story of Pope Joan doesn’t add up.  She does not fit into the history of the papacy.  Her shocking story only appears in chronicles written 400 years after her supposed reign.  “Not one contemporary chronicler nor one letter written anywhere in Rome or Europe mentioned a pope who had given birth in public. Yet this would have been the news story of the age” (Barton, 3).   And, as John Norwich notes, “the best argument of all is the sheer improbability of a female pope, a long deception, a hidden pregnancy, a sudden birth in public” (Norwich, 70).  Thus settles the story of Pope Joan. 

So no, there has not been a female pope in Church history, nor can there ever be one, as the pope is a bishop, and therefore a priest, and since only men can be priests in the Catholic Church, there cannot be a female pope in the future. 

For further reading

Dennis Barton, “Pope Joan,” Church in History, (May 29, 2006), available at http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/popejoan.pdf, accessed July 30, 2012. 

John Julius Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (New York: Random House, 2011), 63–70. 

Johann Peter Kirsch, “Popess Joan” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm, accessed July 30, 2012. 

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