Thursday, May 25, 2023

Interesting Saints on May 25th: Rome, Florence and Milan

For most of the Roman Rite’s history, since at least the later 8th century, May 25th has been the feast of St Urban I, who was Pope from 222 to 230. As with many sainted bishops of the early centuries, very little is known about him. His election and his death are mentioned in passing by Eusebius of Caesarea in book six of his Ecclesiastical History; it is by no means certain that he actually died as a martyr, though he is titled so in the liturgical books. The Martyrology confuses him with a martyr named Urban and states that he was buried on the via Nomentana, which runs out of Rome to the north-east. In point of fact, he was buried in a crypt shared by several other Popes in the catacomb of Callixtus on the Via Appia, which runs to the south-east; his burial inscription was discovered when the catacomb was explored in the 19th century.
St Urban I Converts St Valerian; 1505-6, attributed to Giovanni Maria Chiodarolo and Cesare Tamaroccio. This is the second of ten panels depicting the legend of St Cecilia in an oratory dedicated to her in Bologna. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The Breviary states that he converted a great many persons, among them, St Valerian, the betrothed of St Cecilia, and his brother Tibertius. In Cecilia’s Passion, St Urban plays a prominent role, and just as many of the legendary details about him come from these acts, so too, their popularity accounts for the perpetuation of devotion to him outside of Rome. On their wedding night, Cecilia reveals to Valerian that she has consecrated herself to God, and states that she is protected by an angel; Valerian wishes to see the angel, but she tells him this is impossible unless he gets baptized. She therefore sends him to find Pope Urban, who is hiding out in the catacombs; once he is baptized, returns, and sees the angel, he expresses no other wish than that his brother should also be saved, and so he sends Tiburtius off to Pope Urban as well. Eventually, all four of them are martyred.
The next panel in the series: Pope Urban Baptizes Valerian. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
On May 25th, 1607, St Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi died at the age of 41, after a quarter of a century as a member of the Carmelite monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in her native Florence. Her life was one of very great sufferings, both physical and spiritual, and voluntary mortifications, accompanied, as such things so often are, by the most extraordinary graces, including many healings, visions and prophecies. (She predicted to the archbishop of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici, that he would become Pope, but only very briefly; he reigned as Leo XI for 27 days in April of 1605.) Her incorrupt body is now in the church of a monastery named for her, located about three miles north of Florence.
St Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi Having a Vision of the Risen Christ and the Virgin Mary, by the Spanish painter Pedro de Moya (1601-74). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi also has the distinction of being the first Saint to be canonized under the procedures definitively established by the seventh (and thus far last) namesake of Pope Urban. (See Mary Maddalena de’ Pazzi: The Making of a Counter-Reformation Saint, by Clare Copeland, Oxford, 2006). Her canonization was done jointly with that of St Peter of Alcantara, the confessor of St Theresa of Avila, by Pope Clement X in 1669, and her feast set on her day of death, with Urban I reduced to a commemoration.
As an interesting aside, her family name, which means “of the crazies”, is traditionally said to come from an ancestor who participated in the First Crusade, Pazzo di Ranieri, and was the first man over the walls of Jerusalem during the great siege of 1099. There is a charming story that he brought flintstones which he had taken from the Holy Sepulcher back to Florence, and for many years, these were used to make the new fire for the Easter vigil at the cathedral.
The coat of arms of the Pazzi family, made in terracotta (whence the protective net over it) by Luca della Robbia, and mounted on the inside of the cupola of the family’s chapel at the Franciscan basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence, 1442-3. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
In 1728, Pope Benedict XIII decided to add Pope St Gregory VII to the general calendar, placing him on the anniversary of his death, which took place on May 25th, 1085; St Mary Magdalene was therefore moved forward to May 27th. However, in 1900, Pope Leo XIII declared St Bede the Venerable, who died on May 26th, 735, to be a Doctor of the Church, and added him to the general calendar. Since his death date was already occupied by St Philip Neri, Bede was placed on the 27th, and Mary Magdalene moved again, to the 29th. (In the post-Conciliar Rite, Gregory VII, Bede and Mary Magdalene are all on May 25th as optional memorials, and Pope Urban has been abolished.)
As we live through the death spasms of the post-Conciliar revolution, there are many eras of the Church’s history to which we can look back for encouragement, and one of these is the one that gave us St Gregory VII. In the 10th century (the first to produce not a single sainted or blessed Pope), and the first half of the 11th, the Church had been thoroughly compromised by simony and lay control of ecclesiastical offices, with all the evils that attend them: moral corruption, financial corruption, and a placid indifference to the things of God. But it is truly often darkest before the dawn, and the beginning of the 10th century also saw the foundation of the abbey of Cluny, the spearhead of reforms that would see these vices thoroughly repudiated by the end of the 11th century, and largely extirpated over the course of the 12th.
Gregory VII was not the first Pope of this great reform movement, which captured the papacy, so to speak, in 1049, in the person of St Leo IX. But as the breviary lessons for his feast rightly note, he was one of the most important counselors and lieutenants of the reforming Popes, and it is fitting that the movement which he and they represented is sometimes called “the Gregorian reform” after him. On the death of Alexander II in 1073, he was elected by acclamation, which has happened only six other times in the Church’s history. (By a curious coincidence, four of the Popes thus elected were named Gregory, including the Great.) Having been driven by force from his see for his resistance to the importunities of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, he died at Salerno in 1085, saying, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity (Ps. 44, 8); therefore, I die in exile.” His body still rests there, in the cathedral which also has the relics of its titular Saint, the Apostle Matthew, and which he consecrated the year before his death.
The relics of Pope St Gregory VII, in his chapel within the cathedral of St Matthew in Salerno. The words of Psalm 44 quoted above are written along the bottom edge of the casket. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by NicFer, CC BY-SA 3.0)
A full view of the chapel. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Adert, CC BY-SA 4.0
Of course, the motto “Ecclesia semper reformanda – the Church is always in need of reform” exists for a reason. At the time of his canonization in 1728, lay control of the Church had resurfaced in various ways, more subtle than those which he and his contemporaries fought against, and particularly in France. Pope Benedict XIII added his feast to the general calendar partly in protest against these encroachments, which were greatly exacerbated by the controversies over the teachings of Cornelius Jansen and his supporters.
This gave rise to one of the most curious episodes in the history of the Church’s liturgy. The statement that Pope Gregory remained fearless in the face of “the wicked attempts of the emperor Henry”, who is later described as “iniquus – unjust”, was taken by the civil parliament of France as “an impeachment of the liberties (sic) of the Gallican church and the King’s Majesty.” (Batiffol, History of the Roman Breviary, p. 258 footnote). The parliament therefore ordered the suppression of the feast throughout France, and forbade the publication of the breviary supplement that contained it. The feast of St Gregory was not adopted in France until the 19th century, when “the liberties of the Gallican church” had been swept away, along with the would-be autarchic state that invented them. (Similar controversies arose in the kingdom of Naples, the Low Countries, and the Austrian empire under one of its very worst rulers, Joseph II.)
As a Florentine, St Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi would have kept the day of her eventual death not as the feast of St Urban I, but of one of her city’s principal patrons (alongside St John the Baptist), the bishop St Zenobius. He is said to have been a friend of St Ambrose, and among the miracles attributed to him is the raising from the dead of a group of children who were run over by a cart while playing near the cathedral. He had the good fortune to be bishop of a city that would later be ground zero of the Renaissance, and is thus immortalized in countless artworks, but it must be admitted that there is no contemporary source that mentions him, and the earliest written account of his life dates from 700 years after his death.
Episodes of the Life of St Zenobius, 1500-5 ca. by Sandro Botticelli. From left to right: he rejects the marriage arranged for him by his parents; his baptism; the baptism of his mother; his consecration as bishop of Florence by Pope St Damasus I. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
Further north in Italy, the Ambrosian church today celebrates one of its early bishops, St Dionysius, whose career is much better documented. In 355, four years after he succeeded to the see of Milan, the Emperor Constantius, who kept his capital there, called a synod to condemn St Athanasius for his defense of Nicene orthodoxy. It is highly significant that it was held in the palace, and not in a church.
An aspect of the Arian crisis which is often overlooked is that many bishops in the West understood little to nothing about the controversy, and little to nothing of what was said about it by others, whether in Greek (which most of them did not speak) or Latin. (St Hilary of Poitiers, an ardent champion of Nicene orthodoxy, famously stated that he had been a bishop for 20 years before he had even heard of the Council of Nicaea.) It was easy enough to misrepresent St Athanasius’ teaching to them, and convince them to condemn him as a dangerous heretic, and Dionysius was such a one. However, when Lucifer, bishop of Cagliari on the island of Sardinia, arrived at the synod, he was able to explain to Dionysius why Athanasius was correct, and Constantius the real heretic. Having thus been persuaded, and withdrawn his condemnation, he refused to yield to all further attempts of the Emperor to threaten or convince him. Both bishops were banished from Italy, as was another defender of orthodoxy and Athanasius, St Eusebius of Vercelli. St Dionysius ended his days in exile in Cappadocia, dying about 5 years later. The Arian bishop who replaced him, Auxentius, was succeeded in 374 by St Ambrose (elected, like Gregory VII, by popular acclamation), who would later receive Dionysius’ relics back to Milan, sent by St Basil the Great.
The relics of St Dionysius, in the cathedral of Milan. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by A ntv, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Ambrosian Missal has this preface for his feast, which celebrates his confession of faith.
Truly it is worthy… Almighty God, and not to keep silent the confession of Thy holy priest Dionysius, who could not be moved from the righteousness of his stance by the wickedness of the heretics, or the allures of this world, but in challenge to both, as one who proclaimed the truth, he did not depart from the steadfastness of Thy Faith. And therefore, we pay him the service of due honor, since in his solemn feast, o Lord, we proclaim the might of Thee, by whose grace he was such.

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