Friday, April 01, 2022

The Sagacious Saints of April

Rampillon Saint-Eliphe

The month of April in the 1962 Roman calendar boasts of several saints who are conspicuous for their wisdom and for the lessons they offer on the Christian use of reason and philosophy. Today, we shall look at four of them.

Justin the Philosopher
Saint Justin Martyr (April 14)
Justin (103–65), born in what is now the city of Nablus on the northern West Bank of Palestine, was the son of pagan parents. Students of sacred liturgy may remember him for the early witness his writings give to the celebration of the Mass, but Saint Justin is most famous for his prolonged encounter with philosophy. This is somewhat ironic, for after defeating the Cynic philosopher Crescens in debate, he was flogged and beheaded during the reign of the Stoic philosopher, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Justin studied in a number of different philosophical schools until one day he met a mysterious old man on the beach who convinced him that the mind cannot arrive at the fullness of truth without divine assistance. The man went on to tell Justin about the Hebrew prophets who were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Justin converted, but he did not completely leave Greek philosophy behind. Indeed, he wore the distinctive cloak of the philosophers and opened a philosophical school in Rome where he taught students for free about Christianity, the “true philosophy.” His extant works, two Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho, attest to a mind well-versed in both the Scriptures and classical philosophy.
Why did the new convert not abandon the rational world of Athens when he accepted the faithful world of Jerusalem? Like Saint Paul, Justin did not reject all philosophy but only that which is wrought “according to the elements of the world” (Col. 2, 8), that is, materialistic philosophies that deny a spiritual or intelligible realm. In Paul and Justin’s day, it was Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Stoicism; in our own, it is Marxism, empiricism, etc. [1]
As Pope Benedict XVI notes, the saint saw that “if the Old Testament tends toward Christ in the same way that a figure tends toward the reality which it represents, [good] Greek philosophy also tends toward Christ and the Gospel, just as a part tends toward union with the whole.” [2]
Justin’s engagement of philosophy, which was duly cautious yet persistent, is a timely reminder of the uniqueness of Christianity. The other two monotheistic religions of the West, Judaism and Islam, primarily understand divine revelation in terms of Law; hence, the proper response of the pious Jew or Muslim to God’s self-revelation is conformity to divine command. The word “Islam,” for instance, is from the Arabic word meaning “to submit.”
Although obedience and right behavior are also important components of Christian life, the Christian disciple nevertheless holds that God’s ultimate self-revelation is not through a code of law, but in a Person, a Person who is Logos or Word. And the proper way to respond to a word is not merely to obey it, but to understand it. “I will not now call you servants,” Jesus tells the Apostles on the night before He died, “for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.” (John 15, 15)
It is this focus on knowing and loving the Word who is Wisdom (1 Cor. 1, 24) that gives Christianity an unparalleled openness to philosophy, that love of wisdom through the use of reason. Unlike Judaism and Islam, which initially flirted with philosophy but eventually came to view it with suspicion, the study of philosophy in Christianity, as Dr. Frederick Crosson points out, “became an essential and required part of the education of theologians.” [3]
Even more, it remains a required part of even the simplest country priest’s seminary formation. [4] We take this for granted, but it really is astonishing that the stubbornly rationalist and arcane activity that is philosophy would not only be tolerated, but actively embraced by the Church. Such an embrace testifies to the Christian Faith’s love of truth in all its aspects. In an age where atheist scientists write bestsellers taking cheap shots at Christianity, it is good to remember that so much of the West’s unleashing of the power of reason is owed to the encouragement of the Catholic Church.
But if Christianity is open to philosophy and the life of the mind, how is this relationship to be understood? It is to our next saint that we must turn for an answer.
Giovanni Franceso Romanelli, The Meeting of Countess Matilda and Anselm of Canterbury in the Presence of Pope Urban II, ca. 1640
Saint Anselm (April 21)
Saint Anselm (1033-1109), the so-called founder of scholasticism and a Doctor of the Church, was born in Aosta, northern Italy. As a boy, Anselm thought that God dwelt atop the high, snow-capped Alps visible from his home. One night he dreamt that he was invited there by God Himself, who warmly offered him “a very white bread.”
This dream convinced Anselm that he had a special vocation. He tried to become a monk when he was fifteen, but his harsh father would not give his consent. After a period of moral dissipation, Anselm finally entered the monastery at Le Bec in Normandy at the age of twenty seven. Three years later, he was elected prior of the abbey, and fifteen years after that he was unanimously elected the abbot. Under his leadership, Le Bec became a great center of learning in Europe, attracting students from all over the continent. It was there that he wrote his most famous works, the Monologion and the Proslogion.
Although Anselm relished life in the monastery, he was called to cross the English Channel and become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Before and after his consecration, he struggled constantly, first with King William II and then King Henry I, over the investiture controversy raging at the time. Anselm defended the liberty of the Church valiantly and was exiled twice from England for his troubles.
It is as a theologian, however, that Anselm ranks, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, as “one of the most luminous figures in the tradition of the Church and in the history of Western European thought itself.” [5] The following paragraph, also from the Holy Father, summarizes the “Magnificent Doctor’s” contributions:
The clarity and logical rigor of [Anselm’s] thought always had as their objective ‘to raise the mind to the contemplation of God’ (Proslogion, Proemium). He states clearly that whoever attempts to theologize cannot just count on his intelligence, but must cultivate at the same time a profound experience of faith…. Hence, his famous words continue to be very useful also today for a healthy theological research and for anyone who wishes to go deeper in the truths of the faith: ‘I do not presume, Lord, to penetrate in your profundity, because I cannot even from afar confront my intellect with it; but I wish to understand, at least to a certain point, your truth, which my heart believes and loves. I do not seek to understand to believe, but I believe in order to understand’ (Proslogion, 1). [6]
Anselm’s emphasis on belief as the condition of understanding provided what is now the classical definition of theology: fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. Contrary to the modern notion of faith as a “blind leap,” the Catholic Faith is an enlightening leap, a leap that lifts the mind up to the contemplation of God Himself. Faith does not short-circuit reason; it energizes it, purifies it, elevates it, and gives it more to ponder than it ever could have discovered on its own.
Anselm even goes so far as to suggest that the understanding we enjoy in this life is “a middle state between faith and the beatific vision. The more we attain understanding,” he concludes, “the closer we get to that vision to which we all aspire.” [7] Faith is superior to reason, but it is also ordered towards the perfection and not the stunting of our rational souls.
A.E., Petrus Canisius, 1546
Saint Peter Canisius (April 27)
Another Doctor of the Church who knew this was Saint Peter Canisius (1521-97). The first Dutchman to enter the Society of Jesus, a prolific writer, and the “Second Apostle of Germany” (so-called because of his frequent and incredibly successful missions to that country), Canisius is one of the greatest agents of that period of history which is less accurately known as the Counter-Reformation, and more properly called the Catholic Reformation.
Peter Canisius’ life reads like a summary of the important events and figures of the sixteenth century. He was present at the 1557 Colloquy of Worms, where, speaking in opposition to Philip Melanchthon, he highlighted the divisions within Protestantism in such a way that the Protestants were forced to dissolve the meeting. He was an advisor of Emperor Ferdinand I, whom he solemnly warned about the dangers of apostatizing and of making concessions to Protestants in return for military support. He was a theological expert at the Council of Trent, where he gave advice on Holy Communion under both species and the Index of Forbidden Books. He was on good terms with Pope Saint Pius V and Saint Charles Cardinal Borromeo; even the spiritual master Saint Francis de Sales sought his advice.
As if this were not enough, Saint Peter Canisius was also a great promoter of Catholic education on all levels. On one hand, he founded Jesuit colleges in Germany; on the other, he authored three catechisms that comprehensively educated youngsters from first grade to high school. Pope Benedict XVI mentions that as recently as his own father’s lifetime, the Catholic catechism in Germany was simply known as “the Canisius.” [8]
Saint Peter was a model of faith seeking understanding and of understanding seeking communication, but he also exemplified the spirit in which that search must be conducted. In his day as well as our own, it is tempting either to abandon the search for the truth and sink in a morass of relativism, or to twist the love of truth into a fanatical and self-serving contempt for others.
Saint Peter Canisius took a different approach. As Pope Benedict XVI explains: “In a historical period of strong confessional differences, Canisius avoided—and this is something quite extraordinary—the harshness and rhetoric of anger—something rare, as I said, in the discussions between Christians in those times—and aimed only at presenting the spiritual roots and at reviving the faith in the Church.” [9]
Consider, for example, his advice to Rome about the Protestant heretics in Germany against whom so much of his work was directed:
If you treat them right, the Germans will give you everything. Many err in matters of faith, but without arrogance. They err the German way, mostly honest, a bit simple-minded, but very open for everything Lutheran. An honest explanation of the Faith would be much more effective than a polemical attack against the Reformers. [10]
Determined to be both faithful and reasonable, this wise saint sought words of truth that would “cure patients” rather than “make them incurable” with rage.
Lorenzo Lotto, Madonna and Child with St. Peter Martyr, 1503
Saint Peter Martyr (April 29)
So far all of the saints we have examined have appeared in the Emeritus Holy Father’s remarkable series of Wednesday General Audience addresses on the Church Fathers (2007-2009), Medieval Churchmen (2009-2011), and Doctors of the Church (2011). Our next saint was not publicly discussed by Benedict XVI, but this sagacious holy man, whose feast completes a remarkable April fortnight of holy wise men, eminently deserves our attention.
Although Saint Peter of Verona (1206-1252) was born of parents who were part of the Cathar heresy, he went to Catholic school and was an orthodox believer. At the University of Bologna, he met Saint Dominic and entered the Order of Preachers. A tireless and effective preacher, he was appointed by Pope Gregory IX as General Inquisitor in 1234.
Like Saint Peter Canisius, Saint Peter of Verona brought many souls back to Christ. He was vigorous in denouncing Catholics who professed the orthodox Faith with their lips but denied it with their deeds. Moreover, he was a scourge of the Cathar heresy, a form of dualism that had enveloped much of northern Italy. One day, when returning from Como to Milan, he was attacked by a band of the heretics lying in wait. One of them violently struck him on the head with an axe. “Offering his blood as a sacrifice to God,” he “dipped his fingers in it and wrote on the ground the words, Credo in Deum.”[11] The assassin who then took his life by piercing his heart repented of his deed afterwards and joined the Dominican order.
Saint Peter’s death was as shocking to the medieval faithful as that of Saint Thomas Becket a century earlier. It was a rare thing to have a priest martyred in Europe by fellow Christians during the Age of Faith, and so when it happened, the Christian mind was seared with its memory. One testimony to the popularity of Saint Peter’s cult is the fact that he is best known as Peter Martyr: his title has become a part of his name. His feast was celebrated with great devotion, to the point that servile work was forbidden.
The saint’s witness also gave rise to the custom of taking branches, symbols of the palm of martyrdom, to a church run by the Dominican order and having them blessed on his feast day. Dom Guéranger tells us that the custom was still being observed at the time that he was writing in the mid-nineteenth century, and indeed the Rituale Romanum contains a special blessing for the occasion that only a Dominican priest was permitted to use. The blessing is beautiful, imprecating God for protection from fires, storms, and devils for the house in which the branches are kept. The Rituale also includes a similar blessing for water, which the Dominican order is likewise privileged to use, that involves making the sign of the cross over the water with a relic of Saint Peter.
In our own day and age the blessing of Saint Peter’s branches has fallen into disuse, while the reservation of blessings to particular clerics was discontinued after Vatican II. Still, a Dominican friend has told me that most of his confrères, especially from the younger generation, would be delighted to give such a blessing in honor of the great saint and provide the faithful with this sacramental for their home.
And what does the death of Saint Peter tell us about the life of loving wisdom? The most obvious lesson is the importance of clinging to the infallible magisterium of the Church in order to stay on the path to knowledge and understanding. But there is an additional lesson here about the vagaries of the human mind east of Eden. The Cathars, as we have already mentioned, were dualists, people who posited that there were two equal and opposed forces in the world, good and evil, and that the spiritual realm was good and the material evil. This was the same error that Saint Augustine battled in the fourth and fifth centuries, where it had taken the name Manicheanism; it was the same error that reemerged in the Albigensian heresy of the twelfth century; and it is the same error found today in popular entertainment such as certain aspects of Star Wars and above all in the doctrines of Scientology.
What this recurring pattern indicates is that dualism is an enduring and beguiling mental virus against which one must be on constant guard. Christian orthodoxy clearly rejects a dualistic view of the world, for it affirms the goodness of the material world and it scoffs at the idea of evil as an independent force that can rival God. In Christian thought, the opposite of Satan is not God; it is Saint Michael, the good angel that defeats the wicked one. God Himself is without peer or opposite.
And evil is not an independent thing or force vying with God. It is the privation of a thing, a parasitical negation of or subtraction from the goodness that God has created. Those privations that are evil, which constitute a sort of unreal reality or real unreality, cannot destroy God’s order. Indeed, although God is not the author of evils, He is able to include them in His benevolent order in such a way that they enhance the beauty of the whole, much in the same way that dark colors in a painting enhance the brilliance of the light.
Yet since understanding the nature of goodness and evil (or rather, how evil lacks a nature) is no easy matter, even Catholic Christians can fall into a dualistic mindset. This brings us back to the use of philosophy in the Christian life. It was not until Augustine read the books of the Platonists that he was liberated from the snares of the Manicheans. Good philosophy understands being and nonbeing, and thus it can be crucial for teaching the mind how to avoid the dangerous fallacies of dualism.
Space regrettably prevents us from considering other wise saints whose feasts appear during this month, such as Saints Isidore of Seville (April 4), Leo the Great (April 11), and Catherine of Siena (April 30), all Doctors of the Church.[12]  Yet the saints we have seen, whose example and intercession pierce the drought of our souls like a sweet April shower, are sufficient to illustrate the words of Dom Guéranger: “[Philosophy] will always be distinct from faith, but henceforth she will the helpmeet of this heavenly virtue. Human reason will be strengthened by the alliance and will be able to arrive at trustworthy conclusions. But woe to reason if she forgets her consecration to Christ, ignores the mystery of the Incarnation, and declares herself satisfied with a purely natural explanation of the origin of man, the end of creation, and the Moral Law…. The Word is one, as man, to whom he manifests himself, is one; and this manifestation is made at one and the same time, though in different ways, namely, by reason and faith. If man withdraws himself from the supernatural light, he will be rightly punished by the withdrawal of that natural light, which he thought to be his own, and the world will be plunged into unreasoning foolishness.” [13]

This article, which first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of The Latin Mass magazine, has been since updated. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

[1] Note that the Epicureans and Stoics rejected Saint Paul’s preaching, but no mention is made of Platonists or Aristotelians, who recognize a reality beyond the material (see Acts 17, 18ff).
[3] Frederick J. Crosson, “Esoteric vs. Latent Teaching,” Review of Metaphysics 59:1 (Sept. 2005), p. 91.
[4] See the section on philosophy in the Program of Priestly Formation, 5th ed. (USCCB, 2006), nos. 152-57, which begins with a quotation from Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, no. 62: “The study of philosophy is fundamental and indispensable to… the formation of candidates for the priesthood.”
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, “Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI to Cardinal Giacomo Biffi Special Envoy to the Celebrations on the Occasion of the Ninth Centenary of the Death of Saint Anselm,” April 15, 2009,
[7] Letter to Pope Urban II, included as the Commendatio to Cur Deus homo (Why God Became Man).
[8] Pope Benedict XVI, “Saint Peter Canisius,” February 9, 2011,
[9] Ibid.
[10] Burg, Kontroverslexikon (1903), 224.
[11] Anthony Allaria, “Saint Peter of Verona,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1911),
[12] Note: Because Saint Catherine of Siena was not declared a Doctor of the Church until 1970, she is listed on the 1962 calendar as Virgin only.
[13] “Saint Justin Martyr,” Dom Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 8, trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd (Great Falls, Montana: Saint Bonaventure Publications, 2000), pp. 309-310.

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