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JP2 on Patristics and Preaching

Here’s John Paul the Great on how the Fathers can reinvigorate today’s homilies.

“It has been written with good reason that in the history of the Church all true renewal has been linked to a re-reading of the Church Fathers. And what is true in general is true of the liturgy in particular. The Fathers were pastors with a burning zeal for the task of spreading the Gospel; and therefore they were profoundly interested in all the dimensions of worship, leaving us some of the most significant and enduring texts of the Christian tradition, which are anything but the result of a barren aestheticism. The Fathers were ardent preachers, and it is hard to imagine that there can be an effective renewal of Catholic preaching, as the Council wished, without sufficient familiarity with the Patristic tradition.

The Council promoted a move to a homiletic mode of preaching which would, like the Fathers, expound the biblical text in a way which opens its inexhaustible riches to the faithful. The importance that preaching has assumed in Catholic worship since the Council means that priests and deacons should be trained to make good use of the Bible. But this also involves familiarity with the whole Patristic, theological and moral tradition, as well as a penetrating knowledge of their communities and of society in general. Otherwise the impression is given of a teaching without roots and without the universal application inherent in the Gospel message.”

That’s his discourse to the Bishops of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska during their Ad Limina Visit October 9, 1998. Sales of Athanasius were never so brisk in Fairbanks and Helena as they were between Halloween and Christmas that year.

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Butler Did It

Rick of Ricoblog — an outstanding site for discussion of the Apostolic Fathers — informs us that Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints is now available on the Web. Butler was an eighteenth-century English Roman Catholic priest. The text on the Web, though, comes from the 1894 Benziger edition, which was heavily edited and modernized by John Gilmary Shea, who also added reflections for our edification.

Sample a saint or two from the patristic era…

June 28.—ST. IRENÆUS, Bishop, Martyr.

THIS Saint was born about the year 120. He was a Grecian, probably a native of Lesser Asia. His parents, who were Christians, placed him under the care of the great St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. It was in so holy a school that he learned that sacred science which rendered him afterward a great ornament of the Church and the terror of her enemies. St. Polycarp cultivated his rising genius, and formed his mind to piety by precepts and example; and the zealous scholar was careful to reap all the advantages which were offered him by the happiness of such a master. Such was his veneration for his tutor’s sanctity that he observed every action and whatever be saw in that holy man, the better to copy his example and learn his spirit. He listened to his instructions with an insatiable ardor, and so deeply did he engrave them on his heart that the impressions remained most lively even to his old age. In order to confute the heresies of his age, this father made himself acquainted with the most absurd conceits of their philosophers, by which means he was qualified to trace up every error to its sources and set it in its full light. St. Polycarp sent St. Irenæus into Gaul, in company with some priest; he was himself ordained priest of the Church of Lyons by St. Pothinus. St. Pothinus having glorified God by his happy death, in the year 177, our Saint was chosen the second Bishop of Lyons. By his preaching, he in a short time converted almost that whole country to the Faith. He wrote several works against heresy, and at last, with many others, suffered martyrdom about the year 202, under the Emperor Severus, at Lyons.

Reflection.—Fathers and mothers, and heads of families, spiritual and temporal, should bear in mind that inferiors “will not be corrected by words” alone, but that example is likewise needful.

And another:

May 2.—ST. ATHANASIUS, Bishop.

ATHANASIUS was born in Egypt towards the end of the third century, and was from his youth pious, learned, and deeply versed in the sacred writings, as befitted one whom God had chosen to be the champion and defender of His Church against the Arian heresy. Though only a deacon he was chosen by his bishop to go with him to the Council of Nicæa, in 325, and attracted the attention of all by the learning and ability with which he defended the faith. A few months later, he became Patriarch of Alexandria, and for forty-six years he bore, often well-nigh alone, the whole brunt of the Arian assault. On the refusal of the Saint to restore Arius to Catholic communion, the emperor ordered the Patriarch of Constantinople to do so. The wretched heresiarch took an oath that he had always believed as the Church believes; and the patriarch, after vainly using every effort to move the emperor, had recourse to fasting and prayer, that God Would avert from the Church the frightful sacrilege. The day came for the solemn entrance of Arius into the great church of Sancta Sophia. The heresiarch and his party set out glad and in triumph. But before he reached the church, death smote him swiftly and awfully, and the dreaded sacrilege was averted. St. Athanasius stood unmoved against four Roman emperors; was banished five times; was the butt of every insult, calumny, and wrong the Arians could devise, and lived in constant peril of death. Though firm as adamant in defence of the Faith, he was meek and humble, pleasant and winning in converse, beloved by his flock, unwearied in labors, in prayer, in mortifications, and in zeal for souls. In the year 373 his stormy life closed in peace, rather that his people would have it so than that his enemies were weary of persecuting him. He left to the Church the whole and ancient Faith, defended and explained in writings rich in thought and learning, clear, keen, and stately in expression. He is honored as one of the greatest of the Doctors of the Church.

Reflection.—The Catholic Faith, says St. Augustine, is more precious far than all the riches and treasures of earth; more glorious and greater than all its honors, all its possessions. This it is which saves sinners, gives light to the blind, restores penitents, perfects the just, and is the crown of martyrs.

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Yep, They Say, It’s Paul

An update on the discovery of the sarcophagus in St. Paul’s tomb. The archeologists seem to have learned many lessons from the stumbling and fumbling that took place with the discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, of St. Peter’s bones.

Archaeologists Confident They’ve Unearthed St. Paul
By Daniela Petroff, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — A white marble sarcophagus believed to be the final resting place of St. Paul has been unearthed from beneath the altar of Rome’s second-largest basilica after centuries hidden from view, but those curious about its contents will have to wait still longer.

Vatican experts, announcing Monday that the coffin had been unearthed, said they hoped to be able to examine it more closely and maybe even look inside.

But Giorgio Filippi, a Vatican archaeologist, said researchers’ first concern was to free it from centuries of plaster and debris in the hope of finding other clues on the sarcophagus itself.

“Right now we can treat it as a symbol, regardless of its contents,” Filippi said.

According to tradition, St. Paul, also known as the apostle of the Gentiles, was beheaded in Rome in the 1st century during the persecution of early Christians by Roman emperors. Popular belief holds that bone fragments from his head are in another Rome basilica, St. John Lateran, with his other remains inside the sarcophagus.

The 8-foot-long coffin, which dates from at least A.D. 390 and was buried under the main altar of St.

Paul’s Outside the Walls Basilica, has been the subject of an extended excavation that began in 2002 and ended last month.

“These excavations give us the full certainty and knowledge that the sarcophagus is St. Paul’s tomb, whether it contains his remains or not,” said Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, head of the basilica.

The cardinal said X-rays were unlikely to penetrate the thick marble, making it necessary to open the tomb to find out what is inside. “It has never been opened or explored,” he said.

Filippi said the decision to unearth the sarcophagus was made after pilgrims who came to Rome during the Roman Catholic Church’s 2000 Jubilee year expressed disappointment at finding that the saint’s tomb — buried under layers of plaster and further hidden by an iron grate — could not be visited or touched.

The top of the coffin has small openings — subsequently covered with mortar — because in ancient times Christians would insert offerings or try to touch the remains.

Work in the small area under the altar, to clear the debris and insert a transparent glass floor for better viewing, unearthed new evidence of the authenticity of the sarcophagus, said Filippi, who headed the project.

“Our purpose was not to find out what was inside, but to confirm that it was the original sarcophagus,” Filippi said.

The basilica stands at the site of two 4th-century churches — including one destroyed by a fire in 1823 that had left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt. After the fire, the crypt was filled with earth and covered by a new altar. A slab of cracked marble with the words “Paul apostle martyr” in Latin was also found embedded in the floor above the tomb.

“We were always certain that the tomb had to be there, beneath the papal altar,” Filippi said.

Paul, along with Peter, are the two main figures known for spreading the Christian faith after the death of Christ.

St. Paul’s is the very site where our May 2007 pilgrimage begins. Please consider joining us!

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A Modest Disposal

St. Modest (or Modestus) of Jerusalem (seventh century) wrote an encomium on the dormition of the Blessed Virgin, which is important for the history of dogma. His relics have just been transferred to an Orthodox seminary in Sofia, Bulgaria, amid much ceremony.

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Why We Read the Fathers

Reason number 5,641 — this one from Herbert Butterfield’s remarkable little book Christianity and History, which I consumed while traveling last week:

Indeed after a period of fifteen hundred years or so we can just about begin to say that at last no man is now a Christian because of government compulsion, or because it is the way to procure favour at court, or because it is necessary in order to qualify for public office, or because public opinion demands conformity, or because he would lose customers if he did not go to church, or even because habit and intellectual indolence keep the mind in the appointed groove. This fact makes the present day the most important and the most exhilarating period in the history of Christianity for fifteen hundred years. … We are back for the first time in something like the earliest centuries of Christianity, and those early centuries afford some relevant clues to the kind of attitude to adopt.

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A Coptic Renaissance

Egypt’s Al Ahram reports on a revival of Coptic monasticism — and the resulting benefits for patristic studies.

The Coptic monastery known as Deir Al-Surian, or the Monastery of the Syrians, contains more than 3,000 books as well as a vast number of texts in Syriac, Aramaic (the language of Christ), Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic. They date upwards from the fifth century and today, as a result of the revival in Coptic monasticism in recent years, a new generation of educated monks are anxious to safeguard this heritage. Both Syrian and Coptic monks are engaged in their conservation, as well as restoration of the monastery itself…

Read on.

UPDATE: Amy has more news on Copts, these ones Catholic.