Thursday, April 25, 2019

How Did Saint Mark Become the Patron of Venice?

Detail from the central lunette of the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice showing
the translation of Saint Mark's relics, ca. 13th century AD.
April 25 is the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist, a well-known figure in Apostolic times who is mentioned throughout the New Testament. An excellent summary of these numerous mentions may be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Saint Mark. He is perhaps best known as a companion and interpreter of Saint Peter while the latter was in Rome, and it is theorized that his Gospel account represents the viewpoint of Peter with regard to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. He is mentioned by name by Saint Peter in his first letter. [1 Peter 5:13].

A somewhat later tradition, bolstered by the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius and On Illustrious Men of Saint Jerome, makes Saint Mark the founder of the Church in Alexandria, the second great metropolis of the Roman Empire. In the legendary Acts of Saint Mark, probably written in the mid-4th century AD, he is portrayed as a martyr for the faith. Following is an excerpt from this work which also supplies us with the date of his death:
It happened [that] our blessed feast of Passover fell on the holy Sunday, Pharmouthi 29th, from the eighth Kalend of May, i.e., April 24th, which coincided with the festive procession of Serapis. Finding such an opportune moment, [the pagans] deployed spies. They fell upon [Saint Mark] saying prayers of the divine offering. And seizing him, they threw a mooring rope around his neck and dragged him, saying, “Let us drag the antelope to [the places of the] Boukalou.”

But while the holy Mark was being dragged along, he offered up thankgiving to the savior Christ, saying, “I thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, that I have been counted worthy to suffer these things on behalf of your name.” And his flesh was falling to the ground, and the stones were stained with his blood.
This painting by Jacopo Tintoretto is identified
as the bringing of St. Mark's Body to Venice.
But it may in fact be a representation of the
rescue of his body after his martyrdom.
Badly injured, he was thrown in prison. There, Mark experienced a vision of an angel and later of Jesus himself, who said to him: “Peace to you, our own Mark, my evangelist.” Mark replied: “Peace to you, my Lord Jesus Christ.” The next day, the multitude of pagans returned and completed the saint’s martyrdom, apparently dragging his body through the city until he perished. The mob then attempted to burn the remains, but a great storm arose and they were forced to abandon the corpse which was then taken up by the Christians and buried. They laid him in a tomb “in the eastern section” of Alexandria, and subsequently valued him as the “first treasure in Alexandria.”

The full account may be read at Roger Pearse’s blog here. It may be noted that this type of mob violence was apparently not abnormal behavior in ancient Alexandria.

The Doge of Venice kneels before a
winged lion—the symbol of St. Mark. 
About eight hundred years later, the remains of Saint Mark were removed from Alexandria and sent to their present resting place in Venice, Italy. This event is described in a Medieval source of questionable authenticity known as the Traslatio Sancti Marci. Here we read that two Venetian merchants, Bonus and Rusticus, arrived in Alexandria and found out that the Church of Saint Mark had been condemned by the Islamic Arab overlords of the country so that its columns and décor might be used in the construction of a new palace. The Greek priests in charge, Stauricius and Theodorus, were in despair at the expectation that their church would be destroyed and the relics of their saint along with it. The two Venetians suggested an alternative. Why not transfer the relics of Saint Mark to the safety of Venice where he had preached at nearby Aquileia when in the flesh? When the Greeks balked, the Venetians offered them safe passage back to Venice so that they might remain as guardians of Saint Mark’s relics.

Getting the relics out of Alexandria was tricky business, however. Not only would the Christian community be outraged, but the Muslim lords had absolutely forbidden the removal of relics from the city. To get around the first problem, the conspirators replaced the body of Saint Mark with that of Saint Claudia which was apparently nearby. To get by the inspectors at the port, they concealed the corpse under slabs of pork—a meat considered unclean to Muslims.

Muslim customs officials are repulsed at the sight and smell of pork in this mosaic
from one of the lunettes on the facade of St. Mark's Basilica, Venice.
The conspirators then embarked upon the long and dangerous voyage home, experiencing miracles along the way. When approaching Venice, they worried that the Doge would punish them for visiting Alexandria illegally. Not surprisingly, the Doge was delighted with their arrival when he learned that they had secured the relics of a saint as eminent as the evangelist Mark. Shortly thereafter, Saint Mark would become the patron of the city with a magnificent, glittering basilica built by wealthy Venice as a fitting shrine for his relics.

[The above account was summarized from Geary: Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages - Revised Edition]

Monday, April 22, 2019

Kate Smith: "All men are equal and have an equal right to enjoy the fruits of this earth."

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The memory of Kate Smith—best known for her soaring rendition of Irving Berlin's God Bless Americahas been sullied over the past few days by accusations of racism against the mid-20th century singer. Two sports teams (The New York Yankess, and the Philadelphia Flyers) have decided to pull their regular use of Ms. Smith’s rendition of God Bless America as a result of this controversy. Further, the Flyers even went so far as to remove a statue of Smith which hearkened back to their Stanley Cup victories of the 1970s when she appeared before games as a good luck charm to belt out the tune.

All this happened ostensibly because Ms. Smith sang a couple of minstrel songs in the 1930s (out of the 3,000 that she recorded during her career) which used words and imagery that are considered racially offensive today. It should be pointed out that other artists of the time (both Black and White) recorded similar songs using the same terms—indeed, such imagery was commonplace in traditional songs as well-known as Swanee River and Old Kentucky Home.

I don’t know if Ms. Smith was racist in her heart or not. But the chivalrous part of me can't stand the idea that a woman dead for 30 years and unable to defend herself is having dirt kicked on her gravestone. I did a little research about Ms. Smith as a result of this controversy, and I ran across the following quote which she said on the public airwaves on the day after VJ-Day (Victory over Japan Day, for those of you in the Millennial generation, 😉), August 15, 1945:
"Millions must be fed and clothed. Other millions must be taught an entirely new way of life: a philosophy which does not include aggression and cruelty and the absolute worship of a Hitler or a Hirohito. They must be taught that there is no super-race, that all men are equal and have an equal right to enjoy the fruits of this earth and the tranquility and decency to which the truly civilized subscribe."
This quote formed part of the closing of Ms. Smith’s radio program on that date. The program, entitled Kate Smith Speaks, broadcast on CBS radio from the late 1930s through the late 1940s. For a while, it was the most popular program on daytime radio. The quote may be found in the book, Kate Smith Speaks: 50 Selected Original Radio Scripts, 1938-1951 by Richard Hayes.

Call me crazy, but this statement does not sound like the sentiment of an inveterate racist to me. Perhaps other evidence will emerge, but at this point, the accusation of racism against Kate Smith looks fairly ridiculous, particularly when compared against how selflessly she used her talents during her lifetime. As Dan Cirucci detailed in a column over the past weekend: "during World War II, she traveled nearly 520,000 miles to entertain troops and sold a record $600 million in war bonds in a series of round-the-clock radio appeals. One of these, a 24-hour marathon on Feb. 1, 1944, raised a record $110 million in pledges." Indeed, these charges against Smith seem so ridiculous that they may be a cop-out.

My suspicion is that the perceived problem with Kate Smith, as identified by the massive corporate sports culture, is less about racism than about three little words that make them supremely uncomfortable these days:

God
Bless
America

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The 16,000 Martyrs of Persia during the Reign of Shapur II, 4th century AD

King Sapor II sentences Persian Christians to torture and death, ca. AD 340.
With Constantine's turn toward Christianity in AD 312, the systematic persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire came to an end. However, at the same time Christianity was enjoying increasing imperial favor in the Roman world, a great persecution erupted in the neighboring kingdom of Persia, starting about the year AD 339. Constantine himself had written a letterto the Persian king, Sapor II, lauding the Christian religion to his fellow ruler and asking him to protect the Christians among his subjects. But some within the Persian court—and eventually Sapor himself—came to view the dramatic rise of Christianity as a dire threat that needed to be extirpated from the realm.

Here are several passages which describe the origin and progress of the Persian persecution, taken from the near contemporary Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen written about a century after the events they describe.
When in course of time the Christians increased in number, assembled as churches, and appointed priests and deacons, the Magi, who had from time immemorial acted as priests of the Persian religion, became deeply incensed against them. The Jews who, through envy, are in some way naturally opposed to the Christian religion, were likewise offended. They therefore brought accusations before Sapor, the reigning sovereign, against Symeon who was then archbishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, royal cities of Persia, and charged him with being a friend of the Cæsar of the Romans and with communicating the affairs of the Persians to him. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book II, Chapter 9]
This passage shows the impact of Constantine’s conversion on the politics of rival Persia. Whereas Christianity was once tolerated in Persia because Christians were considered fellow enemies of the Roman Empire, with the conversion of Constantine, Christians were now viewed as agents of the Roman state. It should be noted that these Magi were a far cry from the astrologers who hailed the new-born king of the Jews in the Gospel accounts. These were the high-priests of the ancient Zoroastrian religion in Persia.

In the Syriac Martyrologies, some additional details of the accusations against the Christians emerge: “If you, King of Kings…should send great and wise epistles of your empire and handsome gifts…to Caesar, they would not be honorable in his eyes. But if Symeon sent him one small, contemptible letter, he would rise and pay homage…and speedily carry out his command. And under these circumstances, there is no secret in your empire which he does not write and make known to Caesar.” [taken from Neusner: "Babylonian Jewry and Shapur II"]

Sozomen continues:
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Sapor believed these accusations and at first imposed intolerably oppressive taxes upon the Christians, although he knew that the generality of them had voluntarily embraced poverty. He appointed cruel men to exact these taxes, hoping that by the want of necessaries and the atrocity of the tax-gatherers, they might be compelled to abjure their religion, for this was his aim.
     Afterwards, however, he commanded that the priests and ministers of God should be slain with the sword. The churches were demolished, their vessels were deposited in the treasury, and Symeon was arrested as a traitor to the kingdom and the religion of the Persians. Thus the Magi, with the co-operation of the Jews, quickly destroyed the houses of prayer. Symeon, on his apprehension, was bound with chains and brought before the king. There he evinced the excellence and firmness of his character, for when Sapor commanded that he should be led away to the torture, he did not fear and would not prostrate himself. The king, greatly exasperated, demanded why he did not prostrate himself as he had done formerly. Symeon replied that formerly he was not led away bound, in order that he might abjure the truth of God, and therefore did not then object to pay the customary respect to royalty. But that on the present occasion it would not be proper for him to do so, for he stood there in defense of godliness and of the one true faith.
     When he ceased speaking, the king commanded him to worship the sun, promising as an inducement to bestow gifts upon him and to raise him to honor, but on the other hand threatening, in case of noncompliance, to visit him and the whole body of Christians with destruction. When the king found that promises and menaces were alike unavailing, and that Symeon firmly refused to worship the sun or to betray his religion, he remanded him to prison, probably imagining that if kept for a time in bonds, he would change his mind. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book II, Chapter 9]
At this point, Sapor was shocked to discover that there were Christians in his own court—indeed, a member of his own household was a Christian:
When Symeon was being conducted to prison, Usthazanes, an aged eunuch, the foster-father of Sapor and superintendent of the palace who happened to be sitting at the gates of the palace, arose to do him reverence. Symeon reproachfully forbade him in a loud and haughty voice, averted his countenance, and passed by, for the eunuch had been formerly a Christian but had recently yielded to authority and worshiped the sun. This conduct so affected the eunuch, that he wept aloud, laid aside the white garment with which he was robed, and clothed himself as a mourner in black. He then seated himself in front of the palace, crying and groaning, and saying, “Woe is me! What must not await me? For I have denied God, and on this account Symeon, formerly my familiar friend, does not think me worthy of being spoken to, but turns away and hastens from me.”
     When Sapor heard of what had occurred, he called the eunuch to him and inquired into the cause of his grief and asked him whether any calamity had befallen his family. Usthazanes replied and said, “O king, nothing has occurred to my family but I would rather have suffered any other affliction whatsoever than that which has befallen me. Now I mourn because I am alive and ought to have been dead long ago. Yet I still see the sun which, not voluntarily but to please thee, I professed to worship. Therefore, on both accounts, it is just that I should die, for I have been a betrayer of Christ and a deceiver of thee.” He then swore by the Maker of heaven and earth that he would never swerve from his convictions.
     Sapor, astonished at the wonderful conversion of the eunuch, was still more enraged against the Christians as if they had effected it by enchantments. Still, he compassionated the old man and strove by alternate gentleness and severity to bring him over to his own sentiments. But finding that his efforts were useless and that Usthazanes persisted in declaring that he would never have the folly to worship the creature instead of the Creator, he became inflamed with passion and commanded that the eunuch’s head should be struck off with a sword. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book II, Chapter 9]
Sapor hoped that by holding his own foster-father accountable for the crime of being a Christian, he would overawe the rest of his subjects and convince them to apostatize. Symeon the bishop, who was still in prison, offered prayers for the martyred eunuch and prepared for his own execution which happened on Good Friday:
The following day, which happened to be the sixth day of the week and likewise the day on which, as immediately preceding the festival of the resurrection, the annual memorial of the passion of the Savior is celebrated, the king issued orders for the decapitation of Symeon, for he had been again conducted to the palace from the prison, had reasoned most boldly with Sapor on points of doctrine, and had expressed a determination never to worship either the king or the sun.
Detail of Persian Christians awaiting their fate.
     On the same day a hundred other prisoners were ordered to be slain. Symeon beheld their execution, and last of all he was put to death. Amongst these victims were bishops, presbyters, and other clergy of different grades. As they were being led out to execution, the chief of the Magi approached them and asked them whether they would preserve their lives by conforming to the religion of the king and by worshiping the sun. As none of them would comply with this condition, they were conducted to the place of execution and the executioners applied themselves to the task of slaying these martyrs. Symeon exhorted them to constancy and reasoned concerning death, and the resurrection, and piety, and showed them from the Sacred Scriptures that a death like theirs is true life, whereas to live and through fear to deny God is as truly death....
     The martyrs gladly listened to this discourse of Symeon’s and went forward with alacrity to meet their death. After the execution of three hundred martyrs, Symeon himself was slain, and Abdechalaas and Ananias, two presbyters of his own church who had been his fellow-prisoners, suffered with him. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book II, Chapter 10]
It seems that these executions were not fully successful in frightening Persian Christians into abandoning their faith. So on Easter day the next year, Sapor issued an edict that made it a capital crime for any of his subjects to profess Christianity. Acting as willing agents of the king, the Magi fanned out throughout Persia in an effort to discover every Christian and bring them to punishment. Sozomen reports that "an immense number" were executed by the sword. But it wasn't until another of Sapor's beloved eunuchs, Azadas by name, was found out and slain that the king decided to relent slightly, declaring that only "teachers of religion" should be slain.

During this time, the superstitious fears of a credulous queen (who may have been Sapor's wife or mother—the sources are unclear), resulted in the literal undoing of Saint Tarbula, the sister of Saint Symeon, and two other women:
About the same period, the queen was attacked with a disease and Tarbula, the sister of Symeon the bishop, a holy virgin, was arrested, as likewise her sister who was a widow and had abjured a second marriage and her servant who, like her, had devoted herself to a religious life. The cause of their arrest was the calumny of the Jews who reported that they had injured the queen by their enchantments in revenge for the death of Symeon. As invalids easily give credit to the most frightful representations, the queen believed the calumny and especially because it emanated from the Jews, for she had great confidence in their veracity and in their attachment for herself—she had embraced their sentiments, and lived in the observance of the Jewish rites. 
Antique woodcut of Saint Tarbula sawn in twain.
      The Magi having seized Tarbula and her companions, condemned them to death and after having sawn them asunder, fastened them up to posts, advising the queen to pass through the place of execution that the charm might be dissolved and the disease removed. It is said that Tarbula was extremely beautiful and that one of the Magi having become deeply enamored with her, sent some money secretly to her and promised to save her and her companions if she would accede to his desires. But instead of listening to his proposals, she rebuked his licentiousness and joyfully prepared for death, for she preferred to die rather than to lose her virginity. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book II, Chapter 12]
See the abovementioned article by Jacob Neusner, "Babylonian Jewry and Shapur II", for a modern perspective, context and opinion on this incident.

The Magi continued to sweep the country in search of Christian clergy and were apparently very successful, gathering up a very large number of prisoners. In their zeal to compel these captured Christians to worship the sun, the Magi used various excruciating tortures, scourging some and breaking the limbs of others, Sozomen providing several additional examples not recorded here. Many of these victims were eventually put to death. Toward the end of his account, Sozomen attempted a partial reckoning of the victims:
Subsequently, a multitude of presbyters, deacons, monks, holy virgins, ministers of the church, and laborers in word and doctrine, terminated their lives by martyrdom. The following are the names of the bishops, so far as I have been able to ascertain: Barbasymes, Paul, Gadiabes, Sabinus, Mareas, Mocius, John, Hormisdas, Papas, James, Romas, Maares, Agas, Bochres, Abdas, Abdiesus, John, Abraham, Agdelas, Sapor, Isaac, and Dausas. The latter had been made prisoner by the Persians and brought from a place named Zabdæus. He died about this time in defense of the Christian doctrine and Mareabdes, a chorepiscopus and about two hundred and fifty of his clergy, who had also been captured by the Persians, suffered with him. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book II, Chapter 14]
Sozomen wraps up his account of the Persian persecution with an attempt to reckon the numbers of the slain:
It would be difficult to relate in detail every circumstance respecting them, such as their names, their country, the mode of their martyrdom, and the species of torture to which they were subjected. I shall briefly state that the number of men and women whose names have been ascertained and who were martyred at this period, has been computed to be upwards of sixteen thousand, while the multitude of martyrs whose names are unknown was so great that the Persians, the Syrians, and the inhabitants of Edessa, have failed in all their efforts to compute the number. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book II, Chapter 14]
The number 16,000 seems like a reasonable baseline estimate. Sozomen, as a native of Roman Palestine with strong connections to the monastic communities in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, was well placed to have access to data as accurate as the time period could afford.

It is intriguing to compare the persecution experienced by the Persian Christians with that of the Roman Christians of a generation before. Based on Sozomen's account, the Persian persecution seems to have been more wide-ranging, brutal and thorough than the persecutions carried out in Roman domains by Diocletian and the other tetrarchs. The reason for this seems to be that the Zoroastrian religion and its primary priest-practitioners—the Magi—were more zealous in seeking out and destroying the Christian religion than Roman pagan priests had been. In general, the Persians seem to have retained a stronger belief in and attachment to their ancestral religion than the Romans, for whom the potency of the pagan pantheon seems to have already been on the wane even before the advent of Christ.

Furthermore, with their more advanced legal system and Republican traditions, the Romans seem to have at least paid lip-service to civil liberties and due process. By contrast, the Persian system was largely autocratic. The king's word was law and if he deigned to transmit his power over life and death to the magi, allowing them to act as his agents in enforcing the law against a despised minority group, then each of them could become a mini tyrant, destroying whoever they wished via the power of accusation. This was exactly the sort of outcome that Trajan sought to avoid in his famous letter to Pliny the Younger.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Venerable Fulton Sheen: "If our will is determined by forces outside of ourselves, we no longer will make amendment for our misdeeds."


In 1953, during an episode of his nationally broadcast television program, Life is Worth Living entitled: "Character Building," Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said the following:
"The real seat of character is in the will and we must not surrender that responsibility either to the masses as Marx would have it, or to any kind of biological determinism. Because if our will is determined by forces outside of ourselves, we no longer will make amendment for our misdeeds."
Did you get that? To repeat, if you accept "biological determinism" then you will no longer feel contrition for your sins. Here again, nearly 70 years after he uttered these words, Sheen has been shown to be a prophet.

What is "biological determinism" you ask? Simply put, it is the belief that human behavior is controlled by an individual's genetic code or some component of his physiological make-up. While such theories date back to the dawn of genetics in the 19th century, they really came into their own in the 20th century along with destructive philosophies such as eugenics and social Darwinism.

However, while the two latter theories have largely gone underground in our own times, biological determinism and its child, sociobiology, continue to flourish into the 21st century. As it applies to human morality, those who embrace biological determinism will claim that certain behaviors are biologically pre-programmed into an individual, largely on the subconscious level, and are therefore predominant over the human will. An extension of this argument into the metaphysical realm asks questions like: "If our actions are pre-determined by our genetics, how can human beings be said to possess free will?" and "Can certain acts truly be sinful if they are part of our genetic make-up?"

Here in the early 21st century, these types of arguments are so prevalent that we don't even realize it anymore. All kinds of bad behaviors are excused or explained away as irresistible because they are part of our genetic or psychological make-up. A child who treats his mother disrespectfully in public is excused because he has "oppositional defiant disorder." A lighter sentence is requested for a man who commits murder because he's got a "warrior gene." A scientific study suggests that that marital infidelity may be caused by the same gene that causes people to become addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling. I was once in a conversation with a man who began speaking to an older woman in horribly sexual terms that made her deeply uncomfortable. When I called him on it, he responded by saying, "Sorry, that's just my Asperger's syndrome" — as if he had zero control over his behavior.  Indeed, we hear claims with increasing prevalence that an individual has no free will at all when it comes to the commission of certain acts of grave depravity that would have been condemned in Sheen's day as "sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance."

Archbishop Sheen was savvy enough to foresee the ramifications of such a gross error even sixty plus years ago. Men of today are not making amends for their misdeeds. What's worse, they are attempting to transform their misdeeds into good deeds, going beyond mere biological determinism to divine determinism. One American politician, citing the influence of a certain celebrity priest, had the audacity to explain away his deeply depraved relationship with another man by saying, "God made me this way."

The implication here is staggering in its satanic audacity. If Almighty God created an individual genetically pre-programmed to commit acts that the Church has considered sinful from the very beginning then, the argument goes, those acts must be divinely approved. The Apostles, the Church Fathers, and every moral theologian for the past 2,000 years was therefore wrong about Jesus's intentions with regard to morality. Rather than condemning such activities and behaviors, the argument concludes, the Church should be celebrating them.

Such an argument is outrageous on its face and, in a saner time, would have been immediately rejected by all people as fallacious and heretical. In our own time, the argument is accepted by many because, in large part, they've used biological determinism to rationalize their own sins away. They are more than happy to dispense with free will, so long as they may practice their vices without shame or consequence.

So to sum up: Is it possible that genetics and physiology influence behavior? Certainly. Does such influence exculpate men when they commit certain acts that the Church defines as sinful? No. It may lessen the severity of that sin somewhat for the individual so affected. It also may make the resistance of the individual's will to the besetting sin more heroic. But the influence of biological factors does not nullify the sin.

And the existence of such biological factors can certainly never make a sinful act into a virtuous one.

As Venerable Pope Pius XII said in 1952 when condemning so-called "situation ethics" and enumerating a list of moral absolutes that apply to all men and women: "No matter what the situation of the individual may be, there is no other course open to him but to obey."

Watch Archbishop Sheen's talk on Character Building here:

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A passionate longing to acquire (and destroy) books ~ The cognitive dissonance of Julian the Apostate

Bust from the Capitoline Museum which is thought to be Julian the Apostate.
In doing some research on the previous post, I ran across this intriguing letter from Julian the Apostate to Ecdicius, the Prefect of Egypt. Julian wrote the letter at the end of January in AD 362 and it follows up on the assassination of George, the Arian bishop of Alexandria, by a pagan mob in his city.

Here is the brief letter in full:
Some men have a passion for horses, others for birds, others, again, for wild beasts; but I, from childhood, have been penetrated by a passionate longing to acquire books. It would therefore be absurd if I should suffer these to be appropriated by men whose inordinate desire for wealth gold alone cannot satiate, and who unscrupulously design to steal these also. Do you therefore grant me this personal favor, that all the books which belonged to George be sought out. For there were in his house many on philosophy, and many on rhetoric; many also on the teachings of the impious Galilaeans [ie, the Christians]. These latter I should wish to be utterly annihilated, but for fear that along with them more useful works may be destroyed by mistake, let all these also be sought for with the greatest care. 
Let George's secretary take charge of this search for you, and if he hunts for them faithfully let him know that he will obtain his freedom as a reward, but that if he prove in any way whatever dishonest in the business he will be put to the test of torture. And I know what books George had, many of them, at any rate, if not all; for he lent me some of them to copy, when I was in Cappadocia, and these he received back. [Taken from Julian the Apostate, Letters, Works Vol. 3]
He wrote another very similar letter to a certain Porphyrius (perhaps the secretary of George mentioned above) about six months later from Antioch, indicating that the desired books had not yet arrived.

How many interesting insights into the paradoxical character of Julian can be fit into a single letter? First, Julian reveals his passion for books. Within a few sentences, however, he declares his wish that the books of the Christians be destroyed. This sentiment is very much in keeping with the previous edict of Diocletian and Galerius during the Great Persecution that sought to destroy all Christian literature. More on this topic may be found here, here, and here.

Also of note is that Julian and George of Alexandria were on good terms at one point — good enough for him to lend Julian precious books and for Julian to be intimately familiar with the contents of George's library. After George's murder at the hands of a pagan mob in Alexandria, Julian wrote an admonitory letter to the Alexandrian pagans which, again, seems to reveal something quite paradoxical in his character. It includes the following excerpt:
Now compare this letter of mine with the one that I wrote to you a short time ago, and mark the difference well. What words of praise for you did I write then! But now, by the gods, though I wish to praise you, I cannot, because you have broken the law. Your citizens dare to tear a human being in pieces as dogs tear a wolf, and then are not ashamed to lift to the gods those hands still dripping with blood! But, you will say, George deserved to be treated in this fashion. Granted, and I might even admit that he deserved even worse and more cruel treatment. Yes, you will say, and on your account. To this I too agree; but if you say by your hands, I no longer agree.
[Taken from Julian the Apostate, Letters, Works Vol. 3]
Here Julian seems to display an admirable desire that the law be enforced by those legally bound to do so, as opposed to a bloodthirsty mob. He expresses his disappointment that his allies, the pagans of Alexandria, have resorted to lawlessness in their desire to destroy George who was viewed as their common enemy. However, his respect for the law apparently doesn't extend to punishing the the murderers of George. He says:
It is a fortunate thing for you, men of Alexandria, that this transgression of yours occurred in my reign, since by reason of my reverence for the god and out of regard for my uncle and namesake, who governed the whole of Egypt and your city also, I preserve for you the affection of a brother. For power that would be respected and a really strict and unswerving government would never overlook an outrageous action of a people, but would rather purge it away by bitter medicine, like a serious disease. But, for the reasons I have just mentioned, I administer to you the very mildest remedy, namely admonition and arguments, by which I am very sure that you will be the more convinced if you really are, as I am told, originally Greeks, and even to this day there remains in your dispositions and habits a notable and honourable impress of that illustrious descent. [Taken from Julian the Apostate, Letters, Works Vol. 3]
So to recap, Julian became furiously angry at the Christians in Caesarea who pulled down the Temple of Fortune and enacted new and severe laws against them. He also expressed his opinion that the crimes of George of Alexandria deserved "worse and more cruel treatment" than to be torn to pieces by a mob. At the same time, he gave the pagans of Alexandria who did the tearing in pieces a free pass while mouthing his profound respect for proper legal procedure.

Such a fascinating and enigmatic man was Julian. Was he a man of intense cunning, like a modern politician who uses the law to advance his agenda, while ignoring it when it hampers him? Or was he simply a true believer who unwittingly practiced situational cognitive dissonance, adopting whatever path seemed right to him at the time, even when his beliefs conflicted in very obvious ways?

I tend to think he was the former.

Interestingly the "uncle and namesake" mentioned above is Julianus who was at one point a high official in Alexandria and later served as Comes Orientis under Julian. He died a particularly horrifying death.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

"He hated the entire city intensely" ~ St. Eupsychius and Julian the Apostate's reaction to the destruction of the Temple of Fortune in Caesarea in Cappadocia

A mosaic portrait of an anonymous young saint from the Rotunda
of St. George in Thessaloniki, Greece, 4th century AD.
April 9 is the traditional feast day of the little known saint, Eupsychius of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Though he lived after the time of Constantine, Eupsychius was a martyr who suffered during the reign of Julian the Apostate. His crime, apparently, was his role in the destruction of the Temple of Fortune in Caesarea ca. AD 362 immediately after the accession of Julian to the imperial throne. The historian Hermias Sozomen, writing about 80 years after the event, provides the only close-contemporary account of Eupsychius’s death:
It is said that about this period, Basil, presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a noble of Caesarea in Cappadocia, who had but just taken to himself a wife and was still a bridegroom, terminated their lives by martyrdom. I believe that Eupsychius was condemned in consequence of the demolition of the temple of Fortune, which, as I have already stated, excited the anger of the emperor against all the inhabitants of Caesarea. Indeed, all the actors in this transaction were condemned, some to death, and others to banishment. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter XI]
Later accounts add legendary details to the trial and passion of Eupsychius, but these are not considered reliable. For more information, see this article in the journal Harvard Ukrainian Studies, "The Two Faces of Saint Eupsychius."

Sozomen goes on to say explicitly that these executions and banishments were “perpetrated contrary to the will of the emperor,” who had adopted a less rigorous method of dealing with his former co-religionists. However, Julian was apparently so angry with the destruction of the temple of Fortune in Caesarea that he decided to inflict a severe punishment on the city’s reputation, the Christian clerics living therein, and the Christian community in the city more generally:
[T]he emperor erased Caesarea, the large and wealthy metropolis of Cappadocia, situated near Mount Argeus, from the catalogue of cities, and even deprived it of the name of Caesarea, which had been conferred upon it during the reign of Claudius Caesar, its former name having been Mazaca. He had long regarded the inhabitants of this city with extreme aversion, because they were zealously attached to Christianity, and had formerly destroyed the temple of the ancestral Apollo and that of Jupiter, the tutelar deity of the city. The temple dedicated to Fortune, the only one remaining in the city, was overturned by the Christians after his accession; and on hearing of the deed, he hated the entire city intensely and could scarce endure it. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter IV]
Julian as depicted on a bronze coin.
This passage is interesting because it shows that as early as AD 360, this major city which is located right in the middle of Asia Minor had a large, active and predominately Christian population who frequently came into conflict with their pagan neighbors. A century before, Caesarea had been taken and pillaged by the Persians in the aftermath of the defeat of Valerian. The Byzantine historian Zonaras, writing some 700 years later, claims that the city had a population of some 400,000 at the time of the sack and that Persians “destroyed everyone” after penetrating the city’s defenses. [The History of Zonaras, Book XII]

The city recovered during the intervening hundred years, perhaps becoming a haven for Christians at this time. In the late 4th century, it would go on to become the most important bishopric under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the see of Saint Basil the Great, and an important center of learning and culture. In his funeral oration for Saint Basil in AD 381, Saint Gregory Nazianzen describes Caesarea as: "this illustrious city of ours...the guide and mistress of my studies, the metropolis of letters, no less than of the cities which she excels and reigns over." [Gregory Nazianzen, Oration XLIII)

Julian’s anger at the destruction of the Temple of Fortune extended to frustration with the lukewarm pagan population of the city who, he felt, should have resisted more stoutly, even to the point of giving their lives for their gods as the Christians undeniably did for Christ. Though stopping short of enforcing capital punishment upon the destroyers of the temple himself, Julian’s nonetheless exacted a heavy penalty from the Christian community in Caesarea and threatened much worse:
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He also blamed the pagans, who were few in number, but who ought, he said, to have hastened to the temple, and, if necessary, to have suffered cheerfully for Fortune. He caused all possessions and money belonging to the churches of the city and suburbs of Caesarea to be rigorously sought out and carded away; about three hundred pounds of gold, obtained from this source, were conveyed to the public treasury. He also commanded that all the clergy should be enrolled among the troops under the governor of the province, which is accounted the most arduous and least honorable service among the Romans. He ordered the Christian populace to be numbered, women and children inclusive, and imposed taxes upon them as onerous as those to which villages are subjected.

He further threatened that, unless their temples were speedily re-erected, his wrath would not be appeased, but would be visited on the city, until none of the Galileans remained in existence, for this was the name which, in derision, he was wont to give to the Christians. There is no doubt but that his menaces would have been fully executed had not death quickly intervened. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter IV]
Julian perished shortly thereafter during his ill-fated campaign against Persia, thereby ending the brief resurgence of paganism.

Sozomen proceeds to offer an explanation of Julian’s strategy for dealing with his hated Christian foes — certainly a more nuanced approach than that of his predecessors:
It was not from any feeling of compassion towards the Christians that he treated them at first with greater humanity than had been evinced by former persecutors, but because he had discovered that paganism had derived no advantage from their tortures, while Christianity had been especially increased, and had become more honored by the fortitude of those who died in defense of the faith. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter IV]
Sozomen’s observations here seem to be borne out by Julian’s own writings and surviving edicts which emphasize, at the same time, his hatred for Christianity and his desire to use less violent methods to defeat the followers of Christ.

Based on Sozomen’s comments, it is most likely that the martyrdom of Saint Eupsychius was ordered and carried out by the local governor in Caesarea without consulting the emperor, rather than overtly or surreptitiously commanded by Julian himself. However, the harsh punishments inflicted by Julian upon the entire Caesarean Christian community in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple of Fortune seem like an overreaction. Perhaps Julian, like Galerius and Diocletian before him, was anxious to use such rash acts by groups of overly zealous Christians as a rationale for the enactment of more repressive measures against the Christian community.

It is also possible that the martyrdom of Saint Eupsychius was another example of the type of spontaneous mob violence against Christians that seemed to erupt across the Greek east during Julian's reign. Given Sozomen's comment that the pagans in Caesarea were few in number, however, this seems less likely.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

"I myself have witnessed the end of those who harassed the worshipers of God" ~ Constantine's letter to Shapur II of Persia

A decorative gilt silver plate showing Shapur II hunting, mid-4th century AD (left).
A colossal bronze bust of Constantine I, early 4th century AD (right).  
Among the remarkable documents found inserted into the 4th century AD work known as the Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine by Eusebius Pamphilus, one of the most intriguing is a letter penned by Constantine himself to Shapur II, the young king of Persia.

The reliability of this document is fairly well established. A detailed scholarly discussion of the authenticity, dating, and purpose of this letter may be found in this excellent article by David Frendo. In his Vita of Constantine, Eusebius introduces the letter as follows:
The king of the Persians also having testified a desire to form an alliance with Constantine, by sending an embassy and presents as assurances of peace and friendship, the emperor, in negotiating this treaty, far surpassed the monarch who had first done him honor, in the magnificence with which he acknowledged his gifts. Having heard, too, that there were many churches of God in Persia, and that large numbers there were gathered into the fold of Christ, full of joy at this intelligence, he resolved to extend his anxiety for the general welfare to that country also, as one whose aim it was to care for all alike in every nation. 
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What follows is the text of Constantine's letter, or at least excerpts from it that Eusebius felt were particularly edifying for his predominantly Christian audience. It is thought that Constantine wrote this letter at the height of his power in AD 325 after defeating Licinius and attaining dominion over the entire Roman Empire. Shapur II, meanwhile, would have been somewhere between the ages of 15 and 20. That may well explain the occasionally avuncular tone that Constantine seems to employ in the letter:
By keeping the Divine faith, I am made a partaker of the light of truth: guided by the light of truth, I advance in the knowledge of the Divine faith. Hence it is that, as my actions themselves evince, I profess the most holy religion; and this worship I declare to be that which teaches me deeper acquaintance with the most holy God; aided by whose Divine power, beginning from the very borders of the ocean, I have aroused each nation of the world in succession to a well-grounded hope of security; so that those which, groaning in servitude to the most cruel tyrants and yielding to the pressure of their daily sufferings, had well near been utterly destroyed, have been restored through my agency to a far happier state. This God I confess that I hold in unceasing honor and remembrance; this God I delight to contemplate with pure and guileless thoughts in the height of his glory. 
For any who like to make the case that Constantine's didn't actually have an affinity toward Christianity or only pretended to when it suited his purpose, the intro to this letter may prove somewhat baffling. Even more confusing to this view will be what follows, wherein Constantine vehemently denounces the sacrifice of animals — a traditional practice of both the Roman pagans and the Persian Zoroastrians:
This God I invoke with bended knees, and recoil with horror from the blood of sacrifices, from their foul and detestable odors, and from every earth-born magic fire: for the profane and impious superstitions which are defiled by these rites have cast down and consigned to perdition many, nay, whole nations of the Gentile world. For he who is Lord of all cannot endure that those blessings which, in his own loving-kindness and consideration of the wants of men, he has revealed for the use of all, should be perverted to serve the lusts of any. His only demand from man is purity of mind and an undefiled spirit; and by this standard he weighs the actions of virtue and godliness.  
For his pleasure is in works of moderation and gentleness: he loves the meek, and hates the turbulent spirit: delighting in faith, he chastises unbelief: by him all presumptuous power is broken down, and he avenges the insolence of the proud. While the arrogant and haughty are utterly overthrown, he requires the humble and forgiving with deserved rewards: even so does he highly honor and strengthen with his special help a kingdom justly governed, and maintains a prudent king in the tranquility of peace. 
Constantine then proceeds to denounce those of his predecessors on the Roman imperial throne who persecuted the Christians, including one who met his end at the hands of the Persians themselves some 60 years before. Here Constantine refers to Valerian who, after spending two years persecuting Christians throughout the Roman Empire, was defeated and taken prisoner in AD 259 by Shapur II's great-grandfather, Shapur I:
I cannot, then, my brother believe that I err in acknowledging this one God, the author and parent of all things: whom many of my predecessors in power, led astray by the madness of error, have ventured to deny, but who were all visited with a retribution so terrible and so destructive, that all succeeding generations have held up their calamities as the most effectual warning to any who desire to follow in their steps. Of the number of these I believe him to have been, whom the lightning-stroke of Divine vengeance drove forth from hence, and banished to your dominions and whose disgrace contributed to the fame of your celebrated triumph. 
Interestingly, in a rhetorical flourish that mirrors the style of the emperor's contemporary and sometime adviser, Lactantius, Constantine next emphasizes his personal experience with those rulers who have dared to oppress the Christians. In this passage, one can almost hear the echo of Lactantius's work entitled Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, written sometime prior to AD 320:
And it is surely a happy circumstance that the punishment of such persons as I have described should have been publicly manifested in our own times. For I myself have witnessed the end of those who lately harassed the worshipers of God by their impious edict. And for this abundant thanksgivings are due to God that through his excellent Providence all men who observe his holy laws are gladdened by the renewed enjoyment of peace. Hence I am fully persuaded that everything is in the best and safest posture, since God is vouchsafing, through the influence of their pure and faithful religious service, and their unity of judgment respecting his Divine character, to gather all men to himself. 
Constantine then makes clear the true intention of his letter: the protection of those Christians living within the borders of Persia:
Imagine, then, with what joy I heard tidings so accordant with my desire, that the fairest districts of Persia are filled with those men on whose behalf alone I am at present speaking, I mean the Christians. I pray, therefore, that both you and they may enjoy abundant prosperity, and that your blessings and theirs may be in equal measure; for thus you will experience the mercy and favor of that God who is the Lord and Father of all. 
It is interesting to speculate on the sources of intelligence information that Constantine was able to draw upon with regard to the interior workings of the Persian kingdom. No doubt, much of his data was provided by those very Christians who he mentions as filling up the fairest districts of Persia. The emperor closes his missive with an exhortation that the young king of Persia take special care of Constantine's beloved Christians. Though couched in diplomatic and affectionate language, it is easy to detect the implied threat:
And now, because your power is great, I commend these persons to your protection; because your piety is eminent, I commit them to your care. Cherish them with your wonted humanity and kindness; for by this proof of faith you will secure an immeasurable benefit both to yourself and us.
We can only imagine the impact that such a letter might have had on the Persian court. With a young, inexperienced king on the throne, they must have felt themselves in position to do nothing other than to knuckle under to the powerful, warlike Roman Emperor who now ruled unopposed on their western frontier. That said, when another decade had gone by and Shapur II sat more confidently on his throne, the Persians resumed the sporadic border raiding that came to characterize much of their relationship with the Roman Empire through the centuries. It was likely as a result of this that Constantine began to mobilize a great campaign against Persia during the last years of his life—a campaign which never came to fruition but was cancelled after his death in AD 337.

It is also interesting to note that shortly after the death of Constantine, a general persecution of Christians was put into effect in Persia with bloody results and at least 16,000 slain according to the near-contemporary Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen. Perhaps Shapur II and the Persian court recalled Constantine's letter and felt that with his death, they now had free hand to eliminate a potential threat. The Christians of Persia, once tolerated when they were persecuted by the pagan Romans, were now viewed as no better than potential collaborators with the Christianized Roman state.

Monday, April 01, 2019

The Diocese of Camden Rolls the Dice


Upon getting over my shock at being invited to be part of the leadership team representing our parish at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: Joy of the Gospel in South Jersey, my second reaction was puzzlement. Why in the name of heaven was a Catholic spiritual conference of this variety being held in Harrah’s Casino, Atlantic City? Having now experienced the Convocation, I feel that perhaps the choice of venue was more appropriate than I first realized.

One bit of advance warning: this post grew beyond all bounds and is now very prolix. I apologize for that, and if you don’t have the wherewithal to wade through it all, please feel free to skip to the bottom where I offer my concluding thoughts.

At this event, we were all encouraged to “tell our stories” and to radiate the joy of the Gospel. We were also told that authenticity is vitally important. In that spirit, I write my observations below in what I hope will be a dispassionate and constructive way, even when my comments appear critical. And let it be said for the record that I left the convention energized to spread the Gospel, though perhaps not as a result of the main-stage programming.

To get a general sense of the tenor of the event, here are a few words that we heard a lot: joy, stories, youth, immigrants, sharing, diversity, complexity, encounter, accompany, mercy, change, authentic.

Here are some words we heard very little if at all: prayer, Rosary, fasting, saints, sin, vocations, devotions, truth, Lent, doctrine, tradition, catechism.

As with other events of this type that I have experienced, the speakers did a good job promoting the message of Pope Francis, encouraging people to become Missionary Disciples, to go out to the margins, and bring people the Joy of the Gospel. The trouble is, few of the speakers spent any time actually talking about the Gospel. Perhaps they assumed that core parish leaders didn’t need any brush-ups on the teachings of Jesus as revealed in Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and how these teachings impact the hot-button cultural issues that are battering the Church today. However, based on my observations, the main problem the Catholic Church faces in our time is the utterly dreadful state of catechesis among Catholics at every stage of life. This Convocation did little to allay this particular concern or remedy the problem.

While there were several very positive aspects of the Convocation, there was a concurrent sense that any type of criticism was taboo. Questions to the keynote speakers from the audience were kept to an absolute minimum and were vetted by a moderator from ones that were texted to them. Unsurprisingly, only softballs made the cut. For the most part, discussion of the scandals rocking the Church were tucked away into a couple small group sessions. I understand why they did this, as discussions about the scandals can often be counter-productive and spiral out of control. However, exclusion of any tough questions to the speakers made the event feel stage-managed and weakened the sense of authenticity that we were told played a key role in missionary discipleship.

In addition, as a Catholic who survived three decades of liturgical experimentation in my youth, I really suffered through the liturgical and meditative programming which (with one remarkable exception) was loud and boisterous — almost rigidly joyful.

The First Day

The conference opened on the Feast of the Annunciation and the organizers did well in recognizing Our Lady in the opening Mass. The hymnody was “Mass: The Broadway Musical” which made it tough for me to maintain any sort of focus or reverence.

The first keynote speaker was Julianne Stanz and her high-energy presentation served to warm up the crowd effectively. Originally from Ireland, she came to the US as a missionary and now lives here with her husband and children. Mrs. Stanz expounded upon JOY which she defined as “Jesus Over Yourself” and she shared a story about her three year-old not wanting to go to Mass because, “Nobody looks happy there.” As the father of several children, I could relate to that comment. However, my reaction to such a quip from one of my kids might have been different from that of Mrs. Stanz. I would have explained that Mass is not the same as the playground and that one need not always look happy. If you try to look happy when you’re thinking about the suffering and death of Jesus, the smile will seem fake. And that brings me to a term that kept recurring throughout this talk and several of the ones that followed: authenticity. Several of the speakers mentioned that what really drives people out of the Church – particularly young people of good will – is the perception that we Catholics don’t actually practice what we preach. I completely agree, and would take it one step further: we Catholics tend to preach what we practice, and what we practice is too often behavior that is approved of by the world but not in conformity with the moral laws of Jesus Christ.

Toward the close of her talk, Mrs. Stanz emphasized that the Church needed to change, saying that we need to stop saying, “But we have always done it that way.” She did not add much in the way of specifics about what that change would entail but said that we need a paradigm shift in how we view ourselves. Again, I very much agree with this sentiment. The Church absolutely can not go on doing things the way it has since 1970.

After Mrs. Stanz concluded, a gentleman named Derek was invited to the podium to share his story. Derek’s testimony about how the Catholic faith had lifted up him and his family during some of the darkest hours of their lives was heartfelt and inspiring. These poignant moments of personal witness were among the strongest points of the Convocation and I was glad they were included.

For the evening meditation, we were offered the Scriptural interpretive stylings of ValLimar Jansen whose bio indicated that she had been the vocal leader for “numerous liturgies at the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference.” Now, Ms. Jansen seems to be a lovely woman and clearly has huge vocal talent and stage presence. But this presentation was absolutely not my thing, and from taking a look around at the other men in the crowd, I wasn’t the only one who was casting longing glances toward the exit. The performance was also so loud and involved so much audience participation that there was no opportunity for actual meditation of any kind.

The Second Day

Day two kicked off with morning prayer. Upon walking into the main ballroom, I noticed that the projected backdrop over the stage had a curious Neolithic-looking image on it. I heard one person say that he thought it was either Stone Henge or the Stone Table from the Chronicles of Narnia. Thankfully, there was no emergence of liturgical druids dancing down the aisles, nor a deacon dressed as Aslan. What also didn’t emerge was any sign of a clerical collar. For an event with 50+ priests in attendance, apparently one couldn’t be spared to lead us in morning prayer. Instead, we were treated to some joyful Protestant-style music related in English and Spanish. This was another aspect that left me puzzled. Here in the Catholic Church, which strives to include all people, we find ourselves forced to present services and Masses in two alternating vernaculars. This is not the first time I have encountered this phenomenon (sometimes including three or more languages) and it is always awkward. If only the Church had one language that it used for everything liturgical--perhaps an ancient language--that could draw us all together when we worship no matter what culture we come from. But I digress.

I had to brace myself for the first speaker of the day, Professor Hoffsman Ospino, who teaches theology at my alma mater, Boston College. Given the dreadful track record of that particular academic institution in graduating young men and women who go on to practice their Catholic faith, I wondered if Prof. Ospino’s talk was going to demonstrate that BC had finally turned a spiritual corner. Sadly, his spiel sounded vaguely familiar. He presented an alternative history of Catholicism in the United States in which the Church in the US was always a Church of immigrants, that immigration is how the Church grows (as opposed to missionary evangelization, I might add, but again, I digress), and that immigration — specifically from Latin America — is how the Church will find new life in the 21st century. Now, you can forgive the man for being a little culturally triumphalist considering he is himself an immigrant from Colombia. But the problem with his thesis is this: people in Latin America are also leaving the Catholic Church in droves. Worse, when Latino immigrants come here, they fall away from the faith at the same rate or greater than native-born Catholics. Prof. Ospino admitted as much when he offered the statistic that an estimated 14 million people of Latino origin have already left the Church in the US. So to sum up, do we need to reach out to Latino immigrants? Absolutely. Are such immigrants, who are often coming in poorly catechized from their home countries, going to stick with a happy-clappy version of the Catholic Church that they find here? Maybe. Maybe not. If happy-clappy is what they’re seeking, it's quite possible that they'll go straight to authentic stuff at the local Evangelical church, not our attempt at imitation.

We then broke out into our small group sessions. There were about a dozen different options for this and we divided into groups of 40-50 people each. For my first group session, I chose “Technology and Social Media: Evangelization in the Digital Age.” This session was run by Fr. Frank Donio of the Catholic Apostolate Center and his crew from DC, and it was actually quite good. While much of what was discussed was pretty basic (what’s the difference between FB, Twitter and Instagram, etc. and how can we utilize each most effectively), I came away with two noteworthy points. The first is that social media, though good for some things, is still inferior to two other methods of getting your message out to the people in your parish: the bulletin and the pulpit. Second, the presenters emphasized that for their own social media, they do not tolerate negativity. Any negative comments get deleted and the poster gets blocked. While I understand why they adopted this policy, I thought it was short-sighted. First off, when you do this aggressively, no one responds to your posts and the media stops becoming social. Instead, it becomes a simple managed data-feed that few pay attention to. And if you look on the Catholic Apostolate Center’s FB page, you’ll see that even though they have +218,000 followers, engagement is low, and largely limited to “likes” and the comment “amen.” To most folks who use social media, this will immediately feel inauthentic. That small point aside, I thought these folks did a nice job and they appear to be on the right track.

The afternoon keynote address was given by Joseph Cardinal Tobin of Newark. Cardinal Tobin came across as personable and funny, talking up his well-known connections to Pope Francis and taking shots at “the Cardinals” including the Dubia Cardinals. He highlighted his invitation as Bishop of Indianapolis to speak at the United Methodist Churches of Indiana convention in 2014 to satisfy their curiosity about Pope Francis. The good Cardinal did his level best to relate the teachings of Pope Francis to the audience and struck many Francis-like themes, among them:
  • Evangelization good. “Proselytism” bad;
  • “Devout people are often quick to be angry and lacking in mercy;”
  • “Why is the Church known not for its mercy, but for its moralism?”
  • Called out “defensive, moralistic Catholicism”.
  • Americans are very results-oriented (which is, apparently, a negative);
  • The greatest danger in the Church is “the great pragmatism of everyday life.” 
Of these, the most puzzling statements to me were the ones decrying moralism, or the tendency of some overly-scrupulous people to wish to enforce the letter of the law to the detriment of the spirit of the law. To get to the location of his talk, Cardinal Tobin had to walk through a long corridor at Harrah’s plastered with advertisements displaying the allurements of four or five of the seven deadly sins. Does he honestly think that moralism is one of the biggest problems we face in the Church? I’d say it’s not even in the top 20. The moral teachings of Jesus Christ as related by His Church are ancient and enduring for one reason: because they are true. By following Catholic morality, an individual is more likely to lead a healthy, happy, Christ-filled life in this world and to be with God for all eternity in the next. Rather than defensive, moralistic Catholicism, we should joyfully display and share the treasure of Catholic moral teaching with the world without any hesitation at all. What Cardinal Tobin should have said was that Mother Church is known for Her unequivocal stands on moral virtue and for mercy, because that would have been authentic.

Another highlight of the Convocation took place after Cardinal Tobin resumed his seat. A married couple ascended the podium and told their story. Similar to Derek earlier, theirs was a simple yet powerful tale of getting through some life crises large and small with the help of their Catholic faith. They specifically mentioned the role their parish played in helping them, along with devotions like the Rosary. Finally! Nearly two days into the conference and the Rosary had been barely a blip on the radar screen. I found their 10 minute testimony to be one of the most gratifying portions of the program for one simple reason: it was absolutely authentic. It was also one of the scant few moments during the Convocation where the topic of Catholic dads came up.

Mass that evening was done in a Gospel church setting. Let me just say that I enjoy Gospel music and the choir performing it was really very good. Their tunes stuck in my head and if they had a CD, I might even buy it and listen to it in my car. But the performance distracted me from the Mass big time—and it was a performance: overwhelmingly loud and complete with dancing and clapping by the audience after every piece wrapped up. At this point, I began thinking about the words in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first document promulgated at Vatican II, which said the following:
“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited for the Roman Liturgy: therefore, under normal circumstances, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”
I’ll let you guess how many times we heard Gregorian chant at the Convocation.

The evening meditation for Day 2 was simply awesome. Run by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, this was another high-point which included a beautiful reflection by Father Glenn Sudano of the Friars, and a personal testimony by one of the sisters. All during this time, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. Following the meditation, there was benediction during which the Body of Our Lord was carried in procession around the main hall. During benediction, I kept thinking, “This is where the focus needs to be."

The Third Day

Based on my experience of Day Two, I decided to skip the morning prayer and simply say my Rosary in the adoration chapel which was set up in a prominent place. This was another good point for the Convocation, and when I felt my frustration level rising with the speakers, it was a nice place to retreat and lay my irritations before Our Lord.

The first speaker of day three was Carolyn Woo, retired CEO of Catholic Relief Services. Dr. Woo is an impressive lady with a long resume in corporate and charitable America. Like many of the other speakers, she was articulate and personable, but if you asked me now what her talk was about, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. There were a lot of funny anecdotes. She did a short exposition on seeing sacredness in other people: “The most sacred object you can behold, aside from the Holy Eucharist, is the person next to you.” This was followed by a listing of some saints who were friends — a good way to incorporate a little Church history which was otherwise lacking in the program. At the close, she took some shots at US and Israeli foreign policy which seemed somewhat out-of-place.

Following Dr. Woo was a panel discussion on the main stage which was a promotional opportunity for Catholic Charities, Camden. The three participants spoke about the rewards of working with immigrants, going to the US/Mexico border and working with the refugees and migrants there. One fellow, a stay-at-home dad who served as a volunteer with Syrian refugee families teaching them English, told his story about how fulfilling he found the experience and how he even managed to pick up a little Arabic. They fielded questions from the audience such as: “How do we overcome hate and racism in our society?” Reaching out to the youth was a sub-theme of this discussion, and the question was asked: “How do we make going to Mass more appealing to young people?” One of the panelists, a young woman, said that to do so, Mass should relate the message of Jesus to everyday life. She suggested more youth masses. I could only reflect on my own experience with youth masses back in the 1980s and how they almost sent me headlong out of the Church for good – and how few of the faces I remember from those days have remained active Catholics.

We then broke out into the first of our two workshop sessions of the day. I attended “The Parish and Social Sin” offered by Tom Ulrich. I chose this specifically because I didn’t have a good concept of what social sin was and wanted to know more. As prep for the workshop, I read JPII’s 1984 exhortation entitled: “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia” where the concept of social sin is explained in detail. In short, social sin is the accumulation of personal sins that impact the larger society in negative ways. Mr. Ulrich, is a social worker who is VP of a branch of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, so I expected his jargon to be right in my wheelhouse and it was. He attempted to get the audience talking about justice and asked them to define justice. He ended up with the rather simple definition of “making sure every person gets what they’re entitled to.” I raised my hand and asked him if it was possible to understand what constitutes true justice if we don’t have a well-formed conscience. This was the first deer-in-the-headlights moment for him. His answer was that people's consciences will never be fully formed, and we can't use that as an excuse for not taking action. I found this answer unsatisfactory at best.

Later, when he delved more deeply into the concept of social sin, he made an effort to speak about it apart from or somehow separate from personal sin. But unfortunately for him, JPII said:
"There is one meaning sometimes given to social sin that is not legitimate or acceptable even though it is very common in certain quarters today. This usage contrasts social sin and personal sin, not without ambiguity, in a way that leads more or less unconsciously to the watering down and almost the abolition of personal sin, with the recognition only of social gilt and responsibilities." [Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16]
I read the above to Mr. Ulrich aloud during the session, and he fumbled around a bit, admitting that JPII was right, of course, and that's not really what he was trying to do.

Shortly thereafter, he mentioned "climate change" in connection with social sin and his personal belief that we only have 11 years to take action before the world ends--or something. A fellow in the audience identified himself as a chemical engineer who has studied the issue carefully and responded that numbers like 11 years are nonsense bandied about by reporters, not scientists. This immediately got him off of this issue.

By the end of the session, Mr. Ulrich seemed to be fairly flustered, but he had to get in his list of key organizations that Catholics should support if they wished to combat social sin. At the top of the list was the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is ironic considering this organization has been involved in scandals for giving money to groups that promote actual social sins such as contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. I asked him if he was aware of these scandals when I caught him after the session, and he said that he was working at CCHD when the scandals first erupted. He said that the accusations were false. When I appeared incredulous, he backtracked and said that the bishops had done a thorough investigation and had given the organization the seal of approval. I left feeling a sense of inauthenticity.

To finish up this long digression, it’s worth noting how JP II concluded his comments on social sin in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia as follows:
“At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people. So true is this that even when such a situation can be changed in its structural and institutional aspects by the force of law or, as unfortunately more often happens, by the law of force, the change in fact proves to be incomplete, of short duration and ultimately vain and ineffective — not to say counterproductive — if the people directly or indirectly responsible for that situation are not converted.” [Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16]
JPII's foresight when raising such concerns is not to be despised.

After a hearty lunch where our parish group was able to discuss what we experienced in our morning sessions, we moved on to our afternoon break-out sessions. For my third and final one, I chose: “Young Adults: Encountering and Developing Leadership for the 21st Century” moderated by Monica Konschnik. To my surprise, I found several familiar faces among the attendees of this session, including two others from my parish group, along with a particularly brilliant priest who sat right up in the front. It turned out that this session was run by the same group from the Catholic Apostolate Center that I had encountered in the Social Media session earlier. Mrs. Konschnik and several of the team members, who all fit into the young adult category (ages 18-39 according to the USCCB), shared their stories of how and why they chose to serve the Church.

We then filled out a sheet which asked us to indicate how young adults were currently incorporated into our parishes. When reporting the results, it soon became apparent that most of the parishes had little or no participation by young adults. Our parish certainly has some, but we could be doing better. It was at this point that my priest friend spoke up very authoritatively. He pointed out that his parish has none of these problems. If anything, the main issue confronted by the young adults in his parish is that they need help taking care of their many young children. He then enumerated the ways that young adults participated in his parish—and the fact that he had two examples right next to him as part of his parish leadership team helped to emphasize his point in a very concrete way. Father then went on to voice his opinion that part of the problem we seem to have with the Millennial generation is that we coddle them too much and don’t challenge them to confront the culture. He related how when he was that age, nobody had to reach out to him. He came to Mass because he wanted to. He became a priest because he felt the Holy Spirit was calling him and he decided to act on that call. As he wrapped up, the room burst into spontaneous applause.

At this point, Fr. Donio, the head of the Catholic Apostolate Center stepped in. He was familiar with Father’s parish and termed it an “intentional community” which didn’t face the same kinds of difficulties as regular geographical parishes. For the record, an intentional community in this sense is defined as one which has a distinct spiritual charism that draws in like-minded people often from long distances away. So basically, this was a case of special pleading that didn’t apply to the rest of the diocese. A few moments later, after the discussion had moved on, Mrs. Konschnik continued telling her story and mentioned how she and her husband had spent seven years looking for the perfect parish to raise their children. At this point, my priest friend quipped to the group: “So you’re looking for an intentional community.” Ouch. The point here is that all parishes are becoming intentional communities. The days when people will put up with what goes on in their local parish simply because it is local are long gone. My priest friend’s parish is thriving not because it is an intentional parish but because it is offering something that people—especially young people—are looking for, and that is simply this: a clear sign of contradiction to the prevailing popular culture of irreverence, immorality, sin and death. In my experience, a parish that looks like the fallen culture with a felt cross plastered over it is not actively proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and is therefore inauthentic. Lest I belabor the point, inauthenticity is the root of what drives people out of the Church.

Of course, there were dozens of other breakout sessions that I did not attend. I should mention that there were two full sessions on “LGBT” issues and how to incorporate practitioners of that particular lifestyle into your parish. I did not attend either, so everything I heard about them was second-hand. Some friends did attend those sessions and went in armed for spiritual combat. The result was, sadly, predictable. The presenter, a psychotherapist, declared that he encouraged those with such temptations to get into same-sex relationships. He also encouraged them to receive Holy Communion if their consciences were clear. My friends challenged the presenter on this and he claimed that he was only reflecting the teaching of Pope Francis. According to my friends, there were three priests in the session and when they were asked if they would give Holy Communion to individuals that they knew were in active same-sex relationships, all three said “yes.” One of my friends laid it out clearly: The Church teaches that if you engage in homosexual acts, you are committing a grave sin. If you die with a grave sin on your soul, you will go to Hell. Who is the more compassionate one? Someone who enables a person who has assimilated such habitual grave sin into their lifestyle? Or the person who warns them of the dangers of doing so and accompanies them on the path to chastity and conversion?

To wrap up the break-out sessions, it should be pointed out that while there were two full sessions on alphabet soup topics (LGBT), and numerous sessions on ministry to women, Hispanics, and young people, there were zero specific sessions on outreach to any of the following groups:
  • Dads – Does no one notice how few men there are in the pews?
  • Those contemplating vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life
  • Working families
  • Those of other religions including non-Catholic families whose children attend Catholic schools (a question was raised by one of my friends, himself a convert from Protestantism, as to whether evangelizing to Protestants, Jews, Orthodox, or Muslims is encouraged at all these days).
  • The Black community – Has anyone noticed how many Black folks there are in south Jersey and how few of them are in our parishes?
  • The various Asian communities, especially our Filipino brothers and sisters
  • The elderly
  • The bereaved
  • Kids with special needs and their families 
  • Homeschoolers – considering how many vocations come from the homeschool community, this was a major miss.
  • Traditional Catholics – not that they need outreach, but a single session on the successes enjoyed by traditional Catholic communities in drawing and retaining young people might have been fruitful. 
Now I’m sure some of the above were covered in the various break-out sessions, but simply reading through the titles and descriptions did not make that clear. To me, this showed where the diocesan leadership sees its priorities and demonstrated a bit of tone-deafness as to where some real sources of Catholic dynamism might be located.

We had another productive dinner on day three where we discussed our experiences in the break-out sessions. Following this, our parish group spent an extended time together developing our plan for moving ahead as missionary disciples after the Convocation. This conversation was extraordinarily fruitful and generated a wealth of ideas that, we hope, will truly lead more souls to Christ and rain down abundant blessings from heaven upon our parish. When our conversation came to an end, we realized that we had missed out on the evening’s entertainment which was fine by me. I didn’t come to be entertained. So we wrapped up with the Rosary and then headed off for the evening.

The Fourth Day

This was a half-day which concluded the Convocation. I got up at 5:00 AM to find some spiritual sustenance outside of the Convocation and was richly rewarded, though I had to pick my way through the remains of a wild all-night party complete with partially dressed women and an active security detail to get there. Apparently a rapper and his posse were on-site at the casino doing what they do. I again skipped the morning prayer service in favor of a half-hour in the Adoration Chapel.

The final keynote speaker of the Convocation was Chris Lowney, former managing director of JP Morgan Chase. The Convocation attendees were already quite familiar with Mr. Lowney because part of our homework prior to arriving was to read his book, Everyone Leads. This book came highly endorsed by Carolyn Woo (see above), James Martin, SJ, and several academics from institutions like Boston College and Villanova. Mr. Lowney’s message was, in a nutshell, that all Catholics need to be leaders if we are going to survive in this complex new world. He said, “The reality of the world is going to force us to change how we do things in the Church,” and that we need to “be comfortable being uncomfortable.” He highlighted the military acronym VUCA as something we need to understand and be able to cope with. VUCA means: “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.” He felt that negativity was counter-productive and that we shouldn’t seek to scapegoat or blame anyone or anything for what has gone wrong in the Church. This sounded to me like a very convenient way of saying that we shouldn’t examine how and why we have failed so miserably in the recent past. In my opinion, without such serious, humble, and brutally honest reflection, how can we possibly move forward?

Mr. Lowney highlighted that as the laity, we are co-responsible for the Church along with our bishops and priests, and this led into his central thesis that “everyone leads.” He exhorted us not to become paralyzed by the “Moses Problem,” that is, the desire to return to Egypt when things get tough. “Fear is not a good counselor,” he said, and encouraged us not to be afraid to take shots—like Kobe Bryant who is the all-time NBA leader in missed shots, or Wayne Gretzky who said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Here are a few of my thoughts on where Mr. Lowney went off the rails:
  • First, saying “everyone leads” sounds strangely like the inverse of Jesus’s injunction that the leader of all needs to be the servant of all [Mark 10:44]. While Mr. Lowney is encouraging all of us to move into the front pew, Our Lord specifically said that we should take the lowest seat and put others before ourselves [Luke 14:10].
  • If nothing else, my experience at the Convocation demonstrated how sadly uncatechized many of my fellow Catholics in the laity are on some fairly basic Church teachings. What is going to happen if such folks are suddenly self-propelled into leadership roles within the Church? Go ahead and ponder that for a minute.
  • As for not being afraid to take shots, what’s left out of those quotes is that the athletes in question were masters of their craft whose shots were often on-target because they had spent prodigious amounts of time practicing – that is, training their minds and bodies. As Catholics, if we don’t train our minds, hearts and spirits or do so inconsistently or haphazardly, our shot is not only going to miss the mark, it’s going to take out someone’s face in the front row. 
To wrap up, Mr. Lowney encouraged us to go for easy wins. He suggested that we not focus on the “recalcitrant 10%” but rather, ignore them. I thought this was especially good advice for young people who wish to bring traditional practices and devotions back into the Church but run into brick walls from the recalcitrant Baby Boomers who may rule the rectory or the sacristy. Don’t let them frustrate you. Keep putting your ideas forward despite continual and stubborn refusals. You are not the ones with the Moses Problem – they are. You are not longing to go back to Egypt, but to Jerusalem, to the foot of the Cross. Or to Rome to stand with the martyrs. Or to Lepanto, to risk your life to defend Holy Mother Church. In too many cases, the "recalcitrant 10%" is longing to get back to Woodstock.

After this talk, we again retired to our parish group. This session proved unexpectedly contentious, but also bore fruit. Again, these conversations were among the best, most inspiring and spirit-filled aspects of the Convocation, even when not everyone agreed. Our pastor, a long-suffering priest who deals with the insanity of the popular culture entering his church on a regular basis, served as a true shepherd, fearlessly teaching the truths of the Church, calming the waters of discord, and reminding us that division and hatred are the tools of the prince of this world. Getting to know this good and holy priest a little better and experiencing his leadership was one of the great highlights of the Convocation for me.

Concluding Thoughts

My goal in attending this Convocation, as in writing out these reflections, was to remain as objective as possible and open-minded to the working of the Holy Spirit. In that spirit, I can report on several very positive take-aways from the event. The primary positive aspect for me was the opportunity to network with our own parish team, and with teams from other parishes I was introduced to. I was also able to re-forge connections with a number of outstanding priests I had known over the years—men who, in a different era of the Church, may have been elevated to a bishopric. Chatting with such spiritual power-houses helped keep me grounded and focused on the task at hand.

The opportunities for quiet prayer before the Holy Eucharist were also very much appreciated. The availability of the Adoration Chapel was a key for me, especially after coming out of the occasionally contentious break-out sessions. Benediction with the Franciscan Friars was one piece of the conference which will stick with me for a long time.

Ironically, the other piece that has stuck with me—and I suspect will stick with me for a long time—was the Gospel choir. Though their music was better suited for a concert hall than for Holy Mass, their spirit was unmistakably authentic and their songs were earworms that I am still hearing in my brain. It also made me think that we desperately need more of our black brothers and sisters to come into the Church. May Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton pray for this intention.

I felt that the choice of keynote speakers left something to be desired. All of the main lectern presentations felt like TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks. The problem is, I don’t like TED Talks. As described in an article in the UK periodical, The New Statesmen, in the world of TED, “everything is awesome and inspirational, and ideas aren’t supposed to be challenged.” Such talks generally feel like this: “sixteen minutes later, I’m aware of only three things: the talk was awesome, I can’t remember anything of substance from the talk, and now I’m watching a weirdly artificial standing ovation.” I definitely felt a bit of this vibe at the Convocation and it struck me as slightly manipulative and inauthentic (there’s that word again…)

Another thing that bothered me throughout the event was simply this: Why was a conference focused on the Joy of the Gospel being held during the penitential season of Lent? Would it not have been more appropriate to hold the Convocation during the Easter season? Now, I know that there is probably a very practical answer to this question but as Cardinal Tobin opined during his talk: “The great pragmatism of everyday life is the greatest danger in the Church.” This sense of unreality—of being divorced from the seasonal calendar of the universal Church—seemed to linger throughout the event.

And this gets me back to my original question: Why was Harrah’s Atlantic City chosen as the venue for this event? Based on my reflections above, it could be because the diocese has decided to double-down, put it all on red, and bet the house on the kind of change that I grew up with in the 1980s and that, sadly, led a majority of my peers out of the Church. Indeed, at one of the Masses, the opening hymn encouraged us to “sing a new Church into being.” But everything I saw liturgically at the Convocation was the same old Church in America that was sung into being 50 years ago – only louder, flashier, and slightly off key — like an Elvis impersonator.

I sincerely hope that this type of gamble is not what the diocese is betting on. Entertainment-Masses and a de-emphasis on the tough moral teachings of the Church have not worked. The proof of this is the empty churches, parish consolidations, closed schools, and paucity of vocations to the religious life we are experiencing now after five decades down this path. The fluffy whiz-bang Jesuit Masses and retreats I attended in my teens and 20s had little depth and were not effective conduits for the Holy Spirit. But they were exactly what the older generation thought would appeal to the youth. Mainline Protestant churches adopted this type of theological and liturgical change within the past few decades and have also come up snake-eyes, the result being that people are leaving them faster than they are leaving the Catholic Church. But hey, maybe that’s just me being results-oriented. I figure I’m in good company considering Saint Paul encouraged us to prove all things and hold fast to that which is good while refraining from even the appearance of evil [1 Thessalonians 5:21] while Jesus Himself said by their fruits you shall know them. “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and shall be cast into the fire.” [Matthew 7:18-20]

All of the above I say in a spirit of loyalty to the Church and to our local bishop, even when my tone may be slightly jocular. The most difficult part of loyalty is forthrightly telling your superiors when you think they are making a mistake. I would like nothing more than for our Diocese of Camden to radiate the authentic Joy of the Gospel and to draw all men to Christ as was our Savior's mandate. It is with this hope in mind that I suggest that the diocese not feel pot-committed to the dubious reforms of the past 50 years which, if we are brutally honest, have not borne good fruit. We should not be afraid to change course and embrace authentic reforms which have already manifested a plenitude of good fruit when bishops have had the courage and fortitude to push them through. One instance of this good fruit may be seen in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska which has bucked nearly all of the negative trends afflicting the greater Catholic Church in the United States. One obvious statistic that may exemplify this difference is the number of young men in priestly formation: whereas Camden has 15 seminarians (Catholic population ca. 500,000), Lincoln, with one-fifth the Catholic population (ca. 100,000), has 39. Again, this is me being results-oriented. But the fact remains: if every diocese in the US were like Lincoln, there would be no priest shortage. And we also wouldn't be closing parishes and schools by the score.

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So let’s say that an event like the Convocation of Catholic Leaders comes to your diocese — and it probably will. Would I advise you to avoid it? By no means! If selected by your pastor, you should absolutely go. But you should go armed with your Rosary and be prepared to engage in spiritual combat. One of the major messages of this Convocation was that the laity should be assuming greater leadership roles in our local parishes. If those who most ardently love, treasure and study the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and practices of Holy Mother Church choose to abstain from diocesan events like this, who do you think your lay leaders are going to be?

My suggestion, brethren, is this: Stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned. In other words, do not fold. Go all-in!