Posted on

Newman and the Fathers

My long article on Newman and the Fathers (and us) appeared in Our Sunday Visitor last month. Subscribers can view it in its entirety online — and everyone should subscribe!

For a brief moment in September, Cardinal John Henry Newman.caught the attention of the world. As Pope Benedict XVI declared him “blessed” during an apostolic visit to Great Britain, Blessed Newman’s conversion story was once again newsworthy, as it had been a century and a half before.

At the heart of Blessed Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism was his study of the early Christians, the Fathers of the Church. As an Anglican clergyman, he believed that they held the answer to his denomination’s perennial problem — fragmentation in doctrinal and practical matters. Blessed Newman sought a purer reflection upon Scripture in the writings of the Fathers, an interpretation untainted by modern politics and controversies.

Yet his methods were — and remain — particularly appealing to modern readers. I confess I’ve filched them shamelessly as I prepared my recent books, especially Roots of the Faith.
Blessed Newman read the Fathers deeply, and not merely to extract theoretical propositions. He wanted to enter their world — to “see” divine worship as they saw it, to experience the prayers as they prayed them, to insert himself into the drama of the ancient arguments.

He immersed himself in the works of the Fathers, so that he could recount their stories in his brief Historical Sketches, in his book-length studies and, later, in one of his novels. After decades of such labors, he concluded that, “of all existing systems, the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers. … Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own.”

An interesting thing had happened. His study of the Fathers of the Church had caused him to desire The Church of the Fathers (yet another of his book titles). He wanted to place himself in real communion with the ancients, with Athanasius and Ambrose. A notional or theoretical connection wasn’t enough, and could never be. He wanted to move out of the shadows of hypothetical churches, based on a selective reading of the Church Fathers, and into the reality of the Fathers’ Church.

In declaring Cardinal Newman blessed, Pope Benedict has held up his life as worthy of imitation. And, in the matter of encountering the Fathers, it should hardly be a burden.

Like Blessed Newman and his contemporaries, so many people today hold a lively curiosity about Christian origins. Many ordinary Christians would like to move beyond the preoccupations of today’s tenure-track historians and documentarians (gender and conflict, power and more gender). They would like to find their own imaginative entry into the world of the Church Fathers. They would like “Historical Sketches” that were vivid enough to see with an attentive mind’s eye.

Posted on

A Culture Exposed

A few years back, the Washington Post ran an astonishing opinion column, written by one of its own, Patricia E. Bauer, a former Post bureau chief. Patricia has a grown daughter with Down syndrome, and she writes about the rudeness she has had to endure through the years. People ask her whether she had undergone prenatal testing. The unspoken assumption is that, if she had, her daughter Margaret would never have been born. One Ivy League ethicist said in her presence that mothers whose unborn children test positive for Down syndrome have a “moral obligation” to terminate the pregnancy.

We’ve come a long way, baby. And we’ve ended up back where we started before the rise of Christianity. In the Church’s infancy, the age of the Fathers, abortion and infanticide were commonplace events, requiring little deliberation. Archeology has yielded us a rare glimpse at the inner life of ordinary people in this time. We have a letter from a pagan businessman in which he wrote home to his pregnant wife, amid the usual endearments: “If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it.”

Indeed, most pagan cultures considered it a duty to place “defective” newborns on the dunghills at the edge of town, where birds of prey could pick them apart. Most families interpreted the word “defective” broadly, to include female children as well as those with disabilities or disfigurement. Plato and Aristotle commended the practice, and the Roman historian Tacitus said it was “sinister and revolting” for Jews to forbid infanticide.

Yet these practices created a crisis for pagans. Abortion and infanticide led to low fertility rates, high maternal mortality, a shortage of marriageable women, and an absence of familial care for the elderly. Over generations, the dwindling native population of Rome grew increasingly dependent on foreign mercenaries to fill the ranks of the army, and immigrants to do the servile jobs that no Roman citizen wanted to do. That makes for an unstable infrastructure. Various emperors tried to legislate fertility, but the law isn’t much of an aphrodisiac. And abortion kills a couple’s love every bit as much as it kills their baby. Besides, people had grown accustomed to an unmoored, leisurely life, drifting from pleasure to pleasure, without the encumbrance of children.

We face a similar crisis today. Christianity’s critics say they want to promote a tolerant, welcoming, inclusive society. What they usually mean is a society that gives free rein to every vice, every cruel lust, and every sin. But a growing number of people are dissatisfied with the societal consequences of those sins. What’s a culture to do?

We Christians have answers. Around 155 A.D., St. Justin Martyr wrote to the emperor: “We have been taught that it is wicked to expose even newly born children . . . For we would then be murderers.” In the same century, Athenagoras said: “Women who use drugs to bring on an abortion commit murder.” These testimonies appear late in the game, a half-century after the earliest recorded Christian condemnation of abortion.

We, too, are living rather late in the game, but not too late to speak up and speak plainly. No society can grow if it snuffs out life in the seed or in the bud. No society can be inclusive if it refuses to welcome the most vulnerable persons. It was Christians who created the first truly tolerant, welcoming, and all-inclusive society — with a remarkable social-welfare system. They did this because they, unlike their rulers, not only tolerated the poor and weak, nor merely loved them with a human affection. They saw the least of the human family as the image of God, as Christ who must be welcomed, as angels requiring hospitality.

I’ve quoted the Didascalia Apostolorum here before, but that’s OK. We need to memorize this line as if it were the first catechism lesson: “Widows and orphans are to be revered like the altar.”

From such reverence for life came true social security, true stability and prosperity. From such reverence came many beloved and loving children like Margaret.

Posted on

Legacy of Life

I think the Fathers would recognize America’s moral 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 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 — 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. After all, we don’t (yet) kill older children who are blind or deaf. 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 were an “odious daughter” (a common Roman phrase for female offspring), he would likely turn on his heel and leave the room.

If the child were “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 Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter; by Justin, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, 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.

Posted on

Clement of Rome — the Comeback Tour!

Awesome news: Msgr. Thomas Herron’s book Clement and the Early Church of Rome: On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians — long out of print and extremely rare — is at last back in circulation, and at a steal of a price. In a truly just world, there would be dancing in the streets. Msgr. Herron, a priest of Philly, was once secretary to a man named Joseph Ratzinger. He also served as my Scripture columnist when I was in the newspaper biz. Ratzinger cites this study in his work. Clayton Jeffords said it persuaded him of the much earlier date for Clement’s letter. You’re gonna love it.

We’ve discussed the first edition of Msgr. Herron’s book in these pages — read here, especially the comments.

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. One of my all-time favorite books is about that fourth-century church. It’s Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church. Visser has taped a feature-length documentary about St. Agnes Outside the Walls. You can view excerpts here.

Another church in Agnes’s honor stands in Rome’s lovely Piazza Navona. Last year, with my daughter Mary Agnes, I visited both churches. I plan to get there again this November on a St. Paul Center pilgrimage. Please consider joining us!

Posted on

Why We Hoard Books

At last, an ancient Christian book-owner gets credit where credit’s due.

AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University has identified the owner of a Greek New Testament papyrus as Aurelius Leonides, a flax merchant from Egypt. Discovered in the late 19th century at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, the papyrus contains verses 1-7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

“It is the first and only ancient instance where we know the owner of a Greek New Testament papyrus,” writes Luijendijk in the Journal of Biblical Literature. “For most early New Testament manuscripts, we do not know where they were found, let alone who had owned them,” she continues.

I read and loved Luijendijk’s book Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Harvard Theological Studies). Trolling in that glorious garbage dump in the “town of the sharp-snouted fish,” Dr. Luijendijk gathered the remains of a church that was hierarchical, richly liturgical, and deeply learned. Her study of the use of the word “Papas” — both “pope” and “father” — is illuminating.

God rest Aurelius Leonides for the care he took with this book. Surely he had to keep thousands in order for one to have survived. That’s what I’ll tell my wife.

Posted on

Glory, Mystery, Tradition

At long last I’m holding in my hands a copy of The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition, the book I co-authored with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Doubleday made it beautiful — hardcover, with many photos of the Cardinal celebrating Mass.

It contains a foreword by Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and a preface by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Here’s what other folks are saying:

“To the early Christian, the Mass was known as ‘the mysteries.’ This book is unique in that it unveils those mysteries from two distinct perspectives: the priest’s and the congregation’s. Every detail matters: the special vessels and fabrics, the candles and the furnishings, what the priest wears and what the worshippers wear. It’s all examined, explained and illustrated here. I’m pleased to see it done so beautifully and deeply by authors well equipped for the task.”
– Scott Hahn, dear friend and colleague

“The Mass is the “source and summit of the whole Christian life”; in it Heaven and earth meet. Yet many Catholics seem unaware of the profound depths and infinite beauty of the Liturgy. They remain partial participants in the Eucharist or even just spectators. In The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina address this problem head on. Here we find the Mass accurately and lovingly explained down the last prayer – indeed, the last gesture. Using excellent historical and biblical references as well as quotations from the Fathers of the Church, the authors lead the reader step by step into the great mystery of God’s love for us that is the Mass. This book would be of great benefit to any Catholic and indeed to any Christian.”
– Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR

“What an inviting—and refreshing—guide to the Mass! Whether you are a Catholic or non-Catholic, a churchgoer thirsty for a deeper understanding of the celebration you have attended so many times, or are simply curious about the Catholic Mass, this book is your passport to a new, deeper, richer experience with the Mass, and with Christ in the Eucharist.”
– Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus

“There is genius in Catholicism and nothing demonstrates that more tangibly than the Mass. At the same time it is impossible to ignore the fact that millions of Catholics don’t have such an appreciation for the Mass. Is it a big problem? Yes. Is there a simple solution to that big problem? Yes. If every Catholic in America would read this book I think it would be a great first step in our quest to engage disengaged Catholics and turn the tide for Catholicism in America.”
– Matthew Kelly, New York Times bestselling author

“This is an ingenious, deeply satisfying exploration of the Mass – its history, its elements and its meaning. The authors blend the best of priestly and lay wisdom about the central act of Catholic worship into a volume that is simultaneously rich in detail, wonderfully readable in style, and a marvelous resource for nourishing one’s faith.”
– Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver

“Excellent, inspiring, and practical. I recommend this book to everyone (particularly at this time of confusing press coverage.)”
– Fr. Michael Scanlan, Chancellor of Franciscan University

“It’s the ‘source and summit’ of our Christian life, so to understand, love, and appreciate the Mass is imperative for anybody serious about discipleship. This excellent book is a great place to start.”
– Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York

The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition is an ideal introduction to all the aspects of the Mass.”
– Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., Editor-in-chief of MAGNIFICAT

“Whenever we celebrate the Holy Mass, what we encounter is no less significant than what the Apostles encountered with Jesus at the Last Supper—Christ in His Word; Christ in His Body and Blood; Christ in the Gathering. The miracle of the Real Presence of Christ among us is at the very center of our lives. In this marvelous book, Donald Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, one of our greatest educators in the faith, and best-selling author Mike Aquilina, present a basic and thorough catechesis on the Mass, a helpful compendium on the central act of Christian worship. This is a book for all believers who want to enrich their knowledge, understanding and love for the Mass.”
– Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh

Posted on

Happiness Is …

Reading the blog Happy Catholic always makes me a happy Catholic. But it’s an ecstasy when I land there and find an appreciative review of one of my books. This week she scrutinized my book A Year with the Church Fathers: Patristic Wisdom for Daily Living. I’m pleased that she appreciates not only the Fathers’ words, but also the design of the book, which is itself an act of devotion and a stunning work of the bookbinder’s art.

Here are some snips:

Aquilina’s passion for the wisdom of the Fathers always is passed on to readers in such a way that they appreciate the Fathers for themselves, which is no easy feat when one considers how long ago they wrote.

… This is not simply a collection of interesting or informative excerpts from the Church Fathers’ archives. It is a well-planned, daily retreat that is designed to progress through a year with the ancient Fathers as spiritual guides. The 365 meditations are intended to move the reader, with prayer and contemplation, to a deeper life with Jesus Christ.

… This book is a beautiful thing that reflects the value of the words within it to our souls. The cover may not be actual leather but it certainly feels like it. Pages are gilt-edged. A sturdy ribbon marker matches the cover. Moreover, the book design is elegant and decorative in an understated but classic way. A Year with the Fathers is not only useful but a book that could become an heirloom in your family. Readers will know that I do not give this praise lightly.

Oh, please read the rest.

Posted on

Emperors’ New Close-Ups

Adrian Murdoch is posting an informative and entertaining video series on the Roman emperors. “The idea is to cover every Roman emperor from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus in under two minutes. A new episode will be published on a Monday morning. By the end of the year we should be in the middle of the third century.” Adrian supplements his summary lectures with nice shots of art and ruins. Check out the Augustus. It’s a minute and twenty-three seconds well spent.