October 14


Pope Saint Callixtus I

There have been three popes who started off as slaves and Callixtus (d. c. 223) was the third of them. If that wasn’t a bad start to a papal career, consider that Callixtus was also condemned (probably unfairly) for embezzlement and sentenced to a life term in the mines of Sardinia. Fortunately for him, the favourite mistress of the murderous emperor Commodus (the bad guy in the movie Gladiator) was a Christian and secured his release.

After leaving the mines, Callixtus was given a pension by the pope and then a series of church positions, becoming the superintendent of the Christian cemetery just outside of Rome, still known to this day as the Catacombs of Callixtus. By 218, he had rehabilitated his reputation enough that he was elected pope. His gentle spirit and love of forgiveness made him a number of enemies who would have preferred a harsher line toward repentant sinners or schismatics rejoining the Church. Tertullian wrote against his decision to readmit to communion those fornicators or murderers who had repented. Hippolytus denounced him as a heretic and had himself elected as the first anti-pope. Legend has it that Callixtus was martyred in 223 by being thrown down a well.

October 13

St Edward the Confessor

The sort of demands placed on kingship means that very few national rulers are ever recognized as saints. The French have St Louis IX; Hungarians have Stephen; Russia has the feckless Nicholas II, who got the title only by virtue of being murdered by Bolsheviks; and England has the very peculiar Edward the Confessor.

Edward (c. 1003-66) was the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, born at a time when the Anglo-Saxon monarchy was crumbling before the last onslaught of Viking invaders. When Sweyn Forkbeard landed in England with a Danish army, Emma and her children fled to Normandy. After a brief civil war and the death of Ethelred, Emma married Sweyn’s son Cnut and became Queen of England a second time but Edward remained in Normandy where he was brought up as a pious Catholic. He attempted to return to England in 1036 but the murder of his brother made him return to safety in Norman territory.

In 1042, after more civil war and deaths of rival claimants, Edward became the unchallenged king in England. Having spent most of his life abroad, he was unfamiliar with his new realm and had to contend with powerful earls, particularly the ambitious Godwin of Wessex with his brood of even more ambitious sons. In 1045 Edward married Godwin’s daughter Edith; though historians disagree over whether this was a chaste marriage, it produced no children. Gradually, Godwin, and then his son Harold, came to dominate English politics and Edward seems to withdrawn from such affairs, preferring to spend his time in hunting and religious devotions. He was also involved in the construction of Westminster Abbey whose architecture broke with local methods and introduced a Norman form of Romanesque style to England; it is where all English kings have been crowned since the death of Edward, who is buried there.

Childless Edward seems to have left conflicting wishes about who would succeed him, creating disastrous consequences for his country. Harald Hardrada of Norway, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy all claimed the throne after Edward’s death in 1066. The Battle of Stamford Bridge eliminated Hardrada and William’s victory at the subsequent Battle of Hastings ended Anglo-Saxon rule and saw the beginning of the Norman ascendancy.

On 13 October, 1269 Edward’s relics were moved (or “translated”) to a new shrine in the Abbey. This date is regarded as his feast day, and each October the Abbey holds a week of festivities and prayer in his honour.

October 7


Our Lady of the Rosary

The 1571 Battle of Lepanto was the biggest oar-powered battle ever, pitting the forces of Islam and the Ottoman Empire against a Christian fleet composed of an alliance of Catholic powers. Hundreds of galleys and tens of thousands of sailors and infantry took part in an encounter that ended with a Christian victory. The Turks suffered 20,000 casualties and lost 187 ships, captured or sunk. 20,000 Christian slaves were freed from the oar-benches of the Turkish galleys.

Prompted by the numerous processions in Rome by the Rosary confraternity petitioning the aid of Mary, Pope Pius V atributed the triumph at Lepanto to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and created a new festival for Our Lady of Victory. Two years later Pope Gregory XIII changed the name to “Feast of the Holy Rosary” and in 1960 Pope Paul VI renamed it again to the “Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary”.

There are numerous churches dedicated to either Our Lady of Victory or Our Lady of the Rosary. Maria del Rosario is a common Spanish girl’s name while Rosario is a popular name for boys in the Catholic world.

October 6

A detail from an illustration of Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci is seen at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies in this 2007 file photo. The sainthood cause of the 17th-century missionary to China has moved to the Vatican after the diocesan phase of the sainthood process closed May 10. Father Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy, in 1552 and died in Beijing May 11, 1610. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) (May 13, 2013) See RICCI-CAUSE May 13, 2013.

1552 Birth of Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was an Italian Jesuit missionary to China whose techniques of winning the confidence of the Chinese exemplify the Jesuit approach to foreign evangelism.

In the sixteenth century, China was ruled by the decadent and inward-looking Ming dynasty. Once Ming fleets had explored the southern seas all the way to Africa, but by the late 1500s ocean-going vessels were forbidden and contact with the outside world was discouraged. China considered itself literally the centre of the universe, feeling self-sufficient and superior to all other nations. It had a department of state to deal with barbarians along its borders and another to handle its neighbours such as Korea or Vietnam which were willing to acknowledge Chinese superiority and pay tribute, but it had no notion of dealing with technologically-advanced Western nations which were now starting to intrude into Asia. Christianity, in its Nestorian form, had reached China centuries before through an overland route but Catholic presence was found only in the Portuguese colony of Macau on the southern coast.

Ricci had joined the Society of Jesus in 1571 and volunteered himself as a missionary to Asia seven years later. He was sent to Macau where he studied the Chinese language to prepare for the evangelization of the interior of China. He mastered the script and the literary classics that formed the basis of high culture — this at least allowed him to communicate with the officials whose cooperation the Jesuits would need. But how to make themselves useful in the eyes of the Chinese state that regarded foreigners as inherently useless and inferior? Here Ricci employed mathematical and astronomical skills to great advantage, areas in which the West was forging ahead of Asia. The proper way of marking time was necessary for government and religious decision-making; Ricci’s ability to predict eclipses and regulate timepieces won him and his companions the esteem of the ruling class. Ricci’s geographical knowledge presented world maps to the Chinese for the first time.

Part of the Jesuit approach to Asian missions was to adopt appropriate dress for their clergy; in India they dressed as Buddhist priests; in China they went clothed as court mandarins. Ricci also attempted to explain Christianity in a way that was compatible with Confucianism; here he trod perilously close to heresy. The mendicant orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, who saw themselves as missionary rivals to the Jesuits, complained to Rome about this alleged syncretism and a lengthy controversy erupted, one that hampered evangelism.

Ricci was eventually allowed to travel to the Ming capital in Beijing where established a Catholic cathedral and made some prominent converts. He died there in 1610 and his grave is now a tourist attraction. Efforts are being made to have Ricci named a saint.

September 27

Saints Damian and Cosmas

Damian and Cosmas,  according to legend, were two third-century Syrian brothers (perhaps twins) who trained as physicians before their conversion to Christianity. They were known for their generosity and refusal to accept payment for their medical aid. In one particularly miraculous bit of healing, they grafted the leg of a dead black Ethiopian on to the body of a white patient who had lost his limb to cancer. They were arrested during one of Diocletian’s persecutions and martyred.

Their legend spread widely very quickly with churches dedicated to them as early as the fourth century. The relics of Damian and Cosmas were removed from Syria to Constantinople by the emperor Justinian in the 500s and he ordered an elaborate tomb built for them in gratitude for a healing produced by their intercession. Their bones seem to have divided and multiplied, as a number of churches claim their twin skulls. Pilgrims may visit these heads in Madrid, Munich, and Venice.

They are the patron saints of surgeons, physicians, twins, dentists, barbers, pharmacists, veterinarians, orphanages, day-care centres, and confectioners. They are protectors of children and may be invoked by those suffering from hernias and the plague.

September 1


256 The Synod of Carthage reaffirms earlier African church council position that Christians baptised by the breakaway Novatian sect had to be rebaptised if they rejoined the Catholic church. This was defended by Cyprian (c. 200-58), bishop of Carthage but Pope Stephen mandated the reacceptance of the lapsed without a second baptism, causing severe tension between the papacy and the African church. Two years later Cyprian would be martyred when the Roman government renewed its persecution of Christians; he was canonized with his feast day September 16.

710 death of St Giles, one of 14 Holy Helpers. Giles (650-710) was a hermit in the south of France around whom legends of miracles and piety grew. In art he is depicted with a deer and a wound from an arrow. He is the patron saint of cripples, breast cancer, Edinburgh and the outcast. The 14 Holy Helpers are a group of saints whose intercession is deemed to be efficacious for certain diseases. Their cult seems to have sprung up in reaction to the Black death of the fourteenth century.

1159 Death of Pope Hadrian (or Adrian) IV, the only Englishman ever elevated to the papacy. Born Nicholas Breakspear c. 1100, he acquired a reputation as a reformer and administrator before his election. He is best known for placing the city of Rome under the interdict (a kind of mass excommunication) in order to drive out the rebel Arnold of Brescia and for granting the English king Henry II the lordship of Ireland, for which the Irish have never forgiven him.

1939 Hitler begins the T-4 Euthanasia program. One of the reasons that fascists like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini despised Christianity was that it loves the weak and helpless. Fascism is a philosophy for the strong and ruthless; that which can be destroyed must be destroyed. The Nazi eugenics policy moved from encouraging the mating of healthy Aryan youth to eliminating the chronically ill, mentally disabled, patients with incurable diseases and mental illnesses. Before the end of the war at least 70,000 Germans were euthanized through this policy.

August 30


Death of an Arian king

The last Roman emperor in the West was deposed in 476 by a barbarian warlord named Odoacer who sent the imperial regalia to the Eastern emperor at Constantinople and who pretended to rule Italy on his behalf. The German tribes who had poured into and overrun the West in the 400s had no desire to end Roman civilization, only to be parasites on it. As the West was divided into petty kingdoms by the various barbarian groups, it often served their rulers’ interest to be seen by the conquered populace as viceroys of the empire and continuers of civilization. Other barbarian princes served as generals in a Roman army, fighting against other Germans.

One such Ostrogothic lord was Theoderic (b. 454) who had been a political hostage in Constantinople and had soldiered for the eastern emperor. In 489 Emperor Zeno sent him against Odoacer who had been conspiring with his enemies. Odoacer was defeated and forced to accept Theoderic as co-ruler but, at the banquet to celebrate this pact, Theoderic murdered him and assumed sole rulership of Italy, still maintaining the fiction that he was governing on behalf of the Empire. The coin above shows Theoderic in a Roman cloak and armour but with an unmistakably barbarian moustache.

From his capital in Ravenna in northeastern Italy, Theoderic ruled the peninsula well in what was, essentially, a protection racket. In return for a third of the wealth, his Ostrogoths kept the peace, put down banditry, and deterred other barbarian incursions. The illiterate Goths could not run the machinery of government and civilization themselves; for that they relied on the old Roman senatorial elite. They ran his civil service, collected his taxes, made sure the harbours were dredged and the roads maintained. Though Theoderic and his tribe were Arian Christians, unlike the majority of the populace which was Catholic, the alliance between Germans and Romans operated smoothly for years. The inhabitants of Italy were at least as well off as they had been under the later western emperors. However, in his old age Theoderic began to suspect (and he may have been right) that his Roman civil service was seeking to undermine him and bring in the rule of Constantinople. He arrested his chief minister Boethius and had him murdered in prison. (It was during his time in the dungeon that Boethius wrote his masterwork The Consolation of Philosophy). His policy of religious toleration also eroded in his last years as he tried to cement alliances with other Arian tribes and secure the succession for his family.

Tragically, it all crumbled at his death in 526. His heir, an infant grandson, was not accepted by his warrior class and civil war broke out among the Ostrogoths. Emperor Justinian in Constantinople used this as an excuse to intervene and roll back a century of barbarian occupation of the West. The resulting Gothic Wars devastated Italy and virtually destroyed civilization there, leaving it prey for the next wave of barbarians, the Lombards.

Had been Theoderic’s successor been able to continue his policies, the Dark Ages that followed might not have been so dark.

August 27

St Monica

Few saints’ lives are as intertwined with that of their mother as was Saint Augustine of Hippo’s and his mother Monica’s.

Monica was born in present day Algeria during the fourth century of Berber stock and married the Roman official Patricius, by whom she had at least three children, two boys and a girl. Though she was raised a Christian, her husband was a pagan and forbade his children the baptism she wished to arrange for them. (Notwithstanding the objections of Patricius she made sure that her offspring were educated in her faith.) Her son Augustine was highly intelligent but lazy and broke her heart by adopting the dualist Manichean creed in his late teens during his studies in rhetoric in Carthage. Monica refused to see Augustine for a time after this though she continued to pray for his conversion. Her disapproval of his beloved concubine and her monumental expectations of him were too much for the young man and he departed in secret for Italy to set up as a rhetorician. Doggedly she followed him, first to Rome and then to Milan where Augustine finally became a Christian and was baptized by St Ambrose, much to Monica’s joy. Their plan was to return to Africa. In the seaport of Ostia as they awaited a ship,  Augustine and his mother sat at a window conversing of the life of the blessed; she turned to him and said, “Son, there is nothing now I care for in this life. What I shall now do or why I am here, I know not. The one reason I had for wishing to linger in this life a little longer was that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. This has God granted me superabundantly in seeing you reject earthly happiness to become His servant. What do I here?” A few days afterwards she had an attack of fever, and died in the year 387. (Her remains were later removed to Rome.)

Her tombstone reads: “Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you taught the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring.” She is the patron saint of difficult marriages, disappointing children, victims of adultery or unfaithfulness, victims of (verbal) abuse, housewives, alcoholics (Monica herself had been a heavy drinker) and conversion of relatives, plus the city of Santa Monica in California.

August 24


The Act of Uniformity

When High Church had the upper hand in the reign of Charles I, it did not hesitate to pillory the Puritans, cut off their ears, and banish them. When the Puritans got the ascendancy afterwards, they treated high-churchmen with an equally conscientious severity. At the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, all the reforming plans of the last twenty years were found utterly worn out of public favour, and the public submitted very quietly to a reconstitution of the church under what was called the Act of Uniformity, which made things very unpleasant once more for the Puritans. By its provisions, every clergyman was to be expelled from his charge on the 24th of August 1662, if, by that time, he did not declare his assent to everything contained in the revised Book of Common Prayer; every clergy-man who, during the period of the Commonwealth, had been unable to obtain episcopal ordination, was commanded now to obtain that kind of sanction; all were to take an oath of canonical obedience; all were to give up the theory on which the old ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ had been based; and all were to accept the doctrine of the king’s supremacy over the church. The result was, that two thousand of the clergy signalised this Bartholomew Day by leaving the church. Laymen such as John Milton, John Bunyan, and Andrew Marvell, left as well.

The act became the more harsh from its coming into operation just before one whole year’s tithes were due. Two thousand families, hitherto dependent on stipends for support, were driven hither and thither in the search for a livelihood; and this was rendered more and more difficult by a number of subordinate statutes passed in rapid succession. The ejected ministers were not allowed to exercise, even in private houses, the religious functions to which they had been accustomed. Their books could not be published without episcopal sanction, previously applied for and obtained. A statute, called the ‘Conventicle Act,’ punished with fine, imprisonment, or transportation, every one present in any private house where religious worship was carried on—if the total number exceeded by more than five the regular members of the household. Another, called the ‘Oxford Act,’ imposed on these unfortunate ministers an oath of passive obedience and non-resistance; and if they refused to take it, they were prohibited from living within five miles of any place where they had ever resided, or of any corporate town, and from eking out their scanty incomes by keeping schools, or taking in boarders. A second and stricter version of the Conventicle Act deprived the ministers of the right of trial by jury, and empowered any justice of the peace to convict them on the oath of a single informer, who was to be rewarded with one-third of the fines levied.

Writers who take opposite sides on this subject naturally differ as to the causes and justification to be assigned for the ejection; but there is very little difference of opinion as to the misery suffered during the years intervening between 1662 and 1688. Those who, in one way or other, suffered homelessness, hunger, and penury on account of the Act of Uniformity and the ejection that followed it, have been estimated at 60,000 persons, and the amount of pecuniary loss at twelve or fourteen millions sterling. Contemporary writers, record upwards of 5000 Nonconformists as the number who perished within the walls of prisons; and many, like preacher Richard Baxter, were hunted from house to house, from chapel to chapel, by informers, whose only motive was to obtain a portion of the fines levied for infringement of numerous statutes.

Considered as a historical fact, dissent may be said to have begun in England on this 24th August 1662, when the Puritans, who had before formed a body within the church, now ranged themselves as a dissenting or Nonconformist sect outside it.

August 22

Death of a rebel Earl

For the first ten years of her reign Elizabeth I ordained a religious settlement that forbade any public worship other than the Anglican variety of Protestantism, but which tactfully looked the other way if Catholic families complied only minimally. The Queen was said to have announced that she did not wish to make windows into peoples’ hearts. Thus many Catholics worshipped as they wished in secret, paid a small fine for non-attendance at Anglican services, or made sure that at least one member of the family attended the state church.  That there were prominent noblemen and gentry who were secret Catholics was well known. Elizabeth imprisoned the Catholic bishops she inherited but did not burn the members of the dissident episcopacy as her sister Bloody Mary had.

This changed in 1569 with the first of two horribly ill-advised acts by Catholics. The first was the Rising of the Earls (or the Northern Rising), a rebellion by two prominent Catholic nobles in the north of the country: Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Charles Neville, Earl of Westmorland. For a time their army controlled Durham and celebrated the Mass openly but royal forces soon rallied and defeated the rebels, forcing the earls into Scottish exile. Then, far too late to aid the Rising, Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis which declared Elizabeth a heretic, absolved English Catholics of their obedience to her and declared the throne vacant.

The results were catastrophic for English Catholicism. They inspired assassination attempts on the life of Elizabeth and hardened the Queen’s heart against Catholics; persecutions became the order of the day and many believers and priests were martyred. It would not be until the early 19th century before English Catholics were accorded their full civil rights. On this day in 1572, the Earl of Northumberland, having been sold by his Scottish hosts for £2,000 to Elizabeth, was beheaded for treason.