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.

June 16

Joseph Butler: “Every thing is what it is, and not another thing.”

On this day Anglican churches honour the memory of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), controversialist and philosopher. Born a Presbyterian and thus barred from entering a university or the learned professions, Butler converted to the Church of England in his early twenties and became an Anglican priest. With the help of prominent patrons he rose through a series of lucrative appointments to become the Queen’s chaplain and eventually bishop of Bristol and Durham.

Today Butler is chiefly known as a philosopher, having taken on English heavyweights such as Thomas Hobbes (in his 1729 Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel) and John Locke (in his 1736 Analogy of Religion) as well as the proponents of Deism, then very popular amongst English academics. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us

Overall, Butler’s philosophy is largely defensive. His general strategy is to accept the received systems of morality and religion and, then, defend them against those who think that such systems can be refuted or disregarded. Butler ultimately attempts to naturalize morality and religion, though not in an overly reductive way, by showing that they are essential components of nature and common life. He argues that nature is a moral system to which humans are adapted via conscience. Thus, in denying morality, Butler takes his opponents to be denying our very nature, which is untenable. Given this conception of nature as a moral system and certain proofs of God’s existence, Butler is then in a position to defend religion by addressing objections to it, such as the problem of evil. 

June 5

St Boniface

Born about 675 as Wynfrith in Anglo-Saxon England, Boniface was a teacher before entering the priesthood at about age 30. He could have become an abbot in his native country but dedicated himself to taking the gospel to the German-speaking peoples of northwestern Europe, first in Frisia, and then Germany, to which Pope Gregory II (who gave him the Latin name Boniface) appointed him a travelling bishop — the largely pagan territory had not yet developed an ecclesiastical infrastructure.

Working with the tepid support of the Frankish regime, which had designs on expanding into more German lands and which welcomed Christianization of the natives, Boniface preached, set up monasteries, and organized dioceses in these border lands. His most storied exploit was the destruction of a pagan shrine in Hesse by chopping down an oak sacred to Thor. (From this came the spurious tale of his inventing the Christmas tree by giving the Germans a conifer in replacement for the oak.)  He was named archbishop of Germany and later papal legate, high titles which disguised the shaky ground that nascent Christianity occupied on the frontier. In 754 he attempted to evangelize the Frisians but was murdered along with his companions by pirates. Among his relics is a book, “On the Advantage of Death” by St Ambrose, bearing the mark of an axe or sword supposedly used in the massacre.

In the estimation of historian Christopher Dawson, Boniface had a deeper influence on Europe than any other Englishman. Boniface is the patron saint of Germany, brewers, tailors, and file-cutters.

May 29

1453 The Fall of Constantinople

Mehmed the Conquerer enters Constantinople

After successfully repelling attacks by Slavs, Persians, Avars, Vikings, Arabs, and Bulgars, the thousand-year-old walls of Constantinople were finally penetrated by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II. The last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, died defending the city and with him perished the the last remnants of the Roman Empire.

For centuries that empire had been shrinking, losing the Middle East and Levant to the Arabs, southern Italy to the Normans, and Anatolia and the Balkans to the Turks. It was in financial peril, with its trade in the hands of Genoa and Venice; its crown jewels were glass (the real ones having been pawned); and the Catholic powers of Europe demanded that Constantinople abandon Orthodox Christianity before they would give any aid. Though its walls were still formidable, the city inside them was a shrunken husk of former glory, never having recovered from its sack at the hands of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Finally, the young Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, decided to end the charade. He built a fort to cut off Constantinople from the Black Sea, and brought a huge army and fleet to besiege the city. Massive artillery bombarded the ancient walls, a fleet was hauled on rollers over the hills from the Bosporus to the Golden Horn, and miners tunneled under the fortifications. The vastly outnumbered defenders finally succumbed on May 29, 1453, whereupon Mehmed, ever after known as The Conqueror, gave the city over to three days of rape, massacre, and looting.

In recent years, the Islamist government of President Erdogan has made political capital out of the Conqueror and Turkey’s Ottoman past — television movies have been made about Mehmet II and his descendant Suleiman the Magnificent; a new bridge across the Bosporus has been named after Mehmet — all part of Erdogan’s plan to erase the nonsectarian republicanism of Ataturk.

May 26


William of Ockham escapes Avignon

The fourteenth century was one of the worst eras in human history. Those hundred years would see the end of the Medieval Warming Period that had brought an increase in agricultural production and population, and the start of the Little Ice Age. With this change in climate would come the massive famine of the Great Hunger and the Great Drowning when an Atlantic gale claimed tens of thousands of lives and the sea swallowed land in the Netherlands. To add to the misery would be the Black Death, six successive waves of the plague that would cut the population of Europe in half by 1400. This demographic disaster provoked peasant and urban rebellions all across Europe. Tragically, the Christian Church was in no shape to respond positively: it too was in a state of corruption and disarray.

One of the problems wracking the church was the question of poverty. In the previous century, two new orders of friars, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, espoused lives of poverty and a close association with the poor. When the papacy began to employ these mendicant brothers as professors in the new universities, as itinerant preachers, and as administrators of the Inquisition, their rejection of material goods proved a hindrance. How could the friars serve the Church and beg for their daily bread at the same time? Calls were made to ease their financial situation; if they could not own property, could they not perhaps enjoy the earnings — the usufruct — from property dedicated to their use? The Franciscans divided over this issue with hard-liners and moderates engaged in heated debate. The traditionalist, or Spritualist, Franciscans argued that “To say or assert that Christ, in showing the way of perfection, and the Apostles, in following that way and setting an example to others who wished to lead the perfect life, possessed nothing either severally or in common, either by right of ownership and dominium or by personal right, we corporately and unanimously declare to be not heretical, but true and catholic.” This position embarrassed the Church, whose rulers were far, far removed from poverty, and the pope in a series of bulls forced the Franciscans to accept ownership of property and declared heretical the notion that Christ and the Apostles had no possessions.

Michael of Cesena, the Franciscan Minister-General and William of Ockham, the English theologian, objected to this line. Ockham called the pope’s thinking “heretical, erroneous, silly, ridiculous, fantastic, insane and defamatory”. Little wonder that they eventually ended up under arrest in Avignon. While they were languishing in durance vile, a quarrel had broken out between the papacy and the King of Germany, Louis the Bavarian. Louis backed the Spiritual Franciscans (in part because Ockham went as far as to deny the papacy any kind of secular overlordship), declared that he had deposed the Avignon Pope John XXII and recognized a Franciscan as his candidate for the papal throne. Taking advantage of this split, Ockham and Cesena escaped from Avignon and made their way to Louis’ court, where an anti-papal coterie argued for a separation of secular and religious powers.

In the short run, the papacy would prevail, but Ockham’s political thought and his philosophical contributions (e.g., “Ockham’s Razor) would endure.

May 25

Pope Gregory VII

If saints are to be ranked by the sweetness of their character, Gregory VII, born Hildebrand of Soana (1020-85), must be placed very low on the celestial hierarchy. His belligerence and intolerance led to a clash between papacy and empire that cost many lives and led to centuries of strife.

Born into a peasant family, Hildebrand became a monk. His talents were recognized by a series of papal administrations in the mid-eleventh century, at a time when reforming zeal was sweeping the church. The chief abuse that came under attack was simony, which originally meant the corrupt buying and selling of church offices, but which now came to mean any kind of lay participation in the naming of church officials. For centuries it had been the custom for nobles, kings and emperors to have a hand in the selection of bishops, abbots, and even popes. In many countries, high-ranking clerics were an integral part of the feudal system, owning vast lands, paying feudal dues, and contributing to the provision of knights; for secular rulers to step back from appointing these men was unrealistic. Reforming clergy particularly took aim at rulers investing bishops with the staff and ring of office — thus the name “Investiture Controversy” for this whole collision of world views.

Hildebrand was among the chief supporters of popes who repudiated the role of the Holy Roman Emperor in naming pontiffs. He rose in administrative rank until finally in 1073 he was elected pope, taking the name Gregory VII. He immediately quarrelled with Emperor Henry IV. The young German king had political ambitions in northern Italy which clashed with those of the papacy and he refused to relinquish the power to name church officials. Denunciations were issued from each side, political allies were sought and bribed, apologies were made and retracted and in 1076 Gregory excommunicated the emperor and declared his throne vacant. This forced Henry to wait in the snow outside the papal castle at Canossa (shown above) for a chance to abjectly debase himself in front of the pope at Canossa in order to win back admission to the sacraments and to his throne. Once the ban was lifted, however, Henry resumed the fight which continued for the next ten years.

Gregory believed that the papacy was the natural ruler of Christendom and he held a low opinion of secular rulers. His intellectual circle engaged in a pamphlet war against the supporters of kings, probably the first controversy over political theory in western Europe since the fall of Rome. Gregory’s Dictatus papae of 1076 mandated that the princes of the world should kiss the feet of the pope, that the pope could depose emperors, and he could be judged by no man.

Needing a secular ally with an army to repel Henry’s invasion of papal lands, Gregory made an alliance with an unsavoury character, Robert Guiscard, a Norman bandit and adventurer who had made himself ruler of southern Italy. In 1084 Henry succeeded in capturing Rome and crowning a rival pope, forcing Gregory into hiding, but the Germans had to withdraw as the Norman army moved north. Guiscard liberated Gregory and occupied Rome but his troops behaved so badly that they were forced to flee, taking Gregory with them. The next year Gregory died in Salerno. On his tomb are the words: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.”