Thursday, March 14, 2024

A Review of Cabrini -- A saintly biopic marred by boring Hollywood tropes

Mother Cabrini (played by Cristiana Dell'Anna) receives the reply of
Pope Leo XIII (played by Giancarlo Giannini)

My wife and I went to see Cabrini last night. Given the mixed yet passionate reaction to the film by a variety of folks whose opinions I respect, I was looking forward to it. Having now seen it, I think the mixed reaction is completely appropriate.

My reaction was also mixed, though tending more toward the negative. 

On the positive side, the film had a lot of spoken Italian in it which was fun. It was also well acted and beautifully shot, with a moving soundtrack that reminded me of a cross between The Village and Master and Commander. Though there have been some complaints that Catholic spirituality is not overtly put into the mouth of a Catholic saint (a valid complaint to be sure), Catholic spirituality saturates the background of the film. There are crosses and other Catholic symbols in practically every scene, and several scenes take place in beautiful Catholic churches and buildings. So we end up with some beautiful Catholic settings for a not particularly Catholic film.

The lead role was well played by Cristiana Dell'Anna who provided a convincing likeness of Mother Cabrini. Pope Leo XIII is played sympathetically by Giancarlo Giannini, though I thought he resembled Pope Pius IX more than Leo XIII.

That said, I felt that the film was too dark and brooding for the story of a Catholic saint. The first third of the film is purposely dark, focusing on Mother's illness and all of the "no" answers she receives from the men who are in positions of authority over her. The film does lighten up in spots, but the overall ambience is darkness and obscurity.

What truly drove Mother Cabrini was left largely unexplored. The inferences one must draw from the film are the typical boring Hollywood tropes -- follow your heart; don't let the naysayers get you down; I am woman, hear me roar. The film presents a woman primarily motivated by an altruistic desire to help other Italians. So rather than being driven by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to take care of the poor, Mother is portrayed, rather, as the celibate CEO of an Italian NGO in America. There is also an insinuation that she is at least partly driven by spite. Every time she faces an obstacle, the Cabrini in the film hears in her head an admonition given early in the film by a patriarchal archbishop: "Stay where you belong." This very worldly urge, rather than any divine inspiration, seems to motivate her to do bold things.

The film also spent considerable time building up the Italian immigrant-as-victim trope. While nativist sentiments were no doubt major obstacles for the first waves of Italian immigrants coming to America, there was another issue at play that the film studiously avoids: the hatred of Catholics by the largely Masonic ruling elite. (This particular angle was effectively brought to the fore in the film For Greater Glory, another imperfect though more inspiring film.) Though forty years after the height of the KnowNothing period when Catholic churches were torched in several cities, there was still a strong antipathy toward Catholics among the upper echelons of American society that persists to this day. While it wasn't long before Italians were accepted as Americans, devout Catholics have never really been. If you need evidence of that, consider the overtly anti-Catholic emails of Hillary Clinton campaign chair, John Podesta in 2016, or how our current "Catholic" president's Department of Justice classifies traditional Catholics among potential terrorist groups

As other reviewers have pointed out, the filmmakers also managed to turn Mother Cabrini into something of a Mary Sue. Whatever she accomplishes, she does via the force of her own powerful will. She draws her strength not from God nor from the Gospel, but from within herself. That is not a Catholic mentality at all, and I'm sure the real Mother Cabrini would have been horrified at being portrayed that way. This seems to have been done in service to a narrative that is not in keeping with the actual life of the saint.

Finally, the ending of the film was anti-climactic and strange. 

SPOILER ALERT -- stop here if you don't want to read what happens at the end...

In the movie, Mother Cabrini achieves her final victory via political blackmail -- threatening the mayor of New York that she will unleash a negative publicity campaign against him and work to get him defeated in the next election unless he allows her hospital project to go forward. She also indicates that she is willing to help him if he helps her -- a sort of "pay to play" arrangement. The fictitious Mayor Gould (who is portrayed effectively by John Lithgow as a racist political animal) is impressed by Mother's rather savvy tactics and agrees to her terms. I have no idea how much of this scenario is based on reality, but it didn't strike me as a particularly fitting denouement to a biopic of a Catholic saint. 

So overall, I give Cabrini two stars. It's worth watching once, but having now seen it, I have no desire to see it again. Instead, I'll go and read more about The Intense Catholic Spirituality of Mother Cabrini.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

The Intense Catholic Spirituality of Mother Cabrini ~ "How grateful we should be to Christianity, which has raised the dignity of woman."

Photo of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini from the frontispiece
of Travels of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini.

Yesterday marked the opening of a new film by Angel Studios — Cabrini — and the film has already generated an impressive amount of buzz. Considering the Catholic content of the film, this is somewhat surprising but in a very good way.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I intend to over the next week. I'm told that local theaters are basically sold-out this weekend.

Of course, nothing produced with religious content is without controversy. Cabrini is being promoted as a sort-of feminist anti-Barbie, which is an interesting tactic. This indicates that the filmmakers are attempting to broaden the audience beyond the Christian core, out to the larger market of pop-culture agnostics and nones. Of course, that tactic will not please everyone, and one of the criticisms of the film that has already emerged is that the feminist angle is played up to the detriment of the spiritual angle. Indeed, it is claimed that the film makes almost no reference to Mother Cabrini's intense spiritual life.

Again, I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't comment on that. If Mother Cabrini's spiritual life is cast into shadow by the film, that is a shame. However, it nevertheless presents a golden opportunity to set the record straight. Anyone who has their curiosity piqued by the film should certainly delve deeper into the life and works of this holy apostle to the Italian immigrants.

Interested viewers might take a look at her letters which may be found in a book from the 1940s entitled Travels of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini: Foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Following is an example which demonstrates how much Mother Cabrini's thoughts were permeated through-and-through by the power of Almighty God and how, for her, every event was an inspiration to advance in the spiritual life.

This charming letter was written from aboard a steamer en route from Paris to New York in 1890, and addressed to "her dear daughters" — the Missionary Sisters of The Sacred Heart, The Alumnae and Students of the Teachers' College in Rome. By this point, Mother and her sisters had been on the water for three days and were encountering rough seas:

Monday, April 21st. 

Here we are; the see-saw has started, moved by the almighty hand of God: willy nilly we have to play the game. Yesterday about five o’clock in the afternoon the sea began to be a real sea. It was not possible to stand on your feet without leaning on something for support. Already five hours have elapsed since Sister Eletta began to pray God to calm the sea. But now, seeing such a frightful spectacle, she is lost for words, and thinks the best thing to do is to go to bed as the other Sisters have done.

I remain firm and always keep on deck. I made them laugh so much that Sister Eletta said she felt almost better. After supper, about six o’clock, I wanted to see the other good Sisters, and, following their example, I began to feel sea-sick. Patience! Twice I was obliged to resign myself to their company.

Sister Assunta looks like a soul full of thoughts and weariness. Sister Giovannina is always laughing, even when she is very sick. Sister Agostina also smiles. Sister Bernardina is just like one dead, so is Sister Battistina! Sister Ignatius tries to endeavour to follow my example, but after a time she has to run for her life, or else stay in the cabin so as not to fall. Of all the passengers on board, both men and women, only six or seven come to the table.

It is dreadful if we do not try to resist this sickness; the best plan is to stay on deck; even if it rains, it is better to remain in the open. Last night, I stayed until after midnight, partly dressed (because I believed a storm was threatening), so as to be ready to save myself and all; but the good God is continually watching over His Spouses. The great swing subsided though the gale beat all round us.

I rose early this morning to go on deck to view the wonderful spectacle. Oh! how beautiful is the sea in its great motion! How the waves swell and foam! Enchanting! The wind is, however, favourable, and the boat goes so quickly, it seems to fly. If you could only see the waves! None of us could stay at the stern because the waves swept over the vessel at every moment. At the bows it is not so bad, and, stretched in an armchair, I can write fairly well. A single wave could submerge all, but He Who has created the sea and has commanded it to rise like mountains, would not permit His beloved creatures to be drowned, much less His loving Spouses.

God loved us before He created the sea; nay, He created the sea itself for our use and pleasure. He has chosen us for His Spouses, and we have answered His call, attracted by His infinite lovableness. Let us remain, my daughters, entirely subject to Him, conquered by His love; and let us run swiftly in His footsteps. The good God has perpetually loved us with the love of predilection, so let us love Him and serve Him with joy during the few days of our life.

If you were all here with me, dear daughters, to cross the immense ocean, you would exclaim, ‘‘Oh, how great and loving is God in all His works!'’ But the ocean of graces, oh, my daughters, that the good Jesus pours down upon us, in every instant of our life, is immensely superior to anything in nature. All natural splendours are eclipsed by the abundance of riches which God showers upon His beloved Spouses.

Let us venerate and love, then, our excellent state, and let us examine ourselves frequently and remove all defects that are unbecoming the Virgins of Christ, so that our Beloved may quickly introduce us into the Holy of Holies and plant charity in our souls. [Travels of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, pages 5-6]

Here is an excerpt from another letter by St. Frances Cabrini, deeply imbued with the wisdom of one who knows that children must be brought up in virtue. This one addressed to the students of the Teachers' College in Rome, and dated May 1904:

How great, noble, exalted, is the mission you are called to accomplish in this world! To you. Our Divine Lord addressed the words He spoke to His Apostles one day, "I have chosen you so that you will bear fruit and that your fruit will remain.”

Reflect a little with me on the predilection of God for you in this call, "I have chosen you," not "you have chosen Me." In fact, He did not wish that during your studies you should be exposed to the poisonous atmosphere of the world. He has drawn you into His own House, so that you could breathe into your souls its salubrious atmosphere. There you prepare yourselves for the mission you are to fulfill in Society.

To many of you, already, we may say, despite our great regret at parting from you, "Go and bear fruit," for you are already fortified against the world’s dangers by the solid instruction you have received. But what fruit will you bear? However small your experience is of the world, still you see that the multitude is insensible, forgetting God. But how much good cannot a wise teacher do to repair this, the greatest of evils, if to her mental culture and her intellectual gifts she adds that of a soul solidly founded and frankly Christian and religious.

She knows as the immortal and lamented Pontiff Leo XIII, said that we cannot renew Solomon’s judgment on the child by the cruel and unjust separation of the intellect and the will. She knows that while she cultivates her mind, she is bound to direct her will at acquiring virtue to obtain the last end. She knows that those who have not received in their early years the impressions of Religion, grow up without having even the slightest idea of those high truths which alone can awaken in them the love of virtue and the control of the passions. She then makes her sweet influence felt in the school, aided by the grace of the Holy Ghost, and silently mould those young hearts which, soft as wax, are ready to receive impressions. Here you perceive the great responsibility of those who neglect their duty, for it is difficult to eradicate these early impressions.

This is the fruit which you are called upon to bring forth in the Church, with this difference, however, that whilst a simple teacher has only to instruct her class of children, you have the responsibility of educating the future teachers, and consequently have a wider field wherein to sow your seed, which will thus spread more rapidly and bear more fruit. As such you are associated with the great work of the Christian Apostolate. Thus you enter the ranks of those generous champions who at the command of our great Leader and His Vicar on earth, fight bravely to restore the world to Christ.

How far the world is from Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, is better understood by one who has to travel so to speak, from one end of the world to the other. [Travels of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, pages 239-240]

This letter also contains a brief reflection on the history and nature of womanhood which, given the film's seeming focus on feminism, it seems appropriate to quote. In this reflection, Mother Cabrini begins with her observation of the status of women among the Coeur d’Alenes, an American Indian tribe of eastern Washington State, as follows:

The Indian woman, as in all those nations which have not received the light of faith, has to work while the man quietly smokes his pipe. The poor woman and mother of many little ones, who are too small to stand, is forced to tie her offspring round her waist in a sack, and in this unconventional way has to do her washing. If the baby cries, she moves it with a shrug of her shoulders and thus quiets it. This is the way the Indian baby is fondled.

See how grateful we should be to Christianity, which has raised the dignity of woman, re-establishing her rights, unknown to the pagan nations. Until Mary Immaculate, the Woman by excellence, foretold by the prophets, sighed for by the patriarchs, desired by the people. Dawn of the Sun of Justice, had appeared on earth— what was woman?

But Mary appeared, this new Eve, true Mother of the Living, elected by God to be the Co-Redemptrix of the human race, and a new era arose for woman. She is no longer a slave, but equal to man; no longer a servant, but mistress within her domestic walls; no longer the object of disdain and contempt, but raised to the dignity of Mother and Educator, on whose knee generations are built up. [Travels of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, pages 245]

This was the spirituality of Mother Cabrini. Nowhere near the destructive creed of modern feminism, but hewing closely to the ideal of Christian womanhood.

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Belisarius and Procopius celebrate the defeat of the Goths at the Siege of Rome, March of AD 538 ~ An excerpt from Belisarius, Book III: Rome the Eternal

Belisarius and Procopius chat atop the Pincian Gate in Rome. 
Image created using

In March of the year AD 538, the late Roman general, Belisarius, pulled off one of the most incredible feats in military history: he successfully defended the massive city of Rome—with its 12 miles of circuit walls—with a scant 5,000 soldiers, against a vast army of Goths that outnumbered his own some 15 or 20 to 1. Indeed, by the time the Gothic King Vitiges broke up the siege after twelve frustrating months, it had become unclear which side was the besieged and which was the besieger. Unable to prevent the Romans from bringing in supplies or leaving the city in force, Vitiges found himself bogged down with a stubborn fortified city in front of him, and far flung enemy cavalry units ravaging his supply lines behind him, threatening to cut him off from his base in Ravenna.

What did Belisarius do once it became clear that the Goths were abandoning their camps and moving out? Did he allow the reduced but still tremendous force of Goths to go in peace, counting himself blessed and fortunate that the city had withstood the prolonged siege against such heavy odds? 

He did not. 

Instead, he rode out with every available man and attacked the Gothic rear-guard. 

I recorded Procopius's eye-witness account of the end of the siege in a previous post here.

Belisarius, Book III: Rome the Eternal, provides a dramatized description of this action with Belisarius's biscuit-eaters Longinus and Mundilas leading the charge. Mundilas is injured, while Longinus is killed despite amazing acts of valor. This much is recorded in Procopius's History of the Wars. I embellished the action in the novel.

Here is an excerpt from the novel, presenting a scene on the walls of Rome in the immediate aftermath of the Gothic withdrawal. In this scene, Belisarius has an opportunity to speak privately with his secretary, Procopius of Caesarea—the man who would go on to become the most important historian of the Justinianic period.

I had fun writing this scene. I hope you enjoy it!

 End of Chapter XXXI...

Belisarius secured the gatehouse at the Milvian Bridge that he had been forced to cede when the Gothic host first arrived the previous March. With that act, the great siege of Rome came to an end. Belisarius entered the city to cheering throngs, many of whom had ventured out of the gates to watch the battle from the protection of the tree line. The ecstasy of the Romans was tempered only by the arrival of a cart bearing Mundilas and Longinus—the first gravely injured, the second slain. Meeting the bereaved men of Longinus, Belisarius offered his sincere sympathy, weeping along with them without shame.

Later, Belisarius stood alone atop the Pincian Gate, for once gazing into the city, not outward toward the Gothic camps now in ashes. As the celebration continued unabated well into the night, Belisarius insisted that the gates be manned and the guards be sober, lest the Goths sneak into the city via stratagem while its inhabitants were lulled into a drunken slumber. To drive home the point, Belisarius himself kept vigil all night on the walls.

“Has the great wooden horse arrived yet, O Aeneas?” Procopius laughed. He made his way slowly and carefully up the stone steps, his tottering gait threatening to cast him fifty feet down.

“No sign of it,” Belisarius smiled, offering his secretary a strong hand up. “If you would warn me against it, though, be mindful of the fate of Laocöon. How are you at wrestling with snakes?”

“I would fare no better than the ill-fated Trojan priest, I suppose,” Procopius sighed. “I fear serpents above all things. Here, I have brought you a drink—wine mixed with honey, and a good vintage, too.”

“Though I am on duty, I accept. From any hand but yours I might demur, old friend,” Belisarius replied, recalling the recent attempt to drug the gate guards using spiked wine.

The two stood in silence as Belisarius sipped.

“Was it worth it?” Procopius intoned quietly, casting his bleary gaze over a large group of revelers carousing in the plaza below. “Was recovering this city worth the lives of Longinus and Principius and Tarmutus?”

“Don’t forget about Chorsamantis, Bochas and Cutilas,” Belisarius added. Poor Cutilas had lingered a month after suffering his gruesome head wound, only to perish of fever despite the best efforts of Theoctistus. “May Christ have mercy on their souls.” He made the sign of the cross on his forehead.

“Maxentius, Petronius and Valentine, too,” continued Procopius. “And so many other good men.”

“And Constantinus,” Belisarius added gloomily. “His unhealthy lust for plunder killed him as surely as any Gothic spear. But my answer is yes. This is the Eternal City of Rome, the birthplace of the Empire and the rampart of civilization. Had more good men been willing to give their lives to defend it in past ages, it would never have fallen under the sway of the barbarians to begin with.”

“But if too many good men die, who...who...but wicked men and weaklings will remain to defend Rome?” Procopius asked with a tipsy stammer.

“God will raise up others as He raised up this generation. That is why what you are doing is of such great import.”

“My letters to the praetorian prefect about the grain supply are pointless—irrelevant two weeks after they are written,” Procopius lamented.

“Not your letters, friend. Your history.”

Click here for more information.
“That disorganized pile of waste paper?” Procopius replied, the wine loosening his tongue. “Alas, your words earlier today—was it really today? It feels like weeks ago—your words have put a worry into my heart. What will the ending be? Will our astounding run of blessed good fortune continue? Or will some great disaster turn the tale into an awful tragedy? Or worse, will a sequence of little disasters grind us down into abject failure. You know, when my mood turns this way, I have considered destroying all my notes and abandoning the work completely.”

“Am I truly speaking with the same man who said that he was writing a history to be read for a thousand years?” Belisarius replied in amazement. “Has our victory in the siege somehow drained your cask of optimism?”

“Even victories, it seems, come with a cost in noble lives lost that can never be replaced,” Procopius sighed. “Writing about the death of yet another hearty soul like Longinus makes me never want to write again.”

“That is not well at all,” Belisarius chided, turning deadly serious. “You must persevere and continue to write without flinching and without despair, no matter what outcome God has ordained for our campaign. For if those men died in this cause, their deaths will not be in vain if their names are recorded for posterity so that those who read in the far distant future, hundreds or thousands of years from now, may remember and admire their acts.”

“Of course, you are right,” Procopius grimaced, focusing his eyes on a bonfire burning outside the city. “The purpose of history is to give the future examples of valor to imitate and perfidy to despise. And certainly, the acts of Principius and Longinus did just that.”

“So then you will continue?” Belisarius asked, exhaling a vaporous cloud into the chilly night air.

“Yes, I will continue, Magister,” Procopius replied pensively. “Though I will pray hard that my history doesn’t devolve into a dreary chronicle of disasters and obituaries.”

“Indeed,” Belisarius nodded. “I will do my very best to make sure that you are well supplied with noble deeds and heroic victories to record.”

Procopius smiled a little sadly, but remained silent. Would that you had the power to ensure that, O Magister.

If you want to see how things turn out for Belisarius, check out Book III: Rome the Eternal which is available from Arx Publishing here, on here, on Amazon Kindle here, and other bookselling websites.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Is the floor of Hell paved with the skulls of bishops?

The well-used quote: "The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops," may be found in a variety of forms. Perhaps the most colorful version of it is: "The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path."
This saying has been attributed to one of several Fathers of the ancient Church and to Protestant revolutionaries from more recent times. Most often, it is claimed to be from the writings of St. Athanasius or St. John Chrysostom. After a thorough search, I have come to the conclusion that this saying is of more modern provenance, likely originating from a Protestant polemic which made very liberal use of a homily from St. John Chrysostom. 
So to respond to the question posed in the title of this post: Is the literal floor of Hell paved with the literal skulls of bishops? The answer is: No, probably not as such.

That said, I looked up the homily of St. John Chrysostom to which this quote is often attributed, and what I found there is, perhaps, even more daunting than the rhetorically evocative version that most folks are familiar with. The work in question is St. John's Third Homily on the Acts of the Apostles. The passage in question is the following which I am pasting here for future reference:

"I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish: and the reason is, that it is an affair that requires a great mind. Many are the exigencies which throw a man out of his natural temper; and he had need have a thousand eyes on all sides. Do you not see what a number of qualifications the Bishop must have? To be apt to teach, patient, holding fast the faithful word in doctrine [see 1 Timothy 3:2-9; Titus 1:7-9]. What trouble and pains does this require!
And then, others do wrong, and he bears all the blame. To pass over every thing else: if one soul depart unbaptized, does not this subvert all his own prospect of salvation? The loss of one soul carries with it a penalty which no language can represent. For if the salvation of that soul was of such value, that the Son of God became man, and suffered so much, think how sore a punishment must the losing of it bring! And if in this present life he who is cause of another's destruction is worthy of death, much more in the next world. Do not tell me, that the presbyter is in fault, or the deacon. The guilt of all these comes perforce upon the head of those who ordained them.
Let me mention another instance. It chances, that a bishop has inherited from his predecessor a set of persons of indifferent character. What measures is it proper to take in respect of bygone transgressions (for here are two precipices) so as not to let the offender go unpunished, and not to cause scandal to the rest? Must one's first step be to cut him off? There is no actual present ground for that. But is it right to let him go unmarked? Yes, say you; for the fault rests with the bishop who ordained him. Well then? Must one refuse to ordain him again, and to raise him to a higher degree of the ministry? That would be to publish it to all men, that he is a person of indifferent character, and so again one would cause scandal in a different way. But is one to promote him to a higher degree? That is much worse.

 If then there were only the responsibility of the office itself for people to run after in the episcopate, none would be so quick to accept it. But as things go, we run after this, just as we do after the dignities of the world. That we may have glory with men, we lose ourselves with God. What profit in such honor? How self-evident its nothingness is! When you covet the episcopal rank, put in the other scale, the account to be rendered after this life. Weigh against it, the happiness of a life free from toil, take into account the different measure of the punishment. I mean, that even if you have sinned, but in your own person merely, you will have no such great punishment, nothing like it: but if you have sinned as bishop, you are lost." 

Read the entire Third Homily of St. John Chrysostom on Acts of the Apostles here.

What more is there to say, really? Except this -- may our bishops understand the gravity of what they do when they preach that which is contrary to traditional Church doctrine and morality.

Friday, January 19, 2024

"Why is the believing Catholic not subject to neurosis?" A question posed to Karl Jung in 1939

Social media grenade-launcher Matt Walsh recently posted the following on his FaceBook page: 

"Many people claim to know for a fact that the practice of psychotherapy has been deeply helpful to humanity. To those people, I ask: If therapy is generally so helpful, and more people than ever are doing it, then why are people less able to deal with hardship and cope with suffering than ever before? Is it because our lives are really so much more difficult?" 

It's a fair question.

It's certainly hard to make the case that our lives are so much more difficult than, say, those of our Great Depression era grandparents or great-grandparents. 

Add to this the fact that despite the ubiquity of mental health services in American society, we are in the midst of an ongoing and worsening mental health crisis, particularly among the young. It's almost as if the expansion of mental health services has in some way contributed to the proliferation of mental illness. 

Thousands of articles like the following have been written over the past half-decade examining the problem and ultimately failing to come up with good answers:

Over 50% Of Liberal, White Women Under 30 Have A Mental Health Issue. Are We Worried Yet?

Depression rates among US adults reach new high: Gallup

Rates of Depression and Anxiety Are Rising in Young People

Many will no doubt blame the mental health crisis on a host of pop-politico-cultural bugbears: sexism, student debt, racism, transphobia, the COVID shutdowns, MAGA-terror, etc. But could the core reason for this epidemic of mental illness be that fewer people than ever before in the West are practicing Catholics who make regular and devout use of the sacraments of the Church? 

Now before you dismiss this possibility out of hand, I'd like to call your attention to a talk by one of the primordial psychoanalysts of the early 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung. 

Jung was the offspring of a Swiss Lutheran pastor. Several of his uncles were also Protestant pastors, and it was expected that Carl himself would find a career in the ministry. Instead, Jung rejected Christianity and entered the nascent world of psychotherapy as it was developing under Sigmund Freud. During his life, Jung had numerous spiritual experiences, nearly all of which a believing Catholic might consider encounters with the demonic.

All this is to say that Carl Jung was no great friend of Catholicism. 

And yet, in a lecture he gave in London in April of 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, Jung was asked to offer insights on why the believing Catholic was not subject to neurosis, or at least not to the same extent as, say, Protestants or Jews. Jung's answer is fascinating:

"You have heard that I said Roman Catholics are less threatened by neurosis than members of other religious confessions. Of course, there are Catholic neurotics just as well as others, but it is a fact that in my forty years of experience I have had no more than six practicing Catholics among my patients. Naturally, I do not count all those who have been Catholics, or who say that they are Catholics but who do not practice; but of practicing Catholics I have had not more than about six. That is also the experience of my colleagues. In Zurich we are surrounded by Catholic cantons; not quite two-thirds of Switzerland is Protestant and the rest is Catholic. And then we have on the frontier Southern Germany, which is Catholic. So we should have a fair number of Catholic patients, but we have not; we have very few....

"...Now, I have spoken of my own experience in this field, but recently statistical researches have been made in America about the very same question, but from another angle. It is a sort of appreciation of the amount of complexes, or complex manifestations, you find in people. You find the least or the smallest number of complex manifestations in practicing Catholics, far more in Protestants, and the most in Jews. This is absolutely independent of my own researches; a colleague of mine in the United States made these researches and that bears out what I have told you. [See more on this below.]

"So there must be something in the Catholic Church which accounts for this peculiar fact. Of course, we think in the first place of confession....The fact is that there are relatively few neurotic Catholics, and yet they are living under the same conditions as we do. They are presumably suffering from the same social conditions and so on, and so one would expect a similar amount of neurosis. There must be something in the cult, in the actual religious practice, which explains that peculiar fact that there are fewer complexes or that these complexes manifest themselves much less in Catholics than in other people. That something besides confession, is really the cult itself. It is the Mass, for instance. The heart of the Mass contains a living mystery, and that is the thing that works. When I say "a living mystery," I mean nothing mysterious;  I mean mystery in that sense which the word has always had—a mysterium tremendum. And the Mass is by no means the only mystery in the Catholic Church."

Of course, by "the Mass", Jung was referring the Traditional Latin Mass as it was known everywhere by Catholics prior to the late 1960s. After a tangent during which Jung elaborates on ancient symbolism as found in Catholic ritual, he returns to confession with this very curious passage:

"When a practicing Catholic comes to me, I say, 'Did you confess this to the father-confessor?' 

Naturally he says, 'No, he does not understand.'

'What in hell, then,' I say, 'did you confess?'

'Oh, lousy little things of no importance'—but the main sins he never talked of.

As I have said, I have had quite a number of these Catholics—six. I was quite proud to have had so many, and I said to them, "Now, you see, what you tell me here, this is really serious. You go now to your father-confessor and you confess, whether he understands or does not understand. That is of no concern. It must be told before God, and if you don't do it, you are out of the Church, and then analysis beings, and then things will get hot, so you are much better off in the lap of the Church."

So you see, I brought these people back into the Church, with the result that the Pope himself gave me a private blessing for having taught certain important Catholics the right way of confessing." [Source: C. G. Jung, The Collected Works, Volume 18: The Symbolic Life, beginning on page 267]

God only knows if what Jung says above regarding the Pope giving him a private blessing is actually true. His account has a pretty thick overlay of hubris, so it is perhaps best to take it with a grain of salt.

But the fact remains that this former Lutheran spiritualist psychoanalyst who occasionally had communication with potentially demonic beings was astounded by the psychological resilience of practicing Catholics. 

I looked up the American study Jung cited and found out that it was part of a 1938 work entitled Explorations in Personality: A Clinical and Experimental Study of Fifty Men of College Age by Henry A. Murray. Murray was another mid-20th century psychological researcher who was no great friend of Catholics. In his conclusion, Murray writes:

The Catholic subjects were conspicuously more solid and secure....There was relatively little anxiety-linked material bubbling up in the minds of the Catholics. Their repressions were firmer and what occurred in their depths could only be inferred indirectly by interpreting their projections. It was as if their faith in an ultimate authority relieved them of the necessity of independently resolving fundamental issues. Their unconscious fears, one might say, were quieted by the hovering presence of the maternal Church. And if they were unable sometimes to live up to the precepts of their religion, they knew that forgiveness was always at hand. A secret, remorseful confession and once more they would be beneficently accepted members of the flock. It might be supposed that the irrational unconscious tendencies of these Catholics were so satisfactorily interpreted by a wise, human and altogether forgiving Church that they never knew what it was to feel themselves alone and forsaken in a maelstrom of incommunicable feelings and ideas. In the rationalized fantasy system of an effective Church there is a place for everything, and the faithful communicants do not have to face—and thus become conscious of and wrestle with—the naked impulses of their own souls. The problem of good and evil is settled and only the problem of moral will remains. Our Catholic subjects were relatively happy, free from neurotic symptoms, blissfully self-deceived, superficial in their psychological discernments, and always competent to clothe raw facts in the rational vestments of their faith."

Were they really "self-deceived"? Or had they adopted a faith that allowed them to see the world as it truly is, understand it, and react to the challenges presented by life in healthy and resilient ways? Given that Murray's later career included abusive experiments on college students, one of whom was apparently so damaged that he went on to achieve infamy as the Unabomber, I'm not particularly concerned about his judgments on self-deception.

Sad to relate, those very aspects of Catholicism which formed such mentally strong men and women in the past—the Mass, the rituals, the sacraments and confession in particular—were all watered down and de-emphasized in the aftermath of the 1960s. The result has been that today's Catholics, practicing or otherwise, seem just as susceptible to mental illness as the rest of society. 

Nevertheless, we can hear echoes of this resilience even today. Anecdotally, some of the most emotionally and psychologically solid people I have ever known may be found among that relatively small remnant of Catholics who steadfastly practice the faith with reverence and devotion. Never have I encountered a group of people who have endured so much personal suffering with such abiding grace. I am continually amazed at how many of these good people are struck with truly gut-wrenching family tragedies. And yet, they are able to endure, heal, and carry on, trusting that Christ will always be with them and that their departed loved ones are even now praying for them before the heavenly throne of God Almighty.

It is not controversial to observe that many of the current-day princes of the Catholic Church have wandered far from the traditional teachings and practices of the Church. Perhaps if these men would pause their awkward shamble after adolescent sexualized mysticism, they might realize that the ancient practice of Catholicism which they largely discarded in the 1960s was among the greatest treasures that God has ever gifted to mankind. 

At the very least, we can posit that the traditional practice of Catholicism is a way to comprehend the triumphs and tragedies of human existence that does not ultimately drive men mad. 

The same can not be said for the neurotic mess that modern Western secular culture has become.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

One should never forget about the Persians ~ The Eternal Peace between the Roman Empire and Persia is broken after 8 years

When Justinian secured the so-called "Eternal Peace" with the Persians in AD 532 after the Battle of Daras, it is likely that he realized that the peace on his eastern frontier would not actually be perpetual. But he probably thought it would last longer that seven or eight years. In any event, the emperor made the most the respite, gathering his substantial forces from the east which had previously been on station to face down the Persian menace, and readying them for a thrust to the West.

His first target was the Vandal Kingdom which had ruled Roman Africa for nearly 100 years. Squatting upon one of the richest provinces of the Empire, the Vandalic realm had been a thorn in the Romans' side. Their acts of piracy were legendary, extending even to the sack of the city of Rome itself in AD 455. The stars aligned for Justinian in AD 533. The Vandal throne was occupied by a usurper named Gelimer who was reputedly unfriendly to the Romans. Justinian furthered this instability by instigating rebellions throughout the Vandal realm, while at the same time, mustering an army under the command of his bold Master of Soldiers, Belisarius, to strike at the seat of the Vandal government in Carthage. Landing safely in Africa (a trick that previous Roman commanders had failed to accomplish) Belisarius was victorious at the Battles of Ad Decimum and Tricamarum and, having captured Gelimer, he returned to Constantinople in triumph.

Within a year of this signal victory, however, Justinian was already planning an even greater campaign. It so happened that the situation in Ostrogothic Italy was also unstable. King Athalaric, grandson of King Theodoric the Great, had perished before his time in AD 534. The rule over the Kingdom of the Goths and Italians had then passed to his mother, Queen Amalasuntha, but as the Gothic nobles could not endure a woman ruling over them, Amalasuntha accepted marriage to her cousin, a weasel of a man named Theodatus, who was then crowned king. Within several weeks of this arrangement being formalized, Amalasuntha was dead, strangled in her bath. With such a weak character on the Ostrogothic throne, Justinian decided to make his move. He assembled two more armies to menace the Goths. The first, under Mundus, was to invade Dalmatia and threaten Gothic Italy from the north. The second, under Belisarius, would land in Sicily and march up the Italian boot from the south. 

Though things did not go as smoothly as during the Africa campaign, Belisarius was able to resist the full power of the Goths at the great Siege of Rome and then chase their retreating host back to Ravenna. While Belisarius laboriously captured Gothic held fortified cities in central Italy, however, the new Gothic king, Vittiges, hit upon a strategy to relieve his beleaguered kingdom. He would send agents east to convince the Persians to end the Eternal Peace. 

For their part, the Persians had a young king who had taken the throne shortly after the Eternal Peace was originally promulgated. This man, King Chosroes I (or King Khosrow I), had now come of age, secured his kingdom, and was itching for a fight with the hated Romans. As Procopius relates, the Gothic ambassadors found willing ears for their suggestions at the Persian court:

When Chosroes heard [their arguments], it seemed to him that Vittigis advised well, and he was still more eager to break off the treaty. For, moved as he was by envy toward the Emperor Justinian, he neglected completely to consider that the words were spoken to him by men who were bitter enemies of Justinian. But because he wished the thing he willingly consented to be persuaded. [Procopius, History of the Wars, Book II, Chapter II]

Encouraged by the Gothic ambassadors, Chosroes unilaterally ended the Eternal Peace in AD 540 and invaded the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.

With the bulk of his forces fighting in Italy and putting down still simmering rebellions in Africa, Justinian was caught with his pants down. Chosroes and his armies burst through the frontier and began demanding ransom from the Roman cities of the east, sacking any that resisted. Meeting hardly any resistance, he besieged the city of Antioch—the fourth largest city of the Empire after Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria—and successfully captured and looted it in June of AD 540, returning to Persia with a long train of Roman captives.

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So the moral of the story is, "Don't forget about the Persians." And perhaps it's not completely fair to accuse Justinian of forgetting about them. If one reads Procopius, it seems clear that as soon as Justinian and his court were made aware of the dangerous Gothic overture to the Persians, he attempted to bring the war in Italy to an immediate conclusion, offering the Goths a remnant of their kingdom in northern Italy in exchange for peace. 

Belisarius thought this offer to be extravagant given the dire situation of the Goths at the time. How he settled things in Italy, the resulting delay, and the unfolding catastrophe in the East forms the climax of my most recent novel, Belisarius, Book III: Rome the Eternal.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Martyrdom of Pope St. Silverius -- Starved to death on the Island of Palmarola in AD 538

Pope St. Silverius is deposed in AD 537. Artwork by Lori Kauffmann.
Throughout the history of the Church, several Popes have been deposed for a variety of reasons. Pope Liberius was deposed and exiled by the Arian emperor, Constantius II in the mid-4th century. Six hundred years later, Pope Gregory VII was deposed by anti-Pope Clement III, the creature of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. 

During the reign of Justinian, Pope Saint Silverius, who I have written about previously on this blog, was not only deposed—he was martyred by the political forces who coveted his ecclesiastical power as head of the Church. In my previous post, I included an excerpt from the Liber Pontificalis that provided some extraordinary details of the event. Given that the Liber was first compiled in the late 6th century, possibly within living memory of the deposition, it is a solid source, and I used the account provided therein as the basis for that pivotal scene in Belisarius Book III: Rome the Eternal.

Most of what we know of Silverius's brief reign comes from the Liber Pontificalis and the writings of Procopius. To the best of my knowledge, the only written work of Silverius that survives is an epitaph that he wrote for his father, Pope Saint Hormisdas. After his deposition, Silverius was exiled to the city of Patara in Asia Minor. According to the account of Liberatus of Carthage in his Breviarium, it soon became clear to the resident bishop, a certain Licinius, that Silverius had been slanderously accused and wrongfully deposed. Licinius took it upon himself to go directly to Constantinople to advise the emperor Justinian of this fact. The bishop's effort had the desired effect because following this meeting, the emperor sent Silverius back to Italy to receive a proper trial.

But Silverius would never get the opportunity to defend himself. Upon his arrival in Italy, the deposed Pope was seized and hustled to the tiny island of Palmarola about 20 miles off the west coast of Italy, roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. 

A craggy islet about a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide, Palmarola is part of the Pontine Archipelago, a grouping of small islands which were used as places of exile during Roman times. One of the other islands in the group—known as Ventotene today and Pandateria in antiquity—once housed the disgraced Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus Caesar. The same island also served as the place of exile for Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Augustus. Saint Flavia Domitilla, granddaughter of the emperor Vespasian, was also exiled there on suspicion of being a Christian.

But Pandateria at least has a harbor and some residents. Tiny Palmarola is uninhabited. It is said that Pope Silverius starved to death after being abandoned there. To this day, a shrine in his honor may be found on Palmarola. 

Here is how I have described the scene in Belisarius: Rome the Eternal. Silverius is a recurring character in the first half of the book, and I have given him a fictional servant named Philo to serve as an interlocutor:

Chapter XXIX

“Something’s wrong,” Philo whispered. “The pilots were supposed to conduct us into the harbor, but instead, they are taking us back out to sea.”

“We are in God’s hands, Philo,” Pope Silverius replied. “His will be done.” The Holy Father had become thinner since his exile in the east. A rough gray beard now covered his previously smooth chin. A raspy cough rattled in his chest, as he pulled his cloak tighter about him to ward off the chilly wind.

“That may be, but nevertheless, I am going to say something,” Philo persisted.

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“Friend, I beg you...” Silverius trailed off. But his servant was already making his way to the stern from whence the ship was conned. Silverius returned to his prayers, gazing out over the choppy sea. January was a terrible time for travel by sea and the sailors dreaded it. To this point, they had credited their unusually safe passage from Asia at this inauspicious time of year to Stella Maris smiling kindly upon their very special passenger. But their attitude had shifted after their arrival outside the harbor at Ostia. A large dromon had intercepted them and four men came across in a skiff, braving the rough seas. All aboard had assumed they were harbor pilots—until the ship’s prow was turned toward the south, back from whence they had come.

Striding with care along the pitching deck with Philo stumbling behind him, a hooded Calligonus approached Silverius with a stony expression. “My apologies but there has been a change of plans. It is too dangerous for you to land at Ostia now. We will therefore conduct you to a place of safety until the perils have passed.”

“Where?” Philo asked. “Neapolis? We seem to be sailing south.”

Silverius said nothing. He recognized Calligonus immediately as one who had been present at his deposition and none too friendly.

“Neapolis is not safe either, I’m afraid,” Calligonus said.

“Safe for whom?” Silverius asked. “Belisarius and his wife? Or for Theodora, perhaps?”

Calligonus gave a sly smile, bowed his head and walked away. 

“What do you mean?” Philo said, clutching Silverius’s sleeve, alarm rising in his voice. “Where are they taking us, Holy Father?”

“God knows,” Silverius replied.

Several hours of sailing brought them to within sight of a small islet with vaulting cliffs of sheer rock, almost white, emerging from a rolling azure sea. Using a combination of sail and oars, the crew maneuvered the ship to a sheltered spot about two bowshots offshore where they dropped anchor.

“May I present your new home,” Calligonus said as he once again approached Silverius and Philo.

“Does this rock even have a name?” an agitated Philo asked.

“It is called Palmarola,” Calligonus replied. “I am told that no one lives there at all, so you will have a new patriarchal see all to yourself with plenty of gulls and lizards to hear your homilies. Now, if you please. I would ask you both to step smartly into the boat. Your basilica awaits.”

“Is there even any fresh water?” Philo cried.

“That’s a fair question,” Calligonus puzzled. “You will have to find out.”

Pope Silverius and his servant climbed down into the heaving boat with friendly hands from the sailors, all of whom seemed to dread what was happening. “Remember us in your prayers, Holy Father,” one of them said softly. “What we do today we are forced to do.”

“Have no concern, my son,” Silverius replied. “Even Saint Peter was led where he did not wish to go.”

“Forgive us!” a few called aloud from the deck.

Silverius made the sign of the cross over the ship as the boat pulled away. “I shall always remember the kind sailors who risked the winter seas for me.”

Moments later, the boat grounded on a beach of brown sand. The three henchmen of Calligonus hurried Silverius and Philo out of the boat, dumped some meager supplies on the beach, and hastened to row back to the ship. Within an hour, the ship had sailed out of sight.

Resigned to his fate, Silverius soon found a small grotto which would at least offer shelter and a place to pray if nothing else. He put the supplies in order and attempted to set up a place of repose for them that was somewhat protected from the chilly wind. Philo, meanwhile, made a circuit of the tiny island which did not take him long.

“Based on what I have seen, we will starve within two weeks,” Philo declared. “Sooner if it doesn’t rain at all.”

“I doubt I will last even that long,” Silverius said, suppressing a cough. Even the light work he had done had exhausted him.

“Perhaps they will drop food and water for us?”

“I don’t think so, my friend,” Silverius smiled a little sadly. “I think Our Lord Jesus has offered us the palm of a bloodless martyrdom. Let us embrace it, come what may.”

Philo sighed, fingering the stiff fronds of a dwarf palm which he had collected during his walk. “A small, pathetic palm to match the stunted trees that clutter this tiny rock.”

Silverius smiled luminously. “There is no such thing as a small martyrdom. Let us fill this island with our prayerful voices so that blessings may flow from it for centuries to come.”

If you enjoyed that passage, you'll probably enjoy the entire book which is available for purchase at the Arx Publishing website. Other excerpts from this book may be found at these links:

Palmarola today. The shrine of St. Silverius is atop the peak at left.