Posted on

Why Consult the Fathers?

Reason number 52,464 is brought to you by Sir Thomas More, who’s counseling King Henry VIII (future supreme head of the Church of England) to seek advice from men other than the guys on his payroll:

He said, “To be plain with your Grace, neither my Lord of Durham, nor my Lord of Bath, though I know them both to be wise, virtuous, and learned, and honourable prelates, nor myself with the rest of your Council, being all your Grace’s own servants, for your manifold benefits daily bestowed on us, so most bounden unto you, be in my judgment meet counsellors for your Grace herein; but if your Grace minds to understand the truth, such counsellors may you have devised, as neither for respect of their own worldly commodity, nor for fear of your princely authority, will be inclined to deceive you.”

To whom he named St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and divers other holy doctors, both Greeks and Latins: and moreover showed him what authority he had gathered out of them, which although the King did not very well like of (as disagreeable to his Grace’s desire), yet were they by Sir Thomas More (who in all his communication with the King in that matter had always most wisely behaved himself) so wisely tempered, that he both presently took them in good part, and oftentimes had thereof conference with him again.

— From The Life of Sir Thomas More by his son-in-law William Roper.

Hat tip: The Illustrious Rob Corzine.

Posted on

Agnes Day

Today’s saint, Agnes of Rome, is long overdue for a revival. Why? She was probably the most revered female martyr of the early Church — outstanding in a field that included Blandina and Perpetua, among others. St. Jerome was not a man easily impressed, but of today’s saint, his near-contemporary, he wrote: “Every people, whatever their tongue, praise the name of Saint Agnes.” Prudentius wrote a long poem and a hymn in her honor. Ambrose extolled her as the model virgin. Augustine praised her. Damasus memorialized her in verse. Her name means lamb, and in art she often appears holding a lamb.

At least one modern historian holds that her martyrdom was the tipping point in the long term of Diocletian’s persecution. It was with the brutal, legal murder of this young girl that the tide of opinion began to turn among Rome’s pagans. With this act they realized they had become something they didn’t want to be; and that moment’s repugnance may have been the beginning of their healing.

Agnes was twelve or thirteen when she was denounced as a Christian. A beautiful girl from a noble family, she had reached the age when she could be married. She turned away her suitors, however, explaining that she had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ. It was likely one of her jilted suitors who turned her in.

Agnes knew that her martyrdom was likely. She faced the judge fearlessly, even when he brought out the instruments of torture that could be applied to her. She was unmoved. Knowing how much the girl prized her virginity, the judge condemned her to work in a brothel. She was stripped of her clothing, but even the debauched Romans couldn’t bear to look upon her. One man who did was struck blind, only to be healed by Agnes’s prayer. Agnes let down her long, blond hair to cover herself. (Some accounts say that her hair miraculously grew to veil her body.)

Having failed at another punishment, the judge turned her over to the executioner. Ambrose wrote: “At such a tender age a young girl has scarcely enough courage to bear the angry looks of her father and a tiny puncture from a needle makes her cry as if it were a wound. And still this little girl had enough courage to face the sword. She was fearless in the bloody hands of the executioner. She prayed, she bowed her head. Behold in one victim the twofold martyrdom of chastity and faith.”

She died around 304 A.D., and immediately the world knew her story. The emperor Constantine’s daughter invoked St. Agnes to cure her of leprosy; and when she was cured, she had a basilica built at Agnes’s tomb. Another church in her honor stands in Rome’s lovely Piazza Navona. There, on our May pilgrimage to Rome, we’ll visit the saint’s relics, which are exposed for veneration. Please consider joining us.

I visited St. Agnes’s relics in 2002 with my daughter Mary Agnes, who has already outlived her little namesake. May she equal her, at least, in virtue.

I had the great pleasure of talking with Bruce and Kris at KVSS Radio about St. Agnes, and you can listen in via MP3. (Kris, by the way, will be with us in Rome, along with a sizable contingent from Nebraska. Very cool.)

Posted on

Me and My Arrows

St. Sebastian, a Roman military officer of the third century, is the patron saint of writers a very popular subject of Christian art. No one knows why he’s the patron of writers, but the novelist Anthony Burgess (a Catholic of sorts) suggested it was because he was bound to a pillar and pierced by arrows from all sides — and that’s symbolic of the author’s ordinary reward for publishing something. Burgess himself rejected Sebastian as his patron and took Pontius Pilate instead (there are legends of Pilate’s eventual conversion). Pilate, after all, had said, “What I have written, I have written” (Jn 19:22), and that was more representative of Burgess’s attitude.

I give so much space to goofy speculation because we know little about Sebastian, other than the fact of his martyrdom. In the later fourth century, Ambrose said he was from Milan.

He shares his feast day with Pope St. Fabian I. Now there’s a man with a story. Here it is, adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

After the death of Pope Anterus he had come to Rome, with some others, from his farm and was in the city when the new election began. While the names of several illustrious and noble persons were being considered, a dove suddenly descended upon the head of Fabian, of whom no one had even thought. To the assembled brethren the sight recalled the Gospel scene of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Savior of mankind, and so, divinely inspired, as it were, they chose Fabian with joyous unanimity and placed him in the Chair of Peter. During his reign of fourteen years (236-250) there was a lull in the storm of persecution. Little is known of his pontificate. The “Liber Pontificalis” says that he divided Rome into seven districts, each supervised by a deacon, and appointed seven subdeacons, to collect, in conjunction with other notaries, the “acta” of the martyrs, i.e. the reports of the court-proceedings on the occasion of their trials. There is a tradition that he instituted the four minor orders. Under him considerable work was done in the catacombs. He caused the body of Pope St. Pontianus to be exhumed, in Sardinia, and transferred to the catacomb of St. Callistus at Rome. The famous Origen did not hesitate to defend, before Fabian, the orthodoxy of his teaching. Fabian died a martyr (20 Jan., 250) at the beginning of the Decian persecution, and was buried in the Crypt of the Popes in the catacomb of St. Callistus, where in recent times his Greek epitaph was discovered.

If you’d like to walk in the footsteps of Saints Sebastian and Fabian, consider joining Scott Hahn and me on our Marian pilgrimage to Rome in May. But don’t delay signing up. The roster’s filling up.

Posted on

The Fathers, Amplified

Those of you who can’t get enough talk about the Church Fathers — even if it’s Yours Truly doing the talking — or can’t get enough of Father Ron Lengwin — will be happy to note that my hour-and-a-half conversation with Father Ron on his radio show, Amplify, is now up on my MP3 page.

Posted on

Tomb with a View

“I am going the way of the Fathers … for I see myself being summoned by the Lord.”

I found those among the last words of the saint whose feast we celebrate today, Anthony of Egypt. They would, I think, make a good motto for this blog. (I have elsewhere taken the old guy as a sort of patron.)

The Church reveres Anthony as a model monk and hermit and a great master of the spiritual life. Anthony managed — in spite of his best efforts to live in remote seclusion — to achieve worldwide celebrity. Crowds of people sought him out, for counsel, for exorcism, for intercession and healing. Wherever he was — whether walled up in an abandoned mountain fortress or shut up in a fetid tomb — Anthony was himself a destination for pilgrims. He began his pursuit of the solitary life when he was around twenty years old, and he persevered until his death at 105 in the year 356. He emerged from his cells only when the Church required his service: once he traveled to Alexandria to fortify those who were about to die as martyrs; another time he arrived to deliver a public condemnation of the Arian heresy.

Shortly after Anthony’s death, St. Athanasius wrote a biography, The Life of Anthony, which soon became a runaway bestseller. Within a generation, the book had become one of the most quoted and most influential texts in the Christian world. Anthony’s acts affected the lives and preaching of such men as Jerome, Ephrem, Augustine, Rufinus, Gregory Nazianzen, Paulinus, Palladius, and Chrysostom. If you want to join their ranks, you can check out The Life online, and even read a detailed rundown of how the ancient world received the text. A more readable translation, though, is here, and it’s quite affordable. Anthony’s aphorisms appear also in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a must-read).

This morning I’ll be discussing Anthony on KVSS Radio. You can listen online via live feed, or you can wait for Bruce and Kris to post an audio file. Eventually, Junior will move the file onto this site as well.

If you want to turn your listening pleasure into a multimedia experience, you can surf to the many artistic representations of Anthony’s temptations. The demons really gave it to the guy, and great artists have found the subject irresistible. The most famous rendering is by Hieronymus Bosch. My favorite, though, is this one.

The first piece I wrote for the religious press was a profile of St. Anthony. It appeared in a little magazine edited by a Mennonite gentleman and sold in his bookshop. It was 1985; and I was twenty-two years old. I dug it out of the archives this morning with the thought of posting it here, but I’m holding back. Maybe the two decades that have passed since then have made me timid. I hope not. But I don’t think I would write the piece the same way today. In illo tempore, I put the emphasis on facing temptations squarely and overcoming them with grace and grit-your-teeth effort. Now I’d qualify the statement and say that there are times to face temptation, but there are also times when it’s best to flee — to avoid the near occasion of sin, as we say in the Act of Contrition. We should know that our strength is God’s strength. But we should know, too, that our weakness is our own. I hope that’s closer to Anthony’s spirit. (I’m reassured by the knowledge that Anthony’s life underwent some drastic changes between ages twenty-two and forty-three.)

Men and women still take to the deserts of Egypt to live in Anthony’s caves and other habitats. Treat yourself to a firsthand account of this life in Father Mark Gruber’s Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers. It’ll blow your mind.

Posted on

Unearthing Jerusalem

Big sixth-century find in Jerusalem, says Israel National News:

The most extensive remains are those of a Roman-Byzantine colonnaded street — the Eastern Cardo. Included in that area is a covered stoa, a row of shops and several artifacts.

The street appears on a 6th century map known as the Medaba Map and is known as the Eastern Cardo or the Valley Cardo. The lavish colonnaded street began at the Damascus Gate in the north and led south, running the length of the channel in the Tyropoeon Valley. Sections of this street were revealed in the past in the northern part of the Old City, at a depth of about four meters (12 feet) below the pavement. The full eleven-meter (33 foot) width of the original road was exposed in the present excavation for the first time.

There’s more detail in The Jerusalem Post, too.