Saturday, June 22, 2024

“Grillo’s Tradition resembles too much the Progress of the Marxian-Pragmatist rhetoric of yore”: Pietro de Marco Responds to Grillo, and Grillo Replies

The following article appeared first in Italian at Messa in Latino and is published here for the benefit of NLM readers. Pietro De Marco (b. Genoa, 1941) taught Sociology of Religion in the Faculty of Education at the University of Florence. He has taught Comparative Religious Systems in the Faculty of Political Science in Florence. A philosopher by training, under the guidance of Eugenio Garin, he worked on the history of the European intellectual field (Renaissance and nineteenth and twentieth centuries) and on ancient Jewish and Christian thought and medieval Islamic thought. He then conducted studies in church history and theology at the Institute for Religious Sciences in Bologna. He was editor of the Encyclopedia of Religions (Vallecchi) from 1969 to 1974 and collaborator of the Chair of Church History at the Faculty of Letters in Florence.

I have been asked to convey my opinion on the arguments with which Andrea Grillo responded to his interlocutor and somewhat mistreated readers of Messa in Latino. We have had a couple of confrontations with Andrea, over time, and that makes it easy for me, even in choosing the right tone. But it also makes clear my position, which I recall for those who have never read me: I do not intervene as a “traditionalist faithful to Rome,” as MiL legitimately expresses itself. Since I have been writing, and particularly, since I have felt it my duty to show disagreement with the communicative and governing acts of the reigning pontiff—I, who have always been pro-Roman!—I have spoken as a common christifidelis, endowed with some capacity for judgment, but first and foremost filled with concern for the Church, which since childhood, by God’s gift, I have truly felt to be my Mother.

I knew and shared, in the 1960s and 1970s, the conciliar reforming “point of view” and its radicalities. But, except perhaps for a very brief period, no one could convince me that much, if not all, of the past living human-divine history of the Catholic Church had been error or relative blindness or deviation. One failed to realize, as many still do not even now, that the possibility of thinking this way had already occurred, with all its consequences: it had been at the heart of the great Protestant crisis. The hermeneutic of rupture and restart from supposedly pure origins, proper to the Reformers, is not, cannot be, the Catholic one. Despite a certain theological greatness in the Reformed churches, which I know and recognize, the Reformation constitutes a paradigm of error already worked out in Christian history, all the more seriously in its “liberal” versions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I find it incredibly naive to retrace, with the blind tâtonnement of those seeking regenerations or rebirths, the dead-end roads already imagined or traveled by others.

I will not be kicked to the “right,” therefore, either my insignificant self or the theologians, clergy, intellectuals, and churches who in the world stand firmly in the center in opposing the destructive elites, to which unfortunately Grillo also belongs, who make use of a contradictory and disorienting pontificate, endowed with fixed personal ideas as much as an individual Christian can be in difficult decades, but not a pope. This premise was appropriate as a preliminary to all the remarks and boutades that Grillo reserves for “faithful traditionalists” but which want to hit very distant and lofty targets.

Marxian-Pragmatist Rhetoric

We see this immediately in what he argues in the first response. Having said that the “ritual parallelism” instituted by Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum had no theological foundation, Grillo asserts, with the drasticness of reformers who renounce all dialogical masquerade, that to be “faithful” one must acquire the ritual language communally established by Rome—in other words, the one established by the recent Traditionis custodes. Indeed, Tradition incorporates “a legitimate and unsurpassable progress, which is irreversible”; this would also be the meaning of the title of the motu proprio that seemed to many to be mocking.

But Grillo’s Tradition resembles too much the Progress of the Marxian-Pragmatist rhetoric of yore (its motion is unsurpassable, irreversible) to have anything to do with Christian traditiones, and with religious traditions in general. There is, strictly speaking, no progress in the Christian traditum (what is “dogmatic progress” I will not bother to remind Andrea), and nothing new is irreversible. It is curious that I have to remind someone of this who elsewhere would deny that Trent (and perhaps Chalcedon) were unsurpassable and irreversible moments of progress.

What does not hold up—and what I am sorry to see proposed instead as obvious—is that Traditionis custodes is deemed unsurpassable and irreversible, but not Summorum Pontificum. Yet neither document has more value than that of an act of government willed by the prudentia of the head of the Church. Instead, it will be a matter of debate which of the two prudentiae is to be recognized as more solicitous of the good of Christians.

About Summorum pontificum, Grillo and I publicly debated back in 2007, in Parma Cathedral, with Luise moderating. At that time I supported the following perspective, and I remain fully convinced of it:
The new “legitimization” of the Missale romanum [of 1962] decreed by SP brings Catholic life back to its essential nature as complexio. Catholic history “preceding” the Second Vatican Council is proposed as a vital horizon for the “spirit” of the Council itself and its realization—a “realization” that many extremisms have experienced instead as incompatible with the past. Thus the goal of “internal reconciliation within the bosom of the Church” becomes part of a broad medicinal intervention for the universal church…. The recovery of the Latin rite may, contrary to objections, act as a stabilizing paradigm for the fluctuating and impoverished modern-language liturgies. As Cardinal Lehmann said, the motu proprio is good reason to promote with new attention a worthy celebration of all Masses.
The misunderstanding of many bishops has moved politically against this stabilizing paradigm of the liturgy. I cannot help but add that the sensibilities and/or theories stated by Grillo stand against the perennial, ever-acting value of mystery-sacramentary ontology in the millennial life of the Church. I firmly think, against what Grillo derisively dismisses in his answer to the fifth question, that “what was sacred for past generations cannot but be sacred for us as well”; breaking with the Christian Sacred, with the sacramentaria, was the illusory and dramatic act of Calvinist Entzauberung. Here is not the place to argue this point, but having taught and worked in the sociology of religion for decades, I distinguish between the sensory variability (but not volatility) of the sacred and its ontological status. Grillo and I both admire Odo Casel, but we may not be reading the same author, so to speak.

Christological Void

Let us therefore not be fooled: the defense of postconciliar reforms is, for the leading liturgists, only political. Hostile to the Ratzingerian correction of 2007, they aimed and have aimed for decades to proceed (as soon as possible) much further subversively and authoritatively, toward an opposite atheological polarity: abolition of liturgical books, threshold situations, effervescence, theatricalizations, and ritual primitivisms. Grillo knows just what I am talking about. It is the desperate hope of the generative negation of the new or the authentic.

The common ecclesial life, even as it is not devoid of differences of opinion and practice, and the (mostly) wise governance of the bishops, have prevented this outcome, but liturgical celebrations in general have conflicted with common sense, have been lacking strong paradigms, and have shown frequent slips toward designification. These slippages have, moreover, a worrying de fide relevance—opening up a Christological void perceptible to anyone—that catechesis is incapable of correcting.

In this recent poverty of lived meanings, of fides quae and of fides qua, the “non-ordinary” form of worship and and its language bring back the certainty of an antiquitas of the Christian rite, of its originality in Christ, into which the present may profoundly and necessarily implant itself, maintaining continuity. Nothing nostalgic, then, about this, I would say to Grillo; rather, it’s a matter of fundamentals of the Faith.

Don’t Adopt Left-Wing Strategies

I turn to the next questions and answers. Grillo opposes to MiL’s emphases on the weight of the “traditional charism” in the church—the vitality of the families of traditionalists, their “una cum Papa” response to the famine of seminarians—a sort of disqualification, or condemnation of the theological, formative, pastoral paths of “traditionalism.” They are, he thinks, the “easy” solutions: they seek refuge in the normativity of the past, finally in “contrast to tradition” (in Grillo’s sense, of course) rather than in conformity to the present Church.

I leave to Andrea the responsibility and consequences of maintaining this certainty about the inconsistency of other fellow Catholics—especially if in his head he really does believe what he is saying, for that makes all the difference. Ridiculing one’s opponent creates illusory scenarios, soothing but incapable of diagnosis and prognosis. The world that he trivializes, even just the one that self-describes and self-limits as “traditional,” has much more reason and much more substance to it that he lets on. It is the Church; moreover, it occupies Catholic spaces abandoned by “reformers” and little frequented by the average christifidelis.

I pause on the answer to the fifth question, which I would summarize as follows: “Is it possible that a ritual form that has been normative for long centuries can no longer have a place, within the admittedly pluralistic framework of the universal Church? And why be afraid of the variety of charisms?” Indeed, this formulation has the weaknesses of a defensive tactic, as well as being imitative of the opposing reformist tactics of decades ago: it makes an argument from existing pluralism, an argument from diverse charisms, etc. Such a tactic may work with a benevolent interlocutor, who might then answer, “Sure, that’s fair, but…”

Personally, I would discourage the various “right-wing” critical constellations of today from using arguments that are already “left-wing.” First of all, arguments aimed at weakening the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome. In fact, “progressive” arguments are not neutral, they are inherently instrumental. They do not care about merit; they are technically revolutionary; they are, in short, catholically unusable. Thus, when Grillo uses rhetorical indignation, exclamation, or perhaps here, precisely apostrophé (“And you cannot use from the right the great Pauline ideas so shamelessly…to nurture a ‘top-down anarchy’...”), he perfectly evokes those decades gone by, not even too long ago, when this top-down anarchy was demanded of the pontiffs “from the left,” a “free for all” for theologians and local churches. The pontiffs rightly objected. “From the right,” nothing should be done that would lead to retracing à rébours that widespread and inauspicious strategy.

Reducing Tradition to a Dispensable “Covering”

A nod to the depositum fidei and its “coverings”: here is yet another deterrent argument in Andrea’s skillful tactics, for the history of Christian doctrines, lef to liberal historicism, shows how insidious is the criterion for differentiating between the covering and the authentic body or core. Theoretically inconsistent, I consider it; consequently, an unusable concept in serious discussion.

That Grillo then thinks that it is “nostalgia” that makes us protect the authentic body of fides quae so as not to dismiss it as a mere “variable” garment shows that we have put behind us the great and decisive dogmatic debate that has accompanied Christendom since the Tridentine age, up to and including the discussions of Vatican II. The rhetoric of “coverings” [namely, that we need to remove the useless externals] remained the preserve of the external pseudo-council, the journalists, and the battle theologians, of the intelligentia of yesterday and today.

It remains to comment on what Grillo ascribes, somewhat blindly (as in a fistfight) to Pope Benedict XVI. I have already spoken about “anarchy from above.” This involves a subversive intelligentia dictating to the ruler in order to allow him to survive. Quite otherwise was Benedict XVI’s intent, considering how much his solution was intended to reduce the structural disequilibrium of recent practices. That it may have been inadequate strategy and theology is an empirical judgment, but could we agree on the parameters to be used to judge it?
When Grillo and I worked together, each in his own trench, on Universal Church or Introverted Church: A Debate on the Motu Proprio ‘Summorum Pontificum’ , the liturgical question was in the hearts of many, and in the heart of the pontiff. By the time St. Paul’s Editions published the volume in 2013, no one was interested—first and foremost in Rome. Sic transit.

But the subsistence, the bare subsistence, of the traditional liturgy—that which Andrea and other radical liturgist friends see as an unbearable stumbling block for the life of the Church (not only liturgically speaking), and which, by now, in contrast, I see as a cornerstone of a realized and lived paradigm of ancientness, placed there as an icon of the Church that cannot be renounced—is crucial as a concrete dialectic. That is, it counts as a dialectical negation of the fragile ecclesial presentism to which the Catholic Church seems reduced nowadays (and for whose gift we thank the Lord anyway), a negation that realizes a perennial ideal and reality of the Church. All in the synthesis of the Mystical Body.


A last thought. Concerning the “failure” of the liturgical reform, I agree with Grillo that the argument of numbers is weak. First, because correlations between church practices and numbers of practitioners are very difficult to obtain and to interpret; interpretation presupposes licit utterances of the if-then type that we lack. And then, as usual, the argument for the decline of practice has been contested by the most diverse, indeed opposing, factions for decades. Over the years I have formed my judgment rather in the experienced practice—mixed Vetus and Novus—of missalizing, listening to homilies, evaluating what is said as well as what can’t/won’t be said anymore, in observing the behaviors (within and outside the rite) of clergy and people.

I note, in closing, that Grillo’s final jab—“tradition is not past but the future”—characterizes well (I don’t know how willingly and consistently) an underlying philosophy of my liturgist friend, namely a Nietzsche-Bloch-style ontological and nihilistic utopianism, cultivated by many today, even among young philosophy undergraduates. This much can be said: it is certainly incompatible with the theology of salvation history, therefore with Christology also; and finally, with common sense.

* * *
Prof. Andrea Grillo’s Response

Dear Pietro,

Once again we are involved in a discussion. I read your article and, as always, I admire its tone and culture and always find that, even in the harshness of definitions, you never cease from being affectionate. While with Alcuin Reid we have so many times conducted a dialogue of the deaf—with the perception that, on the other side, there was a theological and liturgical simplism, nourished only by arrogance—with you I have always perceived not only the friendship that has bound us together for decades, even when we have argued most strongly, but fairness and mutual esteem. That is why we wrote together, in 2013, a book in which we constructed a small “medieval quaestio disputata,” with “videtur quod” and “sed contra.”

Even then, it seemed to me that you had, of liturgists, a vision only political and only fixed on the ’68 revolution. This, I pointed out to you even then, is not a good way to understand liturgists. For your approach has in common, with Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, the demonization of the “enemy,” which does not bear good fruit in the reconstruction of either the Liturgical Movement or the Liturgical Reform.

Those who are seriously concerned with liturgy do not instrumentalize the rites politically, but want to restore to the rites their authority, which cannot in any way be reduced to “politics,” as traditionalism and progressivism do. You are always tempted to move me to a “progressive” extreme and to confuse me with a “Marxist,” while I am simply a theologian who tries to give everything its value, and who cannot remain silent in the face of a pope’s attempt to make an ecumenical Council incidental. The fact that I take Vatican II just as seriously as I do the Council of Trent—which you know how much I appreciate for its reforming intent—cannot be read as “Marxism,” but as an opening of the Church to the future.

Connecting tradition to the future is the oldest sense of paradosis and traditio, for otherwise we make fidelity to the Lord Jesus a contradiction to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Compared to the book, today we argue in reverse: then Summorum Pontificum was in force, today Traditionis Custodes is in force. Back then, I already argued that SP had no theological foundation: the idea of two parallel “leges orandi” was and remains a true theological “monstrum.” That it was the “theologian pope” who conceived it is aggravating. In regard to the liturgy, as we know well, not only evidence, but feelings, affiliations, and attachments that are difficult to rationalize are triggered.

Today, thanks to Francis—against whom you repeatedly lash out; we have discussed this over the years—we have gained a more traditional point of view. It is curious that it was Benedict XVI who gave in to the postmodern spirit of anarchy, while it is Francis who reestablishes the conditions of an ecclesial fidelity. It would be a mistake for you to go along (not with words, but in feeling) with the idea that Benedict was a liberal pontiff, while Francis would be a Stalinist. Instead, I think that the former succumbed to the ideological reading of the Council that threatened the Council Fathers (including him), while the latter is just a “son of the Council” and enjoys this primarily biographical condition. I see more “political” conditioning in the former than in the latter and believe that an “ecclesia universa” cannot be an “ecclesia introversa.”

I am grateful for your reply and consider even this small exchange a sign of friendship.

Andrea Grillo
(source in Italian)

The Vigil of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

In the Roman Rite, the term “vigilia – vigil” traditionally means a penitential day of preparation for a major feast. The Mass of a Saint’s vigil is celebrated after None, as are the Masses of the ferias of Lent or the Ember Days, and in violet vestments; however, the deacon and subdeacon do not wear folded chasubles, as they do in Lent, but the dalmatic and tunicle. The Mass has neither the Gloria nor the Creed, the Alleluja is simply omitted before the Gospel, not replaced with a Tract, and Benedicamus Domino is said at the end in place of Ite, missa est

Folio 89r of the Gellone Sacramentary, 780 AD; the Mass of the vigil of the Nativity of St John, which is here called “jejunium Sancti Johannis Baptistae - the fast of St John the Baptist”, begins with the large decorated P at the bottom of the page. Note the hole where the parchment gave way in the process of preparation; the text is copied out around it on both sides. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)
Because they are penitential days, they are not celebrated on a Sunday, but anticipated to the previous Saturday, which is the case this year for the vigil of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Before 1908, the feast of St Paulinus of Nola was ranked as a simple feast, and the vigil would have taken precedence over it, but in that year, St Pius X raised it to the rank of a double. The vigil is therefore observed in the Divine Office with the ninth lesson at Matins, and a commemoration at Lauds. Private Masses may be said of either the vigil or the feast, with the commemoration of the other; in major churches, the Mass of the feast is said after Terce, and that of the vigil after None.
The vigil of the Nativity of St John the Baptist is attested in all liturgical books of the Roman Rite until 1969, when vigils in the traditional sense were abolished. The same chants and Scriptural readings which it has in the Missal of St Pius V are already found in the oldest graduals and lectionaries, and the same prayers are all in place in the Gregorian Sacramentary at the beginning of the 9th century. The Baptist’s conception is noted on September 24th in many early Western calendars and martyrologies, but does not seem to have been kept as an actual feast as it is in the Byzantine Rite (one day earlier). This is because the vigil itself serves as the liturgical commemoration of his conception, the announcement of which by the Angel Gabriel to his father Zachariah is read as the Gospel of the day. This custom mirrors that of the Ember Wednesday of Advent, on which the Gospel of the Annunciation is read in preparation for Christmas.

The introit of the vigil sums up the Angel’s message, and prepares us for the great feast of the following day, on which “many will rejoice at his birth.”

Introitus Ne tímeas, Zacharía, exaudíta est oratio tua: et Elísabeth uxor tua pariet tibi filium, et vocábis nomen ejus Joannem: et erit magnus coram Dómino: et Spíritu Sancto replébitur adhuc ex útero matris suae: et multi in nativitáte eius gaudébunt. V. Dómine, in virtúte tua laetábitur rex: et super salutáre tuum exsultábit vehementer. Gloria Patri. Ne tímeas. (Do not be afraid, Zachary, thy prayer hath been heard, and Elizabeth thy wife shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John; and he shall be great before the Lord, and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb; and many will rejoice at his birth. V. O Lord, in Thy strength the king shall be glad; and in Thy salvation shall he rejoice exceedingly. Glory be. Do not be afraid.)

It has very often been noted that the birth of the Baptist occurs shortly after the summer solstice, when the hours of daylight begin to grow shorter, and the birth of Christ occurs shortly after the winter solstice, when the hours of daylight begin to grow longer. This arrangement is traditionally understood as a reflection of St John’s words about Christ, “He must wax, and I must wane.” (John 3, 30) The Collect of the vigil seems also to refer to this when it speaks not of the upcoming festivity, but rather of John’s role in sending us to Christ.

“Præsta, quáesumus, omnípotens Deus: ut familia tua per viam salútis incédat; et, beáti Joannis Praecursóris hortamenta sectendo, ad eum, quem praedixit, secúra perveniat, Dóminum nostrum Jesum Christum, Fílium tuum etc. – Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that Thy household may walk in the way of salvation and, by following the exhortations of blessed John the Forerunner, safely come to Him whom he foretold, even our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, etc.”

The Preaching of St John the Baptist, ca. 1665 by Mattia Preti (1613-99); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Epistle, Jeremiah 1, 4-10, is chosen particularly for the words of verse 5, “Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and made thee a prophet unto the nations.” This makes a perfect complement to the Gospel, since it parallels the words of the angel to Zachariah so closely. “For … and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. … And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias (i.e. of a prophet).”

The association of this passage with John the Baptist goes back to the very origins of Latin Christianity, already cited in Tertullian’s treatise On the Soul, chapter 26. “Elizabeth exults with joy, (for) John had leaped in her womb; Mary magnifies the Lord, (for) Christ had so impelled Her. The mothers recognize each other’s offspring, being each herself recognized by them, who were of course alive, and not merely souls, but spirits also. So also do you read the word of God (spoken) to Jeremiah, ‘Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee.’ … And God made a man, and breathed into him the breath of life, and God would not have known him to be a man in the womb, unless he were whole: ‘and before thou camest out of the womb, I sanctified thee.’ ”

The Prophet Jeremiah, by Piero della Francesca, 1452-66, in the church of St Francis in Arezzo.
And likewise, in St Ambrose’s highly influential commentary on the Gospel of Luke (1.33): “There is no doubt that this promise of the Angel is true; for indeed, Saint John, before he was born, while still in his mother’s womb, showed the grace of the Spirit received. For when neither his father nor his mother had done any wonders, leaping in the womb of his mother, he proclaimed the good tidings of the coming of the Lord to his mother. For thus do you read, that when the mother of the Lord had come to Elizabeth, she said to Her, ‘For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.’ For he had not yet the spirit (i.e. breath) of life, but the spirit of grace. And then, we have also been able to note elsewhere that the grace of sanctification precedes the essence of living, since the Lord saith, ‘Before thou camest forth from the womb, I sanctified thee, and set thee as a prophet among the nations.’ ”

The Gradual is one of only two in the historical corpus [1] of the Roman Missal whose texts are taken from the Gospels, the other being that of the feast of John the Evangelist. This acknowledges the unique roles that the two Saints John played in Our Lord’s life on this earth, and perhaps also reflects the fact that they share the dedication of the cathedral of Rome with Him. Both graduals are in the fifth mode, but their music is different.

Graduale Fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen erat Joannes. V. Hic venit, ut testimonium perhibéret de lúmine, paráre Dómino plebem perfectam. (There was a man sent by God, whose name was John. V. This man came to bear witness concerning the light, to prepare for the Lord a perfect people.)

The Gospel, Luke 1, 5-17, is titled in the Missal “The beginning of the Holy Gospel according to Luke”, since the first four verses, which are not traditionally read in the Roman Rite, are treated as a prologue. This part explains who John’s parents were, and tells us of their childlessness and of the Angel’s words to Zachariah when he appears to him in the temple. However, the second part, verses 18-25, which narrates Zachariah’s doubt and punishment, and the actual conception, is not read. Beginning in the Carolingian era, the Nativity of the Baptist was celebrated with two Masses, one at dawn and one during the day, which are analogous to the second and third Masses of Christmas. Luke 1, 18-25 was historically read as the Gospel of the dawn Mass, but disappeared from the Roman Rite when that Mass fell out of use. In the post-Conciliar lectionary, these verses have been restored to the lectionary, not in connection with the Birth of St John, but in Advent, on December 19th when that day is a feria.

The so-called Leonine Sacramentary contains a special preface for the vigil, a shortened version of which is found in many manuscripts of the Gregorian sacramentary and in the traditional Ambrosian rite; here is the older Leonine form.

VD: exhibentes sollemne jejunium, quo beati Johannis baptistae natalicia praevenimus. Cujus genitor et verbi Dei nuntium dubitans nasciturum vocis est privatus officio, et eodem recepit nascente sermonem; quique Angelo promittente dum non credit obmutuit, magnifici praeconis exortu et loquens factus est et profeta: materque pariter sterilis aevoque confecta non solum puerperio fecunda processit, sed etiam, quo beatae Mariae fructum sedula voce benedictione susciperet, spiritu divinitatis impleta est; ipseque progenitus, utpote viae caelestis adsertor, viam domino monuit praeparari, seraque in suprema parentum aetate concretus et editus, procreandum novissimis temporibus humani generis disseruit redemptorem.

Truly it is worthy… holding the solemn fast, by which we anticipate the birth of blessed John the Baptist. Whose father, when he doubted the message of God’s word that he was to be born, was deprived of the use of his voice, and received it back when he was born; who grew silent when he did not believe the Angel’s promise, but at the birth of the glorious herald, gained his speech and became a prophet. And likewise his mother, being sterile and worn by old age, did not only become fruitful in childbearing, but was also filled with the Holy Spirit, so that she might receive the fruit of the Blessed Mary with a blessing with eager voice. And himself that was begotten, as the one who shows the way to heaven, urged that the way of the Lord be prepared, and being lately conceived and brought forth in the last age of his parents, proclaimed that the Redeemer of the human race would be born in the last times.

[1] The graduals of two very late Masses, both promulgated by Pope Pius XI, also take their text from the Gospels, those of St Thérèse of Lisieux (1925) and the votive Mass of Christ the Eternal High Priest (1935).

Friday, June 21, 2024

The Implications of Baby Names

Madison in Splash

Baby names made the news earlier this week when New York Times journalist Madison Malone Kircher posted an article entitled “Have We Reached Peak Baby Names?” Kircher notes that in 2024 almost anything can become a name. Gone are the days when unusual names raised eyebrows, as in 1984 when the name Madison for a girl skyrocketed after the mermaid in the movie Splash (Daryl Hannah) looked at a street sign in Manhattan and told her beau Allen (Tom Hanks) that that was her name (hey! that’s the NYT journalist’s first name as well!). Even attempts to parody this trend appear to backfire. In a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, the ever-foolish George Costanza wishes to name his future child Seven in honor of Mickey Mantle’s number for the New York Yankees. Since the episode’s debut, the Social Security Administration reports, the popularity of the name Seven has spiked.

It was not always so. It is speculated that one of the reasons that “Michael” was, with the exception of 1960, the most popular boys’ name in the United States from 1954 to 1998 was because the warrior Archangel who defeated Satan and his minions was invoked to protect our troops against the wicked legions of Hitler and Tojo during World War II.[1] The returning GIs—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—remembered Michael’s patronage and gratefully named their sons after him.
The Heraclitan flux of contemporary baby names stands in sharp contrast to the Church’s traditional teaching on the subject. The 1917 Code of Canon Law states:
Curent Parochi ut ei qui baptizatur, christianum imponatur nomen; quod si id consequi non poterunt, nomini a parentibus imposito addant nomen alicujus Sancti et in libro baptizatorum utrumque nomen perscribant (§761).
Which I translate as:
Pastors should see to it that someone who is baptized be given a Christian name; if, however, they do not succeed in this, they should add to the name given by the parents the name of some Saint and enter both names in the baptismal register.
The Rituale Romanum repeats this law and further elaborates:
Et quoniam iis qui baptizantur, tamquam Dei filiis in Christo regenerandis, et in ejus militiam adscribendis, nomen imponitur, curet, ne obscoena, fabulosa, aut ridicula, vel inanium deorum, vel impiorum ethnicorum hominum nomina imponantur, sed potius, ut jam supra num dictum est, Sanctorum, quorum exemplis fideles ad pie vivendum excitentur, et patrociniis protegantur (§70).
Which I translate as:
And seeing that a name is given to those who are baptized (and who are to be regenerated in Christ as sons of God and enlisted into His army), care should be taken that no obscene, fabulous, or ridiculous names, either of inane gods or of impious heathen persons, should be given; rather, as stated above, they should be given the names of the Saints, by whose example the faithful are stirred up to live piously, and by whose patronage they are protected.
The instruction is admirably direct. The estimable Philip T. Weller translates obscoena, fabulosa, aut ridicula as “ugly, notorious, or ridiculous,” but I think a more literal translation is warranted. [2] Obscene names are names that are literally “off-stage” (ob-scena), too vulgar to be used for the noble role that a Christian plays in the great theater of life. Fabulous names are from fables (such as Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas) and, perhaps we should add, from sitcoms like Seinfeld. Ridiculous names are self-explanatory, and perhaps in need of more scrutiny today. In her article, Madison Kircher mentions some of the names bandied about on Tik Tok for babies; they include Tank, Flick, Halo, Dew, Ethereal, and Orca.
The Rituale states not only a rule for naming but offers a rationale behind it. A baptized person is regenerated in Christ as an adopted son of God and enlisted in Christ’s military service (militia). He no longer belongs to himself or even to his earthly family, for he no longer lives but Christ lives in him. (Gal. 2, 20) And with a new identity comes a new name.
Finally, the Rituale requires the use of a Saint’s name. Being named after a Saint provides inspiration for the person so named, and it establishes a patron-client relationship. Because of this relationship, a Christian can turn to his patron Saint in times of need and look forward to his “name day,” his patron saint's feast day. Reflecting on this relationship, the great liturgical author Fr. Francis X. Weiser, SJ recalls:
According to ancient traditions, the name-day is festively held in Christian homes. I remember how from early childhood I went to church with my father every year on the feast of St. Francis Xavier, attending the Holy Sacrifice and later receiving Communion, too. Returning home, I found the table cheerfully decorated with flowers and little presents. Mother, Father, brothers and sisters offered their congratulations. Then we sat down to a joyful breakfast, my proud little self sitting in the place of honor. And all this because centuries ago a wonderful young man in Spain loved God so much that he became a Saint. I cannot express the powerful conviction that filled me every year on this occasion, how great and important it is to become holy. This was one of the eloquent lessons which our religious customs taught me without words, but with an effect greater than many words could achieve. Judging from this aspect, we may truly say that such Catholic customs in the home educate the children more efficiently than the best Catholic teachers could ever do in school.[3]
Biblical Inspiration
The impetus behind favoring saintly names is derived from the Sacred Scriptures, where two principles are operative. The first is what we may call nominal realism, where the name designates the essence of the person. Adam is ha-Adam, the human being, while his wife is Ishah, the “woman” (“from the man”) as well as “Eve,” the mother of the living. Jacob is the “heel-grabber” who usurps his twin brother Esau. Needless to say, God is the best namer in this category, for He knows things according to their essences better than any other.
The second principle is nominal vocationalism. When God confers a new purpose or identity upon someone, He often gives him a new name. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon bar Jonah becomes Saint Peter, and Saul of Tarsus becomes St. Paul. The concept of vocational naming was so strong in the Christian imagination that it affected not only baptismal names but religious names as well (the taking of a new name during final religious vows) and confirmation names--which, curiously, are nowhere mentioned in the liturgical rubrics either before or after Vatican II, but have been customary since the Middle Ages as a way of marking the significance of the sacrament.
From Abram to Abraham, “Father of the Multitude”
Nominal Determinism
And there is an additional temptation. Nominative or nominal determinism is the concept whereby one’s name determines one’s destiny. One website has chalked up some amusing examples in support of this theory: the neuroscientist Lord Brain, the Cherokee feminist Wilma Mankiller, the lawyer Sue Yoo, the ophthalmologist Dr. Ashley Seawright, a music teacher named Miss C. Sharp, and last but not least, the gastroenterologist Dr. Joshua Butt.
Personally, I marvel at the fact that Archbishop Annibale Bugnini’s parents gave him not the name of a Saint but of the Carthaginian general whose name means “the Grace of Ba’al” and who swore to his father at the age of nine that for as long as he lived he would never be a friend of Rome. [4] One would have thought that “Hannibal,” at least to a son of Italy, eminently qualifies as the name of an “impious heathen person,” and yet the name was common before Vatican II and remains popular in Italian-speaking communities to this day. A nominal spin on loving thy enemy?
Hannibal Swears Enmity to Rome
Annibale ad portas!
It also strikes me as appropriate that the father of liberal Protestant theology is named Schleiermacher, or “veil-maker,” and that a previous Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Holy Inquisition) should have the name “rat-catcher,” or Ratzinger.
Of course, outside the biblical narrative, there are dangers in taking nominal determinism seriously. Having the name Hooker does not make one unchaste, and not everyone named Victor is a winner. When my wife and I named our daughter Monica Grace, our friends, knowing my work on St. Augustine of Hippo, congratulated me on such a thoroughly Augustinian name: Monica for Augustines mother, and Grace for his title, the Doctor of Grace. Their reading is perfectly valid, although we chose the name out of familial piety: Monica is my mothers middle name, and Grace is my mother-in-laws middle name.
Imperfect Practice
Despite the explicit guidelines of the 1917 Code of Canon Law and the Rituale Romanum, Catholic naming has never historically been in complete compliance with the principle that one’s Christian name should be that of a canonized Saint. In Hispanic cultures, names like Concepcion, Dolores, and Soledad honor titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary—Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Sorrows, and Our Lady of Solitude, respectively. Similarly, English names include Grace, Hope, and Charity. Catholics have been known to name their child Trinity, which is not a Saint but the Godhead itself. And, of course, there is the use of the Holy Name of Jesus as a boy’s name in Spanish-speaking cultures and among Arab Christians. Finally, the parents of the mystic stigmatist Blessed Hosanna of Mantua (1449-1505) named their daughter after a Hebrew exclamation or a word in the Mass.
Hosanna of Mantua: a Blessed not named after a Saint
1983 Code of Canon Law
The new legislation has no language about obscene, fabulous, and ridiculous names, nor does it admonish parents or pastors to name infants after Catholic Saints. Canon 855 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law simply states:
Curent parentes, patrini et parochus ne imponatur nomen a sensu christiano alienum.
Which the official translation renders:
Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.
On one hand, “foreign to Christian sensibility” overcomes the discrepancy between the old official policy of a Saint’s-name-only with the immemorial custom of also naming children after different Christian mysteries or titles. On the other, it may not do enough to promote Christian identity. Indigo is a purplish-blue dye from plants native to India, and it is now a popular name for both boys and girls. Is it alien to Christian sensibility? There are, after all, Saints named after colors (Albanus, Candidus, Rufus, etc.), and Indigo is not the name of an inane god or an impious heathen. Even so, what the new instructions lack is a robust understanding of the baptismal name as a link to a person’s new vocation and to a Saint who is both inspiration and patron and, once a year, the source of a little boy or girl’s joy. And insofar as the new instructions do not foster customs such as name-days or personal devotion to a Saint, they do not contribute to Catholic culture or to individual Catholic formation.
Ms. Kircher’s article in the Times cites Emily Kim, a full-time baby name consultant who charges $295 for a five-minute session for her personalized suggestions. “A baby name is just one facet of your personal style, in the same way home décor and clothing is part of your style,” Ms. Kim said:
In our parents’ day, the elements of your personal style were known by your close friends and maybe your neighbors, your family, but your style wasn’t showcased on a larger scale to acquaintances and strangers in the way that is the norm now.
Put cynically, we now name our children to showcase ourselves rather than attempt to name their essence or their vocation or their destiny. Of course, Catholics can also be accused of promoting their own “brand” by adhering to Saints’ names or the like, and yet there remains a difference between a universal brand that sees children as a gift from God of which the parents are mere stewards and guardians, and a particular brand that sees children as an extension of a couple’s ego and idiosyncrasies. Surely the latter worldview, and the baby names that it engenders, are foreign to Christian sensibility.
Michael Patrick Foley is a baby name consultant who offers free, unsolicited, and generally unwelcome advice on how to name your baby. He was not paid $295 for this article, even though he worked way more than five minutes on it.
[1] Janet Adamy, “New Parents Drop the Mike --- U.S. boys named Michael dip to 76-year low,” Wall Street Journal (May 13, 2017), A1.
[2] Philip T. Weller, The Roman Ritual: The Sacraments and Processions, vol. 1 (Bruce Publishing Co., 1950), 29.
[3] Francis X. Weiser, SJ, Religious Customs in the Family: The Radiation of the Liturgy into Catholic Homes (Collegeville, 1956), 27.
[4] There is a Saint Hannibal Mary di Francia, but Bugnini was born in 1912 and St. Hannibal did not die until 1927.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

On the Liturgical Wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI

Following up on what I wrote yesterday about the latest Grillo-gallop against the traditional Roman Rite, two more things have come up which I think are worth sharing. First, this simple observation by Mr Phillip Campbell at his blog Unam Sanctam Catholicam is very much worth noting.

“...if Pope Benedict was capable of making such a ‘completely wrong judgment’ about something as integral as the Church’s relationship to its liturgical heritage, there is no necessary reason why Pope Francis isn’t equally as capable of getting it wrong. If a theologian of the caliber of Joseph Ratzinger can operate for years from a premise that is ‘not theologically sound,’ are we supposed to have confidence that Francis will do better? Grillo’s argument that Benedict got the liturgy completely wrong only serves to establish that popes can be very wrong on their approach to the liturgy (my emphasis)—and is Francis a more or less trustworthy theologian and liturgist than Ratzinger?”

Indeed. Nor is it difficult to discern in the harshness of Prof Grillo’s rash judgments an awareness that recent official pronouncements on the liturgy have nothing to offer in place of Pope Benedict’s historical clarity, theological acumen and pastoral charity, and will remain influential long after the former have been repealed.

Second, and simili pacto, Dom Alcuin Reid has written a tour-de-force response to the Grillo-gallop for Rorate Caeli; as was the case with his response to the infamous Cavadini-Healy-Weinandy articles, no summary can do it justice, and I strongly encourage all of our readers to read the full article at

“ is difficult to accept the pure positivism that underlines Professor Grillo’s idolising the post conciliar reforms. The previous liturgical forms were ‘sacred and great’ and can most certainly be ‘sacred and great’ today also. The fact that this terrifies those who have staked their reputations and careers on a questionable act of papal positivism (the imposition of new rites that are not that for which the Council called and that are not in organic continuity with liturgical tradition developed over the centuries) and that they are fueling the opportunistic imposition of their ideology whilst they have the political capacity to do so does not change the truth that whilst Tradition does indeed develop, it does so organically, by enrichment, not by root and branch reform or substitution.

Otherwise, nothing is true, nothing has value—everything is simply a matter of political expediency. That is why Pope Benedict did not err in teaching that ‘What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,’ and that ‘It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.’ ”

Corpus Christi 2024 Photopost (Part 1)

First of all, my apologies for the delay in getting around to posting these; after a long period of travel, I caught a bug and was feeling very much under the weather for several days. Secondly, there will be at least one more post in this series, possibly two, and there is always room and time for more, so please feel free to send in your photos of recent liturgies (Pentecost, Corpus Christ, Sacred Heart etc.) to Don’t forget to include the name and location of the church, and any other information you think important. Thanks once again to all our contributors!    

Shrine of Our Lady of Mt Carmel – New York City
Mass of the vigil of Pentecost
Ringing the bells at the Gloria.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

About That Interview...

I am sure that by now that our readers have all heard the worrisome report from Rorate Caeli (which has in the past proved to be quite well-informed on this topic), namely, that the Roman authorities are preparing another dose of Accompaniment™ for the bishops, in regard to the governance of their faithful who love the traditional Roman Rite. And make no mistake – it is the bishops and their authority which will be assaulted and undermined, if a follow-up to Traditionis Custodes is indeed in the works, as a certain kind of ideologue grows increasingly frustrated with Their Excellencies’ paternal charity. As we pray the Lord to avert such a calamity, let us remember also to pray especially for our bishops, who may soon find themselves constrained to treat their faithful with a shabbiness not of their own doing.

Some of the 850 faithful who attended the last Sunday traditional Mass in the cathedral of Melbourne, Australia, which the DDW has recently forced the local archbishop to end.
By coincidence rather than design, I am sure, the man who is thought by many to have been the mind behind the previous assault, the Italian liturgy professor Andrea Grillo, has just given an interview to the website Messa in Latino, which has been translated into English by the excellent Rome-based journalist Diane Montagna, and published on Rorate Caeli. I pause to note that I disagree with Rorate’s wording for their headline, which calls the interview “astonishing”. Prof. Grillo has never allowed the law of charity to temper his disdain for all and sundry, and there is nothing new or astonishing about it. (See the profile picture on his blog for further details: I do not insert it here, since the algorithms that govern social media platforms disapprove of the behavior which it shows, and tend to delete links to articles that contain such pictures.)

I pause also to note that Prof Grillo himself has denied that he was in any way involved in the issuing of Traditionis Custodes; if this is the case, the similarities which it bears to his writings on the subject are so notable that he should sue the DDW for plagiarism. On the other hand, the Italian academy is a house built on envy, and it would be career suicide for any Italian academic, but especially one working for the Church, to admit that his work had had any sort of impact on the real world.

Since the publication of the interview yesterday, I have received more than one exhortation to write a response, to which I can only reply that I do not see the point. I trust that most people will be repulsed by the frantic lack of empathy that seethes through his every word; those who are not so repulsed are unlikely to be persuaded in any direction by anything I might choose to write.

The internet has given us a number of useful terms to describe its various epiphenomena, one of which is “gish-gallop – a rhetorical technique in which a person ... attempts to overwhelm their opponent by providing an excessive number of arguments with no regard for the(ir) accuracy or strength.” (Wikipedia) I propose that in our intra-ecclesiastical discourse, we rename this “the grillo-gallop” in honor of this interview, and the professor’s work in general. A similarly useful and related term is Brandolini’s Law, more colorfully and amusingly known as the “b—s— asymmetry principle”, which states that it takes far more time and effort to refute a specious or absurd argument than it does to make one; and in this case, that means time that I simply do not have.

Fortunately, someone else has taken the time. Back in March, Mr Kevin Tierney published an article on his excellent Substack about the reception (or lack thereof) of the post-Conciliar liturgical reform, which I asked his permission to reprint as soon as I read it. Again with his permission, I reproduce here some of his observations on the Grillo interview made in foro privato. (You can also find Kevin on Twitter at, and hopefully be inspired to offer him some encouragement to keep up his excellent work.) I have added quotations from the interview in italics.

“As with many others, Professor Grillo should be thanked for his honesty. He’s insane, but he’s honest. And the Pope has a madman for a courtier.

It’s not just that he hates the Latin Mass with a passion that is tough to decipher. He views the shrinking of the Church as something to be celebrated, not bemoaned, as a necessary transition to purity. (...“the ‘dearth of seminarians’ and ‘young people fleeing’ is not just a negative fact: is the sign of a necessary travail for the entire Church.”)

When most people see others who have violated no doctrines but are Catholic in a different way, they shrug their shoulders. Even if they don’t like it, they don’t lose sleep over it.

Professor Grillo has not slept in years. He is kept perpetually awake by this, and seems to have inflicted a similar insomnia on the Pope. The traditionalists are an irrelevant sect, nothing compared to the wider Church. (“What are [the] 18,000 people [at Chartres this year] compared to the great multitude of the Catholic Church? Little more than a sect that experiences infidelity as salvation...”)
Dangerous counter-revolutionaries, undermining the unity of the Faith!
But we are also such a mortal danger to the Church that we must be forcefully suppressed. Even one Catholic who experiences spirituality differently from Grillo is a danger to the entire Church. (“Praying ‘una cum Papa’ isn’t achieved with mere chatter, but by sharing with the Church, and above all the Pope, the one Ordo in force. Otherwise, one chatters but lives in opposition to tradition.”)

When it is pointed out to him that this kind of theology can’t allow things such as Eastern liturgies or diverse movements within the Church, he doesn’t shy away from it, but doubles down. The end goal is that all Catholics must worship and understand the Faith exactly the same as whoever currently occupies the see of Rome. If we aren’t doing this, then we aren’t praying in communion with the Pope.

Most importantly, he develops a tension not between traditionalists and Church authorities, but between ordinary Catholics and ideologically-motivated revolutionaries. Professor Grillo wants a Church of perpetual revolution, one that is always attacking the foundations of the past, preparing for a glorious future. (“Tradition is not the past, but the future.”) Even most of those who aren’t traditionalists eventually get tired of the constant uprooting.

That this is an academic, divorced from interactions with everyday people, is not surprising. Only an academic or someone high in authority thinks like this.”

The Feast of Saints Gervasius and Protasius

The feast of the two Milanese brothers and martyrs Ss Gervasius and Protasius is kept on June 19 in the Ambrosian Rite. It is also one of the oldest and most consistently attested feasts in the Roman Rite; in the Gelasian Sacramentary, it is even kept with a vigil, although this was suppressed in the 9th century. A church was built in their honor in Rome at the very beginning of the 5th century, which is now generally referred to by the name of their father, St Vitalis, to whom it was also dedicated, along with their mother, St Valeria; the two brothers are traditionally named in the Roman Litany of the Saints. (All photos in this article by Nicola de Grandi.)

Ss Gervasius and Protasius in the prayerbook of Arnulf II, archbishop of Milan, 998-1018; MS Egerton 3763, British Library.
Before the Tridentine reform, a letter purportedly by St Ambrose which gives an account of their history was read at Matins of their feast in the Roman Breviary, but this is now recognized to be spurious, and even the date of their martyrdom is not known. However, as we reported in October of 2018, a forensic examination of their relics confirmed several of the traditional details of the story: that they were young, in their mid-20s, definitely brothers, and most likely twins, since they suffered from the same congenital defect of the vertebrae, and have very similar faces. One of them was decapitated, and has signs of injury on the ankle, the other was wounded on the hand with a small weapon of some sort.
The relics of St Ambrose and one of the two brothers.
In the year 386, St Ambrose uncovered their relics after being shown the place of their long-forgotten burial in a dream, and brought them to a newly-built basilica, then called simply “the Basilica of the Martyrs”, and laid them in the place he had originally intended for his own burial. He also attests to the miraculous healings which accompanied this translation, as do his secretary, Paulinus, who would later write his Life, and St Augustine.

Ambrose himself died on April 4th, 397, which was Holy Saturday that year; since that date so frequently occurs in Holy Week or Easter Week, his feast is traditionally kept on the day of his episcopal ordination. He was laid to rest next to Protasius and Gervasius, and the basilica is now officially named after him. In the mid-ninth century, the abbot of the attached monastery placed the relics of all three Saints in a large porphyry sarcophagus, which was later sunk into the floor and covered over; it was rediscovered in 1864 during a major restoration project, and the three bodies are now seen in the confession of the church under the altar. The traditional Ambrosian Calendar also has the feast of the “Raising up of the Bodies of Ss Ambrose, Protasius and Gervasius” on May 14th.

As part of the celebrations for the fifteenth centenary of St Ambrose’s death in 1897, the relics of all three Saints were taken from the basilica to the Duomo in an enormous procession, and exposed there for the veneration of the faithful from May 13-15. Here we see the two martyrs carried under a red baldachin, and behind them, Ambrose under a white one. (It is not unusual in Italy for canons to have the privilege of wearing a miter, and many of the mitred heads are those of canons, rather than bishops.)

Photos of the relics by Nicola.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

St Gregory Barbarigo, One of John XXIII’s Favorite Saints

In various dioceses in northern Italy, today is the feast of St Gregory Barbarigo, a cardinal, bishop and confessor, who died on this day in 1697, at the age of 71.

Portrait of Cardinal Gregory Barbarigo by an unknown artist, ca. 1687.
Gregory was born in 1625 to a Venetian noble family which had two doges and several senators in its history, his father among the latter, and would give the Church three other cardinals. He received a typical education in mathematics, philosophy, and the classical languages, and while still quite young, served as secretary to a Venetian ambassador named Aloise Contarini. While accompanying the ambassador to Münster for the negotiations that led to the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire, he became friends with one of the papal nuncios, Archbishop Fabio Chigi. In 1652, Chigi was made a cardinal; the following year, Gregory came to visit him in Rome, and received his encouragement to embark on a career in the Church.
A portrait of Abp Fabio Chigi, the future Pope Alexander VII, made when he was papal nuncio to the negotiations for the Peace of Westphalia, ca. 1646, by the Flemish painter Anselm van Hulle (1601-74.) Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
After obtaining the prestigious laurea utriusque (a degree in both civil and canon law), Barbarigo was ordained to the priesthood in his native city, but soon called to Rome by Chigi, who had been elected Pope with the name Alexander VII in 1655. After two years of distinguished service to the papacy, noteworthy especially for his charity to the poor and distressed, he was appointed bishop of Bergamo in Lombardy, which was then a territory of the Republic of Venice. There also he distinguished himself in his office, personally visiting all of the nearly 280 parishes in his diocese. In 1660, he was elevated to the cardinalate, and four years later, transferred to the diocese of Padua, far closer to his native place. Continuing as a model bishop, he visited all 320 of his parishes, and exercised the same pastoral charity for the poor that he had in Rome, even, on one occasion, selling his own bed. For these reason, he was routinely referred to a second St Charles Borromeo.
Popular devotion to the holy bishop led to a process for his canonization, which was formally introduced at Rome almost exactly 25 years after his death. In 1725, his remains were exhumed, and found to be in a remarkably good state of preservation, though not miraculously so. He was beatified in 1751 by one of the great experts on the subject of canonizations, Pope Benedict XIV, after which his cause stalled for over a century and a half.
St Gregory Barbarigo’s tomb in the cathedral of Padua. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by harvey Kneeslapper, CC BY-SA 4.0.) 
Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope St John XXIII, was ordained a priest in 1904 for St Gregory’s first diocese, Bergamo. Both as priest and bishop, he had a great admiration for and devotion to the holy cardinal, and in 1911, he signed a petition to Pope St Pius X (an alumnus of the diocesan seminary of Padua, and former patriarch of Venice), asking that Barbarigo’s cause be renewed. A decree to that effect was issued the following year, and the cause resumed. Roncalli himself became patriarch of Venice in 1953, from which see he was elected to the papacy in 1958; as Pope, he would bring the cause to completion by canonizing St Gregory in May of 1960. Of the ten Saints whom he canonized, Gregory is the only one whom he added to the general calendar, but since his dies natalis was then occupied by St Ephrem the Syrian, he was assigned to the previous day, June 17th.
John XXIII, patron saint of unintended consequences, proved to be particularly unfortunate in his relations with the liturgical calendar. The feast which he specifically chose as the opening day of Vatican II was suppressed by the liturgical reform enacted in the wake and despite of that Council, while his favorite saintly bishop was deemed one Charles Borromeo too many, and relegated to the local calendars as a Saint “not of truly universal importance.” Gregory Barbarigo thus became the single most rapidly degraded canonized Saint in history, removed from the general calendar less than nine years after he was added to it.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Origins of Devotion to—and Artistic Depictions of—the Wounds, Blood, and Heart of Christ

Louis Charbonneau-Lassay. The Vulnerary of Christ: The Mysterious Emblems of the Wounds in the Body and Heart of Jesus Christ. Translated by G. John Champoux. Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2021. 586 pp. Paperback $30 / Hardcover $40. Available at Angelico and Amazon.

The author of
The Vulnerary of Christ, Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (1871–1946; hereafter C-L), was among the most versatile and erudite researchers of Christian archaeology and symbolism the world has ever seen. He traveled throughout Europe looking at churches, monasteries, public buildings, monuments, manuscripts, paintings, vestments, stained glass, furniture, host-molds, escutcheons, banners, trademarks, objets d’art, anything that bore or could possibly bear Christian symbols, and carefully drew copies of them into his notebooks. He left behind in his files tens of thousands of drawings and notes which he planned to include in a series of books. The one major work published in his lifetime, The Bestiary of Christ, appeared in English in an abbreviated version.

To add intrigue, the finished manuscript of his masterpiece,
The Vulnerary of Christ, was stolen by a visitor who arrived at C-L’s home shortly before his death. Fortunately for us, a detailed outline of the book, the notes used to compose it, and the drawings all remained in his home. Thanks to a painstaking reconstruction by Gauthier Pierozak, it was possible to publish the work in French in 2018. In 2021, Angelico Press brought out a deluxe, copiously-illustrated English translation, of which I had the privilege of reading the page proofs, and which I cannot recommend too highly.

How best to describe this encyclopedic work—at once archaeological, artistic, historical, literary, liturgical, and devotional? The author’s fundamental thesis is that devotion to the wounded Heart of Christ, far from being a pure invention of eighteenth-century French piety or even of high medieval piety, as is so often claimed, has its roots deep in the early Church, in the earliest artistic representations and symbols of Christ.

We find ubiquitous use of the “
signaculum Domini” that consists of five marks (be they points, crosses, crescents, hearts, flowers, lozenges, asterisks, annulets), in which the mark that represents the wound in the side becomes progressively more important, until the Heart that was pierced and exposed by the lance becomes the object of loving adoration, the visible symbol of the immensity of divine Love: “We will see later that this particular cult of the wound in the side has quite naturally led to the exteriorizing of the cult of the heart of Jesus under its anatomical form, which it contained in potency and towards which it inevitably oriented thought; but here, as in all such cases, the symbol has necessarily preceded the thinking responsible for interpreting it” (62).

There is a gentle anti-Protestant and anti-Orthodox polemic underlying the argument: on the one hand, the Protestants do not understand the implications of the Incarnation for Christian art and liturgy; on the other hand, the Orthodox, who possess a rich iconographical tradition, too quickly write off Catholic devotions and artistic representations as decadent corruptions when, in fact, they find support in Scripture, the Church Fathers, and early artistic evidence.

C-L successfully shows that the devotion to the Passion, the Five Wounds, the Sacred Heart, the Precious Blood, and the Holy Face are all inseparable from one another, mutually implicatory and reinforcing. “At the place of the wounded heart of Jesus, as with everything that is the object of adoration, today’s Christian rediscovers, in bending the knee to the ground, the incontestable trace of the knees of all his ancestors” (84).

Protestantism, with its surface rigorism and theological sophisms, Jansenism, with its narrow and rigid conception of the idea of Christ, cast upon France a cold mist that obscured and weakened, though without extinguishing it, the broad piety for the heart of Jesus. After them, it would take the great breath of Paray-le-Monial to stir up the embers and kindle the flame. (281)
The book is organized into eight parts:
  1. Representations of the Five Wounds of Christ in Earliest Christian Art
  2. Depictions of the Wound in the Side of Christ
  3. Representations of the Redemptive Shedding of Blood
  4. Plants Emblematic of Christ’s Five Wounds
  5. Stones Emblematic of the Wounded Christ
  6. The Iconography of the Wounded Heart of Jesus
  7. The Iconography of the Heart of Jesus in the Counter-Revolutionary Armies of the Vendée
  8. Diverse Representations Relating to or Foreign to the Cult of the Heart of Jesus

Although much of the time C-L is patiently reviewing, comparing, and drawing conclusions from the hundreds of artistic objects he has sketched—there are 359 engravings and 32 plates in the book, all of them commented on—the prose rises every few pages to the heights of poetry:

Nailed to the wood of his cross, the tortured divine Victim had sensed death achieving its conquest within him, and, with one last effort towards the world, he had cried out that his redeeming work was consummated.
       Next, in the unexpected night that had suddenly fallen over it, as the earth trembled with emotion and rocks split apart, Jesus bowed his head and rendered up his soul to his Father.
       Then, as the hour of the sabbath approached, his own had to quickly take him down from the cross to be able to bury him. But, before allowing them to do as they wished, soldiers approached to break the legs of Jesus and of the two others crucified with him, so as to finish them off. But, seeing that the Savior was already dead, they did not break his legs. “But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side: and immediately there came out blood and water.”
       The wounds to his hands and feet, as well as the bruises over his entire body, had stopped the life of the Victim and satisfied justice. The wound from the spear-thrust, a wound of supererogation, brought forth from the very body of this corpse the blossoming of a divinely fecund life, and satisfied infinite munificence and love.
       And since that time, and for evermore, the Christian world has lived and will live from this life springing forth, through his side, from the opened heart of Christ Jesus! (67)

The sheer exuberance of the imagery C-L compiles—where we see, for instance, the Heart of Jesus depicted as a grape in the winepress (126–28), or as the cup of a holy water stoup (106); a chalice so depicted that its opening suggests the wound in His side (80); the Pantocrator reigning upon a heart-shaped throne (255, 277–78); the divine Blood depicted as a jewel in a cup (195); Adam and Eve in the garden, holding aloft a Heart surmounted by a Cross as a foreshadowing of their redemption (270); a trademark in which chant notation provides the “so-la” for the phrase “fides sufficit” (274); a Carthusian astronomical marble that depicts the constellations revolving around a wounded Heart glowing like the sun (354); the depiction of a flaming Heart on which has been drawn the map of the world (364); a brotherhood’s emblem consisting of thirty-three tiny hearts enclosed in a Heart surrounded by a braid of thorns (399); a carved wooden lyre in the shape of a Heart (417)—is enough to fill the reader’s mind with an ever-growing wonder at the inexhaustible profundity and playfulness of the Christian imagination suffused with faith in the Redeemer. Among the many categories of readers who would find this book enthralling must not be forgotten artists, craftsmen, and designers, who will discover in it a delightful catalogue of inspiration.

The level of detail in the book is nothing short of mind-boggling. Just to take an example at random, Part 4, concerning Plants Emblematic of Christ’s Five Wounds, tells us in chapter 11 about “The Trees of the Passion” (olive tree, trees shaped like crosses, gum trees that produce valuable sap by being wounded), in chapter 12 about “Plants of the Divine Torture” (St. John’s Wort, called “Flagellation grass”; prickly marine rushes; hyssop and sponge), in chapter 13 about “The Garden of the Wounded Christ” (the strawberry, the poppy, the lychnis, the red rose, the amaranth, the adonide, the passionflower, and the paulownia flower).

C-L shares the conviction of the medieval allegorists that everything in nature was created not only through the Word but also in some way to reflect the Word’s Incarnation, the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Certainly this principle is required for any intelligent “reading” of the works of Christian artists from all periods prior to modernity. Indeed, C-L complains at one point that artists of the nineteenth century had lost the ability to understand iconography and therefore produced atrocious art:

The admirable and zealous movement begun at Paray, a wonderful stimulus to piety towards the heart of Jesus, did not induce, with its iconography, any return to [artistic] order. At least the religious imagery posterior to this movement did not increase confusion further. Finally, the deplorable fantasies dreamt up in the nineteenth century for the populace succeeded in crossing the bounds of the ridiculous with their absurd compositions, where we find all mixed together: grinning angels, ecstatic urchins, any flower whatsoever, hearts without distinctive features, and flights of doves that draw on high other hearts with implausible garlands or cords; the whole arsenal of a winded and fretful art (?) that had its peak around 1880, and which is now, quite thankfully, over and done with. (295)
The Vulnerary of Christ contains some “bonus” chapters that one might not have expected from its title. The legend of the Holy Grail is examined in chapter 15, and competing stories about the vessels of Jerusalem, Genoa, and Valencia, each claiming to be the cup of the Last Supper, are compared. Chapter 16 presents evidence that the ancient Egyptians venerated the heart of the supreme God. The cult of the Holy Name of Jesus and the depiction of the monogram is explored in chapter 18. The use of Christic symbols in the coats of arms of royalty is the subject of chapter 20. Chapters 21 and 22 look at astronomical sculptures and heart-shaped sundials, primarily from Carthusian monasteries.

Chapters 30 and 31 enter into the question of secular adaptations or thefts, misuses, even mockeries, of the Heart. For example, the Freemasons in France produced blasphemous versions of the Sacred Heart that they distributed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as “counter-propaganda” against the Faith. Large numbers of five-starred medals depicting the Sacred Heart bound with a chain and surrounded by the words “Psychology and Science” were sent to French soldiers on the front in World War II to combat the “threat” of popular devotional medallions.

Perhaps the most gripping portion of the book, at least for us at this time, is Part Seven, on the use of the Heart of Jesus as the identifying emblem of the counterrevolutionary armies of the Vendée (pp. 431–87). So far from fading with the passage of time, this characteristically Vendéan image has received new life in the postconciliar period as a potent symbol of the Catholic traditionalism that resists both the ideology of the French Revolution and its infiltration into the Church. The attentive reader will recognize how the ancient double heart symbol on p. 467 has gained a second career as the emblem of an important Society.

This book is a one-of-a-kind exposé of the subtle interplay between theology and symbolism, spirituality and art, faith and culture. It bears witness to the irreducibly visual, representational nature of Christianity, which (to paraphrase Maximus the Confessor) everywhere seeks its embodiment in the flesh, in matter, which it thereby seeks to illuminate and elevate as a herald of the Kingdom of God, which is both within and above. It is fitting to let Charbonneau-Lassay have the final word:
In truth, the cult of the wounded heart of Jesus Christ does not have its origin in the deep meditations and exaltations of theologians or teachers of the past, or in the conceptions of our old artists; it does not have its source in the revelations, the visions, the inspirations of the saintly men and women of any time or in the zeal of a particular religious order; it comes wholly and directly from the sole worship of the divine blood and the five chief wounds from which it poured, according to the word of the Nicene Creed, “for us men, and for our salvation.” By this well-marked route, the cult of the wounded heart goes back to the very birth of the Church.
       Of course, theologians, artists, doctors, saintly men and women, and religious orders, have added to, each has quickened, according to the providential views and according to their time, the cult of the five wounds, the worship of the open heart of Christ Jesus. But no, none of them has invented anything new. And when I look at Calvary, in spite of the darkness that enshrouds it with mourning, I see, already, worshipers of the pierced heart: Mary, “the dolorous Mother who stands upright,” John, Magdalene, and, surely from that moment, the legionnaire whose spear tip has just initialed with a flourish the “Consummatum est” of the Crucified One, who withdraws it from the open chest while his captain proclaims that this One, truly, is indeed the Son of God, whose heart, even now, pours forth blood and water through his wound! (245)

The Vulnerary of Christ is available in paperback and in hardcover.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: