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Book Meme

I got tagged by Maureen.

Here are the rules:

Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more. (No cheating!)
Find Page 123.
Find the first 5 sentences.
Post the next 3 sentences.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, second edition, revised by F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone. It’s in the entry on Michel Baius:

“In 1560 eighteen of his propositions were censured by the Sorbonne. Even so, Baius and Hessels were chosen to represent the University in 1563 at the Council of Trent, and received the powerful protection of the King of Spain. Further publications by Baius resulted in the bull ‘Ex omnibus afflictionibus’ (1 Oct. 1567), in which a large number of propositions from his writings, or embodying his doctrine, were condemned, but which did not mention him by name.”

Why didn’t I have Hemingway on my desk?

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Coming to Pittsburgh

One of my favorite writers on early Christianity is Fr. Michael Giesler, author of the novels Junia: The Fictional Life and Death of an Early Christian and its sequel, Marcus. Both are set in second-century Rome. They’re great page-turners in the tradition of Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis; and they deserve a wide audience. (I’ll post my review, from Touchstone magazine, tomorrow.)

I’m happy to report that Fr. Giesler is coming to my beloved Pittsburgh next week. I’m sure you’ve always wanted to see Pittsburgh. I hope you’ll be able to meet us (and pick up his books) at one of his public appearances. The dates, places, and times follow.

8:30 p.m. — Lecture, “The Glory of the Early Christians: Family Life and the Gift of Celibacy,” Gentile Gallery, Franciscan University of Steubenville

11 am — Mass at Aquinas Academy (2308 West Hardies Road, Wildwood, PA 15091)
12 noon – 2 pm — Booksigning in lobby of Aquinas Academy
3-5 pm — Booksigning at Kirners Bookstore (219 4th Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222)

10:30-11:30 am — Booksigning at Grandevue Study Center (237 N. Dithridge St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213)

Fr. Giesler holds a doctorate in sacred theology and an advanced degree in philosophy. In addition to his novels, he has published many scholarly articles.

If you know people in Pittsburgh or Steubenville, please spread the word!

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Radical Conversion

The Holy Father gave his third audience on St. Augustine today. Teresa Benedetta translated :

Dear friends,

After the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we return today to reflect on the great figure of St. Augustine.

In 1986, my dear Predecessor John Paul II dedicated to Augustine, on the 1600th anniversary of his conversion, a long and dense document in the form of the Apostolic Letter Augustinum Hipponensen (Augustine of Hippo).

The Pope himself defined the text as “an act of thanksgiving to God for his gift to the Church, and through it, to all of mankind, with that miraculous conversion” (AAS, 74, 1992, p. 802).

I wish to return to the topic of Augustine’s conversion in a future audience. It was a fundamental theme not only for Augustine’s life, but also for ours. In last Sunday’s Gospel, the Lord himself summarized his preaching in the words, “Convert yourselves”.

Following the path of St. Augustine, we can meditate on what this conversion means: it is something definitive, decisive, but the fundamental decision must be developed and must be realized throughout our whole life.

The catechesis today will be dedicated instead to the theme of faith and reason, which was a determinative theme, or better still, the detrminative theme in the biography of St. Augustine.

As a child, he learned the Catholic faith from his mother Monica. But as an adolescent, he abandoned this faith because he could no longer see its reasonableness, and he did not want a religion that could not be, for him, also an expression of reason, and therefore, of truth. His thirst for truth was radical and led him to distance himself from the Catholic faith.

But his radicality was such that he could not content himself with philosophies which did not arrive at truth itself, which did not arrive at God. To a God who was not just the ultimate cosmological hypothesis, but the true God, the God who gives life and who enters our own life.

Thus all of St. Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual itinerary constitutes a model valid even today for the relationship between faith and reason, a theme not only for believers but for every man who searches for the truth, a central theme for the equilibrium and destiny of every human being.

These two dimensions, faith and reason, are not to be separated nor to be opposed to each other, but should always go together. As Augustine himself wrote after his conversion, faith and reason are “the two forces that bring us to knowing” (Contra Academicos, III, 20, 43).

In this respect, two Augustinian formulations (from Sermons, 43,9) remain rightly celebrated for expressing this coherent synthesis between faith and reason: Crede ut intelligas (I believe in order to understand) – belief opens the way to get to the threshold of truth – and, inseparably, Intellige ut credas (I understand in order to believe): to scrutinize truth in order to find God and believe.

Those two statements by Augustine express with effective immediacy and with profundity the synthesis of this issue, in which the Catholic Church sees the expression of its way.

Historically, this synthesis had been taking shape, even before the coming of Christ, in the encounter between the Jewish faith and Greek thought that resulted in Hellenistic Judaism. Successively, this synthesis was recovered and developed throughout history by many Christian thinkers.

The harmony between faith and reason means, above all, that God is not far: he is not far from our reason and our life; he is close to every human being, close to our heart and close to our reason, if we really put ourselves on the right way.

It was precisely this closeness of God to man that Augustine experienced with extraordinary intensity. The presence of God in man is profound and at the same time, mysterious, but we can discover and recognize it in our most intimate being.

Do not go out, the convert says: “but go back into yourself – truth resides in the interior man, and if you find that your nature is changeable, transcend yourself. But remember, when you transcend yourself, that you transcend a soul which reasons. Then reach beyond – to where the light of reason is lit” (De vera religione, 39, 72).

As Augustine himself underscored with that most famous statement at the start of Confessions, his spiritual autobiography written in praise of God: “You made us for you, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (I,1,1).

Distance from God is equivalent therefore to distance from our selves: “Indeed, you,” Augustine writes (Confessions, III, 6,11), addressing himself to God, “are more intimately present to me than my inmost being and higher than the highest element in me” – interior intimo meo et superior summo meo – such that, he adds in another passage, recalling the time before his conversion, “you were in front of me, but I, instead, had gone far from myself and could not find myself again, and even less could I find you again” (Confessions, V, 2, 2).

Precisely because Augustine had lived firsthand this intellectual and spiritual itinerary, he knew how to render it with such immediacy, profundity and wisdom in his works, recognizing in two other famous passages from Confessions (IV, 4, 9 e 14, 22) that man is ‘a great enigma’ (magna quaestio) and ‘a great abyss’ (grande profundum) – enigma and abyss that only Christ illuminates and saves.

This is important: a man who is far from God is also far from himself, alienated from himself, and can recover himself only if he meets God, and thus, he will also arrive at himself, his true I, his true identity.

The human being, Augustine then underscores in De civitate Dei (The City of God, XII, 27) – is social by nature but anti-social by fault, and is saved by Christ, the only mediator between God and mankind and the “universal way of freedom and salvation”, as my predecessor John Paul II repeated (Augustinum Hipponensem, 21): Outside this way, which has never failed humanity, Augustine says in the same work, “no one was ever liberated, no one can be liberated, no one will be liberated” (De civitate Dei, X, 32, 2).

As the only mediator of salvation, Christ is the head of the Church and is mystically united to it, to the point that Augustine could say: “We have become Christ. Indeed, if he is the head, and we are the members (limbs), the total man is he and us” (In Iohannis evangelium tractatus, 21, 8).

People of God and house of God, the Church in the Augustinian vision is thus closely linked to the concept of the Body of Christ, based on the Christologic re-reading of the Old Testament, and on sacramental life centered in the Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us his Body and transforms us into his Body.

It is therefore fundamental that the Church – the People of God in the Christologic and not the sociological sense – should be truly in Christ, who, Augustine says in a very beautiful test, “prays for us, prays in us, is prayed to by us: he prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, he is prayed to by us as our God – so we recognize in him our voice, and in ours, his” (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 85, 1).

At the conclusion of the apostolic letter Augustinum Hipponensem, John Paul II asked whatthe saint has to say to men today, and responded with the words that Augustine dictated in a letter shortly after his conversion: “It seems to me that man should be led back to the hope of finding the truth” (Epistulae, 1, 1): that truth which is Christ himself, true God, to whom one of the most beautiful and famous prayers in Confessions (X, 27,38) is addressed:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness
I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you
they would have not been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

So it was! Augustine had encountered God and all his life experienced him to the point that this reality – which was above all an encounter with a Person, Jesus – changed his life, as he has changed that of so many men and women in every age who have had the grace to encounter him.

Let us pray that the Lord may give us this grace and to make us find his peace by doing so.

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Pope Benedict returned to Augustine today — another installment in what he hinted would be a “series.” Since he’s an Augustine scholar, this promises to be a fun run of audiences. I’ll try to find a full-text translation by day’s end. Meantime, here’s the Vatican’s summary.

As we continue our catechesis on Saint Augustine of Hippo, I wish today to consider some of the teachings of this great Doctor of the Church. A passionate believer, he recognized the importance of bringing together faith and reason. It was he who taught that we should believe in order to understand, and understand in order to believe. God makes himself known to our reason, although he always transcends what we can know through reason alone. As Augustine beautifully expressed it, God is “more intimately present to me than my inmost being” and “higher than the highest element in me.” Saint Augustine taught that by belonging to the Church, we are so closely united to Christ that we “become” Christ, the head whose members we are. As our head, Christ prays in us, yet he also prays for us as our priest, and we pray to him as our God. If we ask what particular message Saint Augustine has for the men and women of today, it is perhaps his emphasis on our need for truth. Listen to the way he describes his own search for God’s truth: “You were within me and I sought you outside, in the beautiful things that you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. You called me, you cried out and broke open my deafness. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you.” Let us pray that we too may discover the joy of knowing God’s truth.

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Underground Movement

About a year ago, I posted a short review of The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti, and Danilo Mazzoleni. I wrote a long review for last October’s issue of Touchstone Magazine, and the full version follows.

The Roman catacombs are a veritable city of the dead. More than sixty miles of labyrinthine corridors have been discovered so far, and archeologists are still finding more. Estimates of their population range into the millions. And they are our richest source of evidence of early Christian life.

A lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume, The Christian Catacombs of Rome allows us to walk those corridors with three of the world’s leading experts on the subject. All are members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archeology; all teach archeology at Roman universities.

From their intimate knowledge of thousands of inscriptions, artifacts, bone fragments, and artworks, the authors give us brief and brilliant glimpses of the ordinary lives of the early Christians, answering questions like: What kind of work did they do? Were they poor, rich, or middle-class? (See below.) How old were they when they married? (Women were 14-20, men 20-30.) What qualities did they value in their spouses and in their children? (No surprise here: fidelity, affability, concord, integrity.) How did they die? (Relatively few were martyrs.)

The catacombs were dug by a professional corps of tunnelers out of the soft volcanic rock at the outskirts of Rome. Following soon after were an army of artists and artisans: brick masons, stone masons, plasterers, sculptors, mosaic and fresco artists, not to mention priests and mourners.

And much of this industry bustled during a time of intermittent persecution. Though the Christian catacombs represent the first massive public work of the Church, they were, so to speak, an underground economy.

The book divides neatly into three sections. Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai sketches the catacombs’ origin and development, giving readers a concise but complete introduction to the subject. He covers not only the history of their construction, but also the history of their excavation — which, given the crude methods of past centuries, was sometimes their destruction.

In the second section, Fabrizio Bisconti examines the artistic decoration of the catacombs and its interpretation (a field given to much controversy). In the final section, Danilo Mazzoleni highlights the 40,000 inscriptions that embellish the tombs, inscriptions that range from graffiti scratched in plaster to poems chiseled in marble.

All three sections are packed with useful and fascinating details. Mazzoleni, for example, uses the epitaphs to show us what the early Christians did for a living. They were “bricklayers, cleaners, dyers, seamstresses, shoemakers and cobblers . . . doctors and veterinarians, lawyers, notaries, stenographers, couriers, teachers, and clerks of grain administration.” Thus, we see the whole range of professions and social classes, and probably in close proportion to their distribution in Roman society.

Along the way, he challenges the fairly common assertion that the pre-Constantinian Christians were overwhelmingly pacifist. On the contrary, he writes, “diverse specialties and every rank” of the military are represented in Christian catacomb inscriptions, “including praetorians (the corps was disbanded by Constantine), cavalry and equites singulares.”

Mazzoleni also analyzes the names bestowed and taken by the Christians of Rome. Readers can follow the trends through those early centuries, learning, for example, that relatively few chose biblical names, and many chose the names of martyrs (there are 3,000 Lawrences in one catacomb alone!). It was more common, however, to choose names with theological associations, such as Agape (love), Irene (peace), Anastasius (resurrection), Spes (hope), Quodvultdeus (what God wills), and so on. And many Christians seem to have stuck with the old, traditional Roman names, the names of pagan deities (Hermes, Hercules, Aphrodite, Eros).

One illuminating subsection covers “Humiliating names or nicknames.” These names “were sometimes used by some faithful as a life-long act of modesty, precisely because of their unpleasant significance. . . . This is the case of Proiectus and Proiecticus, which meant ‘exposed,’ and the unpleasant Stercorius, [which] can be understood as ‘abandoned in the garbage.’ . . . At the Catacomb of Pretestato, one of them was in fact named Stercorinus.”

The authors (or translators) are being polite. Stercorius is most accurately translated by what kids call “the S-word.” Thus, Stercorinus (the diminutive) means “Little S***,” or “Dear S***.”

Why would Christians bear such a name? It is likely that these particular Romans were, as infants, rescued from the dungheap — the place where Romans abandoned “defective” or female newborns. After all, the pagan philosopher Seneca said: “What is good must be set apart from what is good-for-nothing.”

I’ll bet that no small number of those “good-for-nothings” were rescued by Christian families. They were lucky to be alive, but surely they still had to suffer the taunts of playmates, who were pleased to remind them of their lowly origins.

As Mazzoleni points out, they may have kept those demeaning names as “a life-long act of modesty” — or perhaps as an act of triumphant irony. The joke, after all, was on the pagan world, which would soon enough die out for the crime of murdering its young. These children who were dung in the eyes of Imperial Rome knew that they were precious in the sight of God.

And in the catacombs they were buried among popes and praetorian guards. Nicolai remarks on the “uniformity of the tombs” that demonstrates the “heavily egalitarian ideology of the new religion.” In the catacombs, Stercorius is immortal, even in a merely historical sense, thanks to the work of these three authors. Reading their book is a profoundly religious experience.

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Cross Currents

Picked up some kind of bug and have been feeling (in the words of my 4yo daughter Treesie) “Gwoss.” Even with such minor discomfort, a Christian’s thoughts naturally turn to the cross. And it seems more and more likely that it’s always been that way. Consider the recent discoveries:

* In Syria, archeologists have found two cruciform cemeteries from the third century (here and here).

* In the Basque region, archeologists unearthed a town that had been covered by a third-century landslide; and in one home they found a crudely drawn crucifix, complete with corpus.

* Scholars have begun to reconsider the dating of some gems engraved with the crucifix, placing them, too, in the third century.

* Larry Hurtado has catalogued the occurrences of staurograms and other crypto-crosses in manuscripts as far back as the early second century. He says that the staurogram — usually an embellished rendering of the Greek letters tau or chi or the Coptic ankh — “obviously refers to the crucifixion/cross of Jesus, and so (along with the abundant textual evidence) reflects an importance given to Jesus’ crucifixion in Christian faith/piety, from at least as early as the late second century.”

All this, of course, runs counter to what I learned in school, and probably to what most people learn in school today. It has, for generations, been commonplace to say that there were no crosses before Constantine. The standard current textbook in Christian archeology states flatly that there was “no place in the third century for a crucified Christ, or a symbol of divine death.”

If cruciform figures appeared in digs, they were dismissed as random scratches, mere geometric ornamentation, or later “contaminations” in early strata. The argument followed a circular logic:

1. We know there were no crosses before 300 because we’ve never found any.

2. When we seem to find crosses, we know they’re late or not really crosses, because of course there WERE no crosses before 300.

3. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hurtado points out that preachers and letter-writers in those early years often refer to the cross of Christ. Other scholars point to this very early anti-Christian graffito, which portrays a donkey hanging on a cross. It’s unlikely that bigots would seize upon that symbol unless it had already been widely used and cherished by the Christians.

My money’s with the vanguard in this controversy. It seems that when we suffer and we survey that wondrous cross, we’re very likely doing what the earliest Christians did.

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Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle.

Jeff Ziegler gives us these links:

Today’s readings at Mass.
— Tintoretto, The Conversion of Saul (1545).

It’s a big day for me and my colleagues at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. We’re celebrating with our annual St. Paul Mass at noon in Steubenville, Ohio.

Please consider honoring our patron by making a donation. We’ll send you a free audio CD, which I think you’ll enjoy.

Here’s our friend Jerome on the life of Paul:

Paul, formerly called Saul, an apostle outside the number of the twelve apostles, was of the tribe of Benjamin and the town of Giscalis in Judea. When this was taken by the Romans he removed with his parents to Tarsus in Cilicia. Sent by them to Jerusalem to study law he was educated by Gamaliel, a most learned man whom Luke mentions. But after he had been present at the death of the martyr Stephen and had received letters from the high priest of the temple for the persecution of those who believed in Christ, he proceeded to Damascus, where constrained to faith by a revelation, as it is written in the Acts of the apostles, he was transformed from a persecutor into an elect vessel. As Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus was the first to believe in his preaching, he took his name from him because he had subdued him to faith in Christ, and having been joined by Barnabas, after traversing many cities, he returned to Jerusalem and was ordained apostle to the Gentiles by Peter, James and John. And because a full account of his life is given in the Acts of the Apostles, I only say this, that the twenty-fifth year after our Lord’s passion, that is the second of Nero, at the time when Festus Procurator of Judea succeeded Felix, he was sent bound to Rome, and remaining for two years in free custody, disputed daily with the Jews concerning the advent of Christ. It ought to be said that at the first defence, the power of Nero having not yet been confirmed, nor his wickedness broken forth to such a degree as the histories relate concerning him, Paul was dismissed by Nero, that the gospel of Christ might be preached also in the West. As he himself writes in the second epistle to Timothy, at the time when he was about to be put to death dictating his epistle as he did while in chains; “At my first defence no one took my part, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their account. But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me; that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and that all the Gentiles might hear, and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion”—clearly indicating Nero as lion on account of his cruelty. And directly following he says “The Lord delivered me from the mouth of the lion” and again shortly “The Lord delivered me from every evil work and saved me unto his heavenly kingdom,” for indeed he felt within himself that his martyrdom was near at hand, for in the same epistle he announced “for I am already being offered and the time of my departure is at hand.” He then, in the fourteenth year of Nero on the same day with Peter, was beheaded at Rome for Christ’s sake and was buried in the Ostian way, the twenty-seventh year after our Lord’s passion. He wrote nine epistles to seven churches: To the Romans one, To the Corinthians two, To the Galatians one, To the Ephesians one, To the Philippians one, To the Colossians one, To the Thessalonians two; and besides these to his disciples, To Timothy two, To Titus one, To Philemon one. The epistle which is called the Epistle to the Hebrews is not considered his, on account of its difference from the others in style and language, but it is reckoned, either according to Tertullian to be the work of Barnabas, or according to others, to be by Luke the Evangelist or Clement afterwards bishop of the church at Rome, who, they say, arranged and adorned the ideas of Paul in his own language, though to be sure, since Paul was writing to Hebrews and was in disrepute among them he may have omitted his name from the salutation on this account. He being a Hebrew wrote Hebrew, that is his own tongue and most fluently while the things which were eloquently written in Hebrew were more eloquently turned into Greek and this is the reason why it seems to differ from other epistles of Paul. Some read one also to the Laodiceans but it is rejected by everyone.

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My Other Brother Darrell

Darrell Pursiful (aka Dr. Platypus) has written a most thoughtful, long, and generous review of my book The Mass of the Early Christians. Since Darrell is so many things I’m not — a scholar (New Testament), a virtuous man, and a Baptist — I’m blown away. Non sum dignus.

I’m grateful for his criticism, too — which will help me to argue for a third edition in a couple of years!

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Water, Water Everywhere!

I’m holding a beautiful, beautiful book, Lourdes Today: A Pilgrimage to Mary’s Grotto by my friend Kerry Crawford. As a patristics nerd, I’m much more likely to talk about the waters of Abu Mina than any upstart shrine from the nineteenth century. But this book moved me to tears many times. I’ve written reviews or reports on it for the the Pittsburgh Catholic, Our Sunday Visitor, and Touchstone. I implore you to buy and read this hopeful book — that even managed to rouse me out of the age of the Fathers.

But don’t just take my word for it. Pere Regis-Marie de la Teysonniere, chaplain of the sanctuaries at Lourdes, said: “Where can you find a reality diversified yet unified? In Lourdes, France, and in Lourdes Today. Where can you hear the testimony of so many people in a different way but together building the same inspiring world? In Lourdes, France, and in Lourdes Today. Where can you feel heaven so close to earth? In Lourdes, France, and in Lourdes Today.”

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Breaking News from Syria

Third century, Christian, Aramaic inscriptions … I suspect this is gonna be significant.

DAMASCUS, Syria – Archaeologists in northeast Syria have unearthed a 3rd century cemetery in the shape of a cross, the country’s official news agency reported Wednesday.

Ten skeletons, along with pottery and coins, were found at the site in Hassaka, 441 miles northeast of the capital Damascus, SANA reported.

Some of the artifacts contained inscriptions in the ancient Aramaic language, it said.

Wednesday’s find came a day after SANA reported that archaeologists had found a Roman-era cemetery in Latakia, northwest of Damascus. That cemetery was believed to date back about 1,000 years, SANA said.

Also according to the report, Wednesday’s find is not the same as that of another cemetery, of the same era and on the same location, announced last November.

That Roman-era cemetery in this history-rich country were archaeological discoveries are common, was also in the shape of a cross. It was not immediately clear how far from each other the two cemeteries are.

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Know Thyself

The kids and I trekked to the March for Life yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. I came home to find a generous link from newly hatched patristiblogger Felix Culpa. I liked what he had to say about The Way of the Fathers. In fact, I think he understands what I’m doing better than I do myself!

Mr. Aquilina’s site is the closest thing to a patristic news source on the web: he regularly links to posts on other sites that concern the Fathers, as well as regularly announces the publication of new books on Patristic theology which otherwise receive virtually no publicity and the reviews of which won’t appear in specialized journals for at least a year or two after publication.

That’s it in a nutshell (which is where a nut like me belongs). I’m not doing scholarship here. Nor am I doing devotions. But I like the idea of providing a Patristic News Service. (No, no, I certainly won’t trademark and abbreviate that one.) Such a service can be helpful to both scholars and history buffs — and, like all things patristic, it should feed our prayer.

And if I break the story of great books a year or two before the journals can, I know I’m doing something useful with my life.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us.

Thanks, Felix.

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Persons in the Hood

It wouldn’t take long for the Fathers — if they were miraculously transported to our time — to recognize America’s moral and political landscape for what it is. Our world is not so different from the world where they lived — the world they converted and healed.

But who belongs to our society? Who belongs to our world? For the last generation, Americans have tried to place certain classes of humans beyond the protection of the law, outside the definition of personhood. It began with the fetus, the preborn child. Court decisions placed arbitrary limits — at the first trimester, or second, or birth. But does anyone take these seriously? What is it about a day of development — or a week or two weeks — that changes the baby so radically as to make her a different sort of being? Which is the event that confers personhood?

Again, different ethicists propose different answers: self-consciousness, the ability to feel pain, sensitivity to light and sound, and so on. But these, too, fail. The most honest pro-choice thinkers put the matter baldly: what confers personhood is the will of the mother.

The Church Fathers were familiar with this line of thinking. In pagan Rome, a child did not achieve personhood until recognized by the head of the family, the father. When the mother had given birth, a midwife placed the child on the floor and summoned the father. He examined the child with his criteria of selection in mind.

Was the child his? If the man suspected his wife of adultery — ancient Rome’s favorite pastime — he might reject the child without so much as a glance.

If the child was an “odious daughter” (the common Roman phrase for female offspring), he would likely turn on his heel and leave the room.

If the child was “defective” in any way, he would do the same. As the philosopher Seneca said: “What is good must be set apart from what is good for nothing.”

Life or death? It all depended upon the will of a man. Human life began when the child was accepted into society. A man did not “have a child.” He “took a child.” The father “raised up” the child by picking it up from the floor.

Those non-persons who were left on the floor — while their mothers watched from a birthing chair — would be drowned immediately, or exposed to scavenging animals at the town dump.

Against these customs, the Church consistently taught that life begins at conception and should continue till natural death. In such matters, Christianity contradicted pagan mores on almost every point. What were virtuous acts to the Romans and Greeks — contraception, abortion, infanticide, suicide, euthanasia — were abominations to the Christians.

The papyrus trail is especially extensive for abortion, which is condemned by the Didache, the so-called Epistle of Barnabas, the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter; by Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Justin, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian. And that partial list takes us only to the middle of the third century.

The earliest extrabiblical document, the Didache, begins with these words: “Two Ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.” The Fathers converted their world from one Way to the other, and they were judged righteous.

Our last generations have perverted our world from one Way to another, and we too will be judged. But we can still do something, as our earliest Christian ancestors did, and we must.

That’s why tens of thousands of people are thronging the streets of Washington, D.C., today, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protected the practice of child-murder from any possible legal sanction — while leaving children without any protection at all.

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St. Agnes

Today is the feast of St. Agnes of Rome, virgin and martyr. I have a special devotion to little Agnes. Both my mom and my eldest daughter are named for her. I visit her relics whenever I’m in Rome. One of Agnes’s two Roman churches is the subject of a beautiful recent book, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church. Agnes is remarkable among the early martyrs because of the abundance of testimony that appears so soon after her death. Ambrose, Augustine, and Prudentius all tell the story of her life. Constantine built a basilica as her memorial. What great witnesses.

I agree, for sentimental reasons, with the historians who speculate that it was the public torture of this lovely, innocent little girl, from a noble family, that turned the tide of public opinion in favor of the Christians. In that act, pagan Rome saw itself clearly and didn’t like what it saw. It was the tipping point. (There’s no way to prove such an hypothesis, of course. But if you’d like to step outside…)

Jeff Ziegler gives us these links:

St. Agnes (d. c. 303), virgin and martyr.
— St. Ambrose on St. Agnes (De Virginibus: see chap. 2).
— Today’s readings where the memorial is kept with special devotion, 1 Cor. 1:26-31 and Mt. 13:44-46.
— Vicente Marsip, “Martyrdom of St. Agnes” (1540s).

I posted links, too, last year, including an MP3 interview (scroll down toward the bottom).

UPDATE: Maureen, too, has posted good stuff.