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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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First-Ever Patristics Pilgrimage!

Join me in Italy November 10-19! We at the St. Paul Center are offering our first-ever pilgrimage that focuses on the Church Fathers. Over the course of nine days, we’ll visit holy sites in Milan, Pavia, Ravenna, Assisi, and Rome. Joining me will be Dr. Matthew Bunson, history professor and author of Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, art historian and TV host Elizabeth Lev, and author Steve Ray. Our chaplain is Fr. Leo McKernan, a renowned spiritual director and preacher — and student of St. Augustine. We’ll visit:

— the font where St. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose, and the places they walked together in Milan

— the tomb of St. Ambrose

— the most lavish and stunning early Christian art, in Ravenna, home to St. Peter Chrysologus and Boethius

— the tomb of St. Augustine in Pavia and the tomb of his mother, St. Monica, in Rome

— the relics of St. Agnes, the Roman Catacombs, the resting place of Apostolic Fathers Ignatius and Clement

— sites associated with Sts. Peter and Paul and the early martyrs

— peaceful Assisi, with its Franciscan sites, as well as early-Christian remains

And so much more. See the details here and still greater detail in the brochure, here.

We’ll have Mass together every day, sometimes at the holy sites. We’ll pray the Rosary together. We’ll eat great meals — Italy’s other specialty.

Sign up soon. I think it will fill. Seating is limited.

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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!

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Now we set our faces like flint toward Skokie, Illinois, for the event my son is calling “Patristipalooza.”

Lessons from the Early Church: Listening to the Fathers Today” will take place Friday and Saturday, October 22-23, at St. Lambert Parish in Skokie, Ill.

I’ll be giving two talks, along with Carl Sommer (author of We Look for a Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians), Rod Bennett (author of Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words), and Father Richard Simon (“Reverend Know-It-All” of Relevant Radio fame).

It’s a great slate of talks, and a beautiful opportunity for conversation. And we’ll be raffling off books — and ancient coins with cool Christian symbols.

Check it out — and join us! (There’s a Facebook event page, too.)

Please tell all your friends in Chicagoland!

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Roma Bella

I know that some of you have been waiting to hear a report on the pilgrimage to Rome. At first I was waiting till other pilgrims posted photos, but now I discover that Facebook has changed the dynamic a bit. I’m not on Facebook, so I’ll share this shot with you. How was my time in Rome? How could it be anything but wonderful when I spent my days with these two bright and lovely young women (my daughters)?

It was a much richer pilgrimage with art historian Liz Lev as our guide. It was my seventh trip to the Eternal City, but with Liz’s guidance I felt as if I saw the ancient city for the first time.

Happy Feast of Saints Peter and Paul to everyone. Remember: no one in Rome works today.

And apparently that’s a favored straight line for Italian comedians.

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Pilgrim’s Progress

Last year, while I was roaming the Holy Land, I was reading Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods, a pricey book, but worth its weight in the gold of Ophir, thanks especially to the gorgeous essay by Wendy Pullan: “‘Intermingled until the End of Time’: Ambiguity as a Central Condition of Early Christian Pilgrimage.” My reading of that in situ led to a talk on the subject at my parish, and I’m expanding that talk for the pilgrim group that’s going to Rome next week with me and Scott Hahn.

That’s a windy way for me to begin to say that BMCR has posted a review of a book that promises an interesting follow-up to Pullan’s study: Benjamin H. Dunning’s Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity.

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St. Agatha: Patroness for Ailments of the Breast

Because of the tortures she endured in martyrdom, St. Agatha is also patroness of women who live with diseases of the breast. My one-time editor Paul Zalonski has a deep devotion to the third-century martyr. In the past he has sponsored and publicized her devotions. At his request, we’ve posted a prayer for St. Agatha’s intercession. This year he’d like to invite you to a special St. Agatha’s Day event.

In Celebration of the Feast of Saint Agatha
The Church of Saint Catherine of Siena
and the
Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York

Invites you to Vespers and Benediction
with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick
for women and men living with Breast Cancer

February 5, 2010 at 7 pm.
The Church of Catherine of Siena
411 East 68th Street
New York, NY 10065

As you know, Saint Agatha is the patron saint for those living with diseases of the breast. People for centuries have had a devotion to Saint Agatha for many reasons, not least is her powerful intercession before God on behalf of those dealing with breast cancer. It is for this reason that we are having a Vespers with Benedictine service with the sacrament of Anointing. The sacrament of Anointing is to strengthen, heal and sustain those who receive it.

Please let your friends know about this extraordinary opportunity for prayer and healing on the Feast of Saint Agatha.

Father Jordan Kelly, OP will be presiding and preaching assisted by other Dominican, Franciscan and Diocesan priests.

Saint Catherine of Siena Church is administered by the Dominican Friars who also have a special healthcare ministry at the Hospital for Special Surgery, NY Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, Sloan-Kettering and Rockefeller Univ. Hospital. At these 4 prestigious hospitals in NYC the Dominican Friars Healthcare Ministry works with the spiritual and ethical needs of people associated in some way (patients, family members, clinicians).

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On Holy Ground

In the comments field of my Christmas post, one of our regulars, Warren, lamented his annual holiday tangles and wrangles over religion: “This year, like all others … I learned that all the holy sites in Jerusalem and around Israel are most likely bogus, and that they were all determined by Constantine’s mother. (The location of the Sepulchre, the church of the nativity, etc).”

My response to Warren follows. I’m posting it here in case the recommendations are useful for others.

There are very good reasons to believe the sites we venerate are at or near the places where the events occurred.  We know — from pagan and Christian sources — that those first generations of Christians were willing to risk their lives for the memory of Christ. Can anyone seriously believe that those same people would be sloppy about keeping that memory? Remember, they lived in a culture that placed a premium on the accuracy of oral history. These particular memories would have been the most important, the most carefully passed on.

The literary sources are useful. The Gospels do concern themselves with details, topography, place names, and many of their geographic details are confirmed in non-Christian sources (Josephus, for example).

Archeologists, too, are willing to make the “positive” case for this or that site. Check out their testimony. Start with The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Also helpful is The Jerusalem Jesus Knew: An Archaeological Guide to the Gospels by John Wilkinson. I love the works of Bargil Pixner; and you might want to read Jesus and First-Century Christianity in Jerusalem, co-authored with Elizabeth McNamer — but all Pixner’s books are useful. Another reliable witness is William Dever, who is hardly a conventional believer, being an ex-Christian somewhat converted to an agnostic sort of Judaism; but he makes a good case for the accuracy of the biblical record. See his Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research. If you want to extend your archeological-historical studies further back, see On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by K. A. Kitchen.

These men are respected archeologists, published by reputable houses. They’re hardly credulous, but they’re willing to grant credence to the biblical authors and the religious traditions that hallow certain ruins and parcels of land. I think only a true bigot could dismiss the traditions out of hand after considering the witness of these scholars (and many more of their colleagues).

This is not to say there’s unanimity on the veracity of every identification of every site. Of course there’s not. But we should not be so eager to cast our ancestors as idiots.

Nevertheless, site identification is not a hill I’m willing to die on as a Christian apologist. For Muslims — as for Jews in antiquity — pilgrimage is something akin to our sacraments: something essential, a divine mandate. But it’s never been that way for Christians. Here we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14). For an excellent study of the Fathers’ ambivalence toward the holy sites, see Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods.

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Outside the Walls, But Now on DVD

One of my all-time favorite books is Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, a noted art historian’s study of Rome’s fourth-century Church of St. Agnes Outside the Walls. Regular readers know that I’m deeply devoted to St. Agnes, having both a mom and daughter who bear her name. Last week I thrilled to learn that Margaret Visser has taped a feature-length documentary on the church. You can view excerpts here. The program’s not available on Amazon, but I learned that it’s for sale on DVD from Les Productions Colin Neale, Inc., in Quebec. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to purchase it online.

I’ve never visited St. Agnes Outside the Walls — yet — though it’s been a dream of mine.

It will be a dream come true, God willing, next May when Scott Hahn, Kimberly Hahn, Steve Ray, Elizabeth Lev, and I lead a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. It would be awesome if you could join us.

You’ll find an itinerary and registration details here.