May 13

1917

The first Marian apparition at Fátima.

Of the hundreds of appearances of the Virgin Mary reported to the Church throughout history, only twelve (though some sources say fifteen) are officially recognized by the Vatican. The earliest of these was in Guadalupe, Mexico in 1555 and the most recent was in Rwanda in 1982. One of the most famous of them all and, certainly the most public, was a series of apparitions that occurred in 1917 to three Portuguese peasant children in Fátima.

In the spring of 1916 Lucia dos Santos (age 9) and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto (ages 7 and 6) were herding sheep on a field known as Cova da Iria when they claimed to have been visited three times by an angel who instructed them in prayer and worship. On May 13, 1917 the children were in the same field when they beheld an apparition of a shining lady, whom they identified as the Virgin Mary, in an oak tree. The vision said she had come from heaven and would return in the same place and time on the thirteenth day of the coming months.  During these visits the children were given three secrets. The first was a vision of Hell; the second was a prediction of war; and the third was kept private by Louisa, but was eventually written down and conveyed to the pope.

News of these apparitions leaked out and caused considerable controversy. Crowds gathered at the spot, though they saw, at first, nothing of what the children claimed to see. At one point the three youngsters were arrested and threatened with torture if they did not reveal the secrets, but they resisted. The apparition had promised that at her final visit in October she would produce a miracle that would cause many to believe. On October 13, 1917 before a crowd numbered in the tens of thousands, the sun seemed to behave erratically. In the words of one observer: “Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws – the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people.” This “Miracle of the Sun” was widely reported in the media and Fatima became a site of massive pilgrimage.

Both Jacinta and Francisco soon perished in the great influenza epidemic but Louisa became a nun and lived until the ripe old age of 97, dying in 2005. Pope John Paul II credited Our Lady of Fatima for saving him from an assassination attempt. On his pilgrimage to the site, he left the bullet that was extracted from his body and it now rests in the crown of the Virgin’s statue in the chapel. In 2017, Pope Francis announced the canonization of Jacinta and Francisco after miracles had been attributed to their intercession. Lucia is also on the path to sainthood.

May 8

May 8

Julian of Norwich

The term “anchoress” refers to a type of female hermit. In the late 1300s a woman known to history as “Julian of Norwich” (c. 1342-c. 1416), whose true name is unknown and who was called after the church in which she lived, moved into a little cell in a church in Norwich to spend the rest of her life in contemplation of God. She proved to be one of the great mystics of the late Middle Ages and the first female author of a book in English.

In 1373 she experienced the first of a series of visions which she described in her book Revelations of Divine Love. Later she wrote of her theological speculations on these visions in a book known as The Long Text. For Julian God is a god of love, not of anger or punishment: “For I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love.” She is famous for having spoken of Jesus in maternal terms and for the saying “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. Her works are still in print study and are the subject of much academic interest. Recently, Denys Turner’s book Julian of Norwich, Theologian, has sparked interest in her as more than simply a mystic but a genuine Doctor of the Church.

May 6

1757

Christopher Smart enters an insane asylum

Christopher Smart (1722-71) was an English poet and scholar, sadly famous because of a mental illness that plagued his adult years. He was a friend of Samuel Johnson, who said in defence of him: “He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”

His greatest poetical work was Jubilate Agno, written when he was incarcerated in an asylum. Its most famous passage concerns his cat:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

In 1943 Benjamin Britten set the poem to music as “Rejoice in the Lamb”. Here is a section of that:

May 1

1998

Edith Stein is canonized

Edith Stein (1891-1942) was born into an observant German Jewish family during the Wilhelmine Empire. She was given a first-rate education studying first at the universities of Goettingen and Breslau and then in 1916 achieving a doctorate in philosophy at the prestigious University of Freiburg. There she worked with leading phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. While she was teaching at Freiburg she became interested in the writings of St Teresa of Avila and converted in 1922 to Roman Catholicism. She was dissuaded from immediately becoming a nun but instead taught at Catholic schools and tried to reconcile Thomism with current Continental ideas, becoming recognized as an important philosophical voice.

In 1933 the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler took power and instituted restrictions on women and Jews in the civil service and teaching professions. This prompted Stein to join the Discalced (or Shoeless) Carmelites, an order of us founded by Teresa of Avila, and assume the religious name of “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross”. She continued her deep study of philosophy and academic publications at her monastery in Cologne but in late 1938 as the Nazi threat grew she and her sister Rosa, who had also converted and become a nun, were transferred for their own safety to a Carmelite house in the Netherlands. In Holland she published her last work Studies on John of the Cross: The Science of the Cross. Unfortunately, that country was overrun by the Germans in 1940 and the life of Stein was again in danger.

In July 1942 the Dutch bishops issued a condemnation of the deportation of Dutch Jews and the expulsion of Jewish children from the Catholic school system. The Nazi occupiers retaliated by arresting Jewish converts to Christianity and sending them to the death camps. (It was this sort of action that prompted the Catholic Church to be circumspect about criticizing Hitler in public.) On August 9, 1942 Edith Stein and her sister were gassed to death.

Since her death, Stein has been memorialized in both Europe and North America and her philosophical work continues to be published and discussed. In 1998 he declared a saint by Pope John Paul II. She is now one of the six patron saints of Europe.

April 28

1955

The birth of Nicky Gumbel

Nicholas Glyn Paul Gumbel was born the son of a prosperous London family; his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was a secular Jewish lawyer and his politician mother was not a church-goer. He received the most elite of English educations at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge (the same pedigree as the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.) At Trinity, Gumbel was converted from a grumpy atheism to Christianity. He trained as a barrister and practised law but left the legal profession in 1982 to study theology and become an Anglican priest.

After he was posted to the London parish of Holy Trinity, Brompton, he became associated with the Alpha Course, an introductory series of lessons in Christianity. Alpha had been started in 1977 by Reverend Charles Marnham but it became a global phenomenon when Gumbel assumed its leadership in 1990. It claims to have reached 20,000,000 people in 169 countries. Despite this success, Alpha has fierce critics inside Christianity who mistrust its ecumenicism and interest in glossolalia while those outside the church often refer to it as a cult.

Gumbel is the author of  Questions of Life which has sold over 1,000,000 copies. Voted “Christian Book of the Year” in 1994, it has been published in 48 languages. Other books include Why Jesus, Searching Issues, Telling Others, A Life Worth Living, Challenging Lifestyle, Heart of Revival and 30 Days.

April 23

St George’s Day

It is impossible to better this encomium to St George, found in Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

GEORGE is honoured in the Catholic church as one of the most illustrious martyrs of Christ. The Greeks have long distinguished him by the title of The Great Martyr, and keep his festival a holiday of obligation. There stood formerly in Constantinople five or six churches dedicated in his honour; the oldest of which was always said to have been built by Constantine the Great; who seems also to have been the founder of the church of St. George, which stood over his tomb in Palestine. Both these churches were certainly built under the first Christian emperors. In the middle of the sixth age the Emperor Justinian erected a new church, in honour of this saint, at Bizanes, in Lesser Armenia: the Emperor Mauritius founded one in Constantinople. It is related in the life of St. Theodorus of Siceon, that he served God a long while in a chapel which bore the name of St. George, had a particular devotion to this glorious martyr, and strongly recommended the same to Mauritius, when he foretold him the empire. One of the churches of St. George in Constantinople, called Manganes, with a monastery adjoining, gave to the Hellespont the name of the Arm of St. George. To this day is St. George honoured as principal patron or tutelar saint by several eastern nations, particularly the Georgians. The Byzantine historians relate several battles to have been gained, and other miracles wrought through his intercession. From frequent pilgrimages to his church and tomb in Palestine, performed by those who visited the Holy Land, his veneration was much propagated over the West. St. Gregory of Tours mentions him as highly celebrated in France in the sixth century. St. Gregory the Great ordered an old church of St. George, which was fallen to decay, to be repaired. His office is found in the sacramentary of that pope, and many others. St. Clotildis, wife of Clovis, the first Christian king of France, erected altars under his name; and the church of Chelles, built by her, was originally dedicated in his honour. The ancient life of Droctovæus mentions, that certain relics of St. George were placed in the church of St. Vincent, now called St. Germaris, in Paris, when it was first consecrated. Fortunatus of Poitiers wrote an epigram on a church of St. George, in Mentz. The intercession of this saint was implored especially in battles, and by warriors, as appears by several instances in the Byzantine history, and he is said to have been himself a great soldier. He is at this day the tutelar saint of the republic of Genoa; and was chosen by our ancestors in the same quality under our first Norman kings. The great national council, held at Oxford in 1222, commanded his feast to be kept a holiday of the lesser rank throughout all England. Under his name and ensign was instituted by our victorious King Edward III in 1330, the most noble Order of knighthood in Europe, consisting of twenty-five knights, besides the sovereign. Its establishment is dated fifty years before the knights of St. Michael were instituted in France, by Lewis XI, eighty years before the Order of the Golden Fleece, established by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy; and one hundred and ninety before the Order of St. Andrew was set up in Scotland by James V. The Emperor Frederick IV. instituted, in 1470, an Order of knights in honour of St. George; and an honourable military Order in Venice bears his name.

The extraordinary devotion of all Christendom to this saint, is an authentic proof how glorious his triumph and name have always been in the church. All his acts relate, that he suffered under Dioclesian, at Nicomedia. Joseph Assemani shows, from the unanimous consent of all churches, that he was crowned on the 23rd of April. According to the account given us by Metaphrastes, he was born in Cappadocia, of noble Christian parents. After the death of his father, he went with his mother into Palestine, she being a native of that country, and having there a considerable estate, which fell to her son George. He was strong and robust in body, and having embraced the profession of a soldier, was made a tribune, or colonel in the army. By his courage and conduct, he was soon preferred to higher stations by the Emperor Dioclesian. When that prince waged war against the Christian religion, St. George laid aside the marks of his dignity, threw up his commission and posts, and complained to the emperor himself of his severities and bloody edicts. He was immediately cast into prison, and tried, first by promises, and afterwards put to the question, and tortured with great cruelty; but nothing could shake his constancy. The next day he was led through the city and beheaded. Some think him to have been the same illustrious young man who tore down the edicts when they were first fixed up at Nicomedia, as Lactantius relates in his book, On the Death of the Persecutors, and Eusebius in his history. The reason why St. George has been regarded as the patron of military men, is partly upon the score of his profession, and partly upon the credit of a relation of his appearing to the Christian army in the holy war, before the battle of Antioch. The success of this battle proving fortunate to the Christians, under Godfrey of Bouillon, made the name of St. George more famous in Europe, and disposed the military men to implore more particularly his intercession. This devotion was confirmed, as it is said, by an apparition of St. George to our king, Richard I, in his expedition against the Saracens: which vision, being declared to the troops, was to them a great encouragement, and they soon after defeated the enemy. St. George is usually painted on horseback, and tilting at a dragon, under his feet; but this representation is no more than an emblematical figure, purporting, that, by his faith and Christian fortitude, he conquered the devil, called the dragon in the Apocalypse.

Though many dishonour the profession of arms by a licentiousness of manners, yet, to show us that perfect sanctity is attainable in all states, we find the names of more soldiers recorded in the martyrologies than almost of any other profession. Every true disciple of Christ must be a martyr in the disposition of his heart, as he must be ready to lose all, and to suffer anything, rather than to offend God. Every good Christian is also a martyr, by the patience and courage with which he bears all trials. There is no virtue more necessary, nor of which the exercise ought to be more frequent, than patience. In this mortal life we have continually something to suffer from disappointments in affairs, from the severity of the seasons, from the injustice, caprice, peevishness, jealousy, or antipathy of others; and from ourselves, in pains either of mind or body. Even our own weaknesses and faults are to us subjects of patience. And as we have continually many burdens, both of our own and others, to bear, it is only in patience that we are to possess our souls. This affords us comfort in all our sufferings, and maintains our souls in unshaken tranquillity and peace. This is true greatness of mind, and the virtue of heroic souls. But, alas! every accident ruffles and disturbs us: and we are insupportable even to ourselves. What comfort should we find, what peace should we enjoy, what treasures of virtue should we heap up, what an harvest of merits should we reap, if we had learned the true spirit of Christian patience! This is the martyrdom, and the crown of every faithful disciple of Christ.

April 22

1538

John Calvin is expelled from Geneva

John Calvin (1509-64) was a French preacher and theologian inextricably linked with the Reformation in Geneva, a town which he would fashion into the Protestant version of the Vatican, a headquarters for an international religious movement.

Calvin was born into a Catholic family in northern France and moved to Paris as a young man to study philosophy; later he enrolled in the University of Orleans as a law student. He gained a reputation as a brilliant humanist, publishing a translation of Seneca’s De Clementia or On Mercy. Back in Paris he fell into the controversy over religious reform which was dividing the royal court and the intellectual class. He sided with the reformers and had to flee France in 1534 during a crack-down on dissidents after the brazen “Affair of the Placards” in which Protestant tracts appeared surreptitiously in the king’s quarters. Calvin ended up in Basel which was undergoing a reformation and there he wrote his first edition of The Institutes of Christian Religion in 1536. Continuing his enforced wanderings he ended up in Geneva where he was asked by William Farel (1489-1565), the leading reformer, to stay and assist him in converting the townsfolk. The two of them drew up a new confession of faith and a revised church structure but they ran into heavy opposition from some leading families. Finally, in April 1538 after Calvin and Farel had disobeyed the town council and refused to administer communion with unleavened bread (part of a plan to harmonize Protestant practices in the Swiss cities) riots broke out, opposition coalesced and the two reformers were given three days to get out of Geneva.

Farel would find employment in Neuchâtel and Calvin in Strasbourg, but in 1541 Geneva asked for him to return and complete his reforms. He replied, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross on which I had to perish daily a thousand times over” but in the end he agreed to come back on his terms. During his second term Geneva would become the leading city of the Protestant Reformation.

April 20

1653

Oliver Cromwell dissolves the Rump Parliament

“You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” With these words General Oliver Cromwell ordered the English Parliament, called “the Rump” because it was all that remained after the last legitimate Parliament elected in 1640 had been purged of dissident members, disbanded at the point of the sword.

The Rump had been instrumental in reshaping the religious landscape of Britain. They had abolished the requirement that all worship must be in an Anglican church, allowing some other forms of Protestantism to flourish while cracking down on extremists such as Quakers and Ranters. They mandated a government license to preach and tried to enforce sexual morality with stiff penalties against adultery or fornication.

On April 20, 1653, when it seemed as if the Rump would not honour its pledge to dissolve itself Cromwell dismissed them with a troop of soldiers and hard words:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice. Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money. Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance. Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.

I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place. Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there [the Speaker’s Mace] , and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go!

The body that Cromwell appointed to replace the Rump was supposed to be filled only by godly Puritans; it came to be known as “Barebone’s Parliament” after one its more famous members, Praise-God-and-Flee-Fornication Barebones (brother of the equally wonderfully-named Fear-God Barebones or, according to another source, Rise-Up-and-Tell-the-Glory-of-Emmanuel Barebones or, according to yet another source, Christ-Came-Into-The-World-To-Save-Thee Barebone and If-Christ-Had-Not-Died, Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone. The latter was known locally simply as Damned Barebone).

April 18

1521

Martin Luther defends himself at the Diet of Worms

Since his 1517 publication of the “95 Theses” the Augustinian monk Martin Luther had been under attack by Roman Catholic authorities, but the protection offered by his politically-powerful ruler, Frederick of Saxony, had kept him safe. Frederick had resisted calls for Luther to be tried in Italy and had demanded that the star lecturer at his Wittenberg university be examined by Germans in Germany. The death of the Emperor Maximilian and the delay on the part of the new emperor, Charles V, in moving to Germany meant that Luther had enjoyed four years to freely expand on his radical ideas, but in the spring of 1521 he was finally summoned to the city of Worms to face his accusers at the German Diet or Parliament.

Luther was promised a safe-conduct, which his friends urged him not to trust in because such a document had not saved Jan Hus from burning at the hands of the Council of Constance in 1415, but he was determined to go, believing that though it meant his death he had to affirm the truth of his writings. However, rather than be given a chance to explain or defend his beliefs, he was faced with a simple set of questions when he arrived in Worms. Taken into a room and shown a table full of books he was asked: “Are these your books? Do you recant all or part of your writings?” He asked for 24 hours to reflect and the next evening on April 18 he appeared before the Emperor and court assembled in the cathedral. His short speech revolutionized the world and defined Protestantism:

Since your serene majesty and lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, amen.

Amid shouting, the emperor declared he had heard enough and the meeting broke up. After a few more days of fruitless palaver Luther left Worms under an imperial safe-conduct. The emperor stayed on to issue the Edict of Worms by which Luther was declared an outlaw, wolf’s-head, liable to instant death at any man’s hand.

In the 1577 woodcut above you can see the phrase “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen.

April 16

St Bernadette

Marie Bernarde “Bernadette” Soubirous (1844 – 1879) was the sickly, illiterate daughter of a poor miller in southern France. When she was 14 years old she underwent a series of visions which convinced the Roman Catholic Church that she had been visited by the Virgin Mary.

In February, 1858 she and her sister were out gathering firewood when Bernadette was struck by the appearance of a bright light inside a grotto. Over the next few weeks, the apparitions continued with the figure of a woman wearing a white robe becoming clearer to Bernadette. She received instructions from the vision to drink the water of the local spring, now miraculously clear, and establish a channel there. In the sixteenth of eighteen sightings the figure identified herself (in the local Gascon dialect) as “the Immaculate Conception”.

Though many neighbours were convinced that mental illness lay at the root of these visions, a Church investigation pronounced them authentic. Visitors began to flock to the grotto in Lourdes and so many claimed miraculous healing that the site has become a major destination of pilgrims for the last century and a half. Five million visits are now made annually.

Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity and lived as a nun until her death in 1879. She was canonized in 1933 and ten years later Jennifer Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the saint in The Song of Bernadette.