July 6

St Maria Goretti

How does an 11-year-old peasant girl get to be a saint? Consider the life of Maria Goretti, an illiterate Italian peasant child born in 1890. The Goretti family was poor and lived as agricultural labourers, sharing their house with another family, the Serenellis. One of the Serenelli boys, 20-year-old Alessandro, had fixated on Maria and on July 5, 1902 threatened her with a knife and tried to rape her. When she resisted he stabbed her fourteen times. In hospital the next day, before she died, she forgave Alessandro and expressed the wish that they would meet in heaven. Alessandro was convicted of her murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison; he was spared a harsher penalty only after the pleading of Maria’s widowed mother. In prison he had a religious conversion and dreamt that he was visited by the spirit of Maria who gave him lilies (symbol of her purity) which burned in his hands. On his release he was reconciled with Maria’s mother [see photo below] and became a lay Franciscan brother, living to a ripe old age.

The story of Maria’s martyrdom and miracles procured when she was prayed to led to Pope Pius XII declaring her a saint in 1950. 500,000 people filled Rome on the day of her canonization. Her mother was there — the first mother to attend the canonization of a daughter — as was the repentant Alessandro. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of chastity, rape victims, girls, youth, teenage girls, poverty, purity and forgiveness.

Serenelli wrote the following in his old age:

I’m nearly 80 years old. I’m about to depart.

Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself.

My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried.

There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.

When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed.

If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault.

Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I’ve been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta.

I hope this letter that I wrote can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life.

Alessandro Serenelli, May 5, 1961


July 4


The True Cross is lost

The knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099 and went on to establish four states on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem were precarious Roman Catholic, feudal outposts in an alien landscape. Their subjects were mainly Eastern Christians of one sort or another and Muslims; their neighbours were hostile Islamic powers. The First Crusade had arrived at a time of Muslim disunity but would soon face a stronger and more united set of enemies. Edessa fell in 1144 and the Second Crusade failed to recover it. By the 1180s the great Saladin was the sultan of a great swath of territory surrounding the crusader states and he was determined to bring them down.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was an elective monarchy, dependent on the armies of quarrelling barons and the fighting monks of the Knights Templar and Hospitallers. In 1186 the hapless Guy de Lusignan (1150-94) became King. A weak man, he was bullied into leading an army against Saladin the following year rather than relying on the strength of the crusader castles to sap the sultan’s strength. Trapped in the desert, far from water, at a location known as the Horns of Hattin the Christian army was soundly defeated by Saladin. Though Guy was spared, most of the prisoners, including all of the Templars and Hospitallers were massacred. A Muslim observer described the scene:

Saladin ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics, each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais, the unbelievers showed black despair.

Guy was taken in golden chains as prisoner to Damascus. The True Cross, Christendom’s holiest relic which was always carried in front of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s armies, was paraded before jubilant Muslim crowds and then disappears from history. Many crusader castles which had been stripped of troops for Guy’s armies soon fell to Saladin and Jerusalem itself was captured. This calamity promoted the Third Crusade which, though it recovered some of the lost territory, was never able to retake Jerusalem.

Guy, after being released by Saladin, was given Cyprus as a consolation prize — the island had been captured from the Byzantines by Richard Coeur de Lion of England. The Kingdom of Jerusalem continued to cling to a strip of coastal cities until the last stronghold fell in 1291. The title of King of Jerusalem continued to be claimed by many European royal houses in France, Spain, Germany and Italy and today the strongest claimant is likely Philip VI of Spain.


June 27


The assassination of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith

In 1820 Joseph Smith (1805-44) experienced the first of a series of visions that would lead to him becoming the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He claimed that during one of these visions an angel named Moroni revealed the location of a buried treasure containing a book of golden leaves and twin stones that would allow him to interpret the contents. He later recovered these books and dictated the translation which became The Book of Mormon. His remarkable religious claims led to him, and his growing number of followers, being forced to relocate a number of times. Many times they were met with violence and Smith himself was tarred and feathered in Ohio; on other occasions early Mormons were arrested and thrown in jail. By 1844 Smith had established his headquarters in the new city of Nauvoo where his teachings aroused opposition from both locals and long-time members of his own church. Smith ordered the destruction of a printing press run by his rivals and called out his own paramilitary force, the Nauvoo Legion, to put down resistance. On June 23, 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hirum were arrested and charged with treason. Smith reportedly said at the time: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me. ‘He was murdered in cold blood’”.

Four days later a mob, with faces blackened for disguise, attacked the jail. A near-contemporary account reads:

    Immediately there was a little rustling at the outer door of the jail, and a cry of surrender, and also a discharge of three or four firearms followed instantly. The doctor glanced an eye by the curtain of the window, and saw about a hundred armed men around the door. It is said that the guard elevated their firelocks, and boisterously threatening the mob discharged their fire-arms over their heads. The mob encircled the building, and some of them rushed by the guard up the flight of stairs, burst open the door, and began the work of death, while others fired in through the open windows.

    In the meantime Joseph, Hyrum, and Elder Taylor had their coats off. Joseph sprang to his coat for his six-shooter, Hyrum for his single barrel, Taylor for Markham’s large hickory cane, and Dr. Richards for Taylor’s cane. All sprang against the door, the balls whistled up the stairway, and in an instant one came through the door.

    Joseph Smith, John Taylor and Dr. Richards sprang to the left of the door, and tried to knock aside the guns of the ruffians.

    Hyrum was retreating back in front of the door and snapped his pistol, when a ball struck him in the left side of his nose, and he fell on his back on the floor saying, “I am a dead man!” As he fell on the floor another ball from the outside entered his left side, and passed through his body with such force that it completely broke to pieces the watch he wore in his vest pocket, and at the same instant another ball from the door grazed his breast, and entered his head by the throat; subsequently a fourth ball entered his left leg.

    A shower of balls was pouring through all parts of the room, many of which lodged in the ceiling just above the head of Hyrum.

    Joseph reached round the door casing, and discharged his six shooter into the passage, some barrels missing fire. Continual discharges of musketry came into the room. Elder Taylor continued parrying the guns until they had got them about half their length into the room, when he found that resistance was vain, and he attempted to jump out of the window, where a ball fired from within struck him on his left thigh, hitting the bone, and passing through to within half an inch of the other side. He fell on the window sill, when a ball fired from the outside struck his watch in his vest pocket, and threw him back into the room.

    After he fell into the room he was hit by two more balls, one of them injuring his left wrist considerably, and the other entering at the side of the bone just below the left knee. He rolled under the bed, which was at the right of the window in the south-east corner of the room.

    While he lay under the bed he was fired at several times from the stairway; one ball struck him on the left hip, which tore the flesh in a shocking manner, and large quantities of blood were scattered upon the wall and floor.

    When Hyrum fell, Joseph exclaimed, “Oh dear, brother Hyrum!” and opening the door a few inches he discharged his six shooter in the stairway (as stated before), two or three barrels of which missed fire.

    Joseph, seeing there was no safety in the room, and no doubt thinking that it would save the lives of his brethren in the room if he could get out, turned calmly from the door, dropped his pistol on the floor, and sprang into the window when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward into the hands of his murderers, exclaiming. “O Lord, my God!”

June 12


The Union of Brest

National identity and religion are often closely tied. This was certainly the case in eastern Europe at the close of the sixteenth century. Many Slavic inhabitants of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth (a territory encompassing what is now Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) were adherents of the Orthodox Church but they resented having to acknowledge the headship of the new Patriarchate of Moscow. In order to assert their independence from Russian hegemony many clerics sought to arrive at a bargain with the papacy and in return for certain important concessions they were willing to reunite with the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome.

On this day in 1595 Ukrainian bishops read out a letter agreed to by Orthodoxy clergy at the synod of Brest. Their churches would acknowledge the headship of the pope, Clement VIII, but would not have to give up many of their cherished beliefs. They could retain married clergy, say the creed without the “Filoque Clause”, avoid Corpus Christi processions, and follow the Julian calendar rather than the newly-reformed Gregorian usage. Worship styles would remain unchanged and theological disputes would be shunned, as in the case of Purgatory where the synod had decreed “we shall not debate about purgatory, but we entrust ourselves to the teaching of the Holy Church.”

The split from Orthodoxy was not an easy one. Violence broke out over church property and forced allegiances; animosity still lingers in parts of Ukraine and Russia to this day.

May 31


The Visitation

On this day Western churches celebrate the meeting of the Virgin Mary and her elderly relative Elizabeth, both women having miraculously become pregnant. The encounter between the future mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist became the subject of a church feast in the Middle Ages and the inspiration of countless beautiful works of art.

 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.  And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.  And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.  And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house. (Luke 1: 39-56)

January 2


The Feast of St Gregory Nazianzus

Gregory (329-390) was archbishop of Constantinople and one of the great theologians of his age. Along with Saints Basil and Gregory of Nyssa who were also born in central Asia Minor, he is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory defended Christianity against the revived paganism of the emperor Julian the Apostate and argued against the Arian form of Christianity which denied the divinity of Christ and which was supported by powerful politicians and churchmen in Constantinople. His brilliant oratory and writings in favour of the Trinitarian position helped that view of Christ to become orthodoxy.


Mercurius is elected pope and instead of using his own name becomes the first pontiff to choose a regnal name, styling himself John II. He felt it inappropriate that the Bishop of Rome should be named after the pagan god Mercury.


The Christian reconquest of Spain ends with the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. In 711 an Arab and Berber army from North Africa had swept into Spain, conquering all but a corner of the northwest. From there Christian princes waged centuries of the Reconquista, gradually pushing the Muslim occupiers south until finally eradicating the Islamic presence in 1492.

January 1

The Circumcision of Jesus

This feast commemorates the traditional date for the ritual circumcision of Jesus on his eighth day. The festival was known by the 400s in the West; in the Eastern church it coincides with St Basil’s Day. Legends grew up around the child’s foreskin and its preservation as a sacred relic which could perform miracles. Charlemagne was said to have given it to Pope Leo III in 800 but as many as 18 different churches have claimed to possess it. Protestants abandoned interest in the feast and recent Roman Catholic decrees have renamed January 1 “The Octave of the Nativity”.

January 1 also saw a number of other remarkable moments in church history:

404 The monk Telemachus is torn apart by a Roman mob for trying to prevent a gladiator fight.

1431 The birth of one of the Bad Popes of the Renaissance, Rodrigo Borgia, who went on to become the notorious Pope Alexander VI.

1484 The birth of Huldreich Zwingli, a Catholic priest who led the Protestant Reformation in Zurich.

1773 The first performance of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, sung to accompany a sermon by its author John Newton.

1795 French churches, which had been closed during the worst moments of the French Revolution, are allowed to reopen.

1814 The birth of Hong Xiuchuan. Influenced by reading the tracts of some Christian missionaries to China, Hong is led to proclaim himself the Little Brother of Jesus Christ, establish the Heavenly Kingdom and provoke the worst civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion, which resulted in the death of 20,000,000 people.

1927 The official outbreak of the Cristero War, a rebellion of Mexican Christians against the anti-religious regime of President Calles.

December 25

An astonishing number of church-related actions took place on December 25. Here are a few of them:

  • 336 earliest recorded celebration of Christmas in Rome
  • 567 Beginning of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as decreed by Council of Tours
  • 597 Augustine baptizes thousands of Saxons in Kent
  • 634 Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, warns of Islamic menace
  • 1000 St. Stephen crowned first Christian king of Hungary
  • 1100 Baldwin of Edessa crowned King of Jerusalem in Bethlehem
  • 1131 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle uses “Cristemesse” for first time as one word
  • 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket preaches in Canterbury Cathedral and prophesies his own murder (he is killed 4 days later)
  • 1223 St Francis of Assisi assembles first live Nativity crèche at Greccio, Italy
  • 1430 Joan of Arc imprisoned in a tower at Rouen
  • 1521 Protestant Reformer Andreas von Carlstadt shocks Wittenberg by performing Mass in German
  • 1535 Jacques Cartier and crew celebrate first Christmas in Canada at Stadacona
  • 1648 Riots break out in Canterbury over attempts by the Puritan government to suppress Christmas; King Charles I spends his last Christmas under guard at Windsor Castle.
  • 1667 Kateri Tekakwitha, Iroquois mystic, has her first communion at the church in Kahnawake, Québec.
  • 1734 J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” first performed at Leipzig with Bach conducting.
  • 1760 Jupiter Hammon, New York slave and first black American poet, published “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries”.
  • 1781 First lighted Christmas tree in Canada erected by Baroness Riedsel
  • 1818 “Silent Night” sung for first time in Oberdorf, Austria
  • 1836 Alabama becomes first US state to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday.
  • 1867 Christmas a holiday in Canada for federal workers
  • 1902 Pope Leo XIII endorses European Christian Democratic movement as alternative to socialism
  • 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador murdered
  • 2005 Benedict XVI issues his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est


December 22




The Dominican Order is officially confirmed.

In the early thirteenth century the power of the papacy was at its height but the reputation of the Church was not. New heresies were springing up among the people and the clergy had a reputation for being rich, unlearned and aloof. Two young men responded: in Italy, Francis of Assisi; in Spain, Dominic de Guzmán.

As a priest Dominic encountered the Cathar heretics of France who were well supported by local nobles and popular with the poor. This led Dominic to realize that the Church required itinerant, well-educated preachers who could combat religious heterodoxy and that this new sort of clergy should embrace poverty. Living off charity and working among the common people was the ideal of this new order, called Dominicans after its founder, but chartered by the papacy in 1216 as the Order of Preachers. Clad in white robes with a black cloak they became highly effective exponents of Catholic doctrine in markets and churches. They also came to staff the great new universities of Europe, especially Paris where its members included Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, and to be among the directors of the Inquisition. In Italy they produced famous mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Henry Suso; in Italy they included fierce opponents of papal corruption such as Girolamo Savonarola.

A Latin pun on their name, Domini canes, has caused them to be known as the “Hounds of the Lord”.