Wednesday, January 16, 2019

"He bade the lapsed weep for their crimes" ~ The ancient sources for Pope Saint Marcellus who died AD 309

Painting of Saint Marcello in Heavenly Glory which appears above the high
altar of the Basilica of San Marcello al Corso in Rome.
January 16 is the feast day of Pope Saint Marcellus who led the Roman see for a short period during the rule of the pagan emperor/usurper Maxentius over the city of Rome. Marcellus perished in AD 309 and was the last Pope to suffer martyrdom under the pagan administration of the empire.

The 6th century Liber Pontificalis records the highlights of his life, including conflicts with Maxentius that ultimately cost Marcellus his life:
Marcellus, by nationality a Roman, son of Marcellus (or Benedictus) from the district of the Via Lata, occupied the see 4 years. He was bishop in the time of Maxentius, from the 4th consulship of Maxentius, when Maximus was his colleague, until after the consulship.
He established a cemetery on the Via Salaria, and he appointed 25 parish churches as diocese in the city of Rome to provide baptism and penance for the many who were converted among the pagans, and burial for the martyrs.

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He ordained 25 priests in the city of Rome and 2 deacons, in the month of December, and 21 bishops in divers places.

He was seized by Maxentius and held in confinement because he set the church in order, and imprisoned that he might deny his bishopric and degrade himself by sacrifices to demons. Then, forasmuch as he continually despised and scorned the words and commands of Maxentius, he was condemned to the stable.
In her footnote, Louise Ropes Loomis speculates that the “stable” in question here are those maintained as part of the imperial post. This story is not repeated in other sources, says Loomis, but it is not inconsistent with the other facts we know about this turbulent period.

The account in the Liber Pontificalis continues:
But although he served many days in the stable, he did not cease his service to the Lord with prayers and fastings. Moreover in the ninth month, all his clergy came by night and removed him by night from the stable. A certain matron and widow whose name was Lucina, who had lived with her husband Marcus 15 years and had been 19 years a widow, received the blessed man. And she dedicated her house as a church in the name of the blessed Marcellus and there day and night the Lord Jesus Christ was confessed with hymns and prayers.
This is the church known in modern times as San Lorenzo in Lucina where a basilica was subsequently built in the mid-4th century AD, restored and embellished numerous times throughout the centuries. Traces of the original Roman structure may be seen amidst the foundations even to this day.

A fragment of mosaic flooring from beneath the present-day San Lorenzo in Lucina.
The Liber Pontificalis continues:
But Maxentius heard of it and sent and seized the blessed Marcellus a second time and gave orders that in that very church, boards should be laid down and the animals of the stable should be collected and kept there and the blessed Marcellus should tend them. And he died in the service of the animals, clad only in a hair shirt.

And the blessed Lucina took is body and he was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla on the Via Salaria, January 16.

And the bishopric was empty 20 days.

Lucina herself was condemned by proscription.
The remains of the martyred pope were later transferred to the basilica of San Marcello al Corso in Rome. An epitaph of Pope Saint Marcellus, written by Pope Damasus about 80 years after Marcellus’s martyrdom, was found in the cemetery of Priscilla. The epitaph seems to tell a slightly different story than the one found in the Liber Pontificalis:
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The truth-telling ruler, because he bade the lapsed weep for their crimes, became a bitter enemy to all these unhappy men. Hence followed rage and hate, and discord and strife, sedition and slaughter. The bonds of peace are loosed. On account of the crimes of another, who denied Christ in time of peace, he was driven from the borders of his fatherland by the savagery of the tyrant. Damasus wishes to briefly tell these things which he had found out, that people might know the merit of Marcellus.
This translation of the epitaph was taken from I Am a Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"At the season of the nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, masses should be celebrated during the night" ~ The ancient origin of Midnight Mass at Christmas

Fresco from the subterranean basilica of Saint Clement in Rome, showing
Pope Saint Clement (1st century AD) saying Mass. The fresco was likely
 done in the 8th or 9th century, though possibly based on much earlier work.  
As Christmas approaches, it is well to remember that many of the traditional Nativity practices of the Church were instituted deep in antiquity. One such is the celebration of Mass at midnight on Christmas eve. There is evidence that this tradition began as early as about AD 130 and was instituted by Pope Saint Telesphoros. We find the following passage in the Liber Pontificalis which was likely first compiled in the 5th or 6th century:
"[Telesphoros] appointed that at the season of the nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, masses should be celebrated during the night, for in general no one presumed to celebrate mass before tierce, the hour when Our Lord ascended the cross. And that at the opening of the sacrifice, the angelic hymn should be repeated, namely: 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo' etc. but only upon the night of the Lord's nativity." [Taken from Loomis: Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Popes), p. 12]
In her notes, Loomis says that this passage is the earliest mention of midnight Mass at Christmas in the extant literature, though she remains skeptical about the passage's accuracy.

As for the institution of the Gloria, it should be kept in mind that the earliest language of the Roman Church was likely Greek, and that the Liber identifies Telesphoros himself as Greek by birth and an anchorite. Therefore, the Gloria was probably incorporated into the Christmas Liturgy in its Greek form. According to tradition, the hymn was not translated into Latin until the time of Saint Hilary of Poitiers around AD 350. But the provenance is confused. A good attempt at clarification may be found here.

In a further note, Loomis says that the Gloria would later be incorporated into Pontifical Masses, and until the Middle Ages, none but the Pope were permitted to include it.

According to the Liber, and confirmed by Irenaeus and Eusebius, Pope Telesphoros died a martyr during the reign of either Hadrian or Antoninus Pius. His feast day is January 5.

For a related post on the earliest sources for the dating of Christmas, see:

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Belisarius Routs the Vandalic host at Tricamarum, reclaiming Africa for the Roman Empire ~ December 15, AD 533

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"Not by numbers of men nor by measure of body, but by valor of soul is war wont to be decided."
—Belisarius, Magister Militum of the Roman Empire before the Battle of Tricamarum, AD 533
At the Battle of Ad Decimum, the great eastern Roman general, Belisarius, routed but did not destroy the vaunted army of the Vandal kingdom. To complete the conquest of Africa as commanded by the emperor Justinian, Belisarius needed to decisively defeat the cream of the Vandalic host and capture their king, Gelimer. He got his chance at Tricamarum, a town about 30 miles west of Carthage. The traditional date of the battle is given as December 15, AD 533, though Procopius, in concluding remarks about the battle, simply says that it occurred: "at about the middle of the last month which the Romans call December."

The battle, however, would not be an easy one. Gelimer had recently been reinforced by the army of Tzazon, his brother, which had just returned from successfully quelling a rebellion in Sardinia. The combined force outnumbered the army which Belisarius could muster by at least two-to-one. Worse, Gelimer had managed to entice Belisarius's Hun federates with bribes, and the feared horsemen became uncertain allies, wavering between sides.

In his histories, Procopius gives a very detailed account of the Vandalic campaign in general and the battle of Tricamarum in particular, which he may have witnessed first hand. In any event, he seems to have been present in Africa during the time of the battle serving as Belisarius's secretary. Click here to read his account of the battle.

The Battle of Tricamarum forms a big chunk of my second novel, Belisarius: Glory of the Romans. Here's an excerpt detailing the run-up to the battle, including a mysterious prodigy which is taken straight from the account of Procopius:
The position of the Vandals was not difficult to discern, for as soon as word went out that the Romans were on the march, Gelimer moved to intercept them. He had gathered all the remaining Vandalic strength in Africa and his army, now reinforced with Tzazon’s elite warriors, again numbered over 20,000—more than enough, he reckoned, to crush the smaller Roman force in open combat. Eager for the fight, the Vandals advertised their presence outside the town of Tricamarum, some 140 stades from Carthage and dared Belisarius to come and fight them there.
     For his part, Belisarius was anxious to accommodate them. Leaving his footmen to march along slowly behind them, Belisarius hurried his cavalry moiras ahead at a rapid trot. Arriving in the vicinity of Tricamarum, he made camp on a well-suited spot and studied the topography. What he saw pleased him greatly.
      “Our enemy believes that his previous defeat was a mere quirk of fate,” he opined to his chief officers who had gathered in the command tent. “The field he has selected says as much, for it is well suited for a clash of heavy horse and offers him little in the way of strategic advantage. However, it is even better suited for Hunnic cavalry tactics.”
      “Huns!” growled Barbatus, the surly dux who commanded a moira of imperial horse. “The name of that nation burns in my ears, Magister. Have you heard? They are disgruntled again. They say that we have played foul with them; that they were promised they could return to their own country long ago.”
      “They rage, O Magister,” Aigan added in his Hunnic accent. “They call me traitor to people because I stand with your guardsmen and do not join them in their anger against the Romans. And it come to my ear that certain Vandals have crept among them, offering gold in return for treachery.”
      “Aye, it’s true,” Belisarius admitted. “I have tried to assuage them, but I fear they may not be counted on during the coming battle. But we must not allow their delinquency to hinder or delay us. And I was not referring to them when I spoke of tactics. My guardsmen are as proficient as any Hun in the art of hit-and-withdraw. Since our enemy has no mounted bowmen, but rather depends on the sword and the spear when on horseback, we will not permit him to close with us until it suits us to do so.”
      Belisarius looked gravely into the faces of his officers. “I want every man ready for battle first thing tomorrow morning. We will line up with John and my guardsmen in the center. Barbatus and Pappas will hold the right. Martinus and Valerian will hold the left. I have told the Huns to station themselves in readiness on the far left flank to charge the enemy at an opportune moment.” Remembering the treachery of Arethas and his Arabs at Callinicus, Belisarius turned his eyes upon Pharas. “I want your Heruls beside the Huns. Should they show any sign of treason, destroy them.”
      “Aye,” Pharas said fiercely, showing his yellow teeth.
      “But Magister, what of the infantry?” Uliaris objected. “At the rate they march, they will not arrive until tomorrow evening.”
      “We will engage the Vandals without the infantry,” Belisarius said bluntly.
      “Magister, is that wise? Our scouts say there are nearly three Vandals to every one of us!” Barbatus added. “If we are bested, where shall we find safety? At least wait for the infantry to come up and build a proper fortified camp.”
      Belisarius frowned. “We will not be bested,” he said, meeting the eyes of each man. “Remove from your minds any thoughts of defeat. If we remain in good order, remember our training, and trust in God the Almighty, we can not be defeated by this foe.”
      The officers reluctantly grunted their concurrence with anxious nods and downcast eyes.
      “And we must make sure this victory is decisive,” John added. “We see before us the entire Vandal camp, containing their families, possessions and all. If we can but capture it, this war will be over. And I for one, am ready for it to be over.”
      “For it to end, we must be sure to capture the king as well,” Pharas interjected.
      “Ideally, yes,” John smiled. “But a king without subjects and a kingdom is no longer a king—merely a vagrant.”
      “This is our moment,” Belisarius declared, standing. “God has placed the enemy before us and his situation is well-suited to our advantage. Let us not postpone this fight for another time, seeking an even greater advantage later. For if we allow this fortunate moment to run past us, we may waste all our breath trying to catch it again.”
      “Aye!” the men responded with bellicose fervor, some slamming their fists on the wooden table. The meeting adjourned, and the cavalry commanders filed out of the tent into the smoky darkness of the Roman camp. The certainty of impending battle sent a wave of electricity through the air. Every man among them felt it. And a select few saw it. For standing upright in bound bundles outside the men’s tents, the javelins of the Roman horsemen glowed bright red, as if their tips had been heated in fire. “What strange prodigy is this?” Belisarius asked, his eyes wide in wonder.
      “I don’t know,” gaped his cousin Rufinus, who had been standing guard. “It began just as you and the others came out.”
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      Belisarius advanced to touch one of the burning spears, but as soon as he got near, the strange vision evaporated and was seen no more.
      “What do you suppose that was about?” John whispered to Uliaris.
      “A good omen, if you ask me,” Uliaris replied aloud, a toothy grin splitting his wide face. “Our weapons have been purified by the hand of God for the daunting task we face on the morrow.”
      “Not bad, you great oaf,” John nodded, surprised by his friend’s unusually inspired insight. He pounded Uliaris heartily on his meaty back. “We may make a philosopher of you yet!”
To read the rest, you'll have to purchase the book, which is available here as well as in all the expected places.

Of course, Belisarius won the battle through superior generalship and again put the Vandal host to flight. However, he was unsuccessful in capturing Gelimer and would be forced to spend several more months attempting to corral the Vandal king and complete the re-conquest of Africa.

Here are some links to other posts about Belisarius from this blog:

Monday, December 10, 2018

"Isis, Apollo, Venus, all are nothing; Maximian, too, is nothing." ~ The Martyrdom of Saint Eulalia of Mérida, Spain

Saint Eulalia rebukes the Roman Praetor in this 19th century engraving
from Shea's Pictorial Lives of the Saints.
December 10 is the feast day of the sadly unremembered Saint Eulalia, a martyr of Mérida, Spain who was put to death during the Great Persecution of AD 303 under Maximian. Saint Eulalia deserves to be better known, however, because her martyrdom was commemorated in a poem written by the late Roman poet, Prudentius in his Peristephanon (or Martyr's Garland).

Following is a translation of Prudentius's poem celebrating the martyrdom of Saint Eulalia translated into English in 1910. Also a native of Spain, Prudentius saved some of his most eloquent poetry to commemorate his countrywoman, Eulalia. The translator of the poem below says in his introduction: "Never did this prince of Christian poets write finer verses than these."

It should also be pointed out that Prudentius's hymn is the oldest extant account of Saint Eulalia's passion and martyrdom, having been set down in the early 5th century AD—about a century after Eulalia's death.
The Martyrdom of Saint Eulalia by Prudentius

Eulalia, noble by birth, but still nobler by her death, was born at Merida; and this city the holy virgin adorns with her relics, and cherishes with her loving protection.

Where the sun sets, there lies the birth-place of this splendid heroine: it is a powerful and populous city, but its proudest title to fame is that there the Saint shed her blood, and there rests her shrine.

But thrice four winters had passed over Eulalia, when she craved the fierce tortures of fire, and made her executioners tremble by her courage, suffering as though it were sweet to suffer.

Already had she proved to men that she would have no spouse but God, and that earthly nuptials were too poor for her. Though but a girl, she despised the toys and sports of children.

Perfumes and wreaths of roses, and golden trinkets, all were beneath her. Her look demure, her gait modest, her whole conduct, even at that tender age, as though the gravity of old age were upon it.

But when a rabid persecution began to threaten the servants of God, and the Christians were commanded to burn incense and the flesh of victims before the dead gods of the pagans.

Oh! then did Eulalia's soul chafe within her, and her high spirit thirst for the battle! She, a girl, defies the threats of men that talk of war, for her heart pants after God.

But her fond mother trembles for her courageous child, and insists on her keeping at home. She takes her into the country, as far as may be from the city, lest the dauntless child, that longed to die for Christ, should seek to purchase that glory at the price of her blood.

She ill brooks this quiet, this shelter which seems to her so unchristian: the night comes on; she is alone; she forces open the doors, and escaping from her inclosure, she tends she knows not whither.

The paths are rugged, and thorns prick her feet at every step. Yet on she goes, with angels in her company. All is silent in the dark grim night; but she has light which leads her.

As our fathers, that brave Hebrew band, had of old a pillar of light, which piercing the murky gloom of night, led them on by its bright blaze, and turned darkness into day;

So this holy maid; in her midnight journey, God gave her light; and as she fled from the land of Egypt, to enter into that of heaven, she was not hindered by the darkness.

Many a mile had she walked with her hasty step, before the day-dawn broke upon the world. And scarce had morn begun, when there stood before the tribunal, amidst the ensigns of the empire, the fearless Virgin.

"What madness is this," she cried, "which makes you lose your unthinking souls? Wasting away your love in adoring these chiseled lumps of stone, whilst you deny God the Father of all?

"O wretched men! you are in search of the Christians: lo! I am one: I hate your worship of devils: I trample on your idols; and with heart and mouth I acknowledge but one God.

“Isis, Apollo, Venus, all are nothing; Maximian, too, is nothing; they, because they are idols; he, because he worships idols; both are vain, both are nothing.

“Maximian calls himself lord, and yet he makes himself a slave of stones, ready to give his very head to such gods. And why does he persecute them that have nobler hearts?

“This good Emperor, this most upright Judge, feeds on the blood of the innocent. He gluts himself on the bodies of the saints, embowelling those temples of purity, and cruelly insulting their holy faith.

“Do thy worst, thou cruel butcher; burn, cut, tear asunder these clay-made bodies. It is no hard thing to break a fragile vase like this. But all thy tortures cannot reach the soul.”

At these words the Praetor, maddening with rage, cried out: “Away, Lictor, with this senseless prattler, and punish her in every way thou canst. Teach her that our country’s gods are gods, and that our sovereign’s words are not to be slighted.

“Yet stay, rash girl! Would I could persuade thee to recall thy impious words before it is too late! Think on all the joys thou thus wilt obtain; think on that noble marriage which we will procure thee.

“Thy family is in search of thee, and thy noble house weeps and grieves after thee, their tender floweret so near its prime, yet so resolved to wither.

“What! are nuptials like these I offer not enough to move thee? Wilt thou send the grey hairs of thy parents into the tomb by thy rash disobedience? Tremble at least at all these fearful instruments of torture and death.

“There is a sword which will sever thy head; there are wild beasts to tear thee to pieces; there are fires on which to burn thee, leaving to thy family but thy ashes to weep over.

“And what do we ask of thee in order that thou mayest escape these tortures? Do, I beseech thee, Eulalia, touch but with the tip of thy finger these grains of salt and incense, and not a hair of thy head shall be hurt.”

The Martyr answered him not: but full of indignation, spat in the tyrant’s face; then, with her foot, upsets idols, cakes, and incense.

Scarce had she done it, two executioners seize her: they tear her youthful breast, and, one on each side, cut off her innocent flesh even to the very ribs. Eulalia counts each gash, and says:

“See, dear Jesus, they write the on my flesh! Beautiful letters, that tell of thy victory! O, how I love to read them! So, this red stream of my blood speaks thy holy name!”

Thus sang the joyous and intrepid virgin; not a tear, not a moan. The sharp tortures reach not her soul. Her body is all stained with the fresh blood, and the warm stream trickles down the snow-white skin.

But this was not the end. It was not enough to plough and harrow up her flesh: it was time to burn: torches, then, are applied to her sides and breast.

Her beauteous locks dishevelled fell, veiling her from worse than all their butchery, the stare of these wretches.

The crackling flame mounts to her face, and, running through her hair, surrounds and blazes over her head. The virgin, thirsting for death, opens her mouth and drinks it in.

Suddenly is seen a snow-white dove coming from the martyr’s mouth, and flying up to heaven. It was Eulalia’s spirit, spotless, eager, innocent.

Her soul is fled: her head droops, the fire dies out: her lifeless body sleeps in peace, while her glad spirit keeps feast in its ethereal home, and this sweet dove rests in the house of her most High God.

The executioners, too, see the dove issuing from the martyr’s mouth: astonished and trembling they flee from the spot. The lictor, too, is seized with fear and takes to flight.

‘Tis winter, and the snow in thick flakes falls on the forum, covering the tender corpse of Eulalia, which lay stiffening in the cold, with its fair pall of crystal.

Ye men that mourn at funerals, weeping and sobbing out your love for the dead, ye are not needed here: give place. God bids his elements, O Eulalia, do the honors of thy exequies.

Her tomb is now at Merida, illustrious city of Vettonia, whose beautiful walls are washed by the swift green waters of Ana, that celebrated stream.

‘Tis there, in a temple rich with its polished marbles, both of Spain and foreign lands, that repose in a venerable tomb the holy relics of the martyr.

The roof, above, glitters with its golden pendents; and the pavement, with its mosaics, looks like a meadow strewed with the gayest flowers.

Cull the purple violet, and the golden crocus, which even winter spares us, and with its hours of sunshine lets our fields yield plentifully enough to deck our Eulalia’s altar.

Twine them into your green garlands, and these be your offering, dear children! Mine shall be these verses for our choir; poor I know they are and savoring of the dullness of my own old age; still, they suit a feast.

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Thus will we venerate Eulalia’s relics and Eulalia’s altar: she, standing before the throne of God, will be pleased with our offerings, and hearing our hymns and prayers will protect her devoted people.
This translation of The Martyrdom of Saint Eulalia was taken from The Liturgical Year: Advent by Abbot Gueranger and translated into English by Dom Laurence Shepherd. An excerpt of this poem, plus several more of Prudentius's works from the Peristephanon may be found in I Am A Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources.

Friday, December 07, 2018

"Stand back! A man defiled by sin is not worthy to enter within these sacred precincts." ~ Saint Ambrose of Milan defies Theodosius the Great

Ancient mosaic portrait of Saint Ambrose which may, in fact, represent
his appearance in life. From the Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan.
December 7 is the feast day of Aurelius Ambrosius, known to history as Saint Ambrose of Milan. He was born in Trier to a wealthy Roman family—his father, also named Ambrose, was Praetorian Prefect of Gaul according to Ambrose's ancient biographer, Paulinus of Milan. Paulinus relates a miracle associated with Ambrose's youth that seemed to presage a great future for the child:
When he, as an infant placed in a cradle within the courtyard of the governor's residence, was sleeping with open mouth, suddenly a swarm of bees came and covered his face and lips in such a way that they kept entering and coming forth from his mouth alternately. The father, who was walking nearby with his wife and daughter, fearing lest the bees might be driven away by the servant who had undertaken the task of feeding the baby, kept her back—for she was alarmed lest they injure the child—and with fatherly affection waited to see with what end this miracle would terminate. And sometime later, flying out, they rose to such a height in the air that they could not be seen at all by human eyes. Terrified by this event, the father said: "If this little child shall live he shall be something great." [Kaniecka, Paulinus of Milan, Vita Sancti Ambrosii, Chapter II]
Though Ambrose would indeed go on to become one of the most remarkable saints of the Church, as well as the spiritual father of even greater saints, he had a most unusual entrance into Christianity. In the early 370s AD, Ambrose served as governor of Liguria in northern Italy. He was not even baptized when he was named bishop of Milan by popular acclamation. Here's the story as told by the mid-5th century historian, Hermias Sozomen:
The clergy of the West, having thus anticipated the designs of those who sought to introduce innovations among them, carefully continued to preserve the inviolability of the faith which had from the beginning been handed down to them. With the solitary exception of Auxentius [Arian bishop of Milan] and his partisans, there were no individuals among them who entertained heterodox opinions. Auxentius, however, did not live long after this period.

At his death, a sedition arose among the people of Milan concerning the appointment of a successor, and the city seemed in danger of a general insurrection. Those who had aspired to the bishopric and been defeated in their expectations, were loud in their menaces, as is usual on such occasions. Ambrose, who was then the governor of the province, being fearful lest further tumult should arise, went to the church and exhorted the people to cease from contention, to re-establish peace and concord, and to respect the laws. Before he had ceased speaking, all his auditors suppressed the angry feelings by which they had been mutually agitated against each other and declared that he who was exhorting them to concord should be their bishop, and receive the rite of baptism, for he had never been baptized.

After Ambrose had repeatedly refused the proffered dignity and even quitted the place that it might not be forced upon him, the people still persisted in their choice and declared that the disputes would never be appeased unless he would accede to their wishes, and at length intelligence of these transactions was conveyed to court. It is said that the emperor Valentinian [I] prayed and returned thanks to God that the very man whom he had appointed governor, had been chosen to fill a priestly office. When he was informed of the earnest desires of the people and the refusal of Ambrose, he inferred that events had been so ordered by God for the purpose of restoring peace to the church of Milan and commanded that Ambrose should be ordained as quickly as possible.

He was baptized and ordained at the same time, and forthwith proceeded to bring the church under his sway to unanimity of opinion concerning the Divine nature. For while under the guidance of Auxentius, it had been long rent by dissensions on this subject. We shall hereafter have occasion to speak of the conduct of Ambrose after his ordination, and of the admirable and holy manner in which he discharged the functions of the priesthood. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter XXIV]
Ambrose would go on to become a staunch opponent of the Arians, incurring the displeasure of the empress-mother Justina and her son, Valentinian II. Later when Theodosius the Great entered Italy after putting down the revolt of Eugenius and Arbogast, Ambrose declared the victorious emperor excommunicated from the Church for his massacre of 30,000 people in Thessalonika four years before. Sozomen picks up the story:
After the death of Eugenius, the emperor went to Milan and repaired toward the church to pray within its walls. When he drew near the gates of the edifice, he was met by Ambrose, the bishop of the city, who took hold of him by his purple robe and said to him in the presence of the multitude, “Stand back! A man defiled by sin and with hands imbrued in blood unjustly shed is not worthy, without repentance, to enter within these sacred precincts or partake of the holy mysteries.”

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The emperor, struck with admiration at the boldness of the bishop, began to reflect on his own conduct, and with much contrition retraced his steps...Theodosius publicly confessed his sin in the church, and during the time set apart for penance, refrained from wearing his imperial ornaments as being inconsistent with a season of mourning. He also enacted a law prohibiting the officers entrusted with the execution of the imperial mandates from inflicting the punishment of death till thirty days after the mandate had been issued, in order that the wrath of the emperor might have time to be appeased and that room might be made for the exercise of mercy and repentance. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VII, Chapter XXV]
Theodosius the Great perished a year later, and Ambrose outlived the emperor by only a couple years, passing to his eternal reward in AD 397. He would later be recognized as a Doctor of the Church thanks to his voluminous writing and is remembered for introducing antiphons and hymnody into the church of Milan which later spread throughout the West.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

"Luxury has deranged all things" ~ Saint Clement of Alexandria on living as a Christian in a decadent culture

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“The man who would be beautiful must adorn that which is the most beautiful thing in man—his mind—which every day he ought to exhibit in greater comeliness. He should pluck out not hairs, but lusts.” 
~Saint Clement of Alexandria

Today, December 4, is the feast of Saint Clement of Alexandria who, though little remembered today, was lauded in antiquity for his combination of erudition and sanctity. Theodoret, the Christian historian of the mid-5th century, deemed Clement a man who, "surpassed all others and was a holy man." Saint Jerome included Clement in his work, On Illustrious Men, saying, "he is the author of notable volumes, full of eloquence and learning, both in sacred Scripture and in secular literature."

The life of Clement, whose full name was Titus Flavius Clemens, straddled the late 2nd and early 3rd century AD. He was a pagan philosopher in his younger days, but like his near contemporary, Justin Martyr, he converted to Christianity and was soon recognized for his brilliance. He became the head of the Christian school in Alexandria where several of his pupils would go on to have noteworthy careers as churchmen and Christian apologists. Origen is, perhaps, the foremost among Clement's students. For more detail on Clement's life and his writings, click here.

The above quote comes from one of the surviving works of Saint Clement of Alexandria entitled The Paedagogus (otherwise, The Tutor). In this work, Clement provides a manual for the newly converted on how to live a proper Christian life in the morally squalid culture of the Roman-Egyptian east. Here is the quote, which comes from a chapter entitled, "On men who embellish themselves," with some additional context:
"No one who entertains right sentiments would wish to appear a fornicator, were he not the victim of that vice, and study to defame the beauty of his form. No one would, I say, voluntarily choose to do this. For if God foreknew those who are called, according to His purpose, to be conformed to the image of His Son, for whose sake, according to the blessed apostle, 'He has appointed Him to be the first-born among many brethren,' [Romans 8:28-29] are they not godless who treat with indignity the body which is of like form with the Lord?

"The man, who would be beautiful, must adorn that which is the most beautiful thing in man, his mind, which every day he ought to exhibit in greater comeliness; and should pluck out not hairs, but lusts. I pity the boys possessed by the slave-dealers, that are decked for dishonor. But they are not treated with ignominy by themselves, but by command the wretches are adorned for base gain. But how disgusting are those who willingly practice the things to which, if compelled, they would if they were men die rather than do?

"But life has reached this pitch of licentiousness through the wantonness of wickedness, and lasciviousness is diffused over the cities, having become law. Beside them women stand in the stews, offering their own flesh for hire for lewd pleasure, and boys, taught to deny their sex, act the part of women.

"Luxury has deranged all things; it has disgraced man. A luxurious niceness seeks everything, attempts everything, forces everything, coerces nature. Men play the part of women, and women that of men, contrary to nature. Women are at once wives and husbands: no passage is closed against libidinousness, and their promiscuous lechery is a public institution, and luxury is domesticated. O miserable spectacle! Horrible conduct! Such are the trophies of your social licentiousness which are exhibited: the evidence of these deeds are the prostitutes. Alas for such wickedness! Besides, the wretches know not how many tragedies the uncertainty of intercourse produces. For fathers, unmindful of children of theirs that have been exposed, often without their knowledge, have intercourse with a son that has debauched himself, and daughters that are prostitutes; and licence in lust shows them to be the men that have begotten them.

"These things your wise laws allow. People may sin legally, and the execrable indulgence in pleasure they call a thing indifferent. They who commit adultery against nature think themselves free from adultery. Avenging justice follows their audacious deeds, and, dragging on themselves inevitable calamity, they purchase death for a small sum of money. The miserable dealers in these wares sail, bringing a cargo of fornication, like wine or oil. And others, far more wretched, traffic in pleasures as they do in bread and sauce, not heeding the words of Moses, 'Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a whore, lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.'" [Leviticus 19:29]
Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus, Book III, Chapter III: On Men Who Embellish Themselves
For the non-religiously-inclined reader, Clement's words provide a window into the type of society that existed in Alexandria, the great Greco-Roman metropolis of Egypt, in the early third century AD. But such a reader should not ascribe Clement's fulmination against what he sees as the moral degeneracy of society to purely ignorant religious bigotry. Far from it.

Recall that Clement is not merely a fundamentalist Christian providing a prudish, exaggerated polemic against perceived moral evils. As a brilliantly-educated convert from paganism, and a man who had traveled all over the Roman Empire, Clement was qualified beyond most others to make such observations. In Clement's words we see clearly the zeal of the converted. We may even hear the ringing denunciation of a repentant man for his former life of wickedness.

To read The Paedagogus in full, visit Tertullian.org.

Monday, December 03, 2018

"You can not covet popular approbation without betraying your ministry." ~ Feast day of Saint Francis Xavier

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"Show no degree of irresolution as though you wavered betwixt the world and Christ. Remember that you can not covet popular approbation without betraying your ministry."
~Saint Francis Xavier
December 3 is the feast of the great missionary, Saint Francis Xavier, one of the earliest members of the Society of Jesus and a companion of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. He is best remembered for his mission to India in the 1540s and later visits to southeast Asia, China and Japan where he scattered fruitful missions in his wake. He died in AD 1552 and his partially incorrupt relics may be seen to this day in Goa, India.

Click here to read a short biography of Saint Francis Xavier from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The above quote from St. Francis Xavier may be found in a letter of advice to one of his fellow missionaries. Here is the quote with additional context:
Always treat those with whom you are concerned with mildness and respect. Let not the least roughness, or haughty carriage appear in you, unless your moderation and humility should be turned to contempt: for on such occasions, have nothing in your intentions but the good of your inferiors, and not making the contempt of your authority the object of your vengeance, you are to make the guilty somewhat sensible of your power. Nothing more encourages the untractable and haughty to rebellion, than the softness and fearful spirit of a governor. And it is not credible how assuming, proud and peremptory a certain sort of people will grow, when once they find the reins slackened, and that their pusillanimous superior is afraid of punishing their want of due respect. Impunity hardens the in their insolence; or rather makes them more and more audacious; which disturbs the peace of religious bodies. Let therefore no consideration, or regard of persons, or any other thing, hinder you from the performance of your duty.
The faithful in Goa, India, venerating the relics of St. Francis Xavier in 2014.
In the visits which are made you, endeavor to find out the bottom and end of their design who come to see you. For some there are the least part of whose business is to be instructed in spirituals—it is only temporal interest which brings them to you. There will even be some, who will come to make known the state of their soul, for no other motive than to acquaint you with the necessities of their families. The best counsel I can give you, is to stand upon your guard with such and to be rid of them. Let them know from the very first, that you can neither furnish them with money, nor procure them any favor from other men. Be warned to have as little discourse with this sort of people as you possibly can: for most commonly they are great talkers, and if you trouble yourself with giving them the hearing, you are almost certain to lose your time.
For what remains, disquiet not yourself with what they think or say of you. Let them murmur on: You are to show no degree of irresolution, as though you wavered betwixt the world and Christ. Remember that you cannot covet the popular approbation without betraying your ministry or becoming a deserter of your sacred colors, in going back from that evangelical perfection which you are obliged to follow with an unrelenting ardor.
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Taken from: The Life and Missionary Labors of that Holy Man, Francis Xavier, Commonly Called The Apostle of the Indies, 1814.

In the 1950s, Louis de Wohl wrote a fine novelization of the life of Saint Francis Xavier in his book, Set All Afire, published in a modern edition by Ignatius Press. I read this book some years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. It reads like one of the great epics biblical movies of the same era, but with greater depth and more intimate, historically accurate portrayals of the principal characters.

If you're looking for a gift for a serious Catholic, I heartily recommend it. As with other of de Wohl's works, Set All Afire is particularly appropriate for young Catholics ages 14 and up.