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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

St Jerome and Caravaggio

Yesterday was the birthday of the famous early Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi, who was born in Milan in 1571, and named for the Saint of the day. “Michelangelo” is a fairly common name in Italy, and he shares it with more than one artist of the same century, of whom the most famous by far bore the last name Buonarroti. The young Merisi would discover this to be a problem for his career when he came to Rome in 1592 at the age of 21, less than 30 years after the death of the painter of the Sistine Chapel, sculptor of the Pietà, and architect of St Peter’s; to set himself apart, he used the name of the village where his parents had been born, Caravaggio.

Today, he is without question one of the most admired painters of his era; between 2000 and 2010, there were five major shows dedicated to him in the city of Rome, where many of his works can be seen in various churches and museums. In his own lifetime, while certainly successful, and very influential on other painters, he was also a controversial figure, for reasons which are far more interesting than those given by the silly anti-clerical fantasies of certain modern writers. His life can most charitably be described as disordered, but was rarely described charitably by his contemporaries.

More than one of his paintings was rejected after completion. The best-known of these, the Madonna dei Palafrienieri (“of the grooms” of the Papal court), was first displayed in St Peter’s, but soon moved to the parish church of the Vatican, dedicated to St Anne, and thence to the private collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Ss Joachim and Anne were traditionally held to have been childless for many years when they conceived the Virgin Mary by a special grace; therefore, by the time Mary herself was the mother of a toddler, Anne would be very old indeed. Caravaggio, who believed intensely in the use of radical naturalism and realism in his works, paints her as a very old woman, whose face has none of the sweetness one might expect an Italian (of all peoples) to show in the face of Jesus’ grandma. Much more importantly, the whole orientation of the painting, the lines and the sweep of the light, sends the eye downwards; this, and the intense darkness of the background, are wholly out of keeping with the architectural spirit of the churches in which it was only very briefly displayed, both of them bright spaces with bright domes that lift the eye up to heaven.

It is perhaps no more than a coincidence, but a very interesting one, that Caravaggio did three fairly similar paintings of the Saint whose name he would perhaps have received if he had been born only one day later. I suspect Jerome was a figure with whom he must have felt a strong affinity. The great project of this Doctor of the Church, to produce a fresh translation of the Bible from the “truth of the Hebrew text (Hebraica veritas)”, as he often called it, was as controversial in the late 4th century as Caravaggio’s work would be 12 centuries later. In his prologues to the various books, St Jerome complains frequently of those who ignorantly criticize him for “changing the Bible”, not realizing how much and how often the older Latin and Greek versions had themselves been changed. In the prologue to Ezra and Nehemiah, he even pleads with the people he was sending it to not to circulate it publicly, lest it stir up further hatred against him. (This is, of course, a purely rhetorical plea from a master polemicist who knows full well that his work will be widely circulated, and in the end vindicated.) In a similar vein, Caravaggio was once called “that Milanese fellow who wants to destroy the art of painting.”

The most famous of the three is the one now displayed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, directly across the room from the Madonna dei Palafrenieri.
It is possible that Scipione Borghese commissioned this shortly after becoming a cardinal in 1605. Jerome had served for a time as the secretary of Pope St Damasus I, and is therefore traditionally depicted as a cardinal, which the contemporary Pope’s secretary would normally be. In addition to a host of other roles, Card. Borghese was made Secretary for Apostolic Briefs, the equivalent of Jerome’s position, by his uncle, Pope Paul V.

Caravaggio was trained in youth as a still-life painter, and never really learned to paint as anything else. He was completely dependent on models, and this accounts for some of the flaws in his work. The Counter-Reformation period laid heavy emphasis on the fact that St Jerome was not merely a learned man, but a monk, a response to the Protestants’ misuse of his learning in support of their theological innovations. His robes are therefore opened to show his body emaciated by an ascetic life of the kind rejected by the early Protestants. (This will become the standard way of representing him for the rest of the 17th century.) The anatomy of Jerome’s chest in this painting is not so much incorrect as absent; the elderly model simply cannot stay in that odd position long enough for Caravaggio to paint him properly. On the other hand, the figure on the left, whose model is long past feeling fatigue, shows no distortion at all.

One may also imagine how the featureless black background appeared to those who were used to seeing St Jerome in a rather more cluttered study. This version by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s painting teacher, is typical. (From the church of All Saints in Florence, 1480)
His other two paintings of St Jerome are less well known than that of the famous Borghese Gallery, but in point of fact both done rather more precisely. One of them, St Jerome in Meditation, is thought to be contemporary to the Borghese one, and commissioned for another Cardinal, Benedetto Giustiniani; it is now at the Museum of the Abbey of Montserrat.
The same model is used as in the Borghese painting; for an artist who is wholly dependent on the use of models, it is easier to learn a face and use it repeatedly than to constantly learn new faces, and there are several models who appear in more than one work by Caravaggio. The less strained position has given the artist time to paint a much better figure in regards to anatomy; the background is now completely featureless, bringing Jerome the ascetic to the fore, with no hint of Jerome the scholar.

The other dates from two years later, when Caravaggio had gone to Malta to work under the patronage of the Knights of Malta, and is kept in the cathedral of St John in Valletta.
Here the various traditions for representing St Jerome are finely balanced. The scholar writes at his table, but the crucifix and skull show us that he is also a monastic and a contemplative. The table itself, which is almost sticking out at the viewer, the section of a wall on the right, and especially the wall on the left where the galero hangs, create a much more realistic sense of space. (The galero also reminds us, against the idea of a “Protestant” Jerome, of his close association with the Papacy.) Most notably, the radical chiaroscuro of the earlier paintings is considerably tempered by the lighter background; it is a far less showy painting, one which speaks of an artist who is maturing.

Caravaggio is today known by many for the shocking realism of some of his works, such as the very bloody “Judith Decapitating Holofernes” in the Barberini Gallery in Rome, or the “Martyrdom of St Ursula”, which captures the very moment at which she is shot in the chest with an arrow. It is probably fair to say that that is what makes him so appealing to modern tastes, just as it made him widely detested in the 19th century. (One English guide book of Rome which was well-known in that era did not mention his “Madonna of Loreto” in its description of the church of St Augustine.) And yet it is in the painting of an elderly man quietly working in his study, or alone in silent contemplation, that we see this maturation taking place.

Sacred Music Boot Camp

Interested in learning the basics of how to chant? How to start a chant choir? Wondering what the fundamentals principles of singing the Mass? Confused about what's going on in the music program in your parish and decided that you'd like to help out? 

The CMAA has got the perfect event for you. 
Sacred Music Boot Camp

October 15–17, 2020, Live on Zoom
It's an entry point into the Church's treasury of sacred music, designed for the average parishioner who's musically inclined, the music director who'd like to begin to bring the beauty of chant and sacred polyphony to your Sunday Masses, or the pastor looking for ideas and resources on how to improve his parish music program.  

Sessions include: 
  • The Hierarchy of the Sung Liturgy: When and What to Sing
  • How to Read Square Notes
  • How to Start a Chant Choir
  • The Basics of Conducting Chant
  • The Role of the Organ in the Liturgy: When and What to Play + To Accompany Chant or Not? 
  • How Did We Get Here? The History of Sacred Music after Vatican II in the U.S.
  • COVID-19 Research and Risk Mitigation in Choral Singing
  • Building a Music Program Budget
The first three sessions listed above will be offered simultaneously in Spanish for free. 
Also for free are the opening spiritual reflection and Compline of each day. Admission to the other sessions is $30. 
More information and registration are available here
We hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

St Michael in the Apocrypha

The Archangel Michael is mentioned three times in the book of Daniel, once in the Apocalypse, and once in the Epistle of St Jude, and these are all of his Biblical appearances. Both New Testament authors introduce him quite abruptly, taking it for granted that their readers already know who he is. “And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon…” (Apoc. 12, 7) This would certainly be due to his prominence in pre-Christian Jewish literature, works of the sort which we now call (rather inexactly) apocrypha. And indeed, the mention of him in the Epistle of St Jude is taken from such a work.

St Michael Defeating the Devil, by Guido Reni, 1635
“When Michael the Archangel, disputing with the devil, contended about the body of Moses, he durst not bring against him the judgment of railing speech, but said: The Lord command thee.” (verse 9) These words refer to an episode in a Jewish apocryphal work called The Assumption of Moses, which is only partially preserved; it is not in the part that survives, but ancient scholars such as Origen, who had the complete text to hand, say that it is in the work cited by St Jude. One explanation of the story is that the devil sought to claim possession of Moses’ body as that of a murderer, since he had killed the Egyptian, (Exod. 2, 11-12), and it was for this that St Michael said, “May God rebuke thee.” (In this context, it should be remembered that the Greek word “diabolos” means “slanderer.”) Another explanation is based on a tradition which goes all the way back to Tertullian, that idolatry was taught to mankind by the devil; therefore, in the story cited by St Jude, the devil’s purpose in trying to get the body of Moses would be to have the Jews worship it as an idol.

The story has attracted almost no attention from artists, with one very prominent exception, a fresco of it in the Sistine Chapel. When the chapel was originally constructed, Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) commissioned a group of some of the most prominent painters of the era (Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Perugino among them) to paint eight episodes each from the lives of Moses and Christ; they are paired to show how the Church understands the life of Moses, the lawgiver of the Old Testament, as a prophecy of the life of Christ, the lawgiver of the New Testament. The final two, however, The Dispute over the Body of Moses and The Resurrection of Christ, break the parallelism; Moses, the giver of the old Law, dies and stays dead, but Christ, the giver of the new Law, rises from the dead.

These last two are on the chapel’s back wall, which has a large door in the middle, under part of each of the paintings. On Christmas Day of 1522, the architrave over the door suddenly cracked and fell, just after Pope Hadrian VI had passed under it while processing into the chapel to say Mass. (Two of his guards were killed.) This break would eventually lead to the complete deterioration of the paintings; around 1575, Matteo da Lecce replaced the original Dispute over the Body of Moses with the same subject, but in a very different style, as Hendrick van den Broeck had done about 20 years earlier with the Resurrection.


St Michael also figures very prominently in another apocryphal work, The Testament of Abraham, which exists in two recensions; the longer of these mentions him 24 times, the shorter 44 times. The basic idea of both is that he is sent to Abraham, whose life is extended from the Biblical 175 years (Genesis 25, 7) to 995 in the long recension, to persuade him to accept that his time has come to die. When Abraham’s son Isaac comes to meet the Archangel, the latter says to him, “the Lord God will grant you his promise that he made to your father Abraham and to his seed.” (chapter 3) Later on, Abraham meets Death himself, who appears to him with the heads of various animals, including a “terrible lion.” (chapter 17) Finally, when Abraham dies, “the archangel Michael came with a multitude of angels and took up his precious soul in his hands … and they tended the body of the just Abraham …. but the angels received his precious soul.” (chapter 20) These passage were clearly the inspiration for the first part of the Offertory chant of the Requiem Mass.

“O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell and from the bottomless pit; deliver them out of the lion’s mouth, lest hell should swallow them up, lest they fall into darkness; but let Thy standard-bearer, Saint Michael, bring them into Thy holy light, which Thou didst promise of old to Abraham and to his seed.”

Choosing Color: Should We Reject Modern Chemically-Created Pigments?

Some who do not paint might imagine that there is a range of colors available to artists that match everything you see in the world around us. So if you want to paint a landscape, for example, all you have to do is look at what you are painting, compare it with the range of tubes of paint available at the local art store, and select the match.

In fact, it is not as simple as that. The range of colors available as pigments in paint is limited. Paint pigments are inert minerals that are chosen because they are believed to be stable for hundreds of years. (In sacred art, the intention is that they will last until the Second Coming). The pigment should not react chemically with the binding medium, with air, with light, or with any other pigments that they come into contact with. In practice, there is virtually no pigment that fulfills these criteria perfectly - light especially degrades most colors - so one must always make a compromise. It isn’t just a case of extracting the green that is in vegetation and making paint out of it; what might be beautifully colored in lush vegetation does not have the necessary physical properties to be pigment for paint.

One test of whether or not a pigment will degrade with time is to look at its past use. We can look at these frescoes in ancient Pompeii and see that these pigments have lasted. But even then, there is some doubt, because we don’t always know for certain what the colors looked like when they were applied; colors do change and degrade over time and change, even if they remain bright. 


It is a sign of the scarcity of good pigments that occur naturally (and the value that was placed on good color in paintings in the past) that people were prepared to grind a scarce gemstone to create lapis lazuli blue, as we see here in the robe of the Virgin Mary.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1342-44, Siena, Italy
As with any situation in which demand exceeds supply to create scarcity, this creates a drive to find more to bring the cost down. This could involve looking for more natural deposits, or chemically creating new compounds. One of the by-products of the art of alchemy in the Middle Ages was the discovery of new compounds that were suitable for use as pigments. One example is mercuric sulfide - vermillion. The following video was created by the Getty Museum. Vermillion is the orange-red color in the hand-held bowl in the picture below.
As the field of chemistry developed, especially in the 19th century, the pace at which new pigments were discovered increased. This is one of the things that allow bright colors in paintings of the Impressionists, for example. The blue produced by lapis lazuli was called “ultramarine”, which means “beyond the sea”, because it was mined in Afghanistan, beyond the farthest shores of the Mediterranean (relative to Italy). A chemically created imitation of the pigment was developed in France in 1826 and what is generally referred to as “ultramarine blue” today is this artificial pigment.
Lapis lazuli mineral; ground lapis lazuli; and artificial ultramarine blue
I do not use the word “artificial” here in a pejorative sense, but literally, as in “the product of artifice, made by man.” These new colors enhanced artists’ powers to create beauty. The quantity of ultramarine blue in this Impressionist painting, for example, would have made the painting prohibitively expensive prior to the mass production of the blue pigment, and no artist would have attempted such a landscape.
The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate, by Frederick Childe Hassam (American), 1914 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Greater Accessibility… To Whom, To What, and Why?

Throughout the years of liturgical reform — and for many long decades thereafter — the avalanche of changes to Catholic worship were often justified by a few magical phrases that would be thrown about almost talismanically, with an air of infinite superiority to the meager mentalities of lowly laity. The leading contender was certainly the phrase “active participation,” but joining it were “Modern Man,” “meeting people where they’re at,” “doing like the early Church,” and, what is of most interest to me in this article, “greater accessibility.”

The revised liturgy was supposed to be, and was claimed and asserted to be, “more accessible,” but this is a monumental smokescreen if ever there was one. After all, nothing is more or less accessible in the abstract or without further qualification. One must always ask: “Accessible to whom? And giving access to what? And for the purpose of…?”

Almost exclusively, accessibility was understood as primarily or exclusively a verbal-conceptual phenomenon. If you can immediately grasp this bite-sized chunk of content, without further preparation, explanation, or remainder of bewilderment, then it’s considered to be accessible to you. The object of such immediate and complete comprehension obviously cannot be God, whom every orthodox theologian declares right off the bat to be incomprehensible; nor can it be man, who, as being made unto God’s image, is a mystery to himself; nor can it be the world, which is far too complicated and vast to fit into man’s mind, even if a thousand Einsteins were to chip away at it; nor can it be the mysteries revealed by God in history and delivered in Scripture, since each one of these is a combination of all of the above. Therefore, a perfectly accessible liturgy, in the sense given above, would have to be about nothing, address no one, and lead nowhere.

This, admittedly, is a limit case fortunately never reached: there is always a residue of unintelligibility in anything human beings do, even if they are trying to avoid it. To the extent that any elements of the traditional divine liturgy remained, the incomprehensibility of God, of man, of the cosmos, and of the mysteries of Christ remained. Still, the reform introduced a fundamental tension between allowing the liturgy to be mysterious, as it must be, and trying, in the name of liturgical science, to purge it of the very features that tended to make it aweful, fearful, darksome, intricate, wondrous, and yet, paradoxically, also make it orderly and ordering, familiar and comforting, unassuming and free of invasive irritation.

At Ordinations in the classical Roman rite: what’s not to love?
It seems to me that there is a mighty irony at work in the revival of the traditional Latin liturgy of the Roman church. The irony is that, in spite of everything the scholars and tinkerers were predicting, in spite of all their hand-wringing, new generations find the old rites in general quite sufficiently accessible, indeed more so than the new rites, as long as one has a broader and deeper definition of accessibility. The reason is not far to seek: the old liturgy appeals more consistently, more powerfully, to the full range of reality, natural and supernatural; of what it is to be human; of how we express ourselves, and what we are trying to express in words, gestures, songs, and sighs. It appeals to all the senses, the various temperaments and personalities, the different levels on which our interior life plays out and intersects with the external world.

The traditional Roman liturgy — and this is true of any traditional apostolic rite in Christianity — recognizes a truth on which psychologists never tire of discoursing: human beings primarily communicate non-verbally. As a matter of fact, we are never not communicating something, even if we are not talking or have no intention of conveying a meaning. Orderliness and defentiality speak volumes, just as carelessness and casualness do. A liturgy, like any human ceremony, is constantly communicating through every word, stance, gesture, position, action, silence. The old liturgy, by harnessing and regulating these things in a harmonious way to bring out their full meaning, is more communicative; in that sense, it proffers more to access, and in more ways. The reformed liturgy, by eliminating traditional non-verbal language and then leaving so much to chance and idiosyncratic habit, thins the content and its delivery, while mingling it with extraneous and contradictory matter.

Many of these thoughts were prompted by a video on body language that made me much more conscious of the importance of small and non-verbal details in liturgy (and, therefore, the importance of being aware of them and faithful to their proper execution). The expert interviewed, Joe Navarro, looks at people from the point of view of an FBI agent trying to assess potential threats, witnesses, etc. The part of the video most relevant to the liturgy runs from 7:10–8:10. Here is a transcription of some of the points he makes about body language:
  • “How we dress, how we walk, have meaning, and we use that to interpret what’s in the mind of the person.”
  • “We may think we’re very sophisticated, [but] we are never in a state where we’re not transmitting information.”
  • “We’re all transmitting at all times; we choose the clothes that we wear, how we groom ourselves, how we dress, but also how do we carry ourselves, are we coming to the office on this particular day with a lot of energy, or are we coming in with a different sort of pace… and what we look for are differences in behaviour, down to the minutia of: what is this individual’s posture as they walk down the street, are they on the inside of the sidewalk, on the outside, can we see his blink rate, how often he is looking at his watch…”
  • “You can have a poker face, but you can’t have a poker body — somewhere it’s going to be revealed.” 
  • “We talk about non-verbals because it matters, because it has gravitas, because it affects how we communicate with each other.”
  • “When it comes to non-verbals, this is no small matter. We primarily communicate non-verbally and we always will.”


Phrases like: “we primarily communicate non-verbally” and “we’re never not communicating something” are very relevant to the celebration of Mass. Every gesture — for example, the speed of movement around the altar; where the priest is standing or sitting, when, and why; how the sacred vessels are treated; whether the priest’s gaze is directed out to the people or modestly downcast — confesses what the celebrant, and the people, believe they are doing.

Why is it that the liturgical reformers seemed so tone-deaf or clueless about the most obvious things in life? Did they not realize that changing the bodily language, the gestures, postures, orientation, custody of the eyes, would effect a sea change in mentality and spirituality? Or . . . was it that they understood perfectly well, and therefore abolished, piece by piece, one non-verbal language, substituting for it another with a contrary message?

I am reminded of what has been said about the loss of faith in the Real Presence. This was not an unfortunate result of a lack of catechesis. It was the intended result of a renovated catechesis. It was not an accidental byproduct of liturgical reform gone awry; it was a premeditated outcome of a new ecclesiology that identified the worshiping community par excellence with the Body of Christ and sought to oppose the “fetishism” or “magic” of the Eucharistic cultus that had developed in the Church for at least a thousand years.

As Martin Mosebach points out with respect to Holy Communion:
[A]n entire bouquet of respectful gestures had surrounded the sacrament of the altar, and these gestures were the most effective homily, which continually showed priests and faithful quite clearly the mysterious presence of the Lord under the forms of bread and wine. We can be certain: no theological indoctrination of so-called enlightened theologians has so harmed the belief of Western Catholics in the presence of the Lord in the consecrated Host as the innovation of receiving communion in the hand, accompanied by the abandoning of all care in the handling of the particles of the Host.
          Yet can one really not receive communion reverently in the hand? Of course that is possible. Yet once the traditional forms of reverence were in place, exercising their blessed influence on the consciousness of the faithful, their discontinuation contained the message — and not just for the simple faithful — that so much reverence was not really necessary, and along with that there consequently grew the (initially unspoken) conviction that there was nothing there that demanded respect. (Subversive Catholicism: Papacy, Liturgy, Church, 80–81)
Fr. Roberto Spataro makes a similar but broader point:
Humility is more than a virtue. It is the condition for a virtuous life. Watch the bows and genuflections the humble man makes faithfully before God in a spirit of obedience, acknowledging His merciful sovereignty, His love without bounds, His creative wisdom. Reason is not tempted to be puffed up, as happens in the revolutionary process, because in the old rite not everything can or ought to be explained by reason which, for its part, is content to adore God without comprehending Him. It turns to Him through the means of a sacred language differing from ordinary speech, because in the harmonious order of creation that the liturgy represents in its rituals, there is never a monotonous repetition or tedious uniformity, but a symphony of diversity, sacred and profane, without opposition, respecting the alterity of each. Here reason also renounces an excessive use of words that unfortunately exists in the liturgical praxis inaugurated by the Novus Ordo, interpreted by many priests as the opportunity for pure garrulousness. In the old rite, on the other hand, reason appeals to other dimensions of communication and, besides words pronounced or sung, also gives silence a place. This silence becomes the atmosphere, impregnated with the Holy Spirit, in which believing thought and prayerful word is born. (In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church, 30)
What we do with our bodies is just as communicative as what we say with our lips. The liturgy should therefore govern the motions and dispositions of our limbs and senses, harnessing them as symbols of truth and instruments of sanctification. This will help us to pray, to enter more deeply into communion with the Lord, and to yield ourselves to truths that cannot be put into words or captured in concepts. As St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans, we should make our bodily members “instruments of righteousness”:

“Neither yield ye your members as instruments of iniquity unto sin” — the sin of irreverence, of disrespect for holy things, of casual, haphazard, and inconsiderate behavior during our formal audience before the great King — “but present yourselves to God,” in theocentric worship that governs our self-presentation, “as those that are alive from the dead” — the living death of modern anti-natural, anti-Christic culture — “and your members as instruments of justice unto God” (Rom 6:13), the justice, namely, of the virtue of religion.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website, SoundCloud page, and YouTube channel.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Relics of St Padre Pio (Part 2)

Following up on a post from two days ago, here are pictures of some more relics of St Padre Pio, this time from the town where he was born, Pietrelcina. After his priestly ordination in 1910, due to his poor health, he lived here with his family until 1916, when he was transferred to San Giovanni Rotondo. His family lived in a collection of rooms which his family were not all directly attached to each other as part of the same house; his own room was in this building, across the very narrow street from those of his parents.
The room where he prayed and slept in this earliest phase of his life as a priest.
The baptismal font of the little church dedicated to St Anne, in which he was baptized, and later often served Mass.
From the museum at the nearby church of the Holy Family: like all good sons of St Francis, Padre Pio understood very well that the poverty of religious is not practiced by improverishing the house of God or  the worship of God, and so of course, he did not hesitate to wear the proper liturgical vestments.  
A cloth which he used to wipe the blood from the Stigmata on his feet.

Unity versus the Devil: The Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Michelangelo, The Torment of Saint Anthony, 1487-8

Lost in Translation #18
In former ages this Sunday was called the Sunday of the Love of God because in the Gospel reading (Matt. 22, 34-46) our Lord proclaims that the two greatest commandments are to love God with one’s whole heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. It could, however, just as easily be called Unity Sunday or Oneness Sunday, since it is this theme that unites so many of its propers. The love of God and the love of neighbor may be listed as two separate commandments, but they are not two separate and disconnected loves. Rather, the love of God grounds the love of neighbor and makes it possible, for true charity (agape or caritas) is a single, supernaturally infused love that, proceeding from God and aiming at God, bubbles over into a love of our fellow man. The Christian love of neighbor is clearly a superhuman achievement impossible to achieve without grace. Think of martyrs forgiving their torturers, saints kissing the sores of lepers, and the old religious orders whose members offered themselves up as slaves in order to free Christian captives. In his commentary on this Sunday, Ildefonso Schuster contrasts the goods works of the Church with the efforts of secular powers and concludes, “The so-called philanthropy which aims at being Christian charity de-christianized never rises to this supernatural level.” [1]
In the Epistle reading (Ephesians 4, 1-6), St. Paul is all about oneness. “Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” he exhorts the Church at Ephesus. “One body and one spirit, as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all.”
The theme of a single God uniting us may explain the inclusion of this Sunday’s Collect, which makes a similar reference to “the only God”:
Da, quáesumus, Dómine, pó­pulo tuo diabólica vitáre con­tagia: et te solum Deum pura mente sectári.  Per Dómi­num.
Which I translate as:
Grant, O Lord, to Thy people for us to avoid all diabolical contagion, and with pure minds to follow Thee, the only God. Through our Lord.
Whether or not solum Deum is meant to introduce the theme of unity for this Mass, it is surprising to see mention of the devil in a Sunday Collect; in fact, it is the only mention of the devil in a Sunday Collect. Dom Gueranger does not address this peculiarity but ties the Collect to the theme of  love: “The most hateful of all the obstacles which divine love has to encounter upon earth is the jealousy of Satan, who endeavours, by an impious usurpation, to rob God of the possession of our souls--souls, that is, which were created by and for Him alone.” [2] 
The noun that “diabolical” modifies is also interesting. Contagium is in the plural as contagia, and so it contrasts nicely with the one true God (solus Deus). We cannot follow the one God, enjoy the unity of the Spirit, or be infused with the unifying virtue of charity when we are distended by a myriad of spiritual pollutions. But since the word contagia only appears in Latin literature in the plural , we can also translate it as “contagion” in the singular. Contagia is kind of like the English word “news,” which is used in the plural even when it is meant in the singular, as when we say “The evening news is on.”
“Contagion” in modern English has a clinical or medical ring to it, but interestingly in Latin contagia was only used by poets in the post-Augustan age. I wonder how that colored the Christian reception of the word during the late Patristic and early medieval periods.
What is diabolical contagion? For those first generations of Christians, it was quite straightforward. The early Church took seriously Psalm 95 (96), 5 — “All the gods of the gentiles are devils” — and viewed the Greco-Roman deities accordingly. Pagan shrines and temples were obviously diabolically contaminated, but so were groves and other natural locales. John Henry Newman sums up this attitude well in his novel Callista when a Christian character from the third century is out in the woods and declares:
O that I did not find the taint of the city in these works of God! Alas! sweet nature, the child of the Almighty, is made to do the fiend’s work, and does it better than the town. O ye beautiful trees and fair flowers, O bright sun and balmy air, what a bondage ye are in, and how do ye groan till you are redeemed from it! [3]
Reading this Sunday Collect almost a century ago, liturgical commentators identified “spiritualism” and “theosophy” as the diabolical threats of their day. Our own age, of course, can boast of so much more: New Age spirituality, the occult, neopaganism, witchcraft (Wicca), and even explicit Satanism, the “temples” of which enjoy the same legal status under U.S. law as the Catholic Church. And, of course, if we take “diabolical” in its broader sense we can include all sin, starting with those acts committed under the influence of the “spirit of fornication,” a spirit from whom we pray for deliverance in the Litany of the Saints and who seems particularly busy these days. The fact that the Collect also contrasts diabolical contagion with “pure minds” suggests perhaps this broader, moralized view.
But whether we speculate narrowly or broadly, it is right and just that we do so. The Time after Pentecost corresponds to the age in which we live, the age in between the first Pentecost and the last Judgment, and already by the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost the season is beginning to become more eschatological in tone and content as it anticipates the Last Sunday of the Year and its foreshadowing of the end of the world. It is as if the Church were inviting us, in light of impending Doomsday, to recognize the reality of our invisible enemies and identify them right now in preparation for the final struggle, a struggle that relies on the armor of one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and on one double-edged sword of the love of God and neighbor.

[1] The Sacramentary, vol. 3 (Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1927), 148.
[2] Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 11 (Bonaventure Publications, 2000), 373.
[3] Callista, (Cosimo Classics, 1856; reprinted 2007), 8.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Feast of St Thecla, First-Martyr Among Woman

In the calendar of the Byzantine Rite and both Forms of the Ambrosian Rite, today is the feast of the virgin and martyr St Thecla; in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, she is kept as a commemoration on the preceding day.

An 18th century Russian icon of St Thecla, with episodes of her life. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Her story is told in a document known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, generally dated to roughly 180 AD; the narration is often confused and disjointed, and I here give only a very basic summary of it. When St Paul went to Iconium (Acts 14, 1), he was received by a man named Onesiphorus, whose house (i.e. the community gathered in his house) is mentioned twice in II Timothy; in verse 3, 11, Paul also mentions “the persecutions and suffering such as I underwent at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra.” Inspired by his preaching particularly on the subject of virginity, one of the young women present, Thecla, determined not to marry the man to whom her parents had betrothed her, a nobleman called Thamyris. The latter, blaming Paul for his fiancée’s change of heart, hauled him before the city officials, who remanded the Apostle to prison. When Thecla visited Paul there, she was discovered by Thamyris, who then had them both brought before the governor of the city; Paul was scourged and expelled from Iconium, and Thecla condemned to be burnt alive.

As is so often the case, nature refused to cooperate with the persecutors of one of God’s Saints, and the fire was extinguished by a sudden rain. Thecla was then let go, and after finding Paul, accompanied him to Antioch, where she was assaulted by a powerful man named Alexander. For rebuffing his advances, she was twice condemned to the wild beasts, which on the first occasion refused to touch her; on the second, one of them, a lioness, defended her from the rest, and was herself killed in the process. The governor, impressed by this miracle, released her; she then went to find Paul again, catching up with him at Myra (later the see of St Nicholas). From there she returned to Iconium, and then went to Seleucia in Asia Minor, where she lived an ascetic life in a cave for 72 years.
The apse of the ruined church of St Thecla in Seleucia, built at the site of her cave by the Emperor Zeno ca. 475. (Image by Klaus-Peter Simon from Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License.)
During her time at Seleucia, she made many converts to the Faith, and performed many miraculous healings, which raised the ire of the local pagan physicians. They therefore plotted to assault her, but she was protected from them when the rock wall of her cave opened up to receive her, and closed when she had passed into it. The story ends here, and seems to imply that this was the manner of her death. Her tomb at Seleucia became an important pilgrimage site, and was seen there in the 4th century by St Gregory of Nazianzen and the pilgrim Egeria among others.
This document has often been attributed, at least in its inspiration, to an heretical sect of the later 2nd-century called the Encratites (“the continent”, or more accurately, “the self-controlling”), who completely rejected the use of marriage. It is true that when he is preaching at the house of Onesiphorus, St Paul is represented delivering a set of Beatitudes partly of his own devising which lay strong emphasis on virginity: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5, 8); blessed are they that have kept the flesh chaste, for they shall become a temple of God (1 Cor. 6, 18-19); blessed are they that control themselves, for God shall speak with them: … blessed are they that have wives as not having them, for they shall receive God for their portion (1 Cor. 7, 29) … blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well pleasing to God, and shall not lose the reward of their chastity.” Shortly after this, Thecla’s mother, Theocleia, says to Thamyris, “(Paul) will overturn the city of the Iconians, and your Thecla too besides; for all the women and the young men go in beside him, being taught to fear God and to live in chastity.”
However, the Encratites taught that all sexual activity is intrinsically immoral, even within marriage, and that virginity or perfect continence are necessary for salvation. The “Beatitudes” given above do not say this, nor do they really stray from the words of Paul and Christ Himself in the canonical writings of the New Testament. In point of fact, the closest thing to the Encratite teaching within the story is not said by Paul or Thecla or the narrator, but rather by two characters called Demas and Hermogenes. These are described as “hypocrites” who are “jealous” of Paul, and attribute to him the belief that “(T)here is for you a resurrection in no other way, unless you remain chaste, and pollute not the flesh, but keep it chaste.” But of course, even these words can certainly be understood in a perfectly orthodox sense.
The Preaching of Ss Paul and Barnabas, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1744
At her second appearance in the arena with the wild beasts, Thecla baptizes herself by throwing herself into a ditch of water, saying “In the name of Jesus Christ I am baptized on my last day.” Later on, when she departs from Paul to return to Iconium, he says to her, “Go, and teach the word of God.” The first known reference to the Acts of Paul and Thecla is in the treatise On Baptism by Tertullian (cap. xvij in fine), who says that these episodes should not be used to justify women teaching and baptizing, since the document was forged by a priest in Asia Minor, who did this “out of love for Paul”, and having confessed to the forgery, was deposed from his office. St Jerome also refers to them as apocryphal, on the grounds that if they were not, St Luke would have included some mention of the episodes they narrate in the Acts (De viris illustr. 7); they are likewise rejected by a document of the 6th century known as the Gelasian Decree, which lists the books accepted and rejected by the Church.
Despite this diffidence towards the written account of her life, the Church’s tradition has accepted devotion to Thecla as a Saint. In a letter to one of his spiritual daughters, Jerome himself writes that on her death she will be received in heaven by the Virgin Mary, by Miriam, the sister of Moses, and by Thecla, who “shall fly with joy to embrace you.” (Ep. 22, ad Eustochium, cap. 41) St Ambrose, in his treatise On the Virgins (lib. II, 3, 19) also pairs Thecla with the Mother of God: “Let, then, holy Mary instruct you in the discipline of life, and Thecla teach you how to be offered (i.e. how to die), for she, avoiding nuptial intercourse, and condemned through her (would-be) husband’s rage, changed even the disposition of wild beasts by their reverence for virginity.” In his 14th sermon on the Song of Songs, St Gregory of Nyssa comments on the words “His lips are as lilies, dropping a rich myrrh” (5, 13) as follows: “(Myrrh) is contempt for this corporeal life … such myrrh did Paul pour forth from his mouth, mixed with the pure lily of temperance, into the ears of a holy virgin. This was Thecla, who, having nobly received these drops within her soul, mortified the outer man, and extinguished every carnal thought and desire.” (PG 44, 1067-68) Many other references might be adduced to the point.
St Thecla and the Wild Beats; relief probably made in Egypt n the 5th century, now at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by R. Huggins, CC BY-SA 3.0)
There is no reason to be surprised at this. Modern scholars of hagiography have long recognized that there are many Saints whose written lives as they have come down to us are, either wholly or in part, not reliable historical documents, but who are nevertheless themselves indisputably real. In St Thecla’s case, we may rightly say that the Church simply recognized this about her a very long ago.
In the traditional Roman prayers for the dying, known as the “Commendation of a soul (to God)”, the last invocation is “And as Thou didst deliver Thy most blessed Virgin and Martyr Thecla from three most cruel torments, so may Thou deign to deliver the soul of this Thy servant, and cause him to rejoice with Thee in the goods of heaven.” Prior to the Tridentine reform, however, this was the only mention of her in the Roman liturgical books; although her feast was celebrated or commemorated almost everywhere else in Europe, in Italy, it was kept only at Milan. She was added to the Roman calendar as a commemoration on the feast of Pope St Linus on September 23, in the first liturgical book to be published after the council of Trent, the breviary issued by Pope St Pius V in 1568, followed two years later by his missal.
As with certain other Saints (Catherine of Alexandria, Gregory the Wonderworker, Timothy), the inclusion of Thecla on the Tridentine calendar is part of the Catholic Church’s answer to the ideas of the Protestants. Despite their supposed emphasis on the teachings of St Paul (whom Luther made the lens by which to read the rest of the Bible), the churches of the Reformation in practice rejected his teaching on virginity and continence from the very start, abolishing the discipline of clerical celibacy, and every form of monasticism or canonical life. This abolition in turn left no formal place at all for women in their institutional life. The figure of Thecla, a personal disciple of St Paul, therefore stands as a witness to the value of virginity, the apostolic origins of the Church’s teaching about it, and the importance of women in consecrated life as both leaders and teachers.
The Duomo of Milan as it stands today is the result of a project which began in 1386, to replace the two cathedrals which had hitherto served the see of St Ambrose. The “winter church” as it is still called in Ambrosian liturgical books, was the smaller of the two, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and used from the Third Sunday of October, the feast of its Dedication, until Holy Saturday; it stood where the modern cathedral stands, but was much smaller. The larger “summer church”, which was demolished in 1543, stood on the opposite end of the modern Piazza del Duomo; in the Carolingian period, it was endowed with a relic of St Thecla’s skull, and her name was added to its dedication. She is therefore included in the list of Saints in the Nobis quoque of the Ambrosian Mass; within the new church, a large altar is dedicated to her at the end of the left nave.
The altar of St Thecla in the Duomo of Milan, by Luigi Bisi, 1872 
In the Byzantine Rite, Thecla is called a “Great Martyr”, the title of those who suffered many different torments, and “Equal to the Apostles.” The texts of her Office refers to her over 20 times as the “first martyr” or “first to contend”, not, of course, to the despite of St Stephen, but as the first among women. For this reason, in the preparation rite of the Divine Liturgy, she is named first among the female martyrs. At Vespers of her feast, one of the hymns sung during the major incensation of the church reads, “O Lord, though Thy chaste First-Martyr was given over to the fire, yet she was not burned up within it, having received Thee as a dewfall, and among the many wild beasts, she remained unassailed, protected by Thy hand, who art the Savior of our souls.”

Tradition is for the Young: First Sunday TLM of the Year at Steubenville

This past Sunday, the first Sunday TLM of the new academic year was celebrated at the Finnegan Fieldhouse on the campus of the Franciscan Univ. of Steubenville. The celebrant, Fr Nicholas Ward, is a Steubenville alumnus; about 400 people were in attendance. Once again, it is very encouraging to see such young people embracing our Catholic liturgical heritage, and putting in the hard work necessary to keep it going. These photographs are kindly provided by one of our regular photographic contributors, Mrs Allisone Girone, together with two FUS students, Karissa Meyers and Patrick Barry, with our thanks!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Relics of St Padre Pio (Part 1)

Today is the feast day of St Pio of Pietrelcina, known to all the world simply as “Padre Pio”, who died on this date in 1968, and was canonized in 2002. Earlier this year, I had the very good fortune to go on a pilgrimage which visited San Giovanni Rotondo, where he spent most of his life, and Pietrelcina, the place of his birth and earliest years as a priest. His fellow Capuchin friars knew, of course, that they had a Saint in their midst, and as a result, took great care to preserve as many relics of him as possible, and both places have an enormous number of them on display. Of course, they are all kept behind glass for preservation, which doesn’t make for the best photography. Here are some photos from San Giovanni Rotondo, which we visited first; others from Pietrelcina will be in a separate post.
His body, which since 2008 has been displayed for the veneration of the faithful in the crypt of the second church at San Giovanni Rotondo.
When Padre Pio arrived at San Giovanni in 1916, the Capuchin community numbered only about seven members, who lived in a small conventual building next to a small church dedicated to the Virign Mary. It was while praying in front of this crucifix in the choir of that church on Sept. 20, 1918, that his stigmata, which he had received earlier, became visible, and would remain so until shortly before he died almost exactly 50 years later. This was the church where he celebrated his Masses on most days.
The choir, in the traditionally very simple style of the Capuchins.
One of his habits.
The museum of San Giovanni dedicated to Padre Pio has preserved thousands of the letters which he received over the years of his priestly ministry.
His cell as it was at the time of his death.

A Recording of the Byzantine Liturgy with Commentary by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

Here is an interesting item newly posted to the YouTube channel of the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, a recording of a Byzantine Liturgy, with commentary on the different parts by the Venerable Bishop Fulton J Sheen. The liturgy was recorded during a national convention of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church in Birmingham Alabama in 1958; the celebrant, Fr Joseph Raya, later a bishop, was a well-known advocate of the use of the verncaular in the liturgy, although not, as far as I have been able to ascertain, of the kinds of radical changes to the texts and rites that the Roman Catholic Mass would suffer in the post-Conciliar reform.


Mass of Ordination to Deaconate and Priesthood, St. Albert's Priory, Oakland CA, 9/19/20

I am happy to announce that on Saturday morning, at the Dominican Priory of St Albert the Great in Oakland, California, His Excellency Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, ordained Bro. Gregory Liu, O.P., to the priesthood of Christ Jesus, and brothers Chrysostom Mijinke, O.P., Martin Maria Nguyen, O.P., and John Winkowitsch, O.P. to his deaconate. Please say a prayer for our newly ordained brothers.

The Mass was performed under special social distancing and other sanitary precautions. It was live-streamed this morning, and the recorded video may be viewed here, or here. On Sunday, Fr. Gregory Liu, O.P. celebrates his First Mass of Thanksgiving at St Albert the Great Priory at 9:30 a.m as the conventual Mass. It may be viewed on live-stream here, or here. If you would like a copy of the program to follow the Gregorian music, you can get it here.

Beginning with Fr. Gregory’s Mass of Thanksgiving, we will begin live-streaming all our Sunday Masses. The live-streams and recorded videos may be found here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Martyrs of the Theban Legion

On the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, today is the feast of St Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555), an Augustinian friar who became Archbishop of Valencia in Spain in 1516, and served in that office until his death, which happened on the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity. When he was canonized in 1658, Pope Alexander VII took the unusual step of assigning him to a date already occupied by another feast, that of Ss Maurice and Companions, also known as the Martyrs of the Theban Legion, who were thus reduced to a commemoration. This is unusual for two reasons.

The Martyrdom of Ss Maurice and Companions, by El Greco, 1580-2 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
First, at the time, there was a date closer to that of his death, September 18th, which was free of any general observance; indeed, the Saint who would later occupy it, Joseph of Cupertino, was still alive in this world. Second, even though the feast of these martyrs was kept at the lowest rank, it was still very uncommon to place one feast on top of another where it was possible to avoid doing so, and this remained a general principle for centuries. [1] Even so late as 1954, the feast of Pope St Pius X was assigned to a date two weeks after his death date, rather than either of the similarly low-ranked feasts in the area (Aug. 26 and Sept. 1).

This decision most likely reflects a certain diffidence about the historical details of the martyrs in question, whose feast was previously reduced in the Tridentine reform from an Office of nine proper historical readings to only one.
They are called “the Theban Legion” from the place where they were recruited, Thebes [2], which in very ancient times had been the capital of the Kingdom of Upper Egypt. The traditional story recounts that they were all Christians, and sent to Gaul in the year 287 AD, specifically, the area around Lake Geneva, where they were placed under the command of the Emperor Maximian. The first account of their passion was written by St Eucherius, bishop of Lyon, who was born about a century after their time, and died ca. 450; he represents Maximian as a ferocious persecutor of the Christians, one who, “beset by greed, lust, cruelty and the other vices … had armed his impiety to extinguish the name of Christianity.”
The emperor therefore ordered the Theban legion to participate in the persecution of their coreligionists, which they refused absolutely to do so, withdrawing to the town of Agaunum, a short distance from the main encampment. For this, they were then “decimated”, a traditional disciplinary practice of the Roman army by which every tenth man of a refractory military unit was killed. Encouraged particularly by three of their officers, Mauritius, Exsuperius and Candidus, the soldiers remained wholly unintimidated. Eucherius’ account includes the text of their written statement sent to the Emperor, expressing their continued refusal to obey him, which begins as follows.
“We are thy soldiers, o emperor, but yet servants of God, which we freely confess. To thee we owe our military service, but to Him our innocence. (i.e., the duty to remain free from sin.) From thee we have receive the wage of our work, but from Him, the very beginning of our life. In this, we can in no wise follow the emperor, that we should deny God, who is indeed our maker and Lord, and thy maker too, will thou or no. If we are not forced so grievously to offend Him, we will obey as we have hitherto; otherwise we will obey him rather than thee.”
A 12th century reliquary bust of the skull of St Candidus, from the treasury of the Abbey of St Maurice, which is located on the site of their martyrdom in ancient Agaunum, now known as Saint Maurice. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lothar Spurzem, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)
The legion, numbering 6000, was then massacred without offering any resistance. Eucherius also reports that a veteran named Victor happened to pass by as the soldiers who had perpetrated the massacre were dining off the spoils of their victims, and invited him to join them. On learning the cause of the party, he refused to join in; when asked whether he too was a Christian, he replied that he was and always would be, for which he was immediately killed. “And as he was joined to the other martyrs in that same place in death, so also he is joined to them in honor. Of that company of martyrs, only these names are known to us, those of the most blessed Maurice, Exsuperius, Candidus and Victor; the rest are unknown to us, but are written in the book of life.”
The historical difficulty here lies in the reported cause of the martyrs’ death, which requires a bit of background to understand.
The 3rd century was an era of prolonged crisis for the Roman Empire, often described as a “military anarchy”, with one general after another contending for the imperial throne, and most meeting a violent death at the hands of their successor after only a few years. The man who, after almost 50 years of this, finally began to restore stability was Diocletian, who became emperor in 284, and is now infamous as the last major persecutor of the Christians. Recognizing that the empire was too large for a single man to rule, he divided it into two parts, East and West, [3] each ruled by an “Augustus” and a “Caesar”, i.e., an emperor and a vice-emperor. He also instituted an orderly succession, by which an Augustus would resign after 20 years and be succeeded by his Caesar. [4] Within this system, known as the Tetrarchy, the Maximian named above was the first Augustus of the West, as Diocletian was of the East. And in due course, they both resigned in 305 in favor of their respective Caesars, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, the latter of whom was the father of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine.
A sculptural group representing the Tetrarchs, made ca. 300 AD out of Egyptian porphyry, an extremely durable material, the color of which was long considered a sign of royalty by the Romans. It was originally located in a public square in Constantinople called the Philadelphion; the piece missing at the lower right was found nearby in 1965, and is now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum. During the sack of Constantinople in 1204, it was stolen by the Venetians, brought to their city, and installed in a corner of the façade of St Mark’s Basilica. A Venetian legend claims that they were four thieves (unusually well-dressed!) who attempted to steal some of the basilica’s treasures, and were petrified by St Mark as a warning to other miscreants. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Rino Porrovecchio, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Now the historical problem. First of all, it is a well-established fact that Maximian was in the region of Lake Geneva in 287 not to institute or enforce a general persecution of Christians, but to put down a rebellion that had broken out against the Romans among several Gallic tribes in the area.
Secondly, it is true that as the Tetrarchy approached its first (and last) peaceful transition of power, the hostility which its eastern half, Diocletian and his Caesar Galerius, had long shown to the Christians broke out into open persecution. This was enforced with great severity and violence in the East, marginally less so in the provinces governed by Maximian, hardly at all in those governed by Chlorus. [5] However, persecution of this sort was hardly even possible in 287, when Diocletian and Maximian were literally pulling the empire back from the brink of collapse. It seems possible, therefore, that Eucherius assumed too much about the events of Maximian’s earlier career on the basis of his actions during the great persecution.
Third, the story of the Theban legion was embellished considerably over time, which is always a red flag to the hagiographical skeptics. Like the veteran Victor mentioned by Eucherius, several other Saints from different regions have been made honorary members of the legion, and by the 6th century, St Gregory of Tours had transplanted them and their martyrdom to Cologne. According to the version of their story in Bl. Jacopo of Voragine’s Golden Legend, they were ordered by Diocletian and Maximian to sacrifice to the idols, which was a feature of many ancient persecutions, but which is nowhere hinted at by Eucherius. In the Breviary of St Pius V, this is made the sole cause of their conflict with Maximian.
As one might guess from all this, their legend has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly discussion; the broad consensus now seems to be that Eucherius exaggerated or misunderstood their numbers, but that the martyrdom of a substantial company of Egyptian soldiers in the area of Lake Geneva really did take place. In the post-Conciliar reform, their feast was removed from the general calendar. According to the official account of the reform, this was done, not done in function of the almost total suppression of commemorations, since St Thomas of Villanova was also suppressed, but because “not a few difficulties are found in regard to their history”, and because their feast, which was adopted at Rome only in the 11th century, “does not belong to the Roman tradition.” This latter alleged reason is difficult to square with the suppression of any number of other feasts which are thoroughly Roman and much older than the 11th century.
As to the difficulties in their history, Prof. Donald O’Reilly, in an article published in Vigiliae Christianae in 1978, makes some very interesting observations. A papyrus dated to the year 282, and found at Panopolis, which is not far from Thebes, records the requisition of a quantity of bread large enough to support a legion-sized unit for three months, roughly the time needed to travel at a military march from Egypt to Gaul. In the same period, coins were minted in Egypt of a type specific to the commemoration of the founding of a legion.
A page of the Notitia Dignitatum, with the shields of military units under the “magister peditum – master of the footsoldiers”; the “Thebans” are in the middle of the 4th rank. All of the surviving copies of this document depend on a single Carolingian manuscript which was in the capitular library of Speyer Cathedral, and lost sometime before 1672. The copy from which this page (folio 110v, image cropped) is taken was made directly from the Speyer manuscript in 1436 at Basel in Switzerland, for one of the bishops then participating in the Ecumenical Council then being held there, which was later transferred first to Ferrara and then to Florence. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9661)
Prof. O’Reilly then argues that one of the principal objections to the legend, the massacre of an entire legion of over 6000 men, is also the result of a misunderstanding. Diocletian effected a major reorganization of the Roman army, in which many legions were brought down to only 1000 members. By 293, a document called the Notitia Dignitatum, an explanation of the Roman imperial administration which includes the names of many military offices and titles, lists four such units as the bodyguard corps of the four Tetrarchs, each named after one of them (e.g. “Legio Diocletiana”), and qualified with the words “Thebaeorum – of Thebans.” Thinking of their last sixty years’ worth of predecessors, most of whom were murdered by their own troops, what better guards could the Tetrarchs find than men who believed, as a matter of strongly held religious conviction, that such an act would be a grave offense against God? The original Theban legion, therefore, would not have been massacred to a man, but rather, after suffering a decimation, and that, very possibly for some matter having to do with their religion, simply organized out of existence as a unit.
[1] Particularly in the 19th century, the calendars of many dioceses, individual churches and religious orders came to be filled with so many Saints that this principle could no longer be maintained.
[2] There were several ancient cities called “Θῆβαι” in Greek, “Thebae” in Latin, whence the English “Thebes”. The most important of these, in the region of Greece called Boeotia, was known as “the city of seven gates”, and figured prominently in both myth and history; the Egyptian Thebes was known as “the city of 100 gates.”
[3] The division effected by Diocletian would be undone and redone a few times over the course of the 4th century, and become definitive only in 395 with the death of Theodosius I.
[4] If a Caesar were to die before his term ended, his Augustus would appoint a new one; if an Augustus died, his Caesar would complete his term, and appoint a new Caesar as his own eventual successor.
[5] In his book On the Deaths of the Persecutors (cap. xv in fine), Lactantius reports that Chlorus permitted the demolition of some churches, but inflicted no violence on the Christians themselves.

Byzantine Ressourcement #2: How Did They Reform the Liturgy and Avoid Ugliness and Rancor?

Subsidiarity: the key to a peaceful transition to the best liturgy for the Roman Church?

I recently posted an article on the reforms of the Eastern Churches (Eastern Catholic and Orthodox) called Byzantine Ressourcement? Liturgical Reform In The Orthodox Churches, As A Model For The Roman Rite, in which I described how the non-Roman, Apostolic Churches - I used the generic descriptive ‘Eastern’, but as readers pointed out, the picture applies to other non-Roman Churches as well - had, strangely, reformed in accordance with the ideas of the Roman Catholic liturgical reformers of 20th century, and in many ways in accordance with what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had hoped to see in the Roman Church.

Some readers felt compelled to comment on the merits of the reforms themselves (many, it seemed to me, were Roman Catholics who seemed unhappy with what had happened to their neighbors on the other side of the garden fence).

I don’t want to revisit that discussion here because this was not actually the main reason for my writing the first article.

The main thrusts of my article were:

First, regardless of what we feel about those changes, the Churches themselves seem largely happy with what they have (even if some of their Latin cousins are not), and this has been achieved with minimal, or in most cases zero, input from Vatican II and without the strife and liturgy wars seen in the West.
Second, the fact that a fragment of a single sentence of instruction, in the case of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and zero instruction from the Council, in the case of Orthodox Churches, can bear such fruit in both cases, undermines a criticism of Vatican II made by some - that it was deliberately written in a tone of aggressive ambiguity in order to sow confusion. This phenomenon of peaceful and gradual reform elsewhere suggests, on the contrary, that there was more than sufficient detail addressed to the Roman Church. The mistake was in assuming the good intentions of those who were charged with implementing it.
The evidence of the reform of the Eastern Churches is that if one accepts the arguments behind the proposals and takes the trouble to understand the reasoning behind them, then the result will be as the framers intended. If on the other hand, people are disposed willfully to misinterpret or ignore the texts of the Council, no matter how clearly articulated, they will do so. And this, I believe, is what has happened in the West. In other words, the Council is largely irrelevant to what has happened - given the intentions of the architects of the mess we have today, it would have happened anyway.  
My thought is that this is worth examining so that we can consider a mechanism by which the Roman Church can move peacefully towards a general dominance of the best liturgy - whatever you may feel that is.

If I have painted a reasonable picture of the pattern of reform in the Eastern Churches (and I had several letters sent to me privately by members of these Churches telling me that I have), the next question is, why? Why has the situation in regard to the liturgical change been so different in the two lungs of the Church? One seems to be inhaling and exhaling freely and developing, dare I say it, ‘organically’; while the other is suffering from chronic COPD.
A clue to the answer, it seems to me, might come from the comments made by those readers of the article who did not dispute the general picture that I painted - that reforms had occurred and the Churches themselves were largely happy with what had occurred - but did point out, quite rightly, that the ‘Schmemann effect’, was not universal either. Some Churches, on the more conservative side, for example, had rejected change altogether, while others, a small minority, had introduced the liberal reforms all too familiar to us in the Roman Church (e.g. female altar servers). But while acknowledging that this is a patchwork quilt of differing ideas of what the liturgy ought to be, the general picture is that Schmemann has had a broad effect due to the free adoption of his ideas.

The answer as to why the pattern of reform is so different, it seems to me, relates to a difference in governance. In the East, the authority to change the liturgy is much more dispersed according to the principle of subsidiarity- maximized local freedom - while in the West, authority is far more centralized, with the focus of that authority in Rome. Consequently, what we have now in the West, again painting a broad picture, is the result of a top-down imposition of a reformed liturgy in the manner of the ‘suburban rite’ Novus ordo, while in the East the process has been more bottom-up. The unity of the Eastern Churches, in this regard, is the pattern of activity that emerges from many freely chosen actions. (For those that are interested in this idea of how order emerges as a pattern for the whole by the free action of the individual parts, here are some thoughts of mine on the subject in an earlier article called Does Order Come Out of Chaos, Or Chaos Out of Order?).

In general, and perhaps counter-intuitively, a bottom-up approach which recognizes local authority tends to give us more stability, and less radical change, and when reforms do occur by this mechanism, those changes that are good are more likely to predominate, while those that are bad are more likely to wither on the vine. The bottom-up implementation also allows for differing but valid local interpretations of what is good: differences don’t always indicate error. So we see a rich variety of local implementations of Schmemann’s ideas and different degrees of reform that sit alongside each other happily.
A top-down approach to implementation, on the other hand, which overrides natural local authority, tends to result, ultimately, in the predominance of what is bad. In the case where there is a single central authority, when innovation goes bad it lacks an internal mechanism for change and we are stuck with it. It is always possible that what is good might go bad in the future, but it is likely that what is bad will remain so.
Here’s why it happens this way, in my opinion:
Imagine, hypothetically, that every parish is free to decide how it celebrates the liturgy. It is likely that some will make bad decisions. However, others will likely exercise their freedom faithfully. In this situation, the ones that choose well will flourish and become beacons of the Faith, while others that choose badly will not. But, those places that get it right and flourish will inspire vocations, will attract the faithful, and will influence their neighbors by example. Those that get it wrong will continue to hemorrhage parishioners and in time die out.
It is analogous, in some ways, to what one might call Jesuit vs Oratorian styles of organization. When you have a very strong central organization, as the Jesuits have if the center goes bad, the whole organization suffers and it is very difficult for it to recover, for there is no natural mechanism for self-correction, except yet more powerful and yet more centralized authority. As a result, the best hope for redemption in the Jesuit-style organization, if it goes wrong, is a miracle!
However, if you have more distributed authority, so that separate houses are autonomous, as Oratorian houses are, then some will flourish and persist while others will decline. However, those that succeed will become mission churches that attract the laity, encourage vocations, and influence the founding of other Oratorian houses by the example of their success. This way even a few successes can be beacons of light that become good examples to inspire many. This is, I believe, the best mechanism also for an organic and authentic development of the liturgy.
The one drawback with this dispersed pattern of authority in the perception of many is, paradoxically, precisely the source of its strength in practice, namely that no part can directly control what any other does. Each autonomous unit has authority only over itself and may have to accept that a neighbor does things differently. If my mindset is such that my main concern is over what others ought to do, then I am less inclined to give others freedom in case they fail to do what I want them to. The liturgy wars then become more than simply debates about right and wrong, they become a struggle for political control of centralized power.
How localized is the natural authority for freedom to implement liturgical changes in the Roman Church? I am happy to be guided by canon lawyers on this, but I believe, historically at least, it resided with bishops (and from what I can tell theoretically does still does so today, although it is not often exercised in practice). If this were so, each diocese would not feel bound by Congregations in Rome or national councils of bishops, and each could choose to exercise the authority given to them and the situation would begin to right itself. Even better, each bishop might choose to allow parishes freedom too.
There is one aspect of the liturgy in which some authority for participation as one chooses lies within individual parishes and even laypeople, and that is with the Liturgy of the Hours when practiced in, for example, the domestic church. (I discussed the possibilities of people exercising this freedom well in a recent blog post entitled, Will the Domestic Church Grow as the Institutional Church Shrinks?). The ideal, it seems to me, is that at every level, all members of the Church take the initiative to exercise their natural authority for the good.

The need for subsidiarity is the argument made by Adam DeVille in his book, Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed which I reviewed here. He addresses a different problem within the Church (corruption and the sexual abuse scandal), but the argument regarding subsidiarity as a solution is the same. He argues that if dioceses chose their bishops, as they used to do, and parishes are accorded freedom by their bishop, then this would encourage still further the right exercise of free autonomy.
To be clear, this is not an argument against papal authority as traditionally understood and as reflected in the First Vatican Council. Rather it is an argument for greater recognition of a natural local authority that is already present, but not always exercised. Nor is it the encouragement of license. Full freedom, as we know, is a choice free of constraint or restraint, but directed towards a right end. So the fullest freedom is in the choice to do what is good. However, it is not freedom if there isn’t the possibility of people exercising it poorly. In most situations, there are different opinions on what is good, and sometimes what is good for me is not the best for you. So, in this model each local authority decides, in good faith, what they believe Vatican II meant in regard to the degree or nature of reform, one taking a maximalist line, while another a minimalist ‘organic development’ approach to reform, and yet a third might reject change altogether and stick to the 1962 Missal. We can’t predict which approach will flourish and effectively become the Church, but in faith, we trust that the good will win out, even if some making the choices are bad actors.
In my experience, many pious Roman Catholics are not inclined to believe that subsidiarity is a good thing in this regard. I used to be skeptical too; I was reluctant to believe that giving people freedom to choose will facilitate the emergence of what is truly best, fearing that the opposite would happen and everything would eventually default to the lowest common denominator. What I yearned for, therefore, was a centralized authority to impose on the whole Church what I wished to see in my local parish.
However, happily, not all are as I used to be. I do see some recognition of this idea of subsidiarity even amongst devotees of the Traditional Latin Mass, (and contrary to the ultramontanist outlook that one might expect). For example, I read recently an article in which one was encouraging an even more radical dispersion of local autonomy than I am, by suggesting that individual priests might be justified in celebrating the Latin Mass even if it meant disobeying their bishop’s wishes.
Some, at the other end of the scale, have more ultramontanist instincts, will worry that this is a prescription for anarchy. I would say no, it is in fact a prescription for freedom. And freedom is always a good thing, for the pattern of freedom is dynamic and self-regulating. What can’t be guaranteed, however, is that the pattern that emerges ultimately will be the one that I would like it to be. I have to have faith that whatever predominates is the best, even if it is not what I would have liked.
And for many, therein lies the rub.
Photos above, top to bottom: St Margaret Mary, Oakland; The Brompton Oratory; The Birmingham Oratory; Holy Family parish, which is run by the Toronto Oratory; a private home altar; and Star of the Sea, San Francisco.

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