November 4

Our Lady of Kazan

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Our Lady of Kazan was a highly-venerated icon of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is said to have originated in Constantinople and was transported to Russia where it disappeared, only to be miraculously rediscovered in Kazan after a vision in 1579. Prayers to this icon were credited for saving the country from invasion by Poles, Swedes and Napoleon.

In 1904 the icon was stolen and, though its gold frame was recovered, the icon itself was never seen again. The disasters of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Great War and the Communist takeover are attributed to its loss.

November 3

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St. Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru on December 9, 1579, the illegitimate son of a Spanish gentlemen and a freed slave  of African (or possibly native American) descent. His early life was spent in poverty and he was eventually apprenticed to a barber-surgeon. Despite the laws that forbade non-whites from becoming full members of religious orders, Martin joined the Dominicans as a volunteer helper, eventually becoming a lay brother.

He was renowned for his charity and love of the sick and poor. He established an orphanage and children‘s hospital for the poor children of the slums; he also set up a shelter for the stray cats and dogs and nursed them back to health. Even during his lifetime miraculous cures and powers were ascribed to him. Martin died on November 3, 1639 and was canonized by Pope John XXIII on May 6, 1962. He has become the patron saint of Peru, people of mixed race, innkeepers, barbers, public health workers and more.

October 25

swingjpeg_dancers_medium1938 An archbishop denounces “swing music”

Churches have always been ambivalent about dance music, some clergy fearing it is the devil’s tool, an incitement to lascivious behaviour; some have made use of dance music in liturgy and in Christmas carols. The waltz, where a man and a woman hold each other in their arms and sway rhythmically, was denounced in the 19th century. The bishop of Santa Fe condemned dances as “conducive to evil, occasions of sin, [providing] opportunities for illicit affinities and love that was reprehensible and sinful.” In 1938, Francis Beckman, the Catholic Archbishop of Dubuque campaigned against “swing music”.

Beckman (1875-1948) was no stranger to controversy. He was an isolationist in foreign policy and a supporter of the radical priest Father Charles Coughlin whose radio broadcasts beamed antisemitic messages to millions in Depression-era America. He believed that calls for the USA to oppose Hitler were a communist plot. In October 1938,  in a speech to the National Council of Catholic Women, he launched a crusade against contemporary dance music which he termed  “a degenerated musical system… turned loose to gnaw away the moral fiber of young people”. “Jam sessions, jitterbugs and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies occupy a place in our social scheme of things,” said the archbishop, “wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!” He went on to say that though the Church was zealously trying to promote and preserve the best of modern art, swing music was among “the evil forces … hard at work to undermine its Christian status, debauch its high purposes and harness it to serve individual diabolical ends.”

Archbishop Beckman’s career was curtailed during the Second World War when it was discovered that he had borrowed money in his diocese’s name to invest in a shady gold mine scheme. He was allowed to retain his post but all decisions were left in the hands of a coadjutor bishop.

October 21

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1096 The End of the People’s Crusade

In 1095 Pope Urban II summoned the princes of Europe to form an army to journey to the eastern Mediterranean and do battle with Islamic armies threatening the Byzantine Empire and occupying the Holy Land. Thousands of nobles and knights heeded the call and took part in what is known as The First Crusade or the Princes’ Crusade. At the same, millennial crazes were being heeded by the common people of western Christendom who felt that they too had a part to play in liberating Jerusalem. Listening to itinerant preachers such as Peter the Hermit, tens of thousands of ordinary folk, peasants, soldiers, minor nobility, men women and children formed into columns and set out for Constantinople.

On the way, the People’s Crusade proved to be an ungodly menace. They perpetrated anti-Semtic massacres in the Rhineland, extorted food and supplies from the towns they passed through and attacked Byzantine garrisons who were astonished at the arrival of these motley forces. In August 1096 perhaps as many as 30,000 of these folk, drawn from Germany, Italy and France, reached Constantinople. Emperor Alexius, who had no wish to see them linger and become a worse nuisance, arranged to have them ferried across to Asia Minor, which was largely in the hands of Turks. He cautioned them not to take on Muslim armies themselves but to await the arrival of the heavily-armed knights of the First Crusade.

Once in enemy territory the People’s Crusade broke up into quarrelling factions, some reluctant to advance further, some anxious to start the battles they had journeyed so long to fight. While Peter the Hermit was returning to Constantinople to arrange for more supplies the poorly-armed crusaders engaged in several battles and were routed by Turkish forces, particularly at the Battle of Civetot which turned into a massacre. Only a few thousand made it back to the safety of the Byzantine lines; fewer still would survive the rigours of the remaning campaigns and see victory at Jerusalem in 1099.

October 20

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1939 Pope Pius XII attacks Nazi and Soviet war aims

Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (1876-1958) was elected pope as Pius XII in 1939, having spent much of his ecclesiastical career as in the Church’s diplomatic service. He was well acquainted with Germany have negotiated with its imperial rulers, its democratic regime and its Nazi officials — Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender Sorge which condemned Nazi policy was written by Pacelli. His election took place while peace was collapsing in Europe and Adolf Hitler was plotting a continent-wide war. In September 1939, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR collaborated to invade Poland and divide the conquered nation, an act which triggered World War II.

Summi Pontificatus was Pius XII’s first encyclical, appearing on this date in 1939. In it the pope notes the growing strength of the “host of Christ’s enemies” and the outbreak of war. These calamities he blamed on the denial and rejection of a universal norm of morality as well for individual and social life as for international relations; We mean the disregard, so common nowadays, and the forgetfulness of the natural law itself, which has its foundation in God, Almighty Creator and Father of all, supreme and absolute Lawgiver, all-wise and just Judge of human actions. When God is hated, every basis of morality is undermined; the voice of conscience is stilled or at any rate grows very faint, that voice which teaches even to the illiterate and to uncivilized tribes what is good and what is bad, what lawful, what forbidden, and makes men feel themselves responsible for their actions to a Supreme Judge.

Pius XII went on to condemn racism, totalitarianism and the rape of Poland. The Nazi government in Berlin recognized the encyclical as an attack on their policies; in neutral America, the New York Times praised the pope: A powerful attack on totalitarianism and the evils which he considers it has brought upon the world was made by Pope Pius XII in his first encyclical…It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical-the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism. The French air force scattered copies of the bull over Germany.

October 12

Discovering Our Cities: The City Founded on Faith (York)Saint Edwin of Northumbria

Born a pagan, Edwin (585-633) became a Christian saint, the father of two saints, and the great-uncle and grandfather of two more saints.

The political life of early medieval Britain was brutal, resembling in many ways A Game of Thrones, though with, perhaps, slightly less sex and no dragons. A number of minor, pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms continually struggled against each other, against native Christian enclaves and against raiders from Ireland and Caledonia. These statelets rose and fell, occasionally producing a ruler who was strong enough to dominate his neighbours for a time and earn the title of Bretwalda or High King. One of these was a northern prince named Edwin of Northumbria.

Edwin appeared at a time when Christian missions were penetrating these pagan Germanic territories from the north, where Irish-trained monks brought a Celtic Christianity and from the south, where missionaries had been sent from Catholic Rome. In 627, under the influence of Catholic bishop Paulinus, Edwin agreed to convert from his pagan upbringing. Bede’s history tells us that the king and his nobles debated the opportunity of becoming Christians, with the speech of one of his men being decisive:

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately out another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

Edwin’s conversion and his domination of northern England aroused enemies, particularly the very able and aggressive Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. In 633 Penda defeated Edwin, killing him and his two sons. His Christian wife and Paulinus fled south and the Christian project in northern England suffered a temporary set-back.

 

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 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.