July 15

St Swithun’s Day

Swithun or Swithin (d. 862) was an obscure bishop of Winchester in the mid-9th century. However, after his death he seems to have been quite active in the miracle department. On his deathbed, Swithun asked to be buried out of doors, where he would be trodden on by local folk and rained on. However, when the monks of Winchester attempted to remove his remains to a splendid shrine inside the cathedral legend says there was a heavy rain storm during the ceremony.

This led to the belief that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (July 15th), it will rain for the next 40 days in succession, and a fine 15th July will be followed by 40 days of fine weather. The old rhyme says:

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain 

For forty days it will remain. 

St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair 

For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

A local variation says: If on St Swithun’s day it really pours/ You’re better off to stay indoors.

Unfortunately for the wisdom of our ancestors, this seems not to be borne out in fact. Since records began, not a single 40-day drought has occurred anywhere in the UK during the summer months, and there has been not one instance at any time of the year of 40 consecutive days of rainfall. According to the British Meteorological Society “the middle of July tends to be around the time that the jet stream settles into a relatively consistent pattern. If the jet stream lies north of the UK throughout the summer, continental high pressure is able to move in, bringing warmth and sunshine. If it sticks further south, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems are likely to predominate, bringing colder, wetter weather.” The rhyme should read:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days, relatively unsettled there’s a fair chance it will remain

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days, a northerly jet stream might result in some fairly decent spells

But then again it might not.

July 12

1690

The Glorious Twelfth

With the accession of Catholic James II to the English throne in 1685, political tensions were high. For most Englishmen and Scotsmen (because James also ruled that country) Catholicism was equated with foreign tyranny and invasion. The Spanish in the 16th century and the French in 17th century were seen as the nation’s enemies, egged on by the pope to bring England back to obedience to Rome. Some thought to exclude James from the throne but others were reassured by the fact that his Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne, would eventually succeed him. This changed when James’s second wife bore him a surprise son in 1688 — this would mean a Catholic heir. The king’s quarrels with Parliament over his plans to enforce religious toleration led to the revolt of most of his political class. With the help of a Dutch army led by her husband William of Orange, his daughter Mary returned and ousted her father from power. This so-called Bloodless Revolution may have been without much violence in England but that was not the case in Ireland where James fled to rally support.

The Irish Parliament declared their support for James, passing a bill decreeing religious toleration for both Catholics and Protestants. A French army landed on the island to bolster his claims and found much support among the Catholic population. War raged across Ireland until a decisive battle was fought on the Boyne River by the rival kings: James with an army of 25,000 French and Irish against Mary’s husband, William III, with a larger and more professional army of Dutch, English and assorted European Protestants, armed with more modern weaponry. James was driven from the field and fled to France, leaving his Irish supporters to be mopped up piecemeal over the next few years. The exiled king lived on a French pension for the rest of his life and never made a serious attempt to regain the throne, though his son James (the “old Pretender”) and grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie (the “Young Pretender”) invaded Britain unsuccessfully to press their dynastic claims.

To this day the Battle of the Boyne looms large in the memory of Ulster Protestants for whom July 12 is a grand holiday to be celebrated by marching triumphantly through Catholic areas to intimidate their neighbours.

An interesting historical irony: the papacy did nothing to support Catholic King James in 1689. Pope Innocent XI, involved in a church-state tussle with the French government, felt that James was too much a tool of Louis XIV.

July 10

165

The martyrdom of St Felicitas

Little is known for certain about St Felicitas (or Felicity) other than the site of her grave in Rome and that her martyrdom was marked by a homily preached by St Gregory the Great in a church erected over her tomb. Legend, however, gives us more data. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

Felicity was a noble Christian woman who, after the death of her husband, served God in a state of widowhood and employed herself in prayer and works of charity. By the example of this lady and her family many idolaters were moved to embrace the faith of Christ. This angered the pagan priests, who complained to the Emperor Antoninus Pius that the boldness with which Felicity practised the Christian religion drew many from the worship of the immortal gods, who on that account would be angry with the city and state. The emperor was prevailed upon to send an order to Publius, the prefect of Rome, and he caused the mother and her sons to be apprehended and brought before him. He took Felicity aside and used the strongest inducements to bring her to sacrifice to the gods, that he might not be obliged to proceed with severity against her and her sons; but she answered, ” Do not think to frighten me by threats, or to win me by fair speeches. The spirit of God within me will not suffer me to be overcome, and will make me victorious over all your assaults.” ” Unhappy woman “, replied Publius, ” if you wish to die, die; but do not destroy your children.” ” My children “, said she, ” will live eternally if they are faithful, but must expect eternal death if they sacrifice to idols.”

The next day the prefect sent for Felicity and her sons again, and said, ” Take pity on your children, Felicity, they are in the bloom of youth.” The mother answered, “Your pity is impiety, and your words cruel.” Then, turning towards her children, she said, ” My sons, look up to Heaven, where Jesus Christ with His saints expects you. Be faithful in His love, and fight courageously for your souls.” Publius commanded her to be beaten, saying, ” You are insolent to give them such advice in my presence, in contempt of the orders of our prince.” He then called the boys to him one after another, and mixed promises with threats to induce them to worship the gods; but they all refused and, after being whipped, were remanded to prison. The prefect laid the whole process before the emperor, who gave an order that they should be sent to different judges and be condemned to different deaths. Felicitas implored God only that she not to be killed before her sons, so that she might be able to encourage them during their torture and death in order that they would not deny Christ.  Januarius was scourged to death, Felix and Philip were beaten with clubs, Silvanus was thrown headlong into the Tiber, and Alexander, Vitalis and Martial were beheaded; the same sentence was executed upon the mother last of all.

July 6

1415 The execution of John Hua

The late medieval church faced a number of serious challenges from reformers and heretics who disputed fundamental Catholic beliefs. John Wyclif, (1320-1384) an English priest, was foremost among those who drew up a list of errors they felt that the Church had fallen into: transubstantiation, the papal monarchy, a separate celibate priestly caste, the denial of Scripture in the vernacular, the abuse of indulgences, and a corrupt, wealthy superstructure. Wyclif was able to evade the usual fate awaiting heretics because he was found to be useful as an anti-ecclesiastical tool by powerful English politicians. Wyclif’s ideas spread in the 1390s to Bohemia where they were taken up by Jan Hus, a prominent preacher in Prague.

The Conciliar movement of the early 1400s attempted to restore the unity of the Church which had been shattered by rival papacies and to attack the heresies that the chaos of the 14th century had allowed to flourish. The 1409 Council of Pisa condemned Wyclif’s writings and pressure mounted against Hus who was identified as a supporter of the banned ideas. In 1414, under an imperial safe-conduct pass, Hus journeyed to the Council of Constance.

Instead of the open discussion he had expected, Hus was almost immediately imprisoned and charges of heresy brought against him. Catholic clerics had convinced the emperor that faith need not be kept with heretics and that his safe-conduct need not be honoured. This act was brought up repeatedly by writers during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and underlay much of the hostility and suspicion manifested in religious debates of the time.

On July 6, 1415 his writings and those of Wyclif were deemed heretical and Hus was burned. News of this prompted the bloody Hussite Rebellion which lasted until the 1430s engulfing much of central Europe. In 1999 Pope John Paul II apologized for Hus’s treatment and praised his bravery.

July 5

ST ATHANASIUS THE ATHONITE

FOR a thousand years Athos, the Holy Mountain, the most easterly of the three large headlands which the peninsula of Chalcidice thrusts out into the Aegean Sea, has been the chief centre of Byzantine monasticism; for nearly all that time this “monastic republic” has been out of communion with the Holy See, but at the time of its inception and organization, and during the preceding centuries when it was occupied by little colonies of hermits, Athos was Catholic and a stronghold of orthodoxy in a different sense from that in which it is so today. The father of Mount Athos as a congeries of regular monasteries was one Athanasius, who was born at Trebizond about the year 920, the son of an Antiochene, and baptized Abraham. He studied at Constantinople, where he became a professor; and while he was teaching he met St Michael Maleinos and his nephew, Nicephorus Phocas, who as emperor was to be Abraham’s patron. He received the monastic habit in St Michael’s monastery at Kymina in Bithynia, taking the name of Athanasius, and lived there till about the year 958. Kymina was a laura, the name then reserved for monasteries wherein the monks lived in separate cells grouped more or less closely round their church. When the abbot St Michael Maleinos died Athanasius saw that he would be pretty surely elected in his place; he therefore fled, and eventually found his way to Mount Athos, to avoid this responsibility —only to find that God was reserving for him a greater.

He disguised himself as an ignorant fellow, assuming the name of Dorotheos, and hid in a cell near Karyes, but he was soon traced and found by his friend Nicephorus Phocas. He was about to undertake an expedition against the Saracens, and persuaded Athanasius to come to Crete to help him organize it (it is so often found that the contemplative soul is a capable man of affairs-which, after all, is only to be expected) and to support it with his blessing and prayers. Athanasius was very unwilling to make this sally out into the world and its concerns, but he went; the expedition was victorious, and Athanasius asked permission to return to Athos. But before he was allowed to he was forced to accept a large sum of money, with which he was to build a monastery. This, the first monastery proper on Athos, was begun in the spring of 961 and the church two years later; it was dedicated in honour of the All-holy Mother of God, but is now called “of St Athanasius “, or, more often, simply Laura, ” The Monastery”.

When Nicephorus Phocas became emperor, Athanasius feared that he might be called to court or to other honours and disturbing offices, so he ran away from Athos to Cyprus. Phocas again found him and told him to go back and govern his monastery in peace, giving him more money, with which was built a harbour for Athos. In adopting the laura system for his monks, Athanasius had deliberately reversed the policy of St Basil and St Theodore Studites and returned in a measure to the ancient monastic tradition of Egypt; his monks were to be as ” out of the world” as is possible for human beings (even now the Athonite monks are still extraordinarily” out of touch with things”, as a general rule). But in spite of this he was involved in great difficulties with the solitaries who had been on Athos long before he came and who felt, understandably, that generations of predecessors had given them a prescriptive right to have the place to themselves; they resented his coming there and building monasteries and churches and harbours, imposing rules and keeping order generally. Twice attempts were made to murder St Athanasius. Criminal violence spoils the best of causes, and the Emperor John Tzimisces interfered; he confirmed the donations and rights granted by Nicephorus Phocas, forbade opposition to Athanasius, and recognized his authority over the whole of the mountain and its inhabitants. He thus became superior general over fifty-eight communities of hermits and monks, and the monasteries of Iviron, Vatopedi and Esphigmenou were founded, which still exist as living communities. St Athanasius died about the year 1000, being killed with five of his monks by the falling of a keystone of the vault of the church on which they were working.

July 3

Saint Thomas’s Day

We know more about the relationship between Jesus and Thomas than we do with many of the other Apostles. It was Thomas who boldly declared that he and his companions should follow Jesus into danger in Judaea. Thomas it was at the Last Supper who declared that he did not understand the words of his master that He was going to prepare a place for them and was told that Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life. His doubt at Christ’s resurrection gave him his nickname and the opportunity to cry out later “My Lord and my God!”

Numerous legends, including an apocryphal gospel, tell stories of Thomas’s travels. He is said to have evangelized in Persia and then reached India in 52. There exists in southern India today a community of Christians who trace their spiritual origin to Thomas. He suffered martyrdom near Chennai (once Madras) in 72, speared to death by order of the local king. The location of his relics is a matter of controversy as a number of places claim them. A basilica in Chennai, with a wonderful neon-lit altar, still exhibits what it claims to be the body of the saint and the spear that killed him.  Some churches observe December 21 as St Thomas Day.

June 29

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

Visitors to the magnificent ruins of Ephesus often take time to visit the ancient city’s other religious sites, particularly one of the number of houses each purporting to be the last domicile of the Virgin Mary. They might also drop by a fenced-off hole where, it is said, in the third century seven Christian youths either sought refuge from persecution or were deliberately walled in on the order of pagan officials. These young men then fell into a miraculous sleep from which they only awakened over a century later, by which time the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity. They were able to tell their story to the local bishop before dying. A church was built over the site and locals revered the godly youths. It is said their remains were taken to a church in France.

June 24

Today is the feast day of St John the Baptist, or St Jean Baptiste Day, the fête national in Québec. John, for those not hep to the New Testament story, was kin to Jesus and a prophet who preached repentance and baptized the penitent in the Jordan River. He is mentioned in the first chapter of the Gospel of John (no relation): 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

For those who would like to hear those words in Old English, here you go:

June 19

Juliana Falconieri, a very, very delicate saint

According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

Juliana Falconieri was born in answer to prayer, in 1270. Her father built the splendid church of the Annunziata in Florence, while her uncle, Blessed Alexius, became one of the founders of the Servite Order. Under his care Juliana grew up, as he said, more like an angel than a human being. Such was her modesty that she never used a mirror or gazed upon the face of a man during her whole life. The mere mention of sin made her shudder and tremble, and once hearing a scandal related she fell into a dead swoon. Her devotion to the sorrows of Our Lady drew her to the Servants of Mary; and, at the age of fourteen, she refused an offer of marriage, and received the habit from St. Philip Benizi himself. Her sanctity attracted many novices, for whose direction she was bidden to draw up a rule, and thus with reluctance she became foundress of the “Mantellate.” She was with her children as their servant rather than their mistress, while outside her convent she led a life of apostolic charity, converting sinners, reconciling enemies, and healing the sick by sucking with her own lips their ulcerous sores. She was sometimes rapt for whole days in ecstasy, and her prayers saved the Servite Order when it was in danger of being suppressed. She was visited in her last hour by angels in the form of white doves, and Jesus Himself, as a beautiful child, crowned her with a garland of flowers. She wasted away through a disease of the stomach, which prevented her taking food. She bore her silent agony with constant cheerfulness, grieving only for the privation of Holy Communion. At last, when, in her seventieth year, she had sunk to the point of death, she begged to be allowed once more to see and adore the Blessed Sacrament. It was brought to her cell, and reverently laid on a corporal, which was placed over her heart. At this moment she expired, and the Sacred Host disappeared. After her death the form of the Host was found stamped upon her heart in the exact spot over which the Blessed Sacrament had been placed. Juliana died A. D. 1340.

Juliana’s relics repose in Florence’s Church of San Annunziata.

June 17

Joseph of Cupertino, the levitating saint

Giuseppe Maria Desa (1603-63) was a very unpromising recruit to the Catholic clergy in seventeenth-century Italy. He was born to poor parents in a garden shed because his father had been forced to sell their house to settle debts.

As a young shoemaker he tried a number of times to join a monastic order but was rejected because of his low intelligence, clumsiness, and frequents fits of temper and bizarre ecstasy. He served as a helper in the tables of an abbey of Franciscan Conventuals before he was admitted to the order and becoming a priest. Joseph soon attracted attention by levitating during the Mass and by falling into trances at the sound of church bells or hearing a psalm – phenomena that convinced the locals that he was saintly. These levitations had been publicly witnessed — such as when he placed a 36-foot cross atop a church — and attracted amazement from crowds of believers, and suspicion from the Inquisition that he was dabbling in the diabolical arts. His superiors isolated Joseph from the public for years and he died in seclusion. For his patience and humility he was canonized in 1763. He has been declared the patron saint of air travellers, pilots, astronauts, the mentally handicapped, test takers and poor students.