February 26



John Chrysostom becomes Patriarch of Constantinople

John Chrysostom (349-407) was honoured as a saint, named a Doctor of the Church and hailed as one of Christianity’s greatest preachers but ended his life in disgrace and on his way to exile.

John was born in Antioch, the principal city of the Greek-speaking eastern part of the Roman empire. He studied rhetoric under the great pagan orator Libanius but was drawn to Christianity, spending some time as a hermit, praying and studying scripture. On his return to Antioch he was ordained a priest and gained such a strong reputation as a preacher that he was given the nickname “Chrysostom” or “Golden Mouth”.

In 398 when the position of archbishop of Constantinople, the second-highest church position after the Bishop of Rome, became vacant John was nominated to the post without his knowledge. His election to this coveted post was supposedly engineered by Eutropius, a eunuch and high-ranking imperial official. John learned of the election when a military detachment came to escort him to Constantinople. (The troops were necessary because the notoriously-excitable population of Antioch might have rebelled at learning of John’s departure.)

Unfortunately, John’s tenure as archbishop was marred by court intrigues, disputes with the still-powerful Arian faction in the capital and his tendency to speak honestly and openly about the vices of the imperial family. As a result of offending the emperor and empress he was ordered into exile in 405. When his voice proved to be still influential even at a distance he was sent even deeper into exile but died en route.

John’s impact on the Church as a liturgist, preacher and theologian remains profound.

February 24



The proclamation of the Gregorian calendar

Computing the length of the solar year is a tricky proposition for any civilization but especially for those without any of the astronomical tools we possess today. In 46 BC Julius Caesar reformed the calendar by decreeing a year of 365 days with a leap year every fourth year. This was an improvement but resulted in a difference of 3 days every four centuries between the calendar and the solar year. By the 16th century the slippage was notable, causing Easter to be divorced from the spring equinox and disrupting traditional agricultural practices which were based on saints’ days.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII, after taking advice from leading astronomers, added a further reform to the Julian calendar:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. (This meant that 1900 was not a leap year but the year 2000 was.)

In addition, the Pope decreed, in order to make up for the 1,600 years of accumulated error, that 10 days would be skipped. The Julian calendar day Thursday, 4 October 1582 was followed by the first day of the Gregorian calendar, Friday, 15 October 1582. This caused considerable popular discontent as many of the mathematically-challenged peasantry felt they had been robbed of a chunk of their life. It has caused head scratching for historians as well because much of Europe — those parts with Protestant and Orthodox churches — did not adopt the Catholic pontiff’s decision, making dating documents troublesome in retrospect. This is why readers will sometimes see some early-modern British dates referred to as “O.S.” (Old Style) and “N.S. (“New Style”). Britain do not switch until 1752 and it was not until the 20th century that Greece, Turkey and the Soviet Union adopted the Gregorian calendar. The Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar which will explain Western Canadians referring to “Ukrainian Christmas” occurring on January 7th.

February 22


St Margaret of Cortona

How does one get to be the patron saint of hoboes, the homeless, the mentally ill, the falsely accused, midwives, reformed prostitutes, penitent women, unmarried women and those ridiculed for their piety, as well as the saint to be called up on by those suffering sexual temptation? The life of St Margaret of Cortona will tell you.

Margaret (1247-1297) was an attractive young Italian woman who ran off with a lover and bore his child. When he was murdered she had a crisis of conscience and tried to return to a decent life but was rebuffed by her family. She joined an order of Franciscan nuns and spent the rest of her life in service to the sick. She was a mystic who communed with the spirit of Jesus, as well as a founder of hospitals and an order of women dedicated to helping the poor. Despite her piety, she was always dogged by the memory of her earlier unsanctified way of life.

February 17


1600 The burning of Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a multifaceted genius unfortunate enough to be born in the age of the Inquisition and foolish enough to be careless in his utterances.

Born in southern Italy he joined the Dominican order and became a priest in 1572. He achieved fame as a scholar, particularly in the arts of memory at a time when studies in classical mnemonics were being revived in Renaissance. His unorthodox dabbling (he mused on Arianism and Erasmus) came to the attention of the authorities and he fled north, wandering to Naples, Genoa, Venice and for a time in Calvinist Geneva, though he seems not to have found Protestantism to his liking. Moving to France, he took his doctorate in theology at Toulouse and then moved to Paris where he dazzled the French court with his mastery of memory. He found powerful patrons there and in England but the unorthodoxy of his ideas was always peeping through. He championed Copernican theory before its wide acceptance and his attacks on Aristotle were not always well received, causing him to move about Europe from one teaching post to another. He had a great gift for making enemies out of friends.

In 1592 he was denounced to the Venetian Inquisition and he spent the last seven years of his life in jail defending his positions. Aside from his offensive cosmography — he suggested that there were multiple worlds in space where other life-forms might exist — he was deemed to have advanced heretical ideas on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the nature of the Eucharist, the transmigration of souls and the Catholic Church. He was found guilty and burnt at the stake in Rome’s Campo di’ Fiori where a statue to him now stands.

In modern times Bruno has been hailed as a martyr of science at the hands of an obscurantist church but it seems that he was most likely executed for his pantheism rather than his ideas on planetary forms.

February 14


Saint Valentine’s Day

Nothing is known about the original Valentine except that he was a Roman Christian, martyred (certainly) in the third (perhaps) century. Many medieval legends grew up around the name but they may refer to one, two or three different Valentines. Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century led to Valentine’s Day being associated with romantic love for ornithological reasons. In his “Parliament of Foules” (meaning ‘Fowls”) Chaucer notes For this was on seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make — “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” Because it was a day for bird mating (said Chaucer, quite  erroneously) February 14 has come to be associated with romance.


Saint Cyril’s Day

Of much more historical consequence than St Valentine is St Cyril. Cyril (827-69) and his brother Methodius (815-85) were eastern Christian monks at a time when the Slavic peoples of eastern and southeastern Europe were being evangelized. Cyril was learned in a number of languages and was sent by church officials in Constantinople as an emissary to the Islamic caliphate and the Jewish Khazars. In 862 Cyril and Methods were sent to Moravia in what is now the Czech republic as representatives of the eastern church. The Slavs there had been Christianized but were deciding whether they should look to Rome or Constantinople for religious leadership. As part of this mission the brothers attempted to translate the Bible into a Slavic dialect (Old Church Slavonic) which necessitated inventing a new alphabet — called Glagolitic, from which came all the Cyrillic alphabets of eastern Europe such as Russian or Bulgarian.

Moravia eventually chose to align itself with Rome but armed with a Slavic alphabet Constantinople led the way in evangelizing the nations of eastern and southeastern Europe and giving them liturgy and Bibles in their own tongues. This led to the formation of what is known as the Byzantine or Orthodox Commonwealth, a loose affiliation of Orthodox autocephalous churches acknowledging the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Under this principle the Russian lands became part of eastern Christianity and assured the survival of the religion after fall of Constantinople to Muslim armies in 1453.

It should be noted, however, that by allowing the eastern churches to have a vernacular liturgy they were cut off from the Latin-speaking West and the Roman heritage so that the cultures of eastern and western Europe grew apart in the Middle Ages. The East, for example, did not undergo either the Renaissance nor the Protestant Reformation.

February 12


St Eulalia of Barcelona

There are two saints of this name, both Spanish, both virgins, both martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian shortly after 300.  The one who is honoured today is the patron saint of Barcelona and she after whom the city’s cathedral is named.

Yearly on this date Eulalia’s Day is marked by a festival which includes many typical Catalan traditions like parades with gegants (giant effigies) and other fantasy figures, castellers (human tower building),  sardines (Catalan folk dancing), correfoc (fireworks and fire-runs) and the like. Fun for the whole family.


For me, the highlight of the rather gloomy Gothic cathedral of St Eulalia is the crucifix in the Lepanto Chapel. Locals explain the curious curve in the body of Jesus by saying that the work of art was on the prow of the flagship galley of Don Juan when a cannonball flew toward it and the Lord nimbly twisted his body out of the way.

February 11

1626 Ethiopia becomes officially Roman Catholic

One of the oldest Christian churches in the world is that of Ethiopia. The country maintained its Coptic variety of Christianity over the centuries despite repeated attacks from surrounding Muslim nations. When the Portuguese reached India in the late 1400s it was possible for Roman Catholicism influence to be felt. When Ethiopia appealed for help against the Muslim Adal Sultanate in 1531, the military aid opened up the country further. Jesuit missionaries arrived and made some converts among the people but their real target was the ruling class. The Emperor Susenyos I was converted to Catholicism and in 1622 declared it to be the country’s official religion. When Afonso Mendes, a Portuguese Jesuit, was named Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church and Susenyos used force to compel the latinization, resistance grew. On the death of the Emperor the union with Rome was declared over, Mendes was expelled and the Catholic missionizing came to an official end. Jesuits who lingered were martyred.

1929 The Lateran pacts are signed

The reunification of Italy in the 19th century came at the expense of the Papal States, ruled by the Pope since the 700s. When the last bit was gobbled up by Italy in 1870 subsequent popes refused to recognize the status quo and claimed to be prisoners in the Vatican. In the Lateran Pacts signed with Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator, the Vatican received independence and reparations while agreeing to recognize the Kingdom of Italy.

2013 Pope Benedict XVI resigns the papacy

When the noted theologian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was named Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 he was already 77 years old. He served as Bishop of Rome until 2013 when he stepped down from his office, not wishing to imitate the example of his predecessor John Paul II who was incapacitated in the latter part of his reign. He cited “lack of strength of mind and body” as the reason for his decision. He was the first Pope to resign since 1415 when Gregory XII was forced to step down under pressure from the Council of Constance. The last pope to resign voluntarily was the unfortunate Celestine V who retired in 1294.

February 8



The birth of the last Christian Roman emperor.

Constantine XI Palaiologos (1405-53) was born at a time when the once-great Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire had been reduced to the city of Constantinople and a few holdings on the mainland of Greece. For centuries Constantinople had stood as a barrier, preventing Islam from expanding into eastern Europe but now it was surrounded by the territory of the Ottoman Turks and was forced to pay allegiance to their ruler. In fact it was the Turkish sultan Murad II who chose Constantine to be crowned emperor in 1449 over the claims of his brother.

The Byzantines had maintained their existence though shrewd diplomacy and the impenetrable walls of Constantinople, built one thousand years before by the emperor Theodosius II, but by the 1450s both failed them. The only help they could appeal to were western Catholic powers but the price for that aid was to renounce Orthodoxy and accept the headship of the pope — a move that the citizens of Constantinople were unwilling to make. Their motto became “better the turban than the tiara”, better to bow to the Turks than to the papacy. Moreover, advances in siege warfare, particularly the invention of artillery meant that the great walls were no longer guarantees of safety.

In 1452 the new and ambitious Turkish ruler Mehmed II vowed to extinguish the last remnants of Christian opposition to the expansion of his people. He assembled a vast army with a huge train of cannon to attack Constantinople with its meagre troop of defenders. The city fell on May 29, 1453. Constantine was killed in the battle but legend says that he became one of history’s sleeping kings — gone but who will return when their nation needs them, like England’s King Arthur, Germany’s Barbarossa or Wenceslas of the Czechs. It is said that angels took Constantine and placed him in a subterranean rock beneath Constantinople’s ceremonial Golden Gate from whence he will come to once more create a Christian empire.

February 7



The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Florence in the 14th century was at the heart of the Italian Renaissance, the engine of humanist scholarship and great works of art and architecture produced by the likes of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Donatello. The patronage of the leading Medici family inspired Florentine institutions and nobles to support these efforts but in the 1490s the city was taken over by someone with far different ideas. This was the monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98).

Savonarola was a fiery Dominican who benefited at first from the patronage of the Medici ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent but who then turned against him. Preaching furiously against the corruption, of the pope (the Borgia, Alexander VI), the Medici clique and the rich magnates of the city, Savonarola sparked the coup that ejected the Medici and established a ‘godly’ republic. Bands of young followers dressed as angels patrolled the city, punishing gambling, swearing and drunkenness. Telling Florentines that the End of Time was near, Savonarola organized “Bonfires of the Vanities” where people were urged to divest themselves of all that could separate them from concentrating on the spiritual life: fancy clothes, jewels, cosmetics, rich furniture, classic manuscripts and fine art. These objects were hauled to public fires and burnt. A particularly spectacular demonstration was held this day in 1497. Paul Strathern’s Death in Florence describes the scene:

The bonfires in each neighbourhood around which people had traditionally danced in abandoned fashion during the pre-Savonarolan Carnival were now all amalgamated into one massive bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria, which was intended to accommodate all the vanities that Savonarola’s boys had collected. An eight-sided wooden pyramid had been constructed, with seven tiers, one for each of the seven deadly sins. The vanities were placed on these tiers, and the inside of the pyramid was filled with sacks of straw, piles of kindling wood, and even small bags of dynamite (intended to spread the flames throughout the pyramid, as well as cause incendiary firework effects such as bangs and showers of sparks). In the end, this ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ rose to sixty feet, and the circumference at its base was 240 feet. At its peak was placed wooden effigy made to look like the traditional image of the Devil, complete with hairy cloven-hoofed goats’ legs, pointed ears, horns and a little pointed beard.

It should be noted that in this drive to consume corruption by cleansing fire he was following the example of the earlier wandering Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444).

February 3


Gregory the Great is elected pope.

It would be hard to name a more influential pope of the early Middle Ages than St. Gregory I (540-604), called the Great. (Supporters of the claim of Leo I, also the Great and also a saint, may send their arguments on a postcard to St Margaret’s Church, Winnipeg.) Born into a wealthy Roman family with a pope and many high-ranking officials on his family tree, he was superbly educated in the liberal arts and entered at an early age into political life, becoming Prefect of Rome (the highest rank in the city) by his early 30s. He took office at a miserable time in the history of Rome with Italy ravaged by the barbarian Lombards and still recovering from the depopulation and chaos caused by the Byzantine attempt at reconquest and the plague.

On the death of his father he converted his family villa into a monastery and became a monk, soon rising in influence in the Church. In 579 he was chosen by the pope to lead an embassy to the emperor in Constantinople to whom Rome still owed allegiance. His attempt to convince the emperor to send troops to Italy to stop the Lombard advance was fruitless.

In 590, much against his will, he was elected Pope to replace Pelagius II who died of the plague. He took on this task with great energy and succeeded by the time of his death 14 years later in elevating the status and reach of the Roman papacy. For the previous century the bishops of Rome had had little positive influence on the lands of the western empire which had been lost to the Germanic invaders. Britain had lost contact with civilization for almost a century; Spain was dominated by Arian heretics; and the Church in Gaul was in the hands of the Frankish landowners who had little thought for evangelism. Under Gregory the papacy reached out to assert the international leadership of the Bishop of Rome once more. One of his great achievements was sending the mission of Augustine, a monk from his own monastery, to England to spread Christianity to the German tribes there. He reformed the liturgy and encouraged the music we now call Gregorian chant. He reformed the management of church lands which came to provide food and revenue for the poor of Rome. His book Pastoral Care was translated by Alfred the Great into English and was one of the civilizing books every church had to have a copy of.