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From the Mailbag

Got a nice note yesterday about my book The Fathers of the Church.

I had major abdominal surgery last week and am starting my recovery with Scott Hahn’s St. Matthew commentary and your The Fathers of the Church.

And…wow…wow…that is how I need to start!

Your book is phenomenal, and I am not even to page 50 yet!

So much of my faith and past studies are coming together now!

This is such a gift…I cannot thank you enough for all of your hard work in learning and creating this valuable information on our Church … the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church!

It keeps me typing!

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Among my favorite Christmas presents was a copy of James Papandrea’s The Wedding of the Lamb: A Historical Approach to the Book of Revelation. It’s my bedtime reading, and I’m loving it. Jim teaches patristics at Garrett (Northwestern) in Chicago, and it shows. This is the most intensely patristic read of the Apocalypse you’ll find.

Now comes word that his new book is out: Novatian of Rome and the Culmination of Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy (a Princeton Theological Monograph). It’s already on my wish list. How about yours?

Dr. Papandrea and I are the lineup for the third annual “Patristipalooza” — an all-day festival of the Fathers at St. Lambert Parish in Skokie, Illinois. Mark your calendar now: Saturday, October 13, 2012. And watch this blog for more details.

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Visiting Old Ostia

I spent a few days in Italy in the first week of December, shooting on-site for a documentary on the life of St. Augustine. It was great fun. By far my favorite part was our day spent in Ostia Antica, where Augustine tended to his mother, St. Monica, during her last illness. Ostia Antica has only recently been excavated, and it’s remarkably intact. In his Confessions, Augustine tells how he felt out of sorts on the day of Monica’s funeral, and so he walked to the baths and then home to take a nap. In Ostia Antica you can kind of retrace his steps, moving from the Christian basilica to the baths and then to a residential neighborhood, where the homes appear to match the saint’s description of the place where he and his friends and family stayed. It’s a powerful experience, giving a pilgrim the opportunity to enter imaginatively (and even physically) into one of the great classic scenes of ancient Christian literature. Another plus: it’s far from the madding crowds of Rome. Nobody goes there, I’m told. So it’s pretty quiet, and you have the ancient streets to yourself — and the saints.

Imagine my delight, on Christmas day, when I saw a feature story on Ostia Antica in the New York Times. (The same paper had run a nice feature when the ruins were first open to the public, a few years back.) Tolle, lege — take up and read!

Here are some glam shots taken by my producer-director, Robert Fernandez, while I was on location.

Me at the amphitheater, Ostia Antica


Walking the streets Augustine walked.


Monica's-eye view of the sidewalks of Ostia.

Adrian Murdoch’s also been blogging on Ostia. He shows that the ruins can really accommodate all necessities.

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Cappadocian Carnival

Today’s the memorial of Saints Basil and Gregory, the great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century. You can listen to me talk with Kris McGregor about St. Basil at Discerning Hearts. I wrote a bit about St. Gregory here. Pope Benedict has dedicated four beautiful audience talks to these two men. Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter, Patres Ecclesiae, on St. Basil alone — but it hasn’t been translated into English yet. (Any takers?)

I wrote the article on St. Basil for volume 3 of the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, which is due out in March from Rowman and Littlefield.

Jeff Ziegler gives us these links:

— St. Basil the Great (379).
— St. Gregory Nazianzen (c. 389).
— Selected works of the saints.
— Pope Benedict XVI: General audiences on the saints (July and August 2007).
— Blessed John Henry Newman’s writings on the saints.
— Today’s readings at Mass: 1 Jn. 2:22-28; Ps. 98:1-4; Jn. 1:19-28.
— Francisco de Herrera, St Basil Dictating His Doctrine (c. 1639).

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Flying to Her Patronage

We fly to your patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.

That’s one of the Church’s most ancient and most beautiful prayers, summing up so much Christian feeling and dogma. The oldest copy we have is in Greek on papyrus, found in Egypt and dating from the third century. By then, perhaps, it was already an old and familiar prayer — the source of the Marian doctrine we find in Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Over time it became especially popular in the Western churches.

Only God could choose his own birth mother, and he made the most perfectly informed decision. The Word became flesh in her womb. He took flesh, so that even our flesh might share in his divinity (see 2 Peter 1:4; 2 Corinthians 8:9, 3:18; Galatians 4:4-6; Romans 8:14-17; 1 John 3:1-2). There is nothing he has not shared with us. In Christ we dare to pray “Our Father” — Abba! We delight as we call upon the patronage of his mother, who has become the mother of every beloved disciple (John 19:26-27).

Today is a great feast, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, a feast that enshrines the doctrine of the fifth-century Council of Ephesus. (For a bit of the dramatic story of that council, see my posts here and here.) It’s my hope that this day begins a great Marian year for you and me. I’m lousy at making New Year’s resolutions, but I guess mine would be to live 2012 as a truly Marian year, flying often to the patronage of the Mother of God, living as the neighborly kinsman and playmate of her Holy Child (the patron of my parish in Bridgeville, Pa.).

Think about joining me in making a Marian reading plan for the months ahead. Check out my godson David Mills’s book Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God and Scott Hahn’s Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God — and, of course, Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia has something to say about today’s feast and the dogma it celebrates …

Mary’s Divine motherhood is based on the teaching of the Gospels, on the writings of the Fathers, and on the express definition of the Church. St. Matthew (1:25) testifies that Mary “brought forth her first-born son” and that He was called Jesus. According to St. John (1:15) Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Word Who assumed human nature in the womb of Mary. As Mary was truly the mother of Jesus, and as Jesus was truly God from the first moment of His conception, Mary is truly the mother of God. Even the earliest Fathers did not hesitate to draw this conclusion as may be seen in the writings of St. Ignatius [Ephes 7], St. Irenaeus [Adv Haer 3.19], and Tertullian [Adv Prax 27]. The contention of Nestorius denying to Mary the title “Mother of God” [Serm 1.6.7] was followed by the teaching of the Council of Ephesus proclaiming Mary to be Theotokos in the true sense of the word. [Cf. Ambr., in Luc. II, 25, P.L., XV, 1521; St. Cyril of Alex., Apol. pro XII cap.; c. Julian., VIII; ep. ad Acac., 14; P.G., LXXVI, 320, 901; LXXVII, 97; John of Antioch, ep. ad Nestor., 4, P.G., LXXVII, 1456; Theodoret, haer. fab., IV, 2, P.G., LXXXIII, 436; St. Gregory Nazianzen, ep. ad Cledon., I, P.G., XXXVII, 177; Proclus, hom. de Matre Dei, P.G., LXV, 680; etc.]

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Greek-English Inerlinear Apostolic Fathers

It’s out! Rick Brannan has finished his electronic, searchable, lovable Greek-English Interlinear of the Apostolic Fathers. It’s out from Logos — at a price I find impossible to refuse. I wish I’d had this every day of the last fifteen years!

He demonstrates just how useful this package can be in two blog posts, here and here.

This is the perfect toy to buy all the patristic nerds in your life this Christmas. It could keep them occupied for … well, forever.

UPDATE: The folks at Logos asked me to mention that there are other excellent Catholic products coming up. See here.

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Gospel Truth — Good News!

I just got my copy of Roger Pearse’s amazing new edition of Eusebius’s Gospel Problems and Solutions. You’ve probably heard that modern scholars have “discovered” “errors” in the Gospels. Well, Christians have always been aware of difficulties and have offered reasonable solutions. It’s amazing that we’ve had to wait so long for an English translation. How long have we been speaking English?

You’ve surely heard the questions. Why is the genealogy in Matthew different to that in Luke? Why is there more than one ending for Mark? Why does it say he was three days in the tomb when he wasn’t? Maybe you’ve asked them yourself. Eusebius faces them all squarely and answers with excellent scholarship.

This book is a must-have for folks who love the Bible and the Fathers. It has an English translation, with the original languages — Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Coptic — on facing pages.

Gospel Problems and Solutions is notable not only for its content, but for the revolutionary methods Roger used in putting it together. He assembled a team of remote translators and paid them for their work. Then, with one of his translators, he assembled the pieces, added excellent introductions and notes, and rendered it editorially clean. He did it all independently of the traditional supports of publishing and academia. Let’s hope many more long-awaited patristic translations will appear, now that Roger’s proved it’s possible. Let’s show the world, too, that it works — by buying the book!

Nor is Eusebius’s genre extinct. I was pleased to receive not long ago a copy of Daniel Fanous’s Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus, a very good modern approach to some perennial questions. It’s just out from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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Sharing Christ’s Priesthood — It’s Back!

Folks have been asking how to get my book Sharing Christ’s Priesthood (now out of print) in study-group quantities. Well, I bought up the remaining stock, and I put it up on Amazon at a much-reduced price. Since it’s “new,” and since I sent stock to Amazon, it qualifies for free “Super Saver” shipping. The book is designed for group discussion, with questions and such. Please spread the word!

Groups in places as far-flung as Atlanta and Des Moines have used it to good effect. See my mentions here and here and here.

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Passion and Pathology

My interview with Dr. Jack McKeating…

The Gospels say little about the business of crucifixion. “And they crucified him” is all St. Mark offers (15:24), with no word of how it was done or how the cross tortured its victim.

The early Christians offered little more when they recited the Creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died and was buried.”

The Crucifixion comes at the climax of the Christian drama. Yet tradition records the matter as little more than a fact. “They crucified him.” “He was crucified.” History provides no coroner’s report, no painstaking medical reconstruction.

Perhaps our first Christian ancestors could not bear to say any more. They had seen men crucified. They could walk to the outskirts of town if they wanted to count the cost — in blood and pain and humiliation — of their salvation.

Unlike Christians through most of history, we today have not grown up with the experience of public executions and public torture. Still, like the family of any murder victim, we feel the need to know the truth about our Savior and brother — not least because we believe He died for our sake.

Over the past 20 years, a friend of mine, Pittsburgh surgeon Jack McKeating, has applied his professional skills to this problem — reviewing the historical and archaeological evidence in light of recent medical research. Some years back, I interviewed him on the subject for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.

“Any serious Christian has to take an active interest in the passion of Jesus Christ,” McKeating told me. “Unfortunately, we’re often too dispassionate about it. We tend to think of it in unreal terms, as an abstraction. But it involved a real person who underwent an absolutely brutal experience out of love for me.”

McKeating traces his interest to the late 1980s, when he was away from home on a fellowship in surgical oncology.

“I was in a Bible study with three other surgeons,” he recalled, “a fundamentalist, a Methodist, a Baptist and me.” One morning, one of his colleagues brought “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” a 1986 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That study gathered the descriptions of crucifixion from ancient sources. It analyzed the skeletal remains of crucified men, and it considered all the data in light of current medical research.

The JAMA study led McKeating to the classic text in the field, A Doctor At Calvary, an exhaustive account written by French Catholic surgeon Pierre Barbet. Barbet completed his book in 1949 after decades of research.

McKeating praises both studies for their scholarship and their unflinching care.

“Anyone who studies the matter has to start with these sources,” he said. “But keep in mind that it is a start. As we advance in medicine, we are able to learn still more about our Lord’s passion.”

How did crucifixion usually happen? Applying their medical knowledge to the historical data, doctors such as McKeating, Barbet and the JAMA team have attempted to reconstruct the events.

The ancient Romans had a special genius for torture. It helped them keep order in a vast empire. The public spectacle of extreme suffering — repeated with some regularity — served as a deterrent to would-be rebels and insurgents.

Crucifixion was the utmost refinement of the Roman art of torture. The Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.” It was designed to cause the most pain in the most parts of the body over the longest period of time.

Crucifixion was humiliating, too, so it was usually reserved for slaves, lower-class criminals or those whose crimes were especially heinous. The stripped man was exposed, naked, to a boorish crowd that delighted in such spectacles. They cast stones at him, spat at him, jeered at him.

The end began when executioners extended the condemned man’s arms and bound them to a wooden beam. Sometimes, they would also drive nails through the man’s wrists at the highly sensitive median nerve. The executioner relied on the element of surprise for the first hammer blow. The victim was unlikely ever to have experienced such pain before. It was “the most unbearable pain that a man can experience,” Barbet concluded.

Nailing the second arm, however, could pose a problem, because the nervous system would instinctively recoil from any repetition of that pain. The executioner would need to struggle against an arm rigidly resistant to his efforts. All of this wrangling, involuntary on the part of the victim, would intensify the pain in the arm already nailed.

The beam then was attached to a pole. Every shift of the beam renewed the pain in the median nerve. But all of that was just a prelude to the real torture of crucifixion.

The victim found himself suspended above the ground, his body slumped forward, his knees bent and his feet positioned as if he were standing on tiptoe. That position made it almost impossible for him to draw a breath.

“Crucifixion stretches the chest cavity open,” McKeating explained, “and the weight of the body pulls down on the diaphragm so the lungs are kept open. It requires great effort to breathe in and even greater effort to exhale — which is normally a fairly passive process.”

The victim could not breathe inward or outward without lifting his body up by the nails in his wrists and pushing up on the nail in his feet. With every breath, then, he felt the coarse metal tearing at his nerves.

Gradually, his limbs cramped and weakened. As he was less able to lift himself up, he began, slowly, to suffocate.

A victim of crucifixion alternated between the panicked sense of asphyxiation and the searing pain of the nails in his flesh. Relief from one inevitably brought about the other.

In a strong man, this could go on for many hours, even days. If the Romans wanted to accelerate the process, they would break the victim’s legs so he could no longer push himself upward to take a breath.

“Jesus was probably a strong man,” McKeating said. “He was relatively young, He worked hard, and He tended to travel by foot. But by the time He reached Calvary, He had undergone many hours of preliminary tortures that alone might have killed him.”

In the Garden of Gethsemane, “His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk 22:44). The JAMA article, following Barbet, attributes this to a phenomenon called hematidrosis or hemohidrosis — hemorrhaging into the sweat glands. This is a rare condition that occurs in people at the extremes of human emotion. It leaves the skin very tender and highly sensitive to pain.

Jesus would have keenly felt every blow as His captors “mocked him and beat him” (Lk 22:63). The beatings continued through long hours in which He was also forced to walk from one interrogation to another — before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate, before Herod and again before Pilate. The JAMA research concludes that He walked two-and-a-half miles during that sleepless night.

Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, and Roman flogging alone could kill a man. A typical whip of cords was studded with metal, sharp animal bones or shards of pottery. It was designed to bruise and tear the skin. Often, a man was whipped by two torturers, one on each side, while he was bound to a post or pillar. It was here that Jesus probably suffered His greatest blood loss.

His back, torn open by the Romans, then had to bear the rough wood of the crossbeam, which probably weighed 75 to 125 pounds. He had to carry the burden along an uneven roadway from Pilate’s praetorium to the hill of Calvary, a third of a mile. Surely, He fell often.

“Some people say that Jesus’ suffering was somehow easier because he was God,” McKeating said. “But that’s not so. Many theologians believe He suffered in a greater way because He had perfect knowledge of what was happening. Also, His senses would have been more acute and more sensitive to pain because they were not at all dulled, as ours are, by sin and self-indulgence.”

What killed Jesus?

“I think it’s multifactorial,” McKeating said. “I think the proximate cause of death was probably suffocation — asphyxia. But I think the end came relatively swiftly — just three long hours — because our Lord was probably in shock before He was actually crucified.

“After the exposure, the emotional duress, the severe beating and then the scourging, He was probably in Class 3 shock, out of a possible 4.”

A great physiologist once described shock as the rude unhinging of the cellular machinery of our bodies.

“The technical definition,” said McKeating, “is that it’s inadequate perfusion of blood to the tissues of our body.

Our bodies normally have five liters of blood. McKeating said that “in a typical Roman scourging, a man would have lost a liter and a half.”

Shock would have weakened Him and left Him anxious and confused, hastening the end.

The Gospels suggest other factors, McKeating said. “After Jesus died, the soldier’s lance thrust brought forth blood and water (Jn 19:34). Where did the water come from? Probably pericardial effusion. Fluid would have built up from internal injuries, pulmonary contusions, bruises, beatings, and it would have filled His chest cavity or the sac around His heart. Every time the heart would beat, then, it couldn’t expand the way it needed to, and it couldn’t fill up. Eventually, it would stop.”

Forensic scientists say that the better we know what killed someone, the more likely we are to find out who killed him.

Who killed Jesus? After a decade-and-a-half of study, McKeating doesn’t hesitate to respond.

“I did,” he said. “My sins did.”

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Holy Thursday

Whether you hold, with some Syriac Fathers, that Christ instituted the Eucharist on Tuesday — or, with the Western tradition, that He instituted it on Thursday — today, Holy Thursday, is the day the Catholic Church remembers the event liturgically. I’m about to leave with my kids for the Chrism Mass in my diocese. It’s a great sight for children to see every year: all the priests of the local Church gathered around their local bishop at the Lord’s table — just as Ignatius described the Eucharist in Antioch around 105 A.D.

To mark the day, I give you this, adapted from my book The Mass of the Early Christians.

The Mass of the early Christians was a familiar and intimate thing. It was, for the Fathers as for the Apostles, the defining action of Christian life. Through the times of persecution, daily communion was fairly commonplace.

Christians were “at home” with the Mass. And yet their reverence was profound. In the third century, Origen noted that when his hearers “receive the Body of the Lord, you guard it with all care and reverence lest any small part should fall from it, lest any piece of the consecrated gift be lost.” In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem exhorted his people. “Tell me, if anyone gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with utmost care, on guard against losing any? Will you not take greater care not to lose a crumb of what is more precious than gold or jewels?”

That reverence extended to the liturgical vessels as well, which were always made of the finest materials the local Church could afford. Origen’s African contemporary Tertullian described chalices richly decorated with images of Christ. And in the midst of the last persecution, in 303, a Roman court in North Africa recorded that the following items had been confiscated from a church: two golden chalices, six silver chalices, six silver dishes, a silver bowl, seven silver lamps, two torches, seven short bronze lampstands with their lamps, and eleven bronze lamps on chains.

In the following century, St. Jerome would write of the need “to instruct by the authority of Scripture ignorant people in all the churches concerning the reverence with which they must handle holy things and minister at Christ’s altar; and to impress upon them that the sacred chalices, veils and other accessories used in the celebration of the Lord’s passion are not mere lifeless and senseless objects devoid of holiness, but that rather, from their association with the body and blood of the Lord, they are to be venerated with the same awe as the body and the blood themselves.”

This care for liturgical detail followed from the Church’s belief in the Real Presence. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body,” wrote St. Paul, “eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29). Indeed, St. Ignatius of Antioch (writing in 107 A.D.) said that the distinguishing mark of heretics was their denial of the Real Presence: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” St. Justin Martyr, four decades later, wrote that “the food blessed by the prayer of his word … is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.” Q.E.D.

This presence was abiding, not something that vanished at the conclusion of Mass. St. Justin described deacons taking Communion to the sick and homebound. Tertullian described Christians, in time of persecution, reserving the sacrament at home for daily communion. And Hippolytus, in third-century Rome, urged Christians to tabernacle the sacrament where no mouse could nibble at it. “For it is the body of Christ … and not to be treated lightly.”

The Church held to this understanding from the start, and it is especially evident in her language of prayer. The theological vocabulary developed more gradually, often in response to abuses and heresies When some teetotaling African clergy began celebrating Mass without wine, St. Cyprian urged them to return to the traditional practice. For the heretics were taking away many things, he said: a divinely appointed image of the blood of Christ and a beautiful symbol (in the mixed cup of wine and water) of the union of the people with Christ. A generation earlier, Irenaeus (writing around 180 A.D.) had pointed out that the mixed cup was also a symbol of the union of Christ’s divine and human natures. So liturgical abuses, even if they sprang from good intentions, could have serious doctrinal consequences.

For the Eucharist is a test and measure of Christian faith. Irenaeus’s words still ring true today: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.”