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Patristics for the Parish

Here’s just what the pastor ordered — or will order, I hope. It’s the Companion Guide to Pope Benedict’s ‘The Fathers’, penned by none other than Your Humble Servant.

I wrote it for group study of the Holy Father’s audience talks on the Church Fathers, which are handily collected by the same publisher in a book titled The Fathers. It’s designed to be a six-week study, but it’s easily expandable to twice that length, if a leader is so inclined. There’s enough material to acquaint a parish or neighborhood group with the early Fathers, from Clement of Rome to Augustine of Hippo. The Companion Guide groups the Fathers by historical period, gives cultural and personal background, synthesizes the material that Pope Benedict presented, and suggests questions for discussion. I’ve keyed the Guide to page numbers in The Fathers.

Ambitious groups can supplement these materials with The Fathers of the Church, Expanded Edition and The Mass of the Early Christians.

The new book weighs in at 96 pages — for only $8.95. Yes, I said $8.95! The novelist Kurt Vonnegut once recalled an ad he saw for a sale on straw hats: “For prices like this, you can run them through your horse and put them on your roses.”

I’d rather that you used these books for discussing the Fathers in friendly groups in your home or parish. But whatever works for the betterment of mankind.

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My eldest daughter and I are recovering from the St. Paul Center‘s 2008 Letter & Spirit Conference, which closed last night. The speakers were outstanding. You should buy all their books (hyperlinked here). Keynote was Dr. John Cavadini, head of theology at Notre Dame, who gave the Center’s annual lecture in honor of the great Father Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap. Dr. Cavadini spoke brilliantly about St. Augustine and marriage. The heart of his lecture is posted here as a PDF. It may be the best thing you read this year. We had a record number of seminarians attending. One of them posted a photo.

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Dee-fense, Dee-fense

Yancy Smith posted the following on Roger Pearse’s blog:

I will be defending my dissertation “Hippolytus’ Commentary on the Song of Songs in Social and Critical Context” on Nov. 19. Drs. Carolyn Osiek, David L. Balch, and Jeffrey Childers (Syriac, Georgian expert) are my committee. Thanks of the input and for your prayers.

Please keep him in mind. He’s doing important work.

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Georgeous Gorge

The Jordan Times gives us an update — actually a downdate — on the excavation of the ancient church of St. Georgeous, which some archeologists were placing in the apostolic era.

AMMAN – The government on Wednesday rejected as baseless rumours it intends to permanently close down two key Christian sites in the eastern town of Rihab.

Community leaders in the town have been threatening to step up a protest they started after the archaeologist who discovered what is said to be the oldest cave church in the world was removed from his post as director of the former Rihab Archaeological and Research Centre, which is now called the Rihab Archaeological Project.

The discovery, albeit controversial, attracted world attention after it was first reported by The Jordan Times in June, with international media outlets sending teams to examine the site.

The cave church lies under a 3rd century church and is said to have been a hidden worshipping place for early Christians who fled persecution at the hands of Romans.

Local community members in Rihab have expressed high hopes that the new discovery, which pushed their small town to the spotlight for some time, would yield fruit in the form of an influx of religious tourists, especially since around 30 old churches have been unearthed in the area.

Residents expressed rejection of what they perceived as ministry orders to bury the cave and close down the site in the face of tourists, but Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Maha Khatib told The Jordan Times in a telephone interview that her ministry is working on a site management plan for both churches to be implemented “soon”.

“Visitors need services such as a rest place, tour guides and an information centre, among other facilities,” the minister said.

Rihab Mayor Khaled Akho Rsheida quoted archaeology officials in Rihab as telling him they had received “verbal” orders from Antiquities Department Director General Fawwaz Khreisha to “conceal the sites, take down the signs and prevent tourists from visiting the location”.

An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that already a US group of journalists, who arrived at the site were prevented from touring St. Georgeous Church, which was discovered three years ago, and the cave church beneath.

“This is not only a treasure for Rihab, but for the Kingdom,” the mayor said.

MP Ibrahim Mohammad Omoush, who represents the area’s electoral district, said both the former director of the Rihab centre, Abdul Qader Al Housan, and his successor, Jameel Masaeed, confirmed receiving instructions to “bar visitors from touring the sites, to take down the signs and bury the [cave] church completely”.

“But the ministry denied all this,” the lawmaker told The Jordan Times.

Another deputy representing Mafraq, Tayseer Shdeifat, said that closing down the church in Rihab would be a “crime against our cultural legacy”.

Khreisha expressed “shock” over these “nonsensical claims”.

“The ministry just wants to unify the size, colour and shapes of all signs in archaeological sites all over the Kingdom.”

Khreisha added that the ministry is “simply seeking to preserve the site” by following a routine procedure usually taken in the winter to cover the mosaic floors of all open sites with nylon covered with sand to absorb rainwater and prevent humidity from developing that may destroy the mosaic. He denied there were any instructions to bury the cave for good.

“We at the ministry have plans to restore the mosaics in the group of churches unearthed in the area and to publish brochures and booklets concerning the churches discovered.”

Khreisha said that the ministry will initiate its plan in 2009.

Jameel Masaeed, the new Rihab Archaeological Project director, said he is unaware of any future ministry plans regarding the sites. He declined to comment further.

But apparently the measures taken by the Antiquities Department halted another plan that was in the making.

Archimandrite Nektarious, bishop deputy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, told The Jordan Times that the Orthodox Archdiocese had already obtained the approval from the Antiquities Department to start a project to protect and restore St. Georgeous Church and to provide it with the needed infrastructure “to make any visitor’s stopover a pure delight”.

He said that funds were already secured and preparations under way, but they had to stop everything when the department closed the sites.

Nektarious added that leaders of the Orthodox church were the very first to visit the site of St. Georgous when excavations of the church were under way in early 2005, when they held a mass and decided to support the site, believed to be the first church in the world.

Another visitor to the site, Mohammad Abu Dalbouh, said that the site is popular in the Greek Orthodox community in Russia after the visit of the Russian ambassador along with a group from the embassy in 2006. Abu Dalbouh, an agricultural engineer and a graduate of a Russian university, said he was planning to promote the site among his acquaintances in Russia, adding that all Christians in the world should be targeted by promotion campaigns.

Reverend George Abu Ghazaleh, who visited Rihab churches with his family during the summer, said: “I am interested in any discoveries related to the Bible.”

According to his biblical and archaeological knowledge, “there are several indicators to the authenticity of these churches”, referring to the inscription on the stone of the first church and the coins found in the cave, but said “more in-depth studies and research” should be done…

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My Heart’s on Fire, Palmyra

Giddy up! The AP reports on a patristic-era find in Syria. They say it’s the largest so far discovered in Palmyra.

Archaeologists in central Syria have unearthed the remnants of an 8th century church, an antiquities official said Thursday.

A Syrian-Polish archaeological team recently discovered the church in the ancient city of Palmyra, said Walid al-Assaad, the head of the Palmyra Antiquities and Museums Department. He did not say specifically when the church was discovered or the exact date the church was built.

He said the church is the fourth and largest discovered so far in Palmyra — an ancient trade center that is now an archaeological treasure trove.

The church’s base measures 51-by-30 yards, and archaeologists estimate its columns stood 20 feet tall and its wooden ceiling would have been about 50 feet high, al-Assaad said.

A small amphitheater also was found in the church’s courtyard where experts believe Christian rituals were practiced, al-Assaad said.

“In the northern and southern parts of the church there are two rooms that are believed to have been used for baptisms, religious ceremonies, prayers and other rituals,” he said.

Ancient Palmyra, located some 150 miles northeast of Damascus, was the center of an Arab servant state to the Roman empire and thrived on caravan trades across the desert to Mesopotamia and Persia.

Under the 3rd century Syrian Queen Zenobia, the city rebelled against Roman rule and briefly carved out an independent desert Arab kingdom before being reconquered and razed by the Romans.

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Paul in the Present

Finish the Year of St. Paul with my good friend Scott Hahn as your guide.

Scott’s Pocket Guide to St. Paul is now available for pre-order from Amazon. It should arrive in plenty of time for you to stuff it in many stockings. At just under a hundred pages, it’ll fit nicely.

I do love this little book. It packs a lot into a small package, but so did St. Paul. (The Fathers say he was hardly more than five feet tall, soaking wet from shipwreck.)

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Virtual Rome

The London Times takes us, via Google Earth, to Rome as Constantine I knew it.

The glory that was Rome is to rise again. Visitors will once more be able to visit the Colosseum and the Forum of Rome as they were in 320 AD, this time on a computer screen in 3D.

The realisation of the ancient city in Google Earth lets viewers stand in the centre of the Colosseum, trace the footsteps of the gladiators in the Ludus Magnus and fly under the Arch of Constantine.

The computer model, a collection of more than 6,700 buildings, depicts Rome in the year 320 AD. Then, under the emperor Constantine I, the city boasted more than a million inhabitants –- making it the largest metropolis in the world. It was not until Victorian London that another city surpassed it.

The project has been developed by Google in collaboration with the Rome Reborn Project and Past Perfect Productions. The computer graphics are based on a physical model – the Plastico di Roma Antica, which was created by archaeologists and model-makers between 1933 and 1974 and is housed in the Museum of Roman Civilisation in Rome. There are only 300 original ruins still standing today.

I still think Evelyn Waugh did a better job of taking us back to Constantine’s Rome, in his novel Helena. In the most recent issue of First Things, George Weigel argues that Helena was the first postmodern novel. I don’t know about that. I do know it’s side-splittingly funny. And it was Waugh’s own favorite among his works. If you haven’t read Helena, you owe it to yourself. It’ll take your mind off the stock market and any number of elections.

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The Apostate and Immigration Reform

Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio recently gave the keynote address at the Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly. He spoke on the Catholic contribution to immigration reform. And he told his listeners the story of Julian the Apostate.

I want to go back in history a little bit. To the short reign of the Emperor Julian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 361 to 363 A.D.

You remember your history, I’m sure. After centuries of persecution, Christianity became first a “tolerated” religion, and then the official state religion under the Roman Emperor Constantine, beginning in the early fourth century. Well, Julian was the son of Constantine’s half-brother, Julius Constantius, and he came to power after a series of bloody struggles.

Julian came to be known for all time as “Julian the Apostate.” He got that notorious label because, although he had been baptized and raised a Christian, he abandoned his faith immediately upon becoming emperor. Julian then used his “bully pulpit” as emperor to scorn the Church and Christianity and to promote devotion to the pagan gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome—Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, and the rest.

Julian called the Christians “Galileans.” It was a kind of ethnic and class slur. And he wrote a big book against the Church. He said his aim was to strip that “new-fangled Galilean god” of “the divinity falsely ascribed to him” (Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 177).

But there was something that Julian couldn’t shake about the Christians. Something he couldn’t get out of his mind. And that was the Christians’ virtue. Their charity. And especially their hospitality to those they didn’t even know. In fact, Julian once issued an order to try to get pagan believers to start imitating the Christians in what he called their “benevolence toward strangers.”

Here’s a quote from a letter he wrote, and you can tell he’s not very happy. He complains that Christians’ care for strangers and their holiness is contributing to the spread of “atheism.” (He called Christians “atheists” because they didn’t believe in the pagan gods.)

Here’s what Julian wrote: “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers … and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism. … It is disgraceful that when … the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men should see how our people lack aid from us.” (Macmullen and Lane, Paganism and Christianity, 100–425 C.E.: A Sourcebook, 271–272).

You see he’s embarrassed. Ashamed. The Christians are so generous that they’re helping the poor Romans and that exposes how the Romans themselves don’t take care of their poor.

My friends, my point in this little history lesson is this: From the beginning there was something very different about Christians. Something even their enemies, like Julian, couldn’t help but notice—and admire, no matter how reluctantly.

It’s true there was a tradition of welcoming the stranger in other cultures and religions. Philosophers like Plato wrote about the importance of hospitality. But for the first Christians it became an original and central element of their religious identity. To be a Christian was to practice hospitality to the stranger.

Julian the Apostate is worth getting to know. See here. Or cut to the chase and buy Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World.

Archbishop Gomez is always worth reading. See his collected works here.