Friday, June 30, 2023

The Divided Pope: A Review

Yves Chiron is a reputable French scholar whose specialty is nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic history. Chiron has written biographies of Edmund Burke, Pius IX, Pius X, Benedict XV, the seers of Fatima, Pius XI, and Padre Pio. In 2020 he published the Françoisphobie: François Bashing, and in February 2022 Histoire des Traditionalistes, the fruit of over twenty years of research (I have heard that an English translation will be coming out in 2024). Chiron’s biography of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, which appeared in French in 2014 and in English in 2018, is considered the best and most thorough treatment so far on the controversial liturgical reformer.[1]

In 2003, Chiron published a biography of Pope St. Paul VI, and in 2008 a revised edition. Chiron did not alter his appraisal of the pontiff but added several clarifications and new points of view that came to light after the publication of the first edition. He also expanded on several points from the first edition, such as the influence of Jacques Maritain on the political thought of Paul VI.
Thanks to translator James Walther and Angelico Press, the 2008 edition was made available in English last year under the title Paul VI: The Divided Pope.
Walther’s translation is smooth and readable, and it includes additional footnotes about some of the persons and movements in Paul VI’s life. The new edition also begins with a foreword by Henry Sire. Sire, a historian of modern Catholicism and a papal biographer himself, offers a spirited analysis of the pontificates of Paul VI and Francis, noting the parallels between how the two pontiffs were elected and the tension between their goal of liberalizing the Church and their autocratic ruling styles. If Paul VI is the Divided Pope, Sire concludes, Francis is the Divisive Pope. Catholics who are worried about the so-called Francis effect can thus gain a better perspective by understanding the pontificate of Paul VI.
Chiron’s own approach is more dispassionate: “The historian is not a judge or arbitrator,” he asserts in a recent interview. “The most he can do is to be rigorous in his research and in the portrait he draws.”[2]  
Montini at his ordination to the priesthood, 1920
Paul VI: The Divided Pope bears witness to that rigor. Chiron canvases the family of Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI’s baptismal name), their involvement in left-leaning and anti-fascist Italian politics, and Montini’s erratic seminary formation, which occurred without his living in a seminary due to poor health. Chiron goes on to chronicle Montini’s involvement in Vatican politics, serving under Pius XI and Pius XII. The latter relied on him in many matters, but for reasons unknown distanced himself from the talented apparatchik, “exiling” him from the Holy See’s inner circle to serve as Archbishop of Milan in 1954.
It was the first official pastoral experience in Montini’s life, and it did not go as expected. To combat a religious decline in Milan, the Archbishop launched a renewal campaign called the Great Mission that was designed to “reform” and “modernize” the Church and increase the piety of lay Catholics. But “after a brief eruption of fervor, the results of the Great Mission were profoundly disillusioning,” and Milan’s slide into secularism continued. (142)
Cardinal Montini of Milan, 1959
Montini returned to the limelight during the pontificate of Pope St. John XXIII, but he was a behind-the-scenes player during the early sessions of Vatican II in order to maintain an air of nonpartisanship. During this period, the Archbishop grew closer to Cardinals who would elect the next Pope; during a tour of North America in 1960, he befriended five American and two Canadian Cardinals, all of whom supported him in the conclave following the death of John XXIII. He also attended a meeting at Grottaferrata that has been compared to the “Gallen Mafia” meeting that is claimed to have influenced the election of Pope Francis.
Montini was elected Pope on only the second day of voting in large part, to quote Cardinal Ildebrando Antoniutti, because of an “underlying sentiment that the Church was likely headed towards a crisis which the Council had created, so that it needed a regulator with whom all sides could be associated in order to broker a resolution.” (170) At the time, the seasoned diplomat and Vatican insider seemed the obvious choice, but as it turns out, brokering resolutions to the crisis that he was instrumental in causing was not his strong suit. Montini took the name Paul after the great missionary Apostle, but he ended up not quite being all things to all men in the same way as his new namesake.
Paul VI’s reactions to Vatican II and its aftermath oscillated between enthusiasm and despair. The Council became increasingly divisive with each new session, and before the fourth and final session Paul VI published a despondent encyclical (Mense Maio) begging the People of God to pray the rosary so that things would end well. Paul VI’s spirits lifted a bit thereafter, but after 1968 he began to despair again and would soon be speaking of the Church’s “self-destruction” and how the “smoke of Satan” had entered into the sanctuary of God. From 1972 until his death in 1978, the Pope resigned himself to letting the Holy Spirit figure it all out and held loose the reins of governance (with, as we will see later, a couple of notable exceptions). Near the end of his life, a broken Paul VI complained that he had been abandoned and betrayed by his friends and allies.
Chiron’s descriptions of Montini are telling. Adjectives such as “brilliant,” “audacious,” and “cautious” are counterbalanced with “sentimental,” “naive,” and “unrealistic.” Chiron writes: “He was sometimes prone to let himself be swept away by emotion and act without reflection.” (157) And although the Pope’s “flights of lyricism” could be quite eloquent, they were not always clear or precise. In the closing speech to the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI scandalized many when he said: Nos etiam, immo nos prae ceteris, hominis sumus cultores. (234) The official Vatican version is: “we, too, in fact, we more than any others, honor mankind.”[3] The translation is accurate and probably reflects the Pope’s intentions, but the statement can also be translated: “We more than anyone, are worshippers of man.”
Paul VI at Vatican II
For Paul VI, who drank deep of Nouvelle Theologie’s “new humanism” and Jacques Maritain’s “integral humanism,” the declaration was tied to a “theocentric and theological concept of man.” Elsewhere in the same speech, the Pope describes the encounter between Christianity and secular humanism thusly: “The religion of the God who became man has met the religion (for such it is) of man who makes himself God.” Secular humanism, in other words, is a false religion that ironically does not understand or honor the human as well as the Catholic Faith. True enough, but the Pope’s articulation of this irony leaves much to be desired and understandably gave rise to a traditionalist backlash.
There are at least three reasons why Chiron is justified in calling Paul VI the Divided Pope. First, as one cardinal who knew Montini for years put it, “He was a pope who suffered from a dichotomy, with his head to the right and his heart to the left.” (227) As already noted, Giovanni Battista Montini grew up in a family steeped in leftist Italian politics (the Christian Democrats), and he was a champion of religious liberty and the separation of Church and state. On the other hand, the only time that Paul VI intervened in the final session of the Council was to take artificial birth control and priestly celibacy off the table; they were not negotiable (as they appear to be now under the current Pope).
A good illustration of this dichotomy is that within three months of each other, Paul VI published two encyclicals: Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, a vigorous defense of the Roman tradition of priestly celibacy, and Populorum Progressio, an endorsement of his friends’ integral humanism that championed economic development for all and “a world fund to relieve the needs of impoverished peoples” that was to be deducted from military spending. The document, which was pilloried by economists around the world and is rife with a jaw-dropping utopian naiveté, opened the door for liberation theology in Latin America.
Second, Paul VI was torn between maintaining changeless dogma and introducing sweeping changes to the Church’s liturgy, governance, and attitude towards other groups (other Christians, other religions, etc.). Paul VI had a penchant for dramatic and “spectacular gestures” that were designed to be disarming in order to invite dialogue yet were sometimes confusing. In 1964, Paul VI took off his tiara and announced that it would be sold and the proceeds given to the poor. (This was the same tiara on which he had spent money because he wanted something more modern in design!) But what did the gesture mean? Was it a renunciation of the Church’s claim to temporal power? Either way, the tiara was never sold. Paul VI gave it to his friend Cardinal Spellman of New York, and it was eventually put on display at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The American bishops were “invited to offer a sum of money for the poor.” (192)
Paul VI's tiara at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Third, Paul VI was divided in his treatment of dissent. He was generous to a fault with his heterodox friends such as Hans Küng, whom he protected and refused to sanction. He was generous with adversaries of Humanae Vitae (Frs. Karl Rahner, Bernhard Häring, Charles Curran, etc.) whom he refrained from disciplining and whom he protected from stricter bishops. He was generous with the Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom he gave his episcopal ring from Milan. He was generous with Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon, whose feet he kissed (when the astonished Meliton tried to reciprocate, the Pope refused). He was generous with the Turks, to whom he returned the great Ottoman battle standard that Christians had captured during the Battle of Lepanto. He was generous with Communist leaders, pursuing a policy of Ostpolitik that often backfired and left persecuted Catholics behind the Iron Curtain and in China at a disadvantage. And he was generous with Freemasons, calling for a revision of (the old) canon 2335 that referred explicitly to their excommunication.
Paul VI Kissing the Feet of Metropolitan Meliton
But when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre asked for an audience with the Pope to iron out their differences, Paul VI demanded “submission” as a condition for “dialogue” (in contradiction of his own extensive thoughts on the subject as expressed in his 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam). When Lefebvre finally got his audience (without submitting), he had the sense that the Pope felt “personally wounded” by the Archbishop’s criticisms and that the Pope was ill-informed of the situation: he accused Lefebvre of making his seminarians take an oath against the Pope, which was never the case. Paul VI, in turn, thought of Lefebvre as a “lost soldier” who belonged in a “psychiatric hospital” and who had an “insane and morbid obstinacy.” (286)
The Pope’s animus towards Lefebvre and the Traditionalists led him to make intemperate statements, as often happens in heated arguments. At least twice during his pontificate the Pope affirmed that while Vatican II was authoritative and authentic, it did not infallibly define any dogma. And yet when he saw that the judgment of the Council Fathers was being called into question by the Traditionalists, he declared that Vatican II “holds no less authority than that of the Council of Nicaea, and under certain aspects is even greater.” (284) You can imagine how that went over.
Marcel Lefebvre, ca 1962
Paul VI’s reaction to Lefebvre’s dissent is also noteworthy because it contrasts with his own record as a Vatican official. When he worked under Pope Pius XII, Montini sometimes acted “in direct opposition to [the Pope’s] authority,” (90) which is probably why he lost favor with Pius XII and was appointed Archbishop of Milan.
Chiron never answers the question why the Lefebvre case was so neuralgic for Paul VI. My own suspicion is that Paul VI was pleased to think of himself as a Modern Pope but not a Modernist Pope. From an early age, Montini loved modern art and modern literature, and he was obsessed with “modern man,” whom he both idealized and pitied as noble but tragic and on behalf of whom he was willing to make extravagant sacrifices in the realm of sacred liturgy and asceticism. Perhaps because of his long career in Vatican diplomacy and his cultural sophistication, he believed that he was well-poised to thread the needle, to maintain Church doctrine while updating the Church’s self-presentation, praxis, and organization.
And so, when Lefebvre declared that the changes Paul VI oversaw were “neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant,” the Pope probably took it as a personal attack (unlike his heretical friends, who were “only” attacking Church dogma). Thus, when even Hans Küng and Annibale Bugnini advised tolerance for both Lefebvre and the celebration of the old rite, Paul VI icily ignored them, and at the expense of his own principles. “I am first of all pardoned by God,” he told an associate at the end of his life, “I ought never to condemn anyone; I should always be the minister of pardon.” (12) Well, almost always.
Despite Chiron’s coverage of Paul VI and Marcel Lefebvre, I would have liked to learn more from this biography on Paul VI’s liturgical and ascetical decisions. It is from Chiron’s biography on Annibale Bugnini, and not from the one currently under review, that we learn that Paul VI wanted to restrict concelebration, to leave the Roman Canon untouched and to allow two or three additional anaphoras during certain defined seasons, and to retain communion on the tongue alone, the triple Agnus Dei, the Last Gospel, the Mysterium fidei in the words of consecration, all the minor orders, and the major order of subdiaconate. And yet with the exception of the Agnus Dei, Paul VI eventually approved the suppression of all these traditions. How did a pope who finger-wagged the Consilium in 1966 about reverencing the sacred, respecting tradition and a sense of history, and searching for what is best rather than what is new come to approve Bugnini’s vast innovations? Chiron’s biography on the sainted Pope does not tell us.
We do, however, learn that Paul VI thought of Latin in the liturgy as “sacred, grave, beautiful, highly expressive, and elegant,” but that it had to be “sacrificed” in order to increase active participation. (239) It was not an opinion universally received well. In Africa, most of the bishops preferred Latin as a unifying language over that of the colonizers’ or of the myriad tribal tongues that divided the peoples of that continent. But Paul VI preferred to listen to the minority of prelates like Cardinal Joseph Malula who went on to design the Zaire Rite, a little-known addition to the list of Western liturgies. (255)
I would also like to have learned about the financial scandals allegedly regarding the Mafia, drug money, and the Vatican bank during the reign of Paul VI, but Chiron does not cover them.
Chiron’s biography greatly increased my understanding of Pope St. Paul VI. Before reading The Divided Pope, I was tempted to see Paul VI’s strong assertions of orthodoxy merely as a means of placating his critics. Now I am persuaded that he was acting out of genuine apostolic zeal (although critics will still point to his controversial opinions about ecumenism, religious liberty, and the social reign of Christ the King). Put differently, when Paul VI issued his Credo of the People of God in 1968, it seems to me that he meant it. This confession of faith not only includes a reaffirmation of the Christology and pneumatology of the earlier ecumenical Councils but several statements that reject modern indeterminacy. Consider the line, “The intellect which God has given us reaches that which is, and not merely the subjective expression of the structures and development of consciousness.”[4] Perhaps these words were added to correct his more liberal friends such as accused-Free Mason Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens, who inveighed not only against the Church’s “legalism” but its “essentialism.”
To his credit, Montini was not a Peronist, saying one thing to one crowd and the opposite to another merely in order to maintain control. With the exception of the aforementioned social doctrines, he strove to maintain the orthodoxy of the Church even as he ineptly presided over one of her worst doctrinal crises in history. His blind spots proved profoundly damaging. Paul VI took Pope John XXIII’s assertion that the teaching of the Church was one thing and its presentation another as an article of faith. Both would have done well to heed Marshall McLuhan’s insight that the medium is the message: you cannot usher in drastic changes to the medium and expect everyone to think that the message is the same. Or to say the same thing in a more theological key: you cannot change the law of prayer without affecting the law of belief.
As for Paul VI’s brand of ecumenism (which, judging by the number of converts to the Catholic Church it induced, was a complete failure), there is nothing wrong per se with being gentle to non-Catholics. Pope St. Gregory the Great, it is said,
extended his charity to the heretics, whom he sought to gain by mildness. He wrote to the bishop of Naples to receive and reconcile readily those who desired it, taking upon his own soul the danger, lest he should be charged with their perdition if they should perish by too great severity.[5]
Yet the same Pope “was careful not…to relax the severity of the law of God in the least tittle.”[6] Gregory did not give mixed signals. He did not give heretical bishops his old episcopal ring or kiss their feet, nor did he ask heretics for their advice on how to redesign the sacred liturgy in order to make it more amenable to their heretical beliefs. Paul VI truly was the Divided Pope, and we have been living in the wake of his schizophrenia ever since. Chiron’s biography is an excellent place to begin to understand the divide.
This article originally appeared in The Latin Mass magazine 32:2 (Summer 2023). Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

[1] See my review in Antiphon 23:3 (Fall 2019), 332-337.
[2] La Nef staff, “Making sense of Traditionalists: An interview with Yves Chiron,” translated by Zachary Thomas, March 15, 2022.
[4] “The Credo of the People of God,” June 30, 1968. 
[5] Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, vol. 3 (Dublin: Duffy, 1845), 118.
[6] Ibid.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Feast of Ss Peter and Paul 2023

Truly it is fitting and just, right and profitable to salvation to give Thee thanks always, here and everywhere, in honor of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Whom Thy election did so deign to consecrate, that it might change blessed Peter’s worldly trade as a fisherman into divine teaching; so that he might deliver the human race from the depths of hell with the nets of Thy precepts. And then Thou didst change the mind of his fellow Apostle Paul, along with his name; and whom the Church at first feared as a persecutor, She now rejoices to hold as the teacher of divine commandments. Paul was blinded that he might see; Peter denied, that he might believe. To the one Thou gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven, to the other, knowledge of the divine law, that he might call the nations; for the latter brought them in, as the other opened (the door of heaven). Therefore both received the rewards of eternal virtue. Thy right hand did raise up the one, lest he sink as he walked upon the water, and rescued the other from the dangers of the deep when he was shipwrecked for the third time.

The Stefaneschi Triptych, painted by Giotto and assistants for the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica, ca. 1330. On the left, the Crucifixion of St Peter; in the middle, Card. Giacomo Stefaneschi kneels before Christ in majesty; on the right, the beheading of St Paul. In the upper part of the right panel, Angels bring St Paul’s blindfold to one of the women of the Roman church after his death, as Paul promised her would happen. (Public domain image from Wikipedia; click to enlarge.)
The one did conquer the gates of the hell, and the other the sting of death; and Paul was beheaded, for he was shown to be the head of the Gentiles’ faith, while Peter, followed in the footsteps of Christ, the head of us all. Whom together with Thee, almighty Father, and the Holy Spirit, the Angels praise, the Archangels venerate, the Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities and Powers adore; whom the Cherubim and Seraphim with shared rejoicing praise. And we pray that Thou may command our voices to be brought in among them, saying with humble confession: Holy, Holy, Holy… (The Preface of Ss Peter and Paul in the Ambrosian Missal.)

Vere quia dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper hic et ubique in honore Apostolorum Petri et Pauli gratias agere. Quos ita electio tua consecrare dignata est, ut beati Petri secularem piscandi artem in divinum dogma converteret; quatenus humanum genus de profundo inferni praeceptorum tuorum retibus liberaret. Nam Coapostoli ejus Pauli mentem cum nomine mutasti, et quem prius persecutorem metuebat Ecclesia, nunc caelestium mandatorum laetatur se habere doctorem. Paulus caecatus est, ut videret; Petrus negavit, ut crederet. Huic claves caelestis imperii, illi ad evocandas gentes divinae legis scientiam contulisti. Nam ille introducit, hic aperit. Ambo igitur virtutis aeternae praemia sunt adepti. Hunc dextera tua gradientem in elemento liquido, dum mergeretur, erexit; illum autem tertio naufragantem, profunda pelagi fecit vitare discrimina. Hic portas inferni, ille mortis vicit aculeum: et Paulus capite plectitur, quia gentium caput fidei probatur: Petrus autem praemissis vestigiis caput omnium secutus est Christum. Quem una tecum, omnipotens Pater, et cum Spiritu Sancto laudant Angeli, venerantur Archangeli; Throni, Dominationes, Virtutes, Principatus et Potestates adorant. Quem Cherubim et Seraphim socia exsultatione concelebrant. Cum quibus et nostras voces, ut admitti jubeas, deprecamur, supplici confessione dicentes: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus…

Provisional Programme of the Fota XIV Liturgical Conference, Jul. 1-2

St Colman’s Society for Catholic Liturgy is pleased to announce the following programme for the XIV Fota International Liturgy Conference, to be held at Ballyhea, Charleville, Co. Cork (Ireland) on July 1-2. The subject of the conference is The Sacrifice of the Mass, and will explore aspects of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI’s reflections on the centrality of sacrifice in understanding the Eucharistic liturgy.

Saturday July 1
8.00 am Registration opens in the new Community Hall
9.00 am Conference convenes
9.30 am Professor D. Vincent Twomey
10.30 am P. Serafino Lanzetta
11.30 am coffee
12.00 noon Professor Dieter Boehler
1pm break
2.30 pm Dr. Sven Conrad.
3.30 pm short break
4.00 pm Dr. Peter McGregor
5.00 pm Discussion Panel
8.00pm Dinner

Sunday, July 2
9.00 am Mr. Matthew Hazell
10.00 am Professor Manfred Hauke
11.00 am morning coffee
12 noon Professor Joseph Briody
1 pm break
2.00 pm Dr. Thomas Lane
3.00 pm Discussion panel
4.00 pm coffee
4.15 pm Discussion panel
6.15 pm Solemn Pontifical High Mass

Please address all enquiries to

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Corpus Christi 2023 Photopost (Part 3)

We continue with the third post of photos of your Corpus Christi liturgies, and still haven’t finished! There will be another in this series, so as always, we will be very happy to include more photos of other major feasts celebrated recently, such as the Sacred Heart, Saint John the Baptist, or tomorrow’ feast of Ss Peter and Paul. Send them into, and don’t forget to include the name and location of the church, and anything other information you think important. Once again, thanks to everyone who sent these in, keeping up the good work of evangelizing through beauty.

Oratory Church of St Wilfrid – York, England 

Kicking St Irenaeus Around

June 28 is traditionally the feast day of Pope St Leo II, who died on this day in 683, after a reign of less than 11 months. The Liber Pontificalis records that on the previous day he celebrated the ordination of nine priests, three deacons, and twenty-three bishops; it is not said that it was the ordination ceremony that killed him, but the heat of Rome in June and the inevitable length of such a ceremony make this seem likely more than coincidence. The principal achievement of his pontificate was the confirmation of the acts of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the third of Constantinople, which condemned the Monothelite heresy; being fluent in Greek as well as Latin, he personally made the official Latin translation of the council’s acts. It is one of the oddities of hagiography that his predecessor St Agatho, in whose reign the council was held, and whose intervention (through his legates) in its deliberations was acclaimed with the words “Peter has spoken through Agatho!”, has never been honored with a general feast day in the West, but is kept on the Byzantine Calendar. Leo, on the other, was a Sicilian, and therefore born as a subject of the Byzantine Empire, but is not liturgically honored in the East.

In this altar in St Peter’s Basilica are kept the relics of three Sainted Popes named Leo, the Second (682-3), the Third (795-816) and the Fourth (847-55). The altar of Pope St Leo I (440-61) is right next to it, and Pope Leo XII (1823-29) is buried in the floor between them.
Even older than the feast of Pope Leo is the vigil of Ss Peter and Paul. The vigils of the Saints originally consisted solely of a Mass, penitential in character, celebrated after None in violet vestments, without a Gloria, Alleluia or Creed; prior to the Tridentine reform, they had no presence in the Office in the Use of Rome. (Back when there were plenty of canonical and monastic churches, such foundations would have celebrated two Masses in choir, that of St Leo after Terce, and that of the vigil after None, just as was done with the feasts of Saints which occur in Lent.) In the Breviary of St Pius V, vigils were extended to the Office, following a custom of medieval German Uses, an unusual example of change in an otherwise very conservative reform. At Matins, a homily on the day’s Gospel is read, and the prayer of the vigil Mass is said at the Hours; everything else is done as on the feria until Vespers, which are the First Vespers of the feast. However, the vigil of Ss Peter and Paul, because it coincides with St Leo, was reduced in the Office to one lesson at Matins (the ninth) and a commemoration at Lauds.

At Lyon, the ancient primatial see of Gaul, the day was kept as the feast of St Irenaeus, and the vigil as a commemoration. In his book On Illustrious Men, St Jerome mentions the famous martyrdom of St Pothinus, who was Irenaeus’ predecessor in the See of Lyon, but says nothing about the latter’s death, the date and circumstances of which are unknown; it is a rather later tradition that he died a martyr. It may very well be that his feast found its way to the vigil of Ss Peter and Paul at Lyon because of the famous passage in his book Against the Heresies (3.3.2) in which he attests to the primacy of the Roman See as follows. “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority – that is, the faithful everywhere – inasmuch as the Apostolic Tradition has been preserved continuously by those who are everywhere.” In 1921, Pope Benedict XV extended his feast to the general Calendar on his traditional Lyonese date, moving Pope Leo II to July 3rd, the next free day on the calendar, and the day of his burial according to the Liber Pontificalis.

The crypt of the church of St Irenaeus at Lyon. In 1562, the church was severely damaged by the Huguenots, who also destroyed the Saint’s relics, and played a game of soccer with his skull. After more destruction in the revolution, it was rebuilt in 1824, and the crypt renovated in 1863. Despite these vicissitudes, the crypt may still be regarded as one of the oldest religious buildings in France; relics of certain local martyrs were venerated there already in the later part of the 5th century. The church was originally dedicated to St John the Baptist. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Xavier Caré.)
In the Breviary Reform of 1960, St Irenaeus was moved to July 3rd, and Pope Leo II suppressed, in order to free June 28th up entirely for the Mass and Office of the vigil of Ss Peter and Paul. This was fundamentally a rather odd thing to do, since so many of the vigils then on the general Calendar, (including all those of the other Apostles, and, inexcusably, those of the Epiphany and All Saints) were abolished by the same reform. Less than a decade later, however, with the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, vigils in the classic Roman sense, penitential days of preparation for the major feasts, were simply abolished altogether, “freeing” June 28th from the one observance which had hitherto been absolutely universal on that date, the vigil of Ss Peter and Paul. St Irenaeus was therefore moved back to that date, freeing July 3rd for the transfer of the Apostle St Thomas from his historical Roman date, December 21st, to the date on which the Syrian church commemorates the transfer of his relics from India to Edessa.

This may seem to be just another case of what Fr Hunwicke once described as the freezing in pack ice of the EF Calendar, which keeps Irenaeus on a day which he held for ten years, while the OF has restored him to his historical Lyonese date. It should be noted, however, that Lyon itself moved his feast 4 times. After it had been kept on June 28th for centuries, Archbishop Camille de Neufville de Villeroy (1654-93) formally raised St Irenaeus to the title of Patron of the archdiocese, and moved his feast to November 23rd, displacing the very ancient feast of Pope St Clement. Patronal feasts were holy days of obligation in the Ancien Régime, and since adding another holiday to the end of June, right in the middle of harvest season, was judged excessive, his feast was transferred. (Thanks to Mr Gerhard Eger, one of the authors of Canticum Salomonis, for this information.) In the Neo-Gallican reform of Abp Antoine de Montazet (1758-88), which was a catastrophe for the Use of Lyon, it was fixed to the Sunday after the feast of Ss Peter and Paul. In the 1860s, the Missale Romano-Lugdunense was promulgated (basically the Missal of St Pius V, with a great many Lyonese customs added to it, including the rites of Holy Week), and St Irenaeus was fixed to July 3rd. Finally, in the 20th century, he was returned to his traditional date.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Perpetual Helper

Although there is no Marian feast on the General Roman Calendar during the month of June, there are a number of interesting local and congregational holy days to the Blessed Virgin. One such example is the Feast of Our Lady of Cranganor in India (June 10)—the shrine at Cranganor, which was allegedly built by one of the Magi, is said to contain an image of the Madonna and child painted by St. Luke and brought to India by St. Thomas. Another is the Feast of Our Lady of Arras in France (June 14), which honors a miraculous showering of manna from Heaven after the starving populace prayed to the Blessed Virgin in A.D. 371.

But today, let us turn to the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor (or Help) on June 27, which celebrates one of the world’s most recognizable icons.

Originating in Crete around the thirteenth century, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help hearkens to an artistic tradition that is believed to stretch back to St. Luke the Evangelist. The Blessed Virgin is shown holding the Infant Jesus, who is terrified by His future Passion. He gazes upon Saints Michael and Gabriel, who hold the torturous instruments of the Crucifixion, and turns to His mother for solace. So frantically has He run to her that He has almost lost one of His sandals, which now dangles from His foot. Another interpretation is that in the Old Law, taking off one’s shoe meant (1) yielding one’s right to another, (2) the wish to be treated as a servant or a captive, (3) or readiness for reproach or infamy.
The suffering Mother, draped in a red dress betokening her Son’s Passion and a blue mantle symbolizing her purity, holds her Son tenderly as she stares at us solemnly. Her right hand consoles the frightened little hands of Jesus but it also points to Him, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Behind them is a gold background representing the Kingdom of Heaven.
This kind of icon is known as a Hodegetria, which means in Greek, "She who shows the Way." And because this icon is ultimately about Our Lord’s death, it is also an instance of iconography called “Virgin of the Passion.”
The rich symbolism of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a good reminder of why Byzantine artists are not said to “paint” an icon but to “write” one, for this beautiful image of Madonna and child is clearly meant to be “read.” And what great lessons are to be learned from this reading: the mystery of Our Lord’s Passion and Our Lady’s Compassion, and the perpetual help which flows to us from our merciful God through the Mediatrix.
Renowned for its miracles, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was originally known as the Madonna di San Matteo, for it was kept in Rome’s San Matteo in Via Merulana run by the Irish Augustinians. In 1798, however, the church was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops and the icon taken to another church. Almost sixty years later, the Redemptorists bought the property to build a church of their own, not knowing its celebrated history.
Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Boston
When Blessed Pope Pius IX, who had prayed before the image as a boy, learned of the Redemptorists’ plans, he ordered the Augustinians to give the icon to them so that Our Lady could occupy the same space as she had had before. Pius also formalized the title “Mother of Perpetual Help,” crowned the image, and instituted this feast day in her honor. Numerous copies of the icon were made, and some of them—such as the one in the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston—proved to be as wonder-working as the original. Our Lady perpetually brings help wherever she goes.

An earlier version of this article appeared as “Written or Painted?” in the Messenger of St. Anthony 118:6, international edition (June 2016), p. 30. Many thanks to its editors for its inclusion here.

Access the Graced Imagination to Love and Serve the Lord

I want to recommend a short but brilliant article by Sr. Thomas More Stepnowski, O.P., on the workings of the imagination, and its important role in opening an internal door that leads to our grasp of Truth in faith and love, through the contemplation of God.

Sr. Stepnowski is a member of the St. Cecilia Dominican Congregation, based in Nashville, Tennessee and her article, entitled How the Mystery Is Imprinted in the Heart’s Memory - The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Imagination is one essay in the book Speaking the Truth in Love: The Catechism and the New Evangelization, published by Emmaus Academic and edited by Petroc Willey and Scott Sollom.

An abbreviated version of Sr. Stepnowski’s piece appears online, here, in the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal.

Both articles draw on an essay of W Norris Clarke called The Creative Imagination, which is in his book The Creative Retrieval of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Essays in Thomistic Philosophy, New and Old.

Sr Stepnowski describes how an imagination formed by the liturgy, and bestowed with God’s grace, gives us an enhanced ability to meditate upon both the Word of God in Scripture, and to read the Book of Nature with fresh eyes, recognizing Creation as a sign of the Creator.

This same imagination, which she terms a ‘graced imagination’, is a principle of creativity by which we, united to Christ and partaking of His divine nature, can see how to govern our own daily activities and participate in the creative work of God. Activity directed by the graced imagination, both in our worship or in our work outside the liturgy, leads to personal fulfillment.

In describing the graced imagination, the primary concern of Sr Stepnowski, consistent with the main theme of the book in which it appears, is its role in evangelization. She argues for catechesis that develops the creative imagination as a form of ‘pre-evangelization’, which primes us to be receptive to the truths of the faith.

In doing so, she distinguishes it from what is commonly called the ‘Catholic Imagination’ by cultural commentators. The graced imagination refers to all operations of the imagination enhanced by grace. This has a broader operation that permeates and informs potentially all operations of the intellect and will. The Catholic Imagination, on the other hand, is a term typically used by commentators to refer to the use of the imagination by creative Catholics in the fine arts, especially literature and poetry and would be used to apply to, for example, the works of Tolkein and Flannery O’Connor. The products of the Catholic Imagination may well result from a ‘graced’ imagination, but the graced imagination refers to the elevation of potentially every operation of the imagination, which can inform pretty much any human activity.

To explain this, she establishes first what the imagination is. The imagination she tells us, citing St Thomas Aquinas, is a faculty of the mind by which data - ‘colors, textures, scents’ and images - are first drawn from the senses and then stored for the use of the intellect. The imagination is more than a simple data warehouse, however, for it can subsequently piece together such data in novel ways, in response to other stimuli, and to create new pictures or ideas then delivered, so to speak, to the intellect. In the example she quotes, she says that if we are told of a ‘golden mountain’ that we have never seen, we immediately connect our impressions of golden objects and mountains we have seen, and then create a composite image of the golden mountain, which does not exist in reality.

This natural tendency to connect things in our mind is what allows us to derive meaning from what we see. However, as she points out the unguided or badly formed natural imagination can be unruly and it ‘rebuffs the intellect with grave consequences’, especially if harmful images, pornography for example, are among the stimuli.

It is wise therefore to seek an ordering principle that guides the imagination in what it selects and connects and which can read the signs of nature correctly. The best ordering principle, she says, is Scripture. Scripture tells us through the imagery of (e.g.) the Psalms, how to understand nature as a beautiful sign of the Creator. Once we have a catechesis that explains to us through the study of scripture the meaning of what we are seeing in nature, we are primed also to recognise the symbolism of what we see in sacred art and in the Church’s liturgy. As a result we are more likely to enter into the mystery of the sacramental life.

Through this process of Christian formation - a Christian inculturation, one might say - the ‘secular’ imagination can operate in an ordered way and help us to see things as God intends. This is still not necessarily the ‘graced’ imagination, however, for it might still rely on natural reason to understand what is seen. This ordered but natural imagination is the imagination of one who understands and maybe even delights superficially in the truth and sees the value of what he understands, but is always as a detached observer.

Jordan Peterson, as he presents himself publicly, adopts the position of one who has a well-ordered natural imagination. He is a gifted commentator who recognizes the value of and understands much of Scripture and the Christian view or nature as sign and symbol, but nevertheless treats it as a benign myth to learn from, rather than a truth to be grasped. It is fiction, but imparts good values and a pattern for good living. Through his approach, many have subsequently become practicing Christians, but he doesn’t admit to being a full believer himself in the way that a Christian would understand faith. He would argue, I think, that every society needs a myth or a story that imparts the values that its members must have in order to be fully participating members. Our myth is Salvation History, just as the Odyssey and the Aeneid were the myths for the Greeks and Romans, and so this should be imparted to Westerners.

Their myth: a 3rd century AD Roman mosaic of Odysseus, from Homer’s epic poem.

The graced imagination, in contrast, belongs to the person who not only accepts the meaning of symbolism intellectually, but loves what he knows as a sign of the Good in the most profound way. Such a person joyfully and willingly orders his life according to it at the deepest level. This is supernatural faith, and its sign is a desire and commitment to participate in the liturgy and the sacramental life, as a full member of the Catholic Church. The person with the graced imagination then partakes of the divine nature, and experiences the deepest fulfillment in this life. This becomes a positive reinforcing process with infinite progress, for the more deeply we participate in the mysteries of the sacramental life in this spirit, the more we are given and in turn, the more we desire it.

Going further than the scope of the article itself and here offering my own reactions, I would say that the person whose imagination is fired by grace becomes that ‘supernatural man’ described by Pius XI in Divini illius magistri as the product of a good Catholic education. The supernatural man not only experiences the continual deepening of his faith, as described above, but then contributes creatively to the work of God in the world around us, creating beauty and enhancing our surroundings to draw people to Him yet more powerfully.

There is no guarantee that this supernatural state can be induced in anyone by an education, as it requires a free assent of the heart, without compulsion, to be genuine. But partaking of the divine nature is within the reach of any who accept God in their hearts through Christ, and there is an established formation that inclines us, at least, to such a movement of the heart. This is a Catholic education with mystagogical catechesis at its heart and which leads us to its consummation in right worship.

Our ‘myth’? Noah in the Ark of Salvation, Palatine Chapel, Sicily 11th century AD

Conventional, classroom study of Scripture and Salvation History prepares us for right worship, but the greatest preparation for the Mass is the Liturgy of the Hours. Through the singing of the psalms and canticles of Scripture, and the readings in the context of the Church’s worship in the Liturgy of the Hours, the natural imagination is tutored and ordered in a profound way - more deeply than is possible by study of these texts in the classroom alone. Praying the Hours inclines us most powerfully to desire Christ as the still center of the Liturgy, in the Eucharist. The more that non-Catholics are immersed in this practice - even if initially only participating superficially, as say curious or sympathetic observers, the more it is likely that their hearts will be transformed.

Similarly, the Liturgy of the Hours prepares us to take what we receive in the Mass and apply it gracefully in the world. It refocuses our attention to follow the commandment we are given at the dismissal, to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ in the world. It inclines us powerfully to maintain an openness to grace, and to allow this same ‘graced’ or creative imagination to contribute to the ordering of our daily activities. This could lead to the production of high art that commentators would recognise as the product of a ‘Catholic Imagination’, but it could as likely lead to creative and inspired work in any other field of endeavor, including many that one would not normally associate with creativity, such as say bookkeeping or cleaning the bathroom (apologies to any noble book keepers and cleaners out there!)

As an artist I would note that the traditional formation of an artist is directed both to engendering the skills of his art, but also to forming the graced imagination.

I would argue that when such a formation is given to anyone (not just those who wish to become artists) in the context of good Catholic education, then it would develop the facility for supernatural creativity, as governed by a graced imagination.

So the child who develops a faculty for creativity in the course of painting classes will subsequently be able to apply that creativity in other fields, whatever their personal vocation might be. One could imagine, for example, that the student who discovers that his personal vocation is to be a software developer, might then humbly and as servant of God, produce new and powerful technology that aids mankind, and is in harmony with the common good. Similarly, the person who is called to motherhood or fatherhood would exercise their graced imagination in bringing up the children well.

Here is a summary of that formation, listed as the disciplines of the conventional Christian artistic training:

The Imitation of a Canon — the drawing and painting of a canon of great works of accepted past masters in the tradition. This engenders humility and a deep understanding of how great people have created art before them.

The Imitation of Nature — the drawing and painting of nature. This is studying the work of the Master Himself. Again it engenders a humility in that the artist must conform to reality. The humble artist is more likely to follow inspiration should God choose to give it to him.

A Catholic Inculturation — the study of all Catholic culture, including but not limited to painting. This is enhancing the students’ understanding and appreciation of Catholic culture in such a way that he understands its importance in a Christian society, and his place in contributing to it.

The Study of the Mathematics of Beauty — the study of the quadrivium and of sacred number. The four mathematical liberal arts of cosmology, geometry, arithmetic and music with a particular emphasis on how this numerical language articulates divine beauty. The study of sacred number involves understanding the symbolic quality of number in the Christian tradition. This is another ordering principle, again ordered by scripture as commented on by the Church Fathers, for the imagination.

Spiritual development — catechesis to the rites of initiation in the Church, and thereafter after a continuing catechesis - known as mystagogical catechesis - that directs the student to a deeping grasp and participation in her mysteries. This is the formation that involves the deep engagement with scripture and a grasp of Salvation History as described above.

Going beyond Imitation — The practice of the creation of beauty, through imagining and incarnating beautiful ideas as paintings. The best artist is not a pure copyist, but rather through the good use of imagination, raises up what he sees through partial abstraction and modification of what is seen so as to reveal invisible truths through the visible means of visual art. This is how, for example, the best artists can paint a portrait and communicate to us that this person is alive and has a soul, and is not simply a perfect wax model of person.
Copying existing works of art. This is someone learning the Academic Method of art trainging developed in the 16th century.

Rigorous study of nature: A figure study using the Academic Method.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Feast of Ss John and Paul, Martyrs

The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Saints John and Paul, as recounted in the pre-Tridentine Breviary according to the Use of the Roman Curia.

At Rome, (the passion) of John and Paul, brothers… when the Caesar Julian was taken by sacrilegious lust for money, he sought to color his greed by the witness of the Gospel. For as he took from the Christians their goods and properties, he would say, “Your Christ says in the Gospel, ‘Who renounceth not all that he possesseth cannot be my disciple.’ ” Now it came to his notice that Paul and John were helping the crowds of Christians by means of the riches which the virgin Constantia (the daughter of Constantine, whom John and Paul had formerly served) had left to them. And he sent a man to see them, and say that they must adhere to him. But they answered … “Because of your iniquity we have desisted from greeting you, and withdrawn ourselves entirely from all association with your rule. For we are not false, but true Christians. … We do not do you this injury, that we prefer any sort of human person before you. We prefer to you the Lord, who made the heaven and earth, the sea and all things that are in them.” (The saints also declare their refusal to return to the court, where they had formerly served Constantine, and greet the emperor.) Julian said to them, “I give you a pause of ten days. When they have passed, if you come to me willingly, I will hold you as my friends; if you do not come, I will punish you as public enemies.”

Despite the great antiquity of the cultus of Ss John and Paul, and the presence of their names in the Roman Canon, they are rarely represented in art. These paintings decorate the place within their house where they were originally buried; other martyrs whose connection to them is not altogether clear, Ss Crispus, Crispinian and Benedicta, are represented alongside them. The relics have long since been moved into the altar of the church dedicated to them, which was built on top of the house. 
Then the holy men John and Paul, calling the Christians to themselves, gave orders concerning all the things which they could leave behind, and for the whole of the ten days busied themselves with almsgiving day and night. But on the eleventh day they were confined within their house. (A military officer named Terentian is then sent to their house and says to them) “Our lord Julian has sent a little golden statue of Jove to you, that you may adore it and burn incense. But if you do not do this, you will both be struck with my sword. … ” John and Paul said, “If Julian is your lord, have peace with him. We have no other Lord, but the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whom he (i.e. Julian the Apostate) did not fear to deny. And because he was once cast away from the face of God, he wishes others to come down with him to destruction.” (Terentian has them decapitated and buried in their house.)

The exterior of the church of Ss John and Paul, which was completely rebuilt in the 12th century. 
Julian was at once slain in the war with Persia, and when Jovinian had become the most Christian emperor, the churches were opened, and the Christian religion began to rejoice. (Following this, many possessed persons are healed in the house of Saints John and Paul, including the son of Terentian, who himself converts to Christianity, and writes the passion of the Holy Martyrs.)

A later and apocryphal tradition says that Julian the Apostate was killed by a Christian soldier in his army named Mercurius, (who is honored in the East as a Saint), as depicted here in a Coptic icon. (image from wikipedia.) The true historical date of Julian’s death is the same as the feast of Ss John and Paul, June 26th.
R. Hæc est vera fratérnitas, quæ numquam pótuit violári certámine: qui effúso sánguine secúti sunt Dóminum: * Contemnentes aulam regiam, pervenérunt ad regna caelestia. V. Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitáre fratres in unum. Contemnentes. Gloria Patri. Contemnentes.

R. This is the true brotherhood, which could never be injured in the struggle; who by shedding their blood, followed the Lord. * Disdaining the palace of the king, they came to the heavenly kingdom. V. Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity. Disdaining. Glory be to the Father. Disdaining.

In the Breviary of St Pius V and its predecessors, this responsory is said on the feasts of Several Martyrs who are also brothers. The devotion to John and Paul is one of the oldest in the city of Rome, and the responsory was almost certainly originally written for their feast day.

Why the Omission of “Mysterium Fidei” Does Not Invalidate the Consecration of the Wine

I have argued (especially in my book The Once and Future Roman Rite) that the Novus Ordo is a striking and scandalous departure from our liturgical tradition, and deserves finally to be retired and replaced with the Roman Rite—the only Roman Rite there is. Such a thesis is hardly unfamiliar to readers of this blog.

However, critics of the Novus Ordo sometimes make mistaken critiques, insufficiently grounded in a correct grasp of the principles of theology. For example, in the free market of unregulated traditionalist literature, one will sometimes find people claiming that the removal of the words “mysterium fidei” from the formula of the consecration of the wine invalidates the form. While the removal of this phrase is certainly objectionable, it does not in any way invalidate the form.

The reason is specified by St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa theologiae III, question 60, article 8:
Since in the sacraments, the words produce an effect according to the sense which they convey … we must see whether the change of words destroys the essential sense of the words: because then the sacrament is clearly rendered invalid. Now it is clear, if any substantial part of the sacramental form be suppressed, that the essential sense of the words is destroyed; and consequently the sacrament is invalid. Wherefore Didymus says (De Spir. Sanct. ii): “If anyone attempt to baptize in such a way as to omit one of the aforesaid names,” i.e. of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, “his baptism will be invalid.” But if that which is omitted be not a substantial part of the form, such an omission does not destroy the essential sense of the words, nor consequently the validity of the sacrament. Thus in the form of the Eucharist—“For this is My Body,” the omission of the word “for” does not destroy the essential sense of the words, nor consequently cause the sacrament to be invalid; although perhaps he who makes the omission may sin from negligence or contempt.
In the case of the chalice, the words that are necessary for accomplishing transubstantiation are: “This is the chalice of my Blood.” If these words are said by a validly ordained priest with the intention of doing what the Church does, then consecration will happen, since there is nothing ambiguous about the formula whatsoever—there is no doubt as to what is being said, namely, that the chalice is filled with the Blood of Our Lord. But if a minister left it at that and did not continue with the rest of the words according to the rite established by the church, he would then sin against the virtue of religion by failing to offer due worship. Such an incomplete statement, as it is contrary to the given rite, would be illicit; but it would not lead to invalidity, for the reasons given by the Angelic Doctor.

The fact that many authors refer to the entire traditional formula as the form of the sacrament cannot be taken as proof against the foregoing argument, since even Aquinas makes a distinction between the correct form and an incorrect, but not invalid form. If we do not take this (frankly common-sense) view, we will quickly run into trouble when trying to explain how the Eastern rites accomplish transubstantiation, since not a single one of those rites has “mysterium fidei” in the formula for the chalice. (Incidentally, this is also the reason it is doubtful that that phrase originated with the Lord, although it is possible that it originated with one of the Apostles, e.g., St. Peter in Rome, which would explain why it is found only in the Roman rite and the uses that stem from it or belong to its sphere of influence.)

On an ecclesiological and canonical level, we must also say that the supreme authority in the Church has the right to specify/clarify what is and is not the form, or, at least, what is adequate for accomplishing a given sacrament. Canon law has always granted this point, and there is not a single theologian who disputes it. Although we can and should lament the harm done to the Order of Mass by Paul VI, we cannot accuse him of promulgating an invalid sacrament or sacramental form.

In conclusion, I agree there is a mutilation in the repurposing of the phrase mysterium fidei, as I have argued at length. Here, I am simply saying that it does not undermine the efficacy of the statement found in the new missal, because this statement contains the essence of the form—namely, that this [1] is the blood of Christ. That, all by itself, is sufficient, all the other usual conditions being met (correct matter, minister, and intention). As Pius XII teaches in his encyclical Mediator Dei, the sacrifice consists in the separate consecration of bread and wine; and again, St. Thomas is clear that, however illicit it is to omit part of the form, nevertheless as long as the notion of a conversion of bread/wine to body/blood is signified, the words will be efficacious.

For more reflections along these lines, see my article “The Four Qualities of Liturgy: Validity, Licitness, Fittingness, and Authenticity.”

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski's Substack "Tradition & Sanity."

[Note 1] (Added subsequent to initial publication) St. Thomas takes up a particular objection to the words of Our Lord at the Last Supper (Commentary on Matthew, Chapter 26, verse 26). He is trying to identify the exact sense of the pronoun "this" in the phrases "this is my Body" and "this is my Blood". He points out the various ways one might interpret the significance of "this" and he positively rules out that the "this" means "this bread" or "this wine," because, if that is what is signified, it would result in a contradiction: "This [bread] is my Body," or "This [wine] is my Blood." So, after some grammatical analysis, St. Thomas concludes that the pronoun "this" signifies "whatever stands under these accidents." The statement "This is my body" is therefore not false, since its meaning is: "that which stands under these accidents is my Body."

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Card. Burke to Open Fota XIV Liturgical Conference Next Weekend

St Colman’s Society for Catholic Liturgy is pleased to announce that the XIV Fota International Liturgy Conference to be held at Ballyhea, Charleville, Co. Cork (Ireland) on July 1-2, will be opened by His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke.

The subject of the conference is The Sacrifice of the Mass, and will explore aspects of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI’s reflections on the centrality of sacrifice in understanding the Eucharistic liturgy.

Registration will open at 8am in the new Community Hall.

Card. Burke celebrating Pontifical Mass during the 2015 Fota conference.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

A Relic of St John the Baptist

Oft in past ages, seers with hearts expectant / Sang the far-distant advent of the day-star; / thine was the glory, as the world’s Redeemer / First to proclaim him.

A reliquary of a finger of St John the Baptist, from the museum of the cathedral of Florence, where he is honored as Patron Saint of the city. Attributed to Matteo di Giovanni; first half of the 15th century.
The text given above is a rather free translation of the third stanza of the Matins hymn for today’s feast, the Nativity of St John the Baptist, taken from George Herbert Palmer’s translation of the hymns of the Sarum Breviary. The Latin is:

Ceteri tantum cecinere Vatum
Corde praesago iubar affuturum:
Tu quidem mundi scelus auferentem
Indice prodis.

Translated literally, “The rest of the prophets in their foreseeing heart told only that the day-star would come; but Thou with Thy finger reveal Him that taketh away the sin of the world.”

Study Choral Conducting at Princeton Univ., Aug. 9-12

The Catholic Sacred Music Project is excited to announce its 2nd Conducting Institute, to be held in August on the beautiful campus of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute is a unique and exceptional training opportunity, offering emerging and established conductors a singular environment that balances instruction, study, prayer, and conviviality in an atmosphere of collegial support and encouragement.
Eight Conducting Fellows will receive premium podium experience at the helm of a 16-voice professional choir, along with hands-on instruction from master teachers Dr. James Jordan and Dr. Timothy McDonnell. The music list for the Institute will represent various genres of sacred music drawn from classic and contemporary choral repertories, Gregorian chant, and traditional hymnody. Each day’s workshop sessions will be punctuated by sung Mass and Compline, with service music conducted by Conducting Fellows and Conducting Auditors. The Institute will conclude with a public concert at the Princeton University Chapel on Saturday, August 12, at noon.
The CSMP welcomes all applications for fellows and auditors by July 1, 2023. Conducting Fellow applicants must submit a video audition. See the website of the CSMP to apply:
Repertoire will be confirmed and assigned to the conducting fellows and auditors based on experience and aptitude after registration closes.

Friday, June 23, 2023

The Forgotten Forerunner

St John the Baptist, 1425 ca. - 1432, from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

St. John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate on June 24, is well represented in the Gospels and even in every celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. Yet while devotion to other Saints close to Jesus, such as St. Joseph, has grown over the centuries, Western piety seems slightly neglectful of the one whom the Eastern churches call the Forerunner of the Lord. That is a shame, for the Saint who represents the last and best of the Old Testament has, as we shall see, a surprising relevance for this late chapter in Church history.

Biblical Prominence
Saint John the Baptist plays a prominent role in all four canonical Gospels. After recounting Christ’s genealogy and infancy, Matthew proceeds straight to his ministry (Matthew 2). Mark begins his “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1, 1) not with Jesus Christ the Son of God but with “the voice of one crying in the desert,” John the Baptizer. (1, 3-4) Luke opens his Gospel with the story of John’s conception, (Luke 1.5-25) and Saint John the Evangelist, in an astonishing move, interrupts his magnificent prologue about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us with a disclaimer that John the Baptist was not the Light but an important witness to the Light. (John 1, 6-10)
Conception and Naming
John’s conception in the womb of his mother Saint Elizabeth follows a hallowed tradition of miraculous conceptions. Isaac’s mother Sarah was beyond child-bearing, (Gen. 17, 19) and so was Samson’s, (Judges 13, .3-24) but the Most High brought life out of their barrenness.
John’s naming also follows a biblical pattern. Among adults, God renames chosen vessels as a sign of their new mission. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, and Simon bar Jonah becomes Saint Peter. But for specially chosen vessels, the naming takes place in the womb. Isaac is the name that the Lord God gives to the miraculous offspring of Abraham and Sarah, Jesus is the name that the Archangel Gabriel reveals for the incarnate Son of God, and John is the name, according to the same angel, for His second cousin.
Unlike the Blessed Virgin Mary’s unconditional fiat, John’s father receives the news about his son’s conception and naming in a spirit of doubt. As a result, Saint Zechariah or Zachary is punished by being struck dumb, a curse is not lifted until it is time to name the child eight days after his birth, at his circumcision:
And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: “Not so; but he shall be called John.” And they said to her: “There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: “John is his name.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came upon all their neighbours; and all these things were noised abroad over all the hill country of Judea. (Luke 1, 59-65)
Note the wording. Zachary does not say, “He will be called John,” but “His name is John.” Zachary is, in other words, uttering the essence of his son’s identity, not randomly assigning a label that happens to fall short of Jewish naming conventions at the time. In so doing, he is like Adam in the Garden, who names the beasts according to their essences. (see Gen. 2, 20) It is this act of faith that frees him from the angel’s curse and liberates his tongue.
It is also noteworthy that Zachary’s wife Saint Elizabeth, who must have learned about the angel’s message from her husband in writing, believes Saint Gabriel wholeheartedly. Her insistence on the name John despite her relatives’ protest is rather comical in the Latin Vulgate translation: Nequaquam! Which, if we were to translate it into modern slang, would be: “No way!”
John was conceived in the normal fashion (unlike Our Lord), and yet his gestation in the womb was accompanied by a miracle. When the Blessed Virgin Mary, who bore a less-than-one-month-old Son of God in her womb, visited her aged cousin Saint Elizabeth, who was six-months’ pregnant with Saint John, something amazing happened:
And [Mary] entered into the house of Zachary, and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.” (Luke 1, 40-45)
The Visitation, 1306, by Giotto, in the lower basilica of St Francis in Assisi.
How did the preborn John the Baptist recognize the voice of the Mother of God? And how did he know that he was in the presence of the Messiah? Not only was Saint Elizabeth filled with the Holy Ghost, but so was her son. (see Luke 1, 15) John the Baptist is considered by Catholic tradition to be like Jeremiah the prophet, who declares that he was sanctified in the womb. (See Jeremiah 1, 5) And consequently, both Jeremiah and John are on a small list of saints who never committed a sin, either venial or mortal, in their lives. Unlike the Blessed Virgin Mary, John was conceived in original sin, but while he was in the womb he was purged of the stain of original sin and went on to live without personal sin. No wonder that his is the only earthly birthday, besides that of Our Lord and Our Lady, that is honored on the Church calendar.
Moreover, Luke’s account of the Visitation bears a striking resemblance to David’s greeting of the Ark of the Covenant, when he dances before the Ark half-naked—much to the chagrin of his wife Michal. (see 2 Kings [2 Samuel] 6, 14-16) Just as David danced before the old Ark of the Covenant, John dances in his mother’s womb before the New Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle that is Mary the Theotokos, the God-bearer.
Early Years
The Holy Bible has only two sparse lines about the youth of John the Baptist: “He grew and was strengthened in the Spirit” and “He was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1, 80) The rest is speculation. It is widely conjectured that after the death of his parents (who, because of their age, died when he was relatively young), John went into the desert and joined the Essenes, an ascetical and messianic Jewish community. If this is true, he may have adopted certain customs of theirs, such as ritual washing or “baptizing,” but in a way that would have scandalized them.
Titian, 1542
Unlike other literature, the Bible is rather taciturn about how its characters look or what they eat, and when it does divulge this information, it is to reveal something important. John the Baptist is described in one fulsome verse:
And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1, 6; see Matthew 3, 4)
Most artists portray the Baptist looking like Tarzan or a caveman, with a one-shoulder tunic made out of camel hide. Nevertheless, the sacred text states that he wore hair rather than a pelt, which would have been more in keeping with his Nazarite vow not to touch dead bodies (more on this vow later). On the other hand, his wardrobe is not to be confused with the fashionable coats worn today. Camels have two kinds of hair: a fine, soft undercoat from which contemporary camel hair coats are made, and a coarse outer guard hair that is the fabric for haircloth and hairshirts. Given his ascetical life, he probably wove his own clothing from the rough guard hair that he could have picked up off the ground, since camels shed this hair in the spring and summer. No wonder that Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of tailors.
His leather belt is significant because the prophet Elijah also wore one. The Pharisees’ suspicion that John the Baptist was Elijah returned is not as insane as it might sound initially. (See John 1, 21) Elijah never died but was assumed into heaven in a fiery chariot; he wore a leather belt and lived apart; and he openly criticized the marriage of the king and his wife, Ahab and Jezebel, like John’s condemnation of the marriage of Herod and Herodias. John fits the profile of the Old Testament’s greatest prophet.
Biblical scholars have debated the meaning of “locusts.” Some have suggested that it was carob tree beans, others that it was a kind of manna-like pancake. But the Greek word clearly points to locusts, which are still eaten in the Middle East (Bedouins like theirs sun-dried and salted). Curiously, locusts are one of the few insects permitted as a clean comestible under the Mosaic Law.
A vendor in Yemen selling dried locusts
Scholars also quibble over the meaning of “wild honey,” some claiming that the reference is to gum from the tamarisk tree, which is nutritious but bland. Saint Jerome speculates that because the honey was wild, it was bitter in taste. He may be right, although it would depend on the nectar and pollen available to the bees. Either way, it must have been difficult to harvest the honey and even painful to do so (lots of stings), since wild bees usually have hives in inauspicious locations such as tree trunks, rock crevices, etc.
John was also predicted by Saint Gabriel to be a teetotaler, drinking neither wine nor strong drink. (Luke 1, 15) This restraint, combined with his holiness, identifies the Baptist as one of three persons mentioned in the Bible who took a lifelong vow of the Nazarite, the other two being Samson and Samuel. (See Judges 13, 4-7; 1 Samuel 1, 11) During the duration of his vow, a “Nazarite” (nazir is the Hebrew word for consecrated or set apart) could not cut his hair, drink alcohol or ingest anything from the grape, or touch corpses and graves.
Finally, Our Lord mentions that John neither ate bread nor drank wine. (See Luke 7, 33) A diet without bread further illustrates Saint John’s wildness, for bread, like wine, is a product of civilization. But mentioning bread and wine together also has unmistakable Eucharistic overtones. John was great, despite never feasting at the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Lord.
John’s mission was to prepare the way of the Lord, (Matthew 3, 3) and he did so by preaching repentance. He is famous for fearlessly calling the Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers.” (Matthew 3.7) and for speaking out against Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. On the Collect of his feast, the Church prays that we may learn to “boldly rebuke vice” like Saint John.
This petition, however, needs to be understood properly. Contrary to a popular misrepresentation, John was not an arrogant hothead, but a gentle spiritual director. As St. John Henry Newman astutely notes, Herod continued to like Saint John after the latter rebuked him; therefore, the Baptist must have rebuked him well
that is, at a right time, in a right spirit, and a right manner. The Holy Baptist rebuked Herod without making him angry; therefore he must have rebuked him with gravity, temper, sincerity, and an evident good-will towards him. On the other hand, he spoke so firmly, sharply, and faithfully, that his rebuke cost him his life. [1]
Similarly, when tax collectors asked him for advice, he did not tell them to quit their job working for the despised Romans but simply not to cheat anyone. And when soldiers (presumably, Gentiles in the service of Rome) asked what to do, John did not condemn them or their occupation but told them not to use their position to do bully others and to be content with their pay. (Luke 3, 12-14) John most likely baptized these soldiers as well, touching them as he dipped them in the River Jordan—something the Essenes, who valued their ritual purity, would never have done.
Baptizing with Water
Another difference between John and the Essenes is the significance each attached to purification through water. The Essenes had a ritual washing every day, but it was not related to a remission of sins. John’s baptism was different. Although the Baptist makes clear that his baptisms did not absolve sins and that only baptism in water and the Spirit would, he nevertheless preached “a baptism of penance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3, 4), and he never baptized unless the penitent confessed his sins. (Matthew 3, 6) John’s baptism served the crucial purpose of making people aware of the sins that are remitted in the Sacrament of Baptism.
The details of Saint John the Baptist’s martyrdom are well known. After criticizing Herod’s marriage, the monarch imprisoned him, even though he liked him. For his own birthday, Herod threw a large party and inviting several dignitaries. When Herodias’ daughter danced for him, Herod was so moved that he promised to give her anything that she wanted. At her mother’s behest, Salome (as she is known by tradition) requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The sad king obliged because he could not lose face in front of his important guests.

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