October 9

notre-dameDeath of a cephalophoric saint

We expect saints to perform miracles. These days, proof of a miraculous cure or two is one of the ways the Catholic Church decides that an individual has exhibited saintly prowess. We do not routinely expect, however, that saints go about lugging their severed heads, but hagiographies abound in cephalophores (head-carriers) and today we celebrate the first of them: St Denis.

St Denis seems to have been sent from Italy to evangelize Roman-occupied Gaul in the third century. He converted so many in the region of what is now Paris that the authorities were alerted to his presence and he, with two companions, was beheaded on the city’s highest point, Montmartre. This execution does not seem to have deterred Denis from picking up his severed sense organ cluster and walking six miles to his burial site, with the detached head preaching a sermon of repentance all the way.

Other cephalophoric saints include Nicasius of Rheims who was reading a psalm when he was decapitated — his head finished reciting the verse he was on — and St Gemolo who, after his execution, picked up his head mounted a horse and rode off to meet his uncle. St Paul’s head was separated from his body by a sword but, nevertheless, was reputed to have cried out “Jesus Christus” fifty times.

Denis is not to be confused (though he was for centuries) with Dionysius the Areopagite who was converted by Paul in Athens. And of the latter’s imposter, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, we shall remain silent.

October 8

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451 The Council of Chalcedon begins

Nothing troubled Christianity in the years after its legality like the debates over the nature of Christ. The Arian/Athansasian dispute had centred on whether Christ was an inferior creation of God or whether He was a coequal partner with the Father and Holy Spirit in the Trinity. The 325 Council of Nicaea and centuries of politics would decide in favour of the latter position.

Next up to trouble Christendom was the question of how many natures Christ possessed and how they were related. Clearly Jesus had been born a human but he was also the Son of God: how could god and man coexist in a single entity? Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople proposed an answer that seemed to some to denigrate the deity of Christ, while the Christians of the Levant and Egypt preferred a formula where the divine nature seemed to eclipse the human. Church councils at Ephesus in 431 and 449 had not solved the problem and the Emperor Marcian was anxious that the controversy not weaken the unity of the empire. Thus a council was summoned to Chalcedon in Asia Minor and proceedings began in October 451.

The result was the Chalcedonian definition of the Incarnation:  two natures, which come together into one person and one hypostasis [individual existence].

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

As a way of ensuring unity, the Council of Chalcedon was a dreadful failure. The church leaders of Syria and Egypt refused to accept this definition and stuck to the position known as Monophysitism or miaphysitism wherein the singleness of Christ’s nature is emphasized. These eastern churches, which in two centuries would fall under Muslim rule, would grow apart from Chalcedonian Christianity and remain separate to this day.

October 7

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Our Lady of the Rosary

Over on my Today in History blog for this day you will find reference to the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. It 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.

October 5

XIR82275 Republican calendar, 1794 (engraving)  by French School, (18th century); Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France; French, out of copyright

1793 The French Revolution dechristianizes the calendar

Since its beginning in 1789, forces of the French Revolution had been hostile to Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church. The monastic system had been abolished and all church lands seized by the government. The Catholic church was severed from its allegiance to the Pope and its clergy became civil servants, forced to swear loyalty to the state; priests who refused were subject to imprisonment, exile or death. All church bells were seized and melted down to make artillery; church silver and precious objects were stolen; crosses were torn down, tombs were desecrated and buildings turned over to secular uses. In place of Christianity, supporters of the Revolution offered the near-atheist Cult of Reason or the deist Cult of the Supreme Being.

On October 5, 1703 the traditional calendar with its Anno Domini dating from the birth of Christ, its seven-day week and names drawn from mythology was abolished and replaced by a revolutionary calendar. All months now had 30 days, divided into 3 ten-day décades, with a 5-day year-end holiday. Saints’ days were abolished and instead of a day of rest every 7 days, there was now one every 10 days — revolutionaries despised the idleness encouraged by the old church calendar and its many holidays. Dating was to take place from the beginning of the French Republic, months were named after climatic conditions and days were named after tools or common objects. Thus, Christmas Day 1793 was officially V nivôse II, le jour de chien — Year II, the fifth day of the snowy month, the day of the dog. (It could have been worse, December 28 was “the day of manure.”) There was even a short-lived attempt to decimalize the clock: a ten-hour day, each hour with 100 minutes.

Such efforts were made to remove every-day religion from the minds of the common people but ordinary folk did not fail to notice that they now had to work more days in the year. Though governments tried to enforce the reforms, they never truly caught on and Napoleon ended the experiment on XIII frimaire XIII, January 1, 1806.

October 4

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Saint Francis of Assisi

One of the most remarkable saints of any period of Christian history was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1181 but was nicknamed Francesco (“Frenchy”) by his Francophile father, a prosperous merchant of Assisi. Francis was a popular young man of no particular distinction until a sudden religious experience in his teens convinced him to live a life of poverty. He consorted with lepers, dressed as a beggar, giving away his own clothes, and donating so much of his father’s wealth to the poor that the older man objected. In a spectacular act of renunciation, Francis stripped himself naked in the public square and gave back everything he possessed to his father. For a time he lived as a hermit, but in 1209 he began to preach and began a mission that soon attracted followers eager to imitate his example. Francis sought permission of Pope Innocent III (see above) to begin a new religious order dedicated to poverty and contact with the poor. He and his followers became the Order of Friars Minor, soon to be known as the Franciscans.

In the early thirteenth century the Church was at its highest point in terms of political power and wealth; Innocent III was the dominant figure in Europe, deposing kings and emperors at his pleasure. The Church hierarchy, however, had lost touch with the spiritual needs of the faithful, many of whom were defecting to heretical groups such as the Waldensians or Cathars. Priests were poor expositors of the religion, serving primarily as dispensers of the sacrament and ignorant of doctrine and preaching. In the Franciscans, and their fellow mendicants the Dominicans, the Church hoped to find a way to reach the poor again.

Francis preached not only in Italy but also in North Africa where he accompanied the Fifth Crusade in 1219 to Egypt. He marched into the Islamic camp and apparently met the Sultan who entertained him for a few days before returning him to the invading army.

Back in Italy the Franciscan Order was becoming rapidly larger and a new more sophisticated Rule had to be imposed to better organize the friars, all of whom were meant to live by begging. By 1220 Francis turned over control of the Order to others and lived only for preaching and praying. In 1224 Francis received the stigmata, the marks of five bleeding wounds suffered on the cross by Christ and in 1226 he died. Almost immediately he was proclaimed a saint and is considered the patron of Italy.

The contributions of Francis and his Order are incalculable. They were able wandering preachers, opponents of heresy; they staffed the faculties of the new universities; they helped to run the Inquisition. Their example of poverty helped to deepen the devotion of medieval Europeans to Christianity. Francis staged the first live Christmas creche and Franciscans wrote the first Christmas carols. The love of St Francis for nature that lead him to preach to fish and animals has made him the patron saint of the ecological movement.

 

October 2

 

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2006 Murder of five Amish children

On October 2, 2006, an employed church-going husband and loving father named Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one-room schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and took the teacher and students hostage. After allowing some of his prisoners to leave, Roberts then lined up the remaining ten students, all girls, and began to shoot them. He killed five and wounded five others before killing himself as police broke in to the building. His suicide notes gave a variety of reasons for his actions, including a history of sexual molestation and anger at God.

What astonished the world after these deaths was the reaction of the local Amish community which reacted not with anger or frustrated calls for vengeance but with compassion for the killer and pity for his family. A spokesman said, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” Amish residents attended Roberts’s’ funeral and embraced his relatives. These extraordinary examples of Christian behaviour helped healing in the lives of all concerned. The killer’s wife, Marie Roberts, said that she and her three young children had been overwhelmed by the community support. “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need,” she wrote. “Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. … Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” Terri Roberts, the killer’s mother, still volunteers to care for one of the victims, confined to a wheel-chair for life.

October 1

 

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St Theresa of Lisieux

There is nothing to say that saints have to live long and arduous lives; hagiographies are full of the tales of young people who have been canonized for flashes of sanctitude or a single action. Few saints of tender years can have had so great an influence as this French woman who died at the age of 24 after a long battle with tuberculosis.

Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin (1873-97) was born into a pious middle-class family in northwestern France and decided at an early age she wished to be a nun, a resolve that strengthened when she experienced a vision of the Virgin. At 15 she entered the Discalced (Shoeless or Barefoot) Carmelites, a contemplative order of cloistered women with a house at Lisieux, Normandy which her sisters had already joined. She took the religious name Theresa of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. The rest of her short life she spent inside the walls of her convent, praying, serving and writing.

Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.

It is through her exposition of “the little way” that made Theresa famous, winning her sainthood after her death and the title Doctor of the Church. In her poetry and her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Theresa advocated a life of child-like trust and small loving actions. She is the patroness of African missions, those suffering from AIDS or tuberculosis, air crews and florists.