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Those Well-Dressed Corpses in Rome

Those of you who are waiting breathlessly for more small details on the recent catacomb discovery in Rome should visit PhDiva — Dorothy King’s Archaeology Blog. Dr. King translates the most recent coverage from the Italian press. It seems that the piles of well-dressed corpses died in an epidemic rather than a persecution, as was first hypothesized. Dr. King says that the newly found corridors are filled with graffiti, which will be published in time. That’s very cool. We have lots to look forward to.

PhDiva also puts us onto Constantine the Great, described as “a major international exhibition” at the Yorkshire Museum in England, running till October 29. The museum’s site gives details.

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The Martyr’s Cup

Today’s the feast of the first Roman Martyrs. Theirs is a story you just have to hear. But first we have to backtrack a little bit.

In July of A.D. 64, during the tenth year of Nero’s reign, a great fire consumed much of the city of Rome. The fire raged out of control for seven days — and then it started again, mysteriously, a day later. Many in Rome knew that Nero had been eager to do some urban redevelopment. He had a plan that included an opulent golden palace for himself. The problem was that so many buildings were standing in his way — many of them teeming wooden tenements housing Rome’s poor and working class.

The fire seemed too convenient for Nero’s purposes — and his delight in watching the blaze didn’t relieve anybody’s suspicions. If he didn’t exactly fiddle while Rome burned, he at least recited his poems. Nero needed a scapegoat, and an upstart religious cult, Jewish in origin and with foreign associations, served his purposes well. Nero, who was a perverse expert at human torment, had some of its members tortured till they were so mad they would confess to any crime. Once they had confessed, he had others arrested.

He must have known, however, that the charges would not hold up. So he condemned them not for arson, or treason, or conspiracy, but for “hatred of humanity.”

To amuse the people, he arranged for their execution to be a spectacle, entertainment on a grand scale. The Roman historian Tacitus (who had contempt for the religion, but greater contempt for Nero) describes in gruesome detail the tortures that took place amid a party in Nero’s gardens.

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open the gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in a chariot. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being punished.

That is all we know about the first Roman martyrs. We know none of their names. Tacitus doesn’t tell us why they were willing to die this way rather than renounce their faith. Yet this should be an important question for us to consider. Why did the martyrs do this? What prepared them to face death so bravely? To what exactly did they bear witness with their death?

The answers to these questions (and many more) can be found in the rest of the article, at the archive of Touchstone Magazine, where the article appeared last March. If you’re not already subscribing to Touchstone, please do! Touchstone is one of the few magazines that treat the Fathers as news.

The article originated in a talk I gave in Rome last year on the feast of the Roman Martyrs. It’s called “The Roman Martyrs and Their Mass.” You can get the talk on MP3 right here. It’s free, of course.

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From the Folks Who Brought You Judas…

Now the National Geographic Channel brings you … The Apocalypse. Says their press release: “For nearly 2,000 years, the Book of Revelation has haunted mankind. On Sunday, July 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, the National Geographic Channel (NGC) premieres Secrets of Revelation, a one-hour special that explores the mysteries behind this ancient and provocative text.”

It’s a pity I have to trim the hedges that night.

I hope you’ll spend your idle moments with Kevin Edgecomb’s translation of the world’s oldest commentary on Revelation instead, St. Victorinus’s third-century In Apocalypsin. Kevin already has the first six chapters ready for your reading.

Hat tip on National Geographic: David Mills of Mere Comments.

UPDATE on Kevin’s progress: Make that eight chapters of Victorinus, and Kevin plans to have the thing finished this weekend.

AMENDED UPDATE on Kevin’s progress: Uh, I mean next weekend.

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Dynamic Duo of the First Century

I love the feast of Saints Peter and Paul for many reasons — not least because it’s the ordination day of my good friend and sometime co-author, Father Kris Stubna. With Father Kris I wrote two small Q&A catechisms that have sold well and, I hope, served well. They’re What Catholics Believe and The Pocket Catechism for Kids. We have a third book under consideration with a publisher right now, and we wouldn’t mind at all if you prayed for its happy landing.

But I love the feast day mostly because I love Saints Peter and Paul. One of the great joys in my life is my job as vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology — so there’s my Pauline connection. As for Peter: well, I take comfort in his life story, because even the most reverential of his ancient biographers portray him doing bonehead things and then repenting, and then repeating step one. This pattern is quite familiar to me. Just ask my wife for details.

Peter and Paul — two Jewish boys from the Levant — are undeniably Roman saints. The Bible tracks their steps on the way to Rome. And the early Church was lock-step consistent in assigning the locus of their martyrdom to the imperial city. Writing around 69 A.D., St. Clement of Rome used a curious and seemingly primitive phrase when he spoke not of “the twelve apostles,” but of “the two apostles.” Peter and Paul were Rome’s apostles, and so they were Clement’s.

Clement wrote his letter from the city of Peter to correct a church of Paul, the rowdy congregation in Corinth, to whom the Apostle to the Gentiles had written two (canonical) letters. The great patristic scholar Msgr. Thomas Herron (who died in 2004) once concluded from Clement’s letter that the papacy has not only a “Petrine trajectory,” which is often noted, but also a “Pauline trajectory,” which has been neglected. He called on future scholars to discern what that Pauline trajectory has meant historically, and what it might mean theologically.

Lots of Fathers follow Clement’s lead and talk up Rome’s “two apostles” — most notably Irenaeus, whose day we celebrated yesterday. And there’s no shortage of ancient graffiti attesting to the abiding presence and power of both apostles, in their legacy, in their bones, and in their spirit.

But the real cool guy for this feast day is Pope St. Leo the Great, who preached the model homily on the first century’s dynamic duo. He calls them the new founders of Rome. As Romulus and Remus had established the old Rome, pagan Rome, so Peter and Paul now received honor as founders of the new Rome, Christian Rome, an eternal city, as it were. If you have five minutes to spare today, please read St. Leo’s Sermon 82, “On the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul.” If you’ve got more time, here’s more to read on this very Roman day (and in the months of its afterglow):

* Kevin Edgecomb’s fresh new translation of 1 Clement.

* From The Way of the Fathers archive: Footsteps of the Fathers.

* And the big one: Father Luke Rivington’s 500-page study of The Primitive Church and the See of Peter (from 1894). Right now it’s posted entirely in PDF and partially in HTML.

In Rome there’s no work today — that is, even more “no work” than usual! In America and elsewhere, it’s best to celebrate the feast with chocolate.

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Advent in Summer

Now everybody’s favorite online library of the Fathers, New Advent, has a blog on its front page. New Advent’s proprietor, Kevin Knight, was the great pioneer of Catholic presence on the Web, and he’s continued to be visionary in his use of the technology. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Kevin and corresponding with him, and I know him to be a noble soul who lives up to his last name. If you follow my links, you already visit New Advent often. But spend some time today browsing the blog as well.

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Rod’s Got the Goods on the Gods

Rod Bennett has just completed a fascinating five-part series titled “The New Gods.” He argues that modern “pagan” mythology is embedded in science fiction and fantasy films, and that we can and should imitate St. Justin Martyr in engaging the devotees of today’s strange gods. Here’s the first post. But read all five.

Want to know more about St. Justin Martyr? My son (and webmaster) just posted the audio of my KVSS interview broadcast on St. Justin’s feast day.

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Irenaeus: Still Caustic to the Modern Gnostic

St. Irenaeus is a giant. Pay no mind to the modern academics who portray him as a meanie nun out to rap gnostic knuckles with a crozier-sized ruler. St. Irenaeus was a scholar’s scholar, a biblical theologian of the first rank. He was a global diplomat who actually succeeded at making peace. And he was a holy, plain-speaking, and truth-telling bishop. If today’s gnostic resurgents don’t like him, it’s because, after eighteen centuries and more, his critique is still right as rain and still raining all over the gnostic parade.

Irenaeus deserves a posthumous Purple Heart for having read all the available gnostic writings in their entirety. I have six children, but I cannot imagine that kind of patience. And most of the time he was able to address the gnostic arguments (I use the term loosely) in an even tone. Sometimes they raised his ire. Once their cosmology got so flaky that it inspired the saint to compose a parody. There are times when only satire will do.

St. Irenaeus is an important link in tradition’s golden chain. He probably composed his works when he was very old, in the late 100s in the land we now know as France. When he was a young man, though, he lived in Asia Minor, where he studied under the holy bishop Polycarp, who had himself converted to Christianity under St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus treasured the stories of John that he had learned from his master. His few, small anecdotes are a precious witness to the life of the apostle.

And all of Irenaeus’s life gave witness to the teaching of the apostles. The man was steeped in Scripture, steeped in liturgy, in love with the Church and all of its glorious structures of authority. In Irenaeus’s voluminous writings we find it all: the Mass, the papacy, the office of bishop, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the condemnation of heresy. One of my favorite lines from his work is this, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” This is the most primitive form of the axiom that later Fathers would state as “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The law of prayer is the law of belief. The liturgy is the place where living tradition truly lives.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the biographical information we have about Irenaeus is shaky. But there are a few things we know for sure. He was born in or near Proconsular Asia in the first half of the second century. He sat at the feet of the holy Bishop Polycarp (d. 155) at Smyrna. During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, Irenaeus was a priest of the Church of Lyons. The clergy of that city, many of whom were suffering imprisonment for the faith, sent him (177 or 178) to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleutherius concerning the Montanist heresy, and on that occasion bore emphatic testimony to his merits. Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr St. Pothinus as Bishop of Lyons. During the religious peace which followed the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the new bishop divided his activities between the duties of a pastor and of a missionary and his writings, almost all of which were directed against gnosticism, the heresy then spreading in Gaul and elsewhere. In 190 or 191 he interceded with Pope Victor to lift the sentence of excommunication laid by that pontiff upon the Christian communities of Asia Minor that celebrated Easter on a day different from the rest of the Church’s feast. Nothing is known of the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. Tradition holds that he died as a martyr, so the priests wear red vestments today.

Irenaeus wrote many works. None of these writings has come down to us in the original text, though a great many fragments of them survive as citations in later writers (Hippolytus, Eusebius, etc.). Two works, however, have reached us in their entirety: The first and most important is a treatise in five books commonly titled “Adversus Haereses,” devoted to the “Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge.” A second work is the “Proof of the Apostolic Preaching.” The author’s aim here is not to refute heretics, but to confirm the faithful by expounding the Christian doctrine to them, and notably by demonstrating the truth of the Gospel by means of the Old Testament prophecies. It is a magnificent testimony to the deep and lively faith of Irenaeus.

Father Paul Mankowski, S.J., has — in the spirit of Irenaeus — taken on the task of challenging and refuting the saint’s modern detractors. Read his brief essay on the subject.

KVSS Radio interviewed me to celebrate this great day. I’ve posted the audio file on my Talks page. KVSS has also posted our conversation on its own special Mike Aquilina page. Bless their hearts.

You should get to know KVSS and my regular interviewers, morning hosts Bruce and Kris McGregor. No one is doing more to promote the Fathers via radio. You can help the KVSS apostolate by donating here.

There are complete (if dated) English translations of Irenaeus available online: Adversus Haereses and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching.

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Ancient Manuscripts Found

Here’s good news on the feast of a great Egyptian saint.

Egyptology Blog alerts us to the recent discovery of a cache of seventh- or eighth-century Coptic manuscripts in Egypt. Since these texts didn’t rehabilitate traitors — or portray the Messiah as an itinerant organ grinder who was married to the Venus de Milo — they were ignored by the media. Instead of novelties, these books just repeated, like most ancient Christian manuscripts, the same old (sigh) orthodoxy.

Those of you who are interested in such things may read on.

A team of Polish researchers found the leather-bound papyrus books in the trash heap of an ancient monastery in the village of Gourna near Luxor. The manuscripts contain the oldest known complete Coptic translation of the biblical Book of Isaiah. Other texts in the collection are the “Code of Pseudo-Basili,” a collection of rules governing Church discipline; a life of St. Pistentios the bishop; and the apocryphal “Passion of St. Peter.”

The archeological team has posted a news release in English.

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Cyril the Virile

Today’s saint, Cyril of Alexandria, is both a Father and a Doctor of the Church. The titles are a grace, of course, but he worked hard to correspond to them.

He was the nephew of his predecessor as Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. He likely spent his youth in a monastery before his uncle drafted him as an assistant and secretary. In 402 he accompanied Theophilus to the notorious Synod of the Oak that deposed St. John Chrysostom, sending the saint to his exile and death. Theophilus was among John’s accusers and persecutors, and it seems likely that Cyril, alas, shared his opinions (though he would, later in life, show signs of a change of heart).

Theophilus died in 412, and Cyril succeeded him, but only after a riot between his supporters and those of his rival. From the start, it seems, Cyril treated heretics and schismatics rather severely, and this won him the enduring opposition of “Can’t we all just get along” Christians, from his day down to our own. Those who despise him have tried to blame him for the lynching of the pagan philosopher Hypatia by an Alexandrian mob. Cyril also had the ill fortune to live in a time when relations between Christians and Jews in Egypt had escalated to open street violence. The Christians received little support from the governor, so Cyril assembled a rough and undisciplined guard of his own, with some truly awful results.

No one disputes that Cyril was an irascible character and something of a political operator. (I recall that even Cardinal Newman was scandalized by Cyril’s severity.) But he’s certainly not the villain that his ancient and modern detractors make him out to be. He was, like Jerome, one of the odd uncles among the Church Fathers. It is impossible to imagine Church history without them, but that doesn’t mean they were (or are) easy to live with.

Cyril was a man of crystalline intellect and tremendous courage, speaking up for the truth, no matter the cost. He was unwilling to compromise doctrine, even if it placed him in opposition to the Christian emperor. And Cyril was always willing to suffer the consequences: he was imprisoned for defending the true doctrine of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Cyril was, moreover, one of the most brilliant dogmatic theologians ever to walk God’s earth.

He is best known for opposing the teaching of the Nestorius, a monk from Antioch who became Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius opposed the use of the term Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) to describe Mary. He preferred Christotokos, or Christ-bearer, arguing that Mary could not be God’s mother, as she was not His origin; she was rather, he argued, the mother of Jesus’ human nature. Cyril argued, to the contrary, that a mother does not give birth to a nature, but to a person. To deny the title to Mary, then, was to divide Jesus Christ into two subjects, two persons, two “I’s.”

Matters came to a head at the Council of Ephesus in 431, where Cyril’s arguments won the day. Despite the oppressive summer heat — which killed off several of the bishops at council — an enormous crowd of ordinary Christians had assembled at Ephesus. And when, at night, they heard the news of the bishops’ decision, they let out a raucous shout, and they carried the council fathers through the streets of the city in a torchlight procession, singing Marian hymns with great gusto.

Still, once the bishops got back home, many were reluctant to enforce the decrees of the Council. Nestorius tried to summon counter-councils. And Cyril was even, for a brief time, deposed from the patriarchate. Once the dust settled on the controversies, he resumed his voluminous correspondence and Scripture commentary. He died, probably on the 27th of June, 444, after an episcopate of nearly thirty-two years.

An excellent recent biography of Cyril is J.A. McGuckin’s Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, which I reviewed recently for Touchstone magazine.

In the archives of this blog, you’ll find more on Cyril here and here.

Roger Pearse of The Tertullian Project has posted an excellent article on the state of Cyril’s works in English translation, and especially those on the Web. Roger has himself posted some wonderful rarities (scroll down the page till you find Cyril of Alexandria). God bless Roger for the website he’s labored to give us. May St. Cyril intercede for him (and us) today!

UPDATE: Jeff Ziegler of the Ziegler A-List points us to other online resources, such as Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter on St. Cyril of Alexandria (Orientalis Ecclesiae, 1944).

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Zee Grail! Zee Grail!

Father Z is, with reverence, examining one of the contenders for the title of Holy Grail. He tracks it through the era of the Fathers, right down to our own day. The post comes complete with photos of Pope John Paul II kissing the chalice, and Pope Benedict pondering his upcoming pilgrimage to its home. (Yes, I can read his mind, but only this once.) Visit Father Z today!

And, if you’re a true Grail-seeker, I hope you’re familiar with my blog’s sibling site, The Grail Code, which is manned by His Honor and Eminence, Christopher John Bailey. Chris is an old friend and co-author of my latest book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence. The book is available in Canadian French as Graal Code: Enquête sur le mystère du Graal. Today Chris and I got word that the book will soon be published in German, from Gütersloher Velaghaus. Quest on!

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Ding Dong, the Emperor’s Dead

On this day in 363, the Emperor Julian — known to Christians as “Julian the Apostate” — died in battle, having failed utterly in trying to re-establish paganism in the Roman Empire. Once the classmate of St. Gregory Nazianzen, Julian was one of Christianity’s three most articulate opponents in antiquity. Readers of this blog know him well from a post last month.

Julian was creepy, of course, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the guy. Christian historians too often downplay the scandal of his early childhood, when Julian saw his father, his siblings, and other family members butchered by the ostentatiously Christian emperor, who was also Julian’s kinsman. I don’t mean to play therapist, but that sort of thing can leave one with a bad — perhaps invincibly bad — attitude about Christianity.

So I’m actually ambivalent about celebrating this one with chocolate — though I’ll likely mark the day’s main memorial (see below) with abundant confection. Maybe it’s better to pray, in hope, for deliverance of the emperor’s soul. Devout optimists may find reasons for such hope in Julian’s last recorded words.

Hat tip on the anniversary: Rogue Classicism, the keeper of the ancient calendars.

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The Fathers at Work

Today, June 26, is the memorial of St. Josemaria Escriva, the 20th-century priest who founded Opus Dei, a path to holiness through ordinary work, family life, friendship, and such — the stuff of everyday life. His is a decidedly modern spirit, but he conceived it as a retrieval of the way of the “early Christians” (his preferred term). Opus Dei was, he said, “as old as the Gospel and, like the Gospel, ever new.” He often cited the authority of the Church Fathers. A quick scan of his books online at EscrivaWorks yields many passages from Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, Ambrose, Justin Martyr, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Jerome, lots and lots from John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great, and dozens from Augustine.

These early Christians were not mere ornaments on his pet project. His vocation was itself a return to the sources — the pre-Nicene sources of the life and labor of ordinary, faithful Christians. The journalist John L. Allen, in his book-length study of Opus Dei, described just how radical St. Josemaria’s vision was: “The idea of priests and laity, men and women, all part of one organic whole, sharing the same vocation and carrying out the same apostolic tasks, has not been part of the Catholic tradition, at least since the early centuries.”

Back in the 1990s (before St. Josemaria’s canonization), the theologian Domingo Ramos-Lissón wrote an excellent study of the man’s patristic influences. It’s titled “The Example of the Early Christians in Blessed Josemaria’s Teachings,” and it’s available free online at the website of the magazine Romana.

Scott Hahn has written what I consider the finest appreciation of St. Josemaria’s reliance on the Fathers. It’s in his soon-to-be-released book, Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace: My Spiritual Journey in Opus Dei. The whole book is great. You really should own it!

In your kindness, please pray for Father Rene Schatteman, a priest of Opus Dei and a dear friend of mine, as he undergoes surgery today. He injured both knees at the end of Mass on Saturday. It was an unfamiliar church, and there were two more steps down from the altar than Father Rene had anticipated.

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Underground Movement

I suspect some of you have, like this blogger, been waiting to hear more on the recently discovered catacombs in Rome. Well, a few more details are now available at The Scotsman. The Scotsman’s post includes a lively debate, in the comments field, on whether Christianity had even spread to Rome by the end of the first century, which soon becomes a debate on the nature of Christianity. Hope you’ll weigh in on the side of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Hat tip: Those rogues at Rogue Classicism.