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List Mania

Ben C. Smith posts part 7 of his series on ancient canonical lists. This installment focuses on the list proposed in the catechetical lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century).

Those interested in matters canonical should also look into Gary G. Michuta’s important new book on the development of the canon, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger: The Untold Story of the Lost Books of the Protestant Bible. (Some background here.)

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Getting Re-Oriented

Earlier this week, Pope Benedict met with Mar Dinkha IV, patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East. The Assyrians, separated from Catholic unity since the time of Nestorius, are heirs to the East Syrian Christian traditions. During the pontificate of John Paul II, the Assyrians and Catholics signed a common christological declaration, agreed to share Communion under certain circumstances, and permitted free use of one another’s liturgies. (I discussed the matter briefly here and also in my new book The Resilient Church: The Glory, the Shame, and the Hope for Tomorrow.) This ecumenical progress is urgent at least partly because the Assyrians are suffering mightily alongside Chaldean Catholics in war-torn Iraq. These developments permit a greater latitude for pastoral care.

The full text of Pope Benedict’s address to Mar Dinkha is here.

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Nola, n-n-n-n-Nola…

Today’s the memorial of St. Paulinus of Nola, a Father of the Church. Every year on this date I find that I can’t shake the melody of “Nola,” perhaps history’s most famous whistling song. I suppose it could be worse. I could hear the Kinks singing “Nola, n-n-n-n-Nola…” St. Paulinus, pray for me.

It’s also the memorial of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, the English martyrs. So I’m issuing a rerun of More on the Fathers, taken from The Life of Sir Thomas More by his son-in-law William Roper:

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.

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The Grail Found — Again!

An Italian archeologist told the Telegraph (London) that he knows where the Holy Grail is hidden. Chris Bailey and I are sticking by our story as it appears in The Grail Code — whether in English, Czech, Hungarian, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, or Canadian French.

It’s the St. Lawrence connection, of course…

An archaeologist has sparked a Da Vinci Code-style hunt for the Holy Grail after claiming ancient records show it is buried under a 6th century church in Rome.

The cup – said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper – is the focus of countless legends and has been sought for centuries.

Alfredo Barbagallo, an Italian archaeologist, claims that it is buried in a chapel-like room underneath the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, one of the seven churches which Christian pilgrims used to visit when they came to Rome.

Mr Barbagallo based his claim on two years spent studying mediaeval iconography inside the basilica and a description of a particular chamber, in a guide to the catacombs written in 1938 by a Capuchin friar named Giuseppe Da Bra.

The friar describes a room of about 20 square metres with a vaulted roof ceiling. “In the corner of a wall-seat there can be seen a terracotta funnel whose lower part opens out over the face of a skeleton,” he wrote.

Da Bra then explains that giving liquid refreshment (refrigerium) to the dead was part of ancient funeral rites.

According to Mr Barbagallo, who heads an association called Arte e Mistero [Art and Mystery], this funnel is the Grail.

He also points out to several beautiful mosaics and frescos in the basilica which feature images of the sacred cup.

Mr Barbagallo added that its presence in the church fits the sketchy accounts of its early guardians.

In 258 AD, during a phase of Christian persecution, Pope Sixtus V reportedly entrusted the treasures of the early Church to a deacon called Lawrence, Lorenzo in Italian. This deacon was martyred four days later and since then no one has ever seen the Grail.

Various legends have it that the cup, given the name Holy Grail in the Middle Ages, was taken to different countries – including Britain.

Dan Brown’s work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code, said the cup had been buried at Rossyln Chapel in Scotland, and sparked off a stampede to the isolated location as thousands flocked to see it for themselves.

Mr Barbagallo said he believed it never went anywhere, and stayed with St Lawrence in his tomb.

Emperor Constantine built a shrine on the site of Lawrence’s martyrdom in the 4th Century and the main part of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura was built in AD580 on the same spot.

The catacombs where Mr Barbagallo believes the cup to buried come under the authority of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology.

A spokesman said: “We are aware of the reports and a few weeks ago made an initial investigation of the area with the possibility of opening the catacombs up but as yet no decision has been made.”

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“God Is Accessible”

Here is Zenit’s translation of the full text of the pope’s June 20 reflection on St. Athanasius.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Continuing with our catechetical series on the great teachers of the ancient Church, today we turn our attention to St. Athanasius of Alexandria. This true protagonist of Christian tradition, just a few years after his death, was celebrated as a “pillar of the Church” by the great theologian and bishop of Constantinople, Gregory Nazianzen (Discourses 26:26). He has always been esteemed as a model of orthodoxy, in the East as well as in the West.

It was no mistake that Gian Lorenzo Bernini placed a statue of him among the four holy doctors of the Eastern and Western Church — together with Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine — which surround the chair of Peter in the apse of the Vatican basilica.

Athanasius was, without a doubt, one of the most important and venerated Fathers of the ancient Church. But above all, this great saint is the passionate theologian of the incarnation of the “Logos,” the Word of God, which — as the prologue of the fourth Gospel says — “was made flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

For this reason Athanasius was also the most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy, which at that time was threatening faith in Christ by reducing him to a creature between God and man, following a recurring tendency in history that we still see in various forms today.

Athanasius was most likely born in Alexandria in Egypt, around the year 300, and received a good education before becoming a deacon and secretary of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. The young cleric worked closely with his bishop, and accompanied him to, and took part in, the Council of Nicaea, the first such ecumenical council, called by the Emperor Constantine in May 325 to ensure the unity of the Church. The fathers of the Nicene Council dealt with many questions, foremost among them, the serious problems that had originated some years before with the preaching of the deacon Arius.

His theory threatened authentic faith in Christ, declaring that the “logos” was not true God, but a created God, a being not quite God and not quite man, but in the middle. And therefore the true God remained inaccessible to us. The bishops in Nicaea responded by emphasizing and establishing the “Symbol of Faith” that, later completed by the first Council of Constantinople, remained in the tradition of various Christian confessions and in the liturgy as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

In this fundamental text — which expresses the faith of the undivided Church, and which we still recite today, each Sunday in the Eucharistic celebration — we see the Greek term “homooúsios,” in Latin “consubstantialis,” which means that the Son, the Logos, is “of the same substance” as the Father, is God from God, is his substance. Therefore the full divinity of the Son, which was negated by the Arians, is seen.

Upon the death of Bishop Alexander, Athanasius became, in 328, his successor as bishop of Alexandria. He immediately decided to fight against every compromise resulting from the Arian theories condemned by the Council of Nicaea. His resolve — tenacious and at times very tough, even if necessary — with those who were opposed to his election as bishop and above all against the adversaries of the Nicene Symbol, brought upon him the relentless hostility of the Arians and their supporters.

Despite the unequivocal outcome of the Council, which clearly affirmed that the Son was of the same substance as the Father, these erroneous ideas returned once more to dominate public thought — so that even Arius himself regained popularity, and was supported for political motives by Emperor Constantine and then by his son Constantine II. The latter was not interested in theological truth but rather the unity of the empire and its political problems; he wanted to politicize the faith, making it more accessible — in his view — to all the subjects of the empire.

The Arian crisis, which was thought to be resolved in Nicaea, continued in this way for decades, with difficult incidents and painful divisions in the Church. And five times — during the 30 years between 336 and 366 — Athanasius was forced to abandon the city, living 17 years in exile and suffering for the faith.

But during his forced absences from Alexandria, the bishop was able to sustain and spread — in the West, first in Trier and then in Rome — the faith of the Nicene Council and the ideals of monasticism, which were embraced in Egypt by the great hermit Anthony whose choice of life Athanasius followed closely. St. Anthony, with his spiritual strength, was the most important person in sustaining the faith of St. Athanasius.

After the definitive return to his see, the bishop of Alexandria was able to dedicate himself to religious pacification and the reorganization of the Christian community. He died on May 2, 373, the day in which we celebrate his liturgical feast.

The most famous work of the Alexandrian bishop is the treatise on the “Incarnation of the Word, ” the divine “Logos” made flesh, like us, for our salvation.

In this work, Athanasius says, in a phrase that has become well known, that the Word of God “became man so that we might become God. He manifested himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality” (54:3).

In fact, with his resurrection, the Lord made death disappear like “straw in the fire” (8:4). The fundamental idea of the entire theological battle of St. Athanasius was that God is accessible. He is not a secondary God, he is true God, and through our communion with Christ we can truly unite ourselves to God. He truly became “God with us.”

Among the other works of this great Father of the Church — which deal mainly with the events of the Arian crisis — we recall the four letters that he addressed to his friend Serapion, bishop of Thmius, on the divine nature of the Holy Spirit, which was clearly affirmed.

And there are some 30 or so “festal” letters, written at the beginning of every year, to the Churches and monasteries of Egypt to indicate the date of Easter, but moreover to strengthen the ties among the faithful, reinforcing their faith and preparing them for that great solemnity.

Athanasius is also the author of meditative texts on the Psalms, which were vastly distributed, and a text that constituted a “best seller” of ancient Christian literature: the “Life of Anthony,” the biography of St. Anthony the Abbot, written shortly after the death of this saint, while the bishop of Alexandria was in exile, living with the monks of the Egyptian desert. Athanasius was a friend of the great hermit, and even received one of the two sheepskins left by Anthony as his inheritance, together with the mantel that he himself had given him.

The biography of this beloved figure in Christian tradition contributed greatly to the spread of monasticism in the East and the West, as it became very popular and was soon translated twice in Latin and then in other Eastern languages.

The letter of this text, to Trier, is at the center of an emotional telling of the conversion of two ministers of the emperor, which Augustine mentions in the “Confessions” (VIII, 6:15) as a premise of his own conversion.

Athanasius showed that he had a clear awareness of the influence that the figure of Anthony could have on the Christian people.

In fact, he writes in the conclusion of this work: “And the fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere; that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God’s love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Anthony renowned, but solely from his piety toward God.

“That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who dwelled hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes his own known everywhere, who also promised this to Anthony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue” (“Life of Anthony” 93, 5-6).

Yes, brothers and sisters! We have many reasons to thank St. Athanasius. His life, as that of Anthony and countless other saints, shows us that “those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them” (“Deus Caritas Est,” 42).

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Hilary for President

No, not that Hilary. I mean the fourth-century guy from Poitiers — the Athanasius of the West. My paesan David Scott sent me this quote last week, from Hilary’s protest against one of the Arian emperors:

He does not impale us with his sword. No, he strokes our belly. He does not confiscate our goods, and thereby give us life — he enriches us, that we may die. He does not cast us into dungeons, thereby setting us on the path to freedom — he imprisons us in the honors of his palace. ….He showers priests with honors, so that there will be no good bishops. He builds churches, that he may dismantle the faith.

On the strength of that quote alone, I bought this book.

If this Hilary runs, he’s got my vote.

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Why Athanasius Rocks

Today the pope turned his attention to St. Athanasius. This is the summary he presented in various languages. I’ll post the full text, once it’s up.

Continuing our catechesis on the great teachers of the ancient Church, we turn today to Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius is venerated in East and West alike as a pillar of Christian orthodoxy. Against the followers of the Arian heresy, he insisted on the full divinity and consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, and defended the faith of the Church as expressed in the Creed of the Council of Nicaea. The Arian crisis did not end with the Council; indeed, for his resolute defence of the Nicene dogma, Athanasius was exiled from his see five times in thirty years. His many writings include the treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, which defends the full divinity of the Son, whose incarnation is the source of our salvation: “he became man so that we could become God”. Athanasius also wrote a celebrated Life of Anthony, a spiritual biography of Saint Anthony Abbot, whom he had known personally. This popular book had an immense influence in the spread of the monastic ideal in East and West. Like Anthony, Athanasius stands out as one of the great figures of the Church in Egypt, a “lamp” whose teaching and example even today light up the path of the entire Church.

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The Bigger Canon That Can

One of the most frequently asked questions I get through this blog is: “What’s a good book on the canon of the Bible?” I’ve hemmed and hawed in response, suggesting some big books from a century ago. But, as one scholar pointed out to me, there really hasn’t been a book that takes into account the archeological and other discoveries made since then.

Till now! I just today received a copy of Gary Michuta’s long-awaited Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger: The Untold Story of the Lost Books of the Protestant Bible. This is the most exhaustively documented history of the canon I’ve seen, with abundant examples (full text) from early Jewish sources, the Fathers, and on through the Protestant Reformation. Especially interesting is Michuta’s treatment of the Apostolic Fathers’ use of the Old Testament deuterocanonicals.

Whether you hold to “sola scriptura” or “prima scriptura” (to steal a phrase from my friend Scott Hahn), the question of the canon — the very contents of authoritative Scripture — must be answered. Gary Michuta has given us all the data we need to formulate an answer.

Here’s what a top-flight scholar, Dr. Brant Pitre of Our Lady Of Holy Cross College, New Orleans, has to say about Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger:

For years I have wished that someone would write an up-to-date Catholic study of the questions: How did we get the Bible? And did the Catholic Church really “add” books to the Old Testament? Now we finally have one! In this excellent new book, Gary Michuta provides a detailed explanation of the origin of the Old Testament and why Catholic and Protestant Bibles are different. In it, he shows the indispensable role played by the Catholic Church in gathering and declaring which books belong to the canon of Sacred Scripture. Scholars and laity alike will learn a great deal from this fascinating analysis of a critical issue in apologetics and Church history.

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A Great Way to Learn Greek

From Hendrickson comes a dream of a book: A Patristic Greek Reader, by Rodney A. Whitacre. This is more than a book, actually. It’s an opportunity to learn Greek from a superlative teacher and to learn Christianity from the greatest ancient masters. Says the publisher: “Passages that have played a major role in the history of Christian thought are included, as well as passages that contribute to matters of spirituality and pastoral care. Several passages are of more purely historical interest.” The book includes Greek texts, English translations, and abundant helpful notes. Here’s the table of contents, lifted from the Library of Congress:

The Two Main Goals of This Reader
The Meaning of “Patristic”
An Approach to Reading the Fathers
The Selections from the Fathers
The Greek Notes
Suggestions for Using This Reader
Suggestions for Further Reading in the Fathers
Texts and Notes
1. Didache
2. 1 Clement
3. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans
4. Epistle to Diognetus
5. Martyrdom of Polycarp
6. Justin Martyr, First Apology
7. Melito of Sardis, On Pascha
8. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies
9. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History and Life of Constantine
10. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
11. Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations
12. Desert Fathers and Mothers, Apophthegmata Patrum
13. John Chrysostom, Homiliae in Matthaeum
14. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness
15. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymns
16. Translations of All Texts
Appendix A: Vocabulary: Words Used 50 Times or More in the Greek NT
Appendix B: Principal Parts of Common Verbs
Appendix C: The Selections Arranged in Order of Difficulty
Greek Resources
Resources for Individual Selections

Dr. Whitacre’s anthology is unique, a model of both pedagogy and mystagogy. The Spirit has been leading the churches to “return to the sources,” and A Patristic Greek Reader is a beautiful beginning for that journey. Very highly recommended.

Amazon says the book will be out at the end of July. The galleys I’ve had since May look pretty finished to me. So pre-order your copy today!

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Stairing Contest

We hit this spot on the Rome pilgrimage — the “Holy Stairs” that, according to tradition, Jesus climbed when he was brought before Pontius Pilate. They are among the relics that St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, allegedly brought back from the Holy Land. We gave pilgrims the option of ascending on their knees. We distributed special prayers for each step. Here’s another report.

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A Maze-ing Grace

An archeological expedition in Bulgaria just discovered a labyrinth, similar to the famous labyrinth on the island of Crete.

This find gives us another window into the world of the Fathers. It must have been a labyrinth like this one that inspired St. Gregory of Nyssa to write of the “maze of life.” The following passage (included in my book The Fathers of the Church) comes from comes from St. Gregory’s “Great Catechism,” which he wrote as a training manual for Christian teachers, around the year 385.

People lost in the corridors of mazes can navigate the twists and turns and blind alleys, if they happen to find someone who has been through it all before. They can get to the end by following behind — which they could not do, if they did not follow their leader step by step. So I beg you to listen: our human minds cannot thread the maze of this life unless we pursue that same path as He did. He was once in it, yet He got beyond the difficulties that hemmed Him in. By the maze I mean that prison of death that leaves no exit and encloses the miserable human race…

He, the Man from above, took death upon Himself. He was buried in the earth, and He returned back to life on the third day. So everyone who is joined to Him by virtue of His body may look forward to the same happy ending.