Monday, 28 August 2006

The Tomb of St Augustine

While in Canterbury I visited St Augustine's Abbey, originally founded by St Augustine and given the Roman dedication of SS Peter and Paul. Indeed Canterbury became a Kentish version of Rome, complete with a Cathedral dedicated to the Saviour - like the Lateran - and churches named after St Pancras and the Four Crowned Martyrs.

The liturgy of the early Canterbury Church attempted to imitate that of Rome – hardly surprising since St Augustine’s monks had been formed in a Roman environment. Even in the eighth century, Canterbury was still seen as a centre of chant ‘in the Roman manner’ – in 709 Bishop Acca of Hexham appointed a certain Maban as chanter, who had been trained ‘by the successors of the disciples of Gregory in Kent.’ Although no liturgical books survive, the Order of Mass was probably Roman, with a Frankish flavour, since Gregory had encouraged Augustine to adopt those practices of the Frankish Church that met with his approval. Even the early Cathedral was, in the words of the early twelfth century historian, Eadmer, ‘in some parts in imitation of the church of the blessed prince of the apostles, Peter.’ Historian Nicholas Brooks has shown that the pre-Conquest Cathedral was bi-polar in structure, so that ‘the Canterbury priest who celebrated mass at the altar of St Mary stood behind the altar and faced eastwards towards the people below, like the celebrant in the Roman basilicas.’

The Abbey became a mausoleum for the Kings of Kent and the early Archbishops of Canterbury. St Augustine's body was interred in the north porticus of the Abbey, where his immediate successors, Archbishops Mellitus, Justus, Honorius and Deusdedit, later joined him. These were unusual tombs (possibly based on contemporary Italian models), consisting of a wooden coffin placed in a pit and preserved in concrete, with the lid protruding. According to Alan Thacker, these ‘early archiepiscopal burials were envisaged as honoured graves appropriate to high ecclesiastics rather than as shrines.’ Indeed, they were arranged in a cramped space with little space for liturgical ceremonies or private pilgrim devotions.

Bede records his epitaph:
Here lies the most reverend Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, who was formerly sent hither by St Gregory, bishop of Rome; being supported by God in the working of miracles, he led King Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to faith in Christ and ended his days of his office in peace: he died on the twenty-sixth day of May during the reign of the same king.
At first St Augustine remained in the shadow of Pope Gregory and comes across as a rather colourless figure in Bede. Despite his contacts with Abbot Albinus of Canterbury, Bede may have lacked information about Augustine, but he also may have been promoting a deliberately Northumbria-centric history. Bede recognised the importance of the conversion of the Kingdom of Kent but firmly places his native Northumbria in the limelight. It is Aidan rather than Augustine, Edwin and Oswald rather than Ethelbert – in a sense York rather than Canterbury - that stands out in his History. Whenever we read early histories of the conversion of England, we need to bear in mind the rivalry with the ecclesiastical establishment at Canterbury and disputes over the Archbishop’s primacy.

They may even have a deliberate strategy in the early eighth century based not in Northumbria but at Canterbury itself that aimed to downplay the role of St Augustine and emphasise St Gregory as the apostolic evangelist of England. This fitted in with the pretensions of St Theodore who styled himself as ‘archbishop of the island of Britain.’

The cult of St Augustine only seems to have taken off from the mid eighth century. In 978 his Abbey was rededicated to ‘SS Peter and Paul and St Augustine.’ Curiously, it seems that the Normans rather the Saxons did the most to promote his cult. In 1091 the early Archbishops’ remains were solemnly translated to a new shrine inside the church – an effort on Abbot Wido’s part to unite a divided house and restate the Abbey’s ancient traditions and spiritual treasures. The event occasioned various works on Augustine and the other early Archbishops by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, including two lives and a book of Miracles.

St Augustine’s bones were moved once again in 1221, by which time a separate reliquary contained his head. Pilgrims visited his tomb but this was always second best, compared to the glittering collection of shrines to be found in the city and, from the end of the twelfth century, the tomb of Becket. Even in the Abbey church itself, the main attraction from 1030 onwards was the shrine of St Mildred of Minster, which stood before the High Altar. Moreover, even in the writings of Goscelin, the cult is often presented in terms of the early Archbishops of Canterbury together (SS Augustine, Mellitus, Justus, Honorius and Deusdedit) rather than simply St Augustine himself. Thus the crippled eleventh century pilgrim, Leodegar, was reported to being healed after witnessing a vision of the group of Archbishops at their tombs.

St Augustine’s shrine was, of course, destroyed at the Reformation. According to Archdeacon Nicholas Harpsfield, the saint’s bones were burnt, although there is a tradition that the body was saved by Edward Thwaites (of Easture and East Stour) and moved for safekeeping to St Mary’s church at Chilham. An ancient sarcophagus with a cross on its lid is sometimes identified as St Augustine’s, although the bones have been lost.

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Sunday, 27 August 2006

Canterbury's Huguenot Cardinal

Canterbury Cathedral boasts a whole array of cardinalatial bones in its vaults: Langton, Kemp, Bourchier, Morton and Pole. However, Pole was not the last cardinal to be buried in the Cathedral. At the southeast end of the Trinity Chapel is a plaque marking the tomb of Odet de Coligny, an apostate prelate who was known as the ‘Cardinal de Châtillon.’ He died mysteriously in a guesthouse at Canterbury in 1571, as he was returning to France. Most historians agree that he was poisoned by his valet de chambre, who may have been in the pay of Catherine de’Medici, well known for her opposition to the Huguenots. He was buried in a temporary tomb in the Cathedral awaiting translation to France.

Some claim that he was eventually buried in his homeland and that the incumbent of his tomb at Canterbury is someone much more worthy: St Thomas Becket himself, whose magnificent shrine once stood nearby. It is certainly unusual that a visiting Frenchman should have been buried in such an important position, surrounded by the likes of Henry IV and the Black Prince. However, the theory is made unlikely by the fact that Coligny died over thirty years after the destruction of Becket’s shrine.

Who was this poisoned Frenchman? The member of one of the most influential French families of the time, Odet de Coligny was born on 10 July 1517 at Châtillon-sur-Loing, the second son of Gaspard de Coligny, maréchal de France. He received the red hat from Clement VII on 10 November 1533 at the request of the King of France, Francis I. He was aged just sixteen. The following year he became Administrator of the Archdiocese of Toulouse, even though he was not yet in Major Orders, and participated in the Conclave that elected Paul III. As well as holding a number of Abbacies in commendam, which guaranteed him a stable income, he became in 1535 Administrator of the diocese of Beauvais. In 1560 Pius IV appointed him Grand Inquisitor of France, but was prevented from taking up the position because of the opposition of the powerful Parlement of Paris.

In 1561, encouraged by his family, he rejected his Catholic Faith and became a Calvinist. His volte face caused great scandal, especially coming one year after his papal appointment as a Grand Inquisitor. In 1563 he was deprived of his cardinalate and other benefices, and excommunicated. However he continued to wear his scarlet robes, most famously on the occasion of his marriage, in 1564, to Isabelle de Hauteville, who was presented to fashionable society as Madame la Cardinale. In 1567 he fought with the Huguenots at the Battle of St Denis and travelled to England in 1568, disguised as a sailor, partly to flee persecution and partly to secure negotiations with Queen Elizabeth. He was never to return to his homeland and he still lies awaiting judgement day at the Cathedral of Canterbury.


Saturday, 26 August 2006

Bubblewrap and England's Oldest Church

Sorry for the recent lack of blogging - not just simply a general lack of inspiration but a hundred and one preoccupations as I get ready to move parish on 4 September. This state of affairs will continue for the next fortnight, especially since my move requires the purchase of a new computer (which I must sort out this weekend). In fact I popped over to Kingsland (my new parish) this evening to drop off some valuable items which I didn't want to entrust to the removers (such as my Napoleon III gold fiddleback, my relic collection and a rather fine C19 oil painting of Cardinal Pole - you know, the usual stuff) and was pleased to find a wireless modem waiting for me!

But the past week hasn't just been a tale of bubblewrap and boxes. On Wednesday I went to the Franciscan Study Centre, Canterbury to speak to the English Catholic Historical Association on St Augustine and the Conversion of England. I enjoyed researching the talk although everyone seemed rather tired after an intensive three day conference and the discussion afterwards was mercifully short! The audience included the new Abbot of Downside, Dom Aidan Bellenger, who is thankfully continuing his historical pursuits despite his new appointment - I spent a very enjoyable evening chatting to him and Dr Stella Fletcher, with whom he has written books on England's Cardinals and the Archbishops of Canterbury.

Before giving my talk we were treated to a tour of Christian Canterbury. It was especially good to visit St Martin's, the oldest functioning church in England. Its origins are uncertain - some say it was a Roman mausoleum and others, following St Bede, suggest it was a Romano-British church. The building is to a large extent Saxon and built on Roman foundations. It was certainly dedicated to the Gaulish St Martin by the Merovingian Queen Bertha, the wife of King St Ethelbert, and her chaplain, St Liudhard. When St Augustine and his band of forty monks arrived in Kent in 597 St Martin's became their first base and it was here that the King was probably baptised.

Worth visiting - not only to honour the cradle of English Christianity but to take a picture of the famous 'keyhole' view of the Cathedral tower (above).

Sunday, 20 August 2006

The Myth of Hitler's Pope

Over the last decade there has been a whole stream of books attacking Pius XII for his alleged ‘silence’ in the face of the Holocaust– an ‘anti-Pius’ campaign that transfers the guilt of the Nazi regime onto the Catholic Church. A new book has come to the Pope’s defence, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued the Jews from the Nazis, written by Rabbi David Dalin. There is an excellent review of it in The American Spectator entitled ‘Hitler’s Pope?’ – especially good because is written by a best selling historian of the Holocaust, Sir Martin Gilbert.

Readers won’t need convincing of Pius’ innocence, but the article added some little details which I hadn’t been aware of before:

  • As Secretary of State under Pius XI, Pacelli made 55 protests against Nazi policy, so much so that Hitler tried to prevent his election at the Conclave of 1939.
  • After his election ‘Pius XII responded to Mussolini's anti-Jewish legislation by appointing several Jewish scholars who had been dismissed from the university to positions inside the Vatican. Among them was the distinguished Jewish cartographer, Roberto Almagia, a professor at the University of Rome since 1915. On the day after his dismissal, Almagia was appointed director of the geography section of the Vatican library. While working there he completed an exceptional four-volume study of the Vatican's cartographic holdings. Another dismissed Jewish scholar, Professor Giorgio Levi della Vida, a world authority on Islam, was also given a job in the Vatican library, cataloguing the Arabic manuscripts.’
  • Thanks to Pope Pius, a larger percentage of the Jews were saved from deportation in Rome than in any other city then under German occupation.
  • Both the Vatican and 150 Catholic institutions in the city gave shelter to the Jews. Several thousand were housed at Castel Gandolfo and the papal apartments were used as a sort of maternity unit!
  • At the Pope's bidding, many senior clergy were involved in hiding the Jews, including the future Paul VI.

Pius XII - not guilty, m'lud!


Saturday, 19 August 2006

Stolen Icon

I'm falling a bit behind with blogging since I'm busy preparing to say farewell to my current parish. Anyway, here's a news item that caught my eye today, describing the sacrilegious theft of a historically important Greek icon. The crime occurred on the Feast of the Dormition (15 August). Is nothing sacred in the modern world?

A priceless 700-year-old icon was stolen yesterday from a cliff-side monastery in the eastern Peloponnese, prompting the police to launch an air and land search for the religious painting which many worshippers believe can work miracles. Police said that thieves broke into the Elona Monastery in Leonidio at about 5 a.m. after smashing a small window. They stole the icon, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, as well as a number of valuable votive offerings that had been placed next to the painting by pilgrims.

Officers believe the robbery was well planned. A replica of the icon is usually put on display to protect the original but because Tuesday was the Dormition of the Virgin holiday, the nuns had put out the priceless original for worshippers to see. An indication of the significance of the theft is that Deputy Chief of the Greek Police (ELAS) Stelios Syros arrived in the area to coordinate the search for the thieves. Roadblocks were set up around the prefecture of Arcadia and in other parts of the Peloponnese in the hope of preventing the robbers from getting away. A police helicopter flew over mountainous areas to detect any suspicious movements.

The icon attracts thousands of worshippers to the monastery. Construction of the Elona Monastery, in its current form, began in 1809 on the spot where the icon was apparently discovered hanging from a tree centuries earlier.


Thursday, 17 August 2006

The Cardinal and the Boat Race

Here's another picture from my brief visit to the English College, Rome - a difficult one to take (you can just make out my reflection in the glass of the frame) but a fascinating one nevertheless. This is the Oxford Boat Race Team of 1907. Not a very successful one because Cambridge won that year by four and a half lengths. The Oxford rowers in the faded photo are now long forgotten - except one, William Theodore Heard (possibly the guy sitting at the front). He later became Auditor of the Roman Rota and Cardinal. Here's the story of the Cardinal with the Oxford blue.

William Theodore Heard was born in Edinburgh on 24 February 1884, the eldest son of the headmaster of Fettes College, where he was sent to school. Later in life, he usually took his vacations in Scotland and, at the time of his elevation to the Sacred College, was declared to be the first Scottish-born Cardinal since the Reformation. However, it was to Balliol College, Oxford that the young William was sent in 1903, and at this quintessentially English institution he took part in Union debates and, as we've seen, was a keen rower. Heard was a contemporary at Balliol of another future Catholic convert, Ronald Knox, who later said that ‘my clearest recollection of him is his coming hurriedly into my room one day and asking my weight. This I gave him, and he was off again in a moment with a murmur of vague dissatisfaction that it was no use at all. Apparently he was looking for a rowing cox and my poundage let him down.'

Armed with a Third Class degree and rowing blue, he was articled to a legal firm in London and was admitted as a solicitor in 1910. The same year he was received into the Catholic Church at Farm Street and started running a Catholic boys’ club in Bermondsey, where he was inspired by the example of the parish priest, Canon Edward Murnane.

In 1913 Heard entered the English College in Rome as a student for the diocese of Southwark. Among his fellow students was William Godfrey. He also became acquainted with Mgr John Prior, Vice-Rector of the Beda and Auditor of the Rota. After Ordination at the Lateran on 30 March 1918 and the completion of his doctorates in Philosophy, Theology and Canon Law, Heard returned to his beloved Bermondsey in 1921 as curate to Canon Murnane.

In 1927 he was called to Rome on the death of Mgr Prior to succeed him as Auditor. He remained in Rome for forty-six years, dealing with marriage annulment cases – including that of Evelyn Waugh’s first marriage to the Hon. Evelyn Gardner. He also worked for the Congregation of Rites, saying that he preferred to deal with annulments in the mornings and canonisations in the afternoon; the canonisations were less depressing because even the failed candidates had at least tried to be good!

For much of his time in Rome Heard lived at the English College, where he acted as confessor, spiritual director and eventually as its last Cardinal Protector (1961-73). One student, Gerald Creasey, later wrote : 'he was a very popular figure despite his apparently grumpy exterior…I owe much to him since he lent me endless books from his library which distracted me happily from the tedium of scholastic philosophy. He had a very healthy attitude to one’s transgressions, usually blaming them on the weather ("that damned scirocco").'

According to another Venerabile student, Anthony Kenny, 'Heard was an impressive figure, and some of us treated him as an oracle. He lived a solitary and austere life, rarely eating in Hall since his health permitted him only the most meagre diet. He slept little and rose early to make himself available for confessions to those who might wish to confess, before Communion, any sins that might have been committed during the night. He had decided and outspoken views on a variety of topics from dental surgery to the history of cheese.'

Promotion came late in life, although he had been mentioned as a possible successor to Cardinal Bourne in 1935. At the end of 1958 Heard succeeded Cardinal Julien as Dean of the Rota, and the following December, at the age of seventy-five, was created a Cardinal Deacon with the newly re-established diaconia of San Teodoro in Palatino. In 1962 he was consecrated titular Archbishop of Feradi Maius by Blessed John XXIII, and took part in all four sessions of the Council. He was the only British cardinal at the 1963 Conclave, and was raised to the rank of Cardinal Priest in 1970.

In the summer of 1973 he holidayed in Scotland as normal, but returned to Rome in an agitated state and was taken to the hospital of the Blue Nuns at San Stefano Rotondo. He died there peacefully on 16 September at the age of 89. This thoroughly English Scots cardinal was buried far from home in the English College vault at the Campo Verano cemetery, but it would have pleased him that his last Mass had been celebrated in Glasgow.


Rule Britannia!

During my flying visit to Rome earlier this month I popped into the Venerable English College, my alma mater. The summer vacation meant that the College was full of workmen, taking advantage of the lack of students to maintain the seventeenth century buildings (it has some older bits - the College complex dates back to 1362 and the foundation of the English Hospice of St Thomas on the site). This year they made an amazing discovery in the College refectory. When they took down the large painting of Mary Magdalen washing the feet of Our Lord, they found the remains of a fresco dating from the 1680s, probably by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709) or a member of his school. This Jesuit lay brother is more famous for the frescoes in S Ignazio in Rome. He also provided a ceiling fresco of St George for the College refectory and of the Assumption for the nearby Martyrs' Chapel. Here's the newly discovered fresco:

It's hard to make out the painting but to the right of centre is a lunette with the figure of Britannia. Here is an enhanced image from my digital camera:

This must be one of the earliest depictions of Britannia overseas. She had been revived as an idealized personification of Great Britain during the reign of Elizabeth I; in 1672 she appeared on the farthing coin and, it was said, based on the features of the Duchess of Richmond, then mistress of the crypto-Catholic Charles II. Her presence in the refectory would have reminded the English seminarists of their distant home, where they faced legal penalties and an underground existence. Still, Britannia is not really the sort of image you expect to find in the panting heart of Rome!

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Assumpta est Maria in caelum, gaudent angeli!

Today, in my parish, we not only celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption but also the Feast of Our Lady of Willesden. We’re hoping to apply for a new feast day, which will be on 3 October (the anniversary of her solemn coronation at Wembley during the Marian Year of 1954), but for the time being we honour her on this great day.

The Assumption is a mystery rather like the Resurrection – it happened in the silence of the tomb and without human witnesses. Indeed, we know very little for sure about the circumstances of Mary’s death and assumption. Some sources say that she died in Jerusalem (where people still venerate the tomb of Mary, an empty tomb of course), others in Ephesus (where she lived with St John), and that the Apostles were present. According to St Bridget of Sweden, Mary was assumed into Heaven 15 days after her death; according to another medieval mystic, St Elizabeth of Schönau, this happened on the fortieth day (which is why the Assumption used to be celebrated on 23 September in southern Germany). However many days after her death the Assumption happened, the tradition is that the Apostles found her tomb empty and covered in flowers.

The exact details of the Assumption are not important. What we do know, with the eyes of faith, the testimony of Tradition and the teaching of the Church, is that ‘at the end of her earthly life, the immaculate mother of God, Mary ever-virgin, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.’ On 1 November 1950 Pope Pius XII infallibly defined the Assumption as dogma, as the ‘official’ belief of the Church. In doing so, he was confirming centuries of tradition and devotion.

It was appropriate that the Assumption was defined on All Saints Day (1 November) because the Feast is not just about the unique privileges of Our Lady. It is not simply supposed to increase our love for God’s Mother. The Assumption reminds us of our destiny as saints, if we live according to God’s will and His commandments. Mary was a child of God, a creature like the rest of us. Certainly she was the purest of creatures, but a creature nevertheless. Because of her unique role as Mother of God, she was the first to enjoy the fruits of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. She leads the way, and we one day hope to follow.

In the meantime we can be confident of her maternal help and intercession as we ourselves strive to become saints. Last year, Pope Benedict said: ‘Mary is taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, and with God and in God she is Queen of heaven and earth. And is she really so remote from us? The contrary is true. Precisely because she is with God and in God, she is very close to each one of us. While she lived on this earth she could only be close to a few people. Being in God, who is close to us, actually, "within" all of us, Mary shares in this closeness of God. Being in God and with God, she is close to each one of us, knows our hearts, can hear our prayers, can help us with her motherly kindness and has been given to us, as the Lord said, precisely as a "mother" to whom we can turn at every moment.’

That’s why today’s feast is a celebration for the Universal Church. In particular, we commend ourselves to Our Lady of Willesden this evening. On a personal note, as I prepare to leave the parish in just over a fortnight, I thank Our Lady of Willesden for her maternal assistance during my time here, especially in my preparation for Priestly Ordination. But we all benefit from her presence and example. If, like Mary and with the help of God’s grace, we carry Christ in our hearts, then we can hope for a share of Christ’s Resurrection and Mary’s Assumption.


Monday, 14 August 2006

My Baby Cousin

On Saturday I also visited my baby cousin, Ava Montgomery, who lives with her parents a stone's throw from the Catholic Cathedral at Southwark. She's my first cousin once removed but, since I have no brothers and sisters, she's a kind of honorary niece. I spent an enjoyable hour with her and her various toys. In the photo I think she's laughing rather than crying, but it's always hard to tell with babies!

Forgive this personal post - but then bloggers (and priests) are real people and have lives beyond the web!


The Crusades at New Addington

On Saturday I took the tram to the the Good Shepherd, New Addington in order to conclude what Fr Tim Finigan had started a few weeks ago - namely a series of talks for young Catholics (all of them lads, interestingly, including a guy who is starting at seminary next month). The series was organised by the energetic parish priest, Fr Stephen Boyle. I gave my Crusades talk, I think for the fifth time. There was a great atmosphere and some interesting discussion and I went away very encouraged.


The Papal Interview

Last night I settled down in front of EWTN and, during its less interesting moments, I began to channel hop. After viewing highlights of a Spanish bullfight and the end of a concert given by the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra (resembling a slightly better than average school ensemble), I stumbled across DW-TV and the whole interview with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo, complete with English translation (click the link for the full transcript).

The Holy Father answered very well (surprise, surprise), although there seemed little structure to the questioning. There were some telling human touches - he admitted that he found the Petrine ministry tiring but that 'the Good Lord gives me the necessary strength' and that humour was essential to the job: 'a writer once said that angels can fly because they don't take themselves too seriously. Maybe we could also fly a bit if we didn't think we were so important.' That writer, of course, is G.K.Chesterton, as other bloggers have noted.

In noting the perceived distinction between Ratzinger and Benedict, he said: 'my basic personality and even my basic vision have grown, but in everything that is essential I have remained identical. I'm happy that certain aspects that weren't noticed at first are now coming into the open.'

John Paul II is often described as a Pope of grand gestures, in contrast to the quieter, less dramatic Benedict XVI. But surely the granting of the first ever papal TV interview (as well as his previous interview with Vatican Radio) is a noteworthy development in the style of the Papacy and a grand gesture in its own right. Would John Paul II, with his great charisma, have been quite so comfortable in a televised interview?

By the way, I'm all for thrones - but the Holy Father did look rather dwarfed in the chair chosen for the interview (see picture above).


Sunday, 13 August 2006

The Gift of Tongues

You've probably gathered from this 'miscellany' of a blog that I'm fascinated by the lives and cults of the saints, especially the more unusual ones. I recently came across mention of St Livinus (or Lebwin), an Irishman who was ordained (some say baptised) by St Augustine of Canterbury at the turn of the seventh century. He then went off to Flanders as a missionary with three companions. In the end his tongue was torn out in an effort to stop his preaching - but, we are told, the tongue continued to preach on its own! He is venerated as a martyr on 12 November and his relics are venerated at Ghent. His gruesome martyrdom was celebrated in a famous painting by Rubens (above).

The story reminded me of another holy tongue - that of St Anthony, which is venerated at Padua and even has its own feast day. When they opened the tomb to translate the relics in 1263, little remained of Il Santo except his tongue, which remained fresh and red-coloured. St Bonaventure (who was performing the ceremony) took the relic in his hands and exclaimed: 'O Blessed Tongue that always praised the Lord, and made others bless Him, now it is evident what great merit thou hast before God.' Indeed, the 'Evangelical Doctor' had been an eloquent preacher and even the fish in the Brenta listened to him. The tongue is one of the first parts of the body to decompose after death and even to this day its preservation is considered miraculous:

Hmmm, not quite sure how I got on to the subject of holy tongues. Anyhow, it will hopefully provide a little bit of trivia for Sunday. Otherwise, not much blogging this weekend since it's the last part of my holidays and I'm trying to take it easy. When I move back to the parish tomorrow, I'll post some photos of what I got up to yesterday plus some more reports from my travels overseas - so watch this space!

What Kind of a Catholic Are You?

Here's a fun Catholic identity quiz - I scored 103 (!) on a scale from 0 to 100, where a total of 76 to 100 makes you a 'Daily Rosary (very traditional) Catholic.' In other words, my favourite Pope is Gregory the Great and my favourite film, The Passion of the Christ. No great surprises, then.

Friday, 11 August 2006

A Bishop Speaks

Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford is as straight talking a bishop as you're likely to find in the modern Church. His latest column in the diocesan paper, The Observer, is entitled 'Reaping the Whirlwind of Abortion' and refers to the 'seven sacraments of secular culture' - namely abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation.

He concludes: 'think for yourself: what nation that kills its young, perverts marriage, prevents new life, and destroys the family, kills those deemed useless, makes the war of the sexes into a real war, and manipulates the genetic basis of human nature, can long endure?'

Blue Blood

Edward III - our common ancestor?

Just discovered an interesting article published last month which says that, according to genealogy experts, 'the odds are virtually 100 percent that every person on Earth is descended from one royal personage or another' - i.e. we are all members of a royal family!

The actress Brooke Shields is presented as an example - her ancestors include five Popes, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and the Prophet Mohammed. Indeed, according to Mark Humphrys of Dublin City University, the founder of Islam 'appears on the family tree of every person in the Western world.' Likewise, he estimates that 80% of English people are related to King Edward III.

Such a theory is based on our common descent from Adam and Eve and the statistical fact that 'anybody who had children more than a few hundred years ago is likely to have millions of descendants today, and quite a few famous ones.' It does raise some interesting possibilities - I certainly never thought of Edward III and the Prophet Mohammed as distant relations!

In the Reading Room

No posting yesterday since I was out all day – just in case you're interested, I had two meals with friends and the bits in between were spent in the Reading Room of the British Library, that great temple of learning near King’s Cross station. I needed to do some reading for a lecture I’ll be giving shortly on ‘St Augustine and the Conversion of England.’

The hundreds of people who use the Reading Room were as interesting as the books themselves (if not more so), so a period of ‘people watching’ inevitably followed the reading of each paragraph (especially as the hours ticked by). Carlyle famously said: ‘I believe there are several persons in a state of imbecility who come to read in the British Museum [where the Library was formerly located]. I have been informed that there are several in that state who are sent there by their friends to pass away their time.’ He exaggerates but may have a point – there were certainly plenty of colourful characters.

The Reading Room displayed a rare sight yesterday – not one but two English Catholic priests crouched over their desks! I had lunch with my fellow reader, Fr Uwe Michael Lang of the Oratory, a chum from University and author of Turning towards the Lord, who was researching his paper for the forthcoming CIEL conference. He provided welcome relief from the dusty volumes and a dose of sanity!

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

The Face of a Martyr?

Cardinal Newman obviously has a better chance of beatification than Mary Queen of Scots, but there have been moves over the years to promote her cause. At the time of her execution in 1587 she was widely regarded across Catholic Europe as a martyr.

Now the Catholic Queen's death mask has been put on public display at the Edinburgh auction house of Lyon and Turnbull. The relic is usually kept at Lennoxlove, the home of the Duke of Hamilton, which is currently undergoing renovation. According to reports, 'the wax mask was placed over Mary's face in order to preserve her features forever. Eyelashes, eyebrows, hair and paint were added later to give the mask a lifelike appearance.'

The death mask gives us a glimpse of the real Queen of Scots, revealing something of the charm and beauty that captivated so many. Her noble bearing seems to have survived the long years of captivity and the headsman's axe. Another fascinating link to the past!

The Twelfth Abbot of Downside

Breaking news from Downside - Dom Aidan Bellenger has just been elected twelfth Abbot, succeeding Abbot Richard Yeo (who has been in office since 1998 and is also Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation). Former superiors of the community include John Bede Polding (later first Archbishop of Sydney), John Chapman (author of the Spiritual Letters and responsible for the useful maxim: 'pray as you can and not as you can't') and Christopher Butler (later Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster and a prominent theologian at the time of Vatican II).

The new Abbot has up until now been the Abbey's Prior and is one of our foremost English Catholic historians. His books include English and Welsh Priests, 1558-1800: A Working List (1984), The French Exiled Clergy in the British Isles After 1789 (1986), Princes of the Church: A History of the English Cardinals (2001) and The Mitre and the Crown: A History of the Archbishops of Canterbury (2005). He also served as Headmaster of the Abbey's famous school (1991-95). I recently got to know him through my work as Westminster archivist and had lunch with him just over a fortnight ago. I'm sure he will do great work at Downside (though he may now have less time for his historical interests). His appointment means that two of our most prominent Benedictine historians are Abbots - the other one being Geoffrey Scott of Douai. Ad multos annos!

Pio Nono As You've Never Seen Him Before!

(Tiara Tip to Totus Pius)


Tuesday, 8 August 2006

The Real St Nicholas

Today Harrods opened its Christmas World section, the London store's earliest ever Christmas launch. And, of course, Santa Claus made a guest appearance, wearing his summer safari outfit and accompanied by a zebra (was the weather too hot for Rudolph?).

There was nothing fluffy about St Nicholas. When I was in Bari last week, there were no sentimentalised images of the saint; he actually came across as a manly, passionate defender of Truth and a powerful intercessor in Heaven.

One of the main concerns of his life, for example, was fighting the heresy of Arianism. According to an early biography, ‘thanks to the teaching of St Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.’ There is even a story of the saint attending the Council of Nicaea and becoming so angry at the blasphemies of Arius that he went over to the heretic and punched him in the face. The bishops imprisoned St Nicholas for his assault, depriving him of his Episcopal dignity and burning off his beard. However, in prison he was visited by Our Lord and Our Lady, who restored his office and set him free. It’s a great story, even though St Nicholas is not recorded as attending the great Council, but it says something about the saint’s zeal.

Another example of the saint’s ‘righteous anger’ was his order to cut down a tree dedicated to the goddess Diana, much to the fury of the Devil. A fine fresco in the saint’s basilica in Bari shows the saint wielding the axe himself (rather like St Boniface cutting down the Sacred Oak).

The people of Bari take St Nicholas very seriously indeed. In particular, there is a strong devotion to the 'manna' of St Nicholas, a liquid that is apparently produced from the saint's tomb. This is extracted every year on 9 May (Feast of the Translation of St Nicholas), diluted and distributed to pilgrims (especially the sick). Between 1954 and 1957 the bones were exhumed during the renovation of the crypt and exposed to the public. The bones were frequently seen to 'perspire' and a linen cloth that was in contact with the bones was found to be soaking wet. The holy manna is traditionally put inside specially painted bottles.

A tenth century Greek wrote that ‘the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honour. All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.’ Last Thursday I celebrated Mass in the Roman Rite over St Nicholas' tomb (completed in 1089). It was a moving experience, although it was so hot that my perspiration formed a kind of 'manna of Fr Nicholas.' As soon as I had returned to the crypt sacristy, a Russian Orthodox service began in a side chapel which, since 1966, has been reserved for the use of the Eastern Churches. Last May, when Pope Benedict visited Bari on his first papal pilgrimage, he referred to 'fortunate Bari, a city that preserves the bones of St Nicholas, a land of encounter and dialogue with our Christian brethren of the East.' As a saint who unifies East and West, St Nicholas takes on a great deal more significance than the lightweight caricature who will be seen in shopping centres across the world in a few months time.


Vocations Talk

I've just read an excellent talk on vocations ('Bout time yous lot joined up!) by Fr Ephraem over (or rather down under) at Dominicanus, which would be very useful for all those thinking about applying to a diocese or an Order. Here's the first paragraph, just to wet your appetite, stressing that the Priestly vocation, though extraordinary, is in some ways quite common and ordinary:

There is a lot of nonsense talked about vocational discernment. I suspect that some of it may have put you off or caused you to wonder about becoming a priest. The fact is that being a Christian priest is a pretty ordinary thing to do – it’s a trade like many others as Evelyn Waugh remarked in his diary. Some men see to the water, electricity and gas. Others lay on Grace. When a priest goes to the altar or font or confessional he has his tools like any other tradesman. He has to do an apprenticeship. He has to practice and listen to the older journeymen. He has continually to see if the same thing can be done better. He isn’t a pagan shaman who lives in constant contact with the Spirits of the Ancestors or Nature. He doesn’t conduct auspices over the entrails of small birds and animals - except in reputable restaurants. He most certainly is not a psycho-therapist whose job is to make people feel good about themselves. He just has a job to do – bringing Christ into people’s lives by preaching the Gospel and celebrating the sacraments. It is the easiest and most difficult of callings. It requires nothing except everything.

Monday, 7 August 2006

St Pellegrino - the Irish Hermit of the Appenines

And now for the first report from my Italian holiday. Just over a week ago, my hosts drove me to San Pellegrino in Alpe, in the hills north of Lucca (Tuscany), to visit the shrine of an Irish pilgrim who ended his days in the wilderness there. The shrine and little village of San Pellegrino is some 4,584 feet above sea level (that's higher than Ben Nevis) and it made for a rather frightening drive. On the way back, when we reached the foot of the hill, we discovered that the breaks of the car had failed - if this had happened a few minutes earlier, we could have been in serious trouble! So, as a sort of thanksgiving to St Pellegrino, here's some information about this little known saint, based on some Italian books I bought at the shrine:

San Pellegrino in Alpe stands 4,584 feet (1525m) above sea level and has for centuries been an important stopping point on the road from Modena to Lucca. The poet Shelley came here in August 1820 and was inspired by the experience to write The Witch of Atlas. However, the mountaintop village is best known for the shrine of St Pellegrino and St Bianco.

According to tradition, Pellegrino (or Peregine) was the son of King Romanus and Queen Plantula of Scotia – often translated as ‘Scotland’ but probably referring to Ireland, whose people were confusingly referred to as Scotti. However, the legend frequently refers to the saint’s Scottish origins and as late as 1782 the Bologna Calendar even calls St Pellegrino ‘King of Scotland.’ At his baptism, the saint amazed the witnesses by answering ‘Amen’ to the prayers and the priest predicted a great future for the child. He grew up at the Court and was groomed to succeed his father as a Christian King. However, as a young man Pellegrino renounced his birthright, preferring the immortal crown of a pilgrim. And so, having bid farewell to his parents and distributed his wealth amongst the poor, the saint left his homeland and began his great pilgrimage.

His first stop was the Holy Land, where he prayed at the places sanctified by the life, death and resurrection of the Lord. Having visited these holy places, as well as the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, Pellegrino furthered his imitation of Our Lord by spending forty years in the desert. Here he fasted, slept on a bed that resembled a tomb and battled with the temptations of the Devil.

Once he had advanced in holiness through this life of solitude and penance, Pellegrino went to preach at the Sultan’s court – for, the legend says, he had the eloquence of Cicero and the insight of Vergil. He was soon captured, led in chains to the mosque to offer worship and, when he refused to do this, imprisoned in a dark dungeon. After five days, he was miraculously freed by Christ Himself and went again to the Sultan, who proposed an ordeal by fire to establish the truth of Christianity. After thirteen hours in the flames, he remained unharmed and Pellegrino was set free, though he was disappointed that his efforts had won no converts to the Faith.

He boarded a ship bound for Italy and experienced a terrible storm, during which he was thrown into the sea by the sailors, who had been convinced by the devil that Pellegrino was the cause. However, thanks to the grace of God, all was not lost. His pilgrim’s garb miraculously turned into a ship – his cloak became a raft, his stick a mast and his purse a sail. He thus arrived at the port of Ancona and was able to visit the venerable sanctuaries of Rome, Bari (the tomb of St Nicholas) and Monte Gargano (the shrine of the Archangel Michael).

A star then led the holy pilgrim into the wilderness of the Appenines, where he lived for twelve years in a wood afterwards called ‘Romanesca.’ Here he worked many miracles and fought the devil, who tested him through the extremes of snow and rain. In the end, Pellegrino won and drove the evil spirits out of the dark woods and hills. He then went to live in a cave, where he was looked after by the leopards that lived nearby, and finally reached a place called Thermae Salonis. He wrote a brief spiritual testament on the bark of a tree and rested inside the trunk, which was hollow. It was here that Pellegrino died at the age of 97 years, nine months and 23 days.

The body remained inside the tree, untouched and indeed protected by the animals of the forest, until the saint’s resting place was revealed in a dream to a noble woman of the diocese of Modena, Adelgrada Ferniai. She and her husband went to the holy place and gave Pellegrino a fitting burial, the grave being dug by two leopards and bears. Devotion to St Pellegrino soon spread and the Tuscans and Lombards both tried to gain possession of the relics. The local bishops suggested that the body be placed on a cart and the oxen be allowed to go wherever they wanted. They stopped near the place the saint has died and a basilica was built and dedicated on 1 August 643 (which became the saint’s feast day).

The legend is, of course, fantastical. It contains numerous inaccuracies and contradictions: for example, the names of Pellegrino, Romano and Plantula are Latin rather than Celtic and appear nowhere in Scottish or Irish histories. There have never been leopards in the Appenines, and the bones of St Nicholas were only taken to Bari at the end of the eleventh century and so the shrine would not have existed at the time of Pellegrino’s supposed pilgrimage in the sixth or seventh century. The legend also contains many motifs that can be found in the lives of other saints. Childhood prodigies, renouncement of worldly power and riches, extreme penances, battles with Satan, miraculous escapes, closeness to nature and the discovery of the body through a vision are all common themes in hagiography.

It is also interesting to note that there are two saints with royal Irish connections venerated in nearby Lucca: St Frediano (son of the King of Ulster and bishop of Lucca in the late sixth century) and St Silaus (an Irish bishop who died at Lucca on his way back from Rome in 1100). The church of S Frediano also boasts the tomb of St Richard the Pilgrim, who is said to have been a King of Wessex who renounced his throne to go on pilgrimage to Rome. He died en route at Lucca in 722 and is chiefly remembered as the father of three saints, Willibald, Winnebald and Walburga, who helped evangelise Southern Germany.

What, then, are we to make of the story of St Pellegrino? The earliest mention of the church of San Pellegrino dates from 1110 and the presence of the saint’s body is first recorded in 1255. The church was attached to a hospice for pilgrims who were travelling along this high point of the Via Francigena towards Rome (part of the medieval hospice now houses the Museo Etnografico Provinciale ‘Don Luigi Pellegrini’). However, the legend of St Pellegrino is only first mentioned in a fifteenth century manuscript, which also includes the Mass and Office for the saint and may be the work of Lionella de Nobilii, a kinsman of Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) and Commendatory (or Superior) of the Hospice, who restored the buildings and thus had a vested interest in promoting the cult. The story of St Pellegrino provided, above all, a spiritual message to pilgrims making an arduous and dangerous journey – the saint persevered despite the obstacles of demons, severe weather, savage beasts, hunger, thirst and human threats.

But was St Pellegrino an historical figure? There is no reason to doubt the existence of an Irish (or Scottish) pilgrim who ended his days in the wilderness of the Tuscan Emilian Appenines in the second half of the First Millennium. From the sixth century, numerous Irishmen trusted in Providence and became ‘voluntary exiles’ by leaving their homelands and going on a peregrinatio pro Dei amore – a ‘wandering for the love of God.’ Many of these are still venerated in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, and they may even have reached North America, if one believes the story of the voyage of St Brendan. The fame of these holy men was such that the term ‘pilgrims’ (peregrini) came to denote the Irish and it is little surprise that a generic name like ‘San Pellegrino’ was used for our saint, in the absence of his baptismal name. It has been suggested that St Pellegrino is the same person as another local saint, St Viviano (or Viano), a hermit who is venerated at Vagli Sopra in Garfagnana and whose cave can still be visited.

Some scholars argue that the hospice of San Pellegrino was initially dedicated to another St Pellegrino, a third century bishop of Auxerre who was particularly popular among French pilgrims. It is thought that a medieval carving kept at San Pellegrino shows the bishop of Auxerre blessing a pilgrim. Devotion to this saint was then linked to the local memory of a holy Irish pilgrim. Added to this were the relics of catacomb martyrs brought to Lucca in the eighth century, including a St Pellegrino, whose body may be the one venerated today at San Pellegrino in Alpe. As noted above, the relics are first mentioned in 1255 and by the sixteenth century St Pellegrino had gained a companion or disciple, St Bianco, who is not mentioned in the original versions of the legend. He is first mentioned in an Epicopal Visitation of 1559 and, sixteen years later, the bishop of Rimini is recorded as celebrating Mass in a separate chapel of St Bianco. His feast was celebrated on 3 March.

Through a complex of factors, then, the memory of an Irish pilgrim and hermit became mixed with the Hospice’s dedication to St Pellegrino of Auxerre and the translation of the bodies of Roman martyrs to Lucca. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an elaborate legend had been formulated and St Pellegrino had gained a disciple, St Bianco, who lies beside his master in the shrine church.

Whatever the truth and whatever the conclusions of modern scholars, there is much to admire in the life of the saint and we can truly say (especially after my experience driving down from his shrine): St Pellegrino, pray for us who have recourse to thee.


Sunday, 6 August 2006

My Book Meme

It's amazing how much you miss in the blogosphere when you go on holiday. I've just noticed last Sunday's 'challenge' from Fr Tim Finigan over at Hermeneutic of Continuity to complete the following meme. Off the top of my mind (and I have but recently returned from Italy), my answers to the questions are as follows:

1. One book that changed your life:
Mgr Ronald Knox, The Priestly Life [a book I read when I was first considering the Priesthood]

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
Fr Leo Trese, Vessel of Clay: A Day in the Life of a Priest

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:
St Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

4. One book that made you laugh:
Anything by P.G.Wodehouse

5. One book that made you cry:
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars

6. One book that you wish had been written:
St Philip Neri, A Guide to the Christian Life (prefaced by an Autobiograpical Note)

7. One book that you wish had never been written:
I can’t beat Fr Finigan’s choice - De Benedictionibus (1984)

8. One book you’re currently reading:
Charles Spencer, Blenheim: Battle for Europe

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
With apologies to all Tolkein fans – The Lord of the Rings

Back in Blighty

Well, I’m back after an exhilarating week and a half in Italy - and one or two stressful moments, courtesy of the Italian train system. I will, of course, gradually post a full account of my various travels, though I’m not able to include photos from my camera til next week.

A priest 'on tour' is able to celebrate Mass in many privileged spots. For me this last week, these ranged from a mountain chapel dedicated to an obscure hermit, St Viviano, to the tomb of my patron, St Nicholas, at Bari; from a wayside Tuscan shrine to the chapel of the Domus Romana Sacerdotalis, a stone’s throw away from St Peter’s; from the church in the hilltop village of Roggio, near Lucca (where I celebrated the Sunday parish Mass in Latin and broken Italian due to the lack of a resident priest) to the Holy House of Loreto [above], where, as I said the words of consecration (Hoc est enim Corpus meum), I was very aware of the words written above the altar (Hic Verbum caro factum est).

This was due, in part, to the boldness of my travelling companion, Fr Marcus Holden, who was not afraid to enter any sacristy and ask for an altar. Of course, this is not neccessarily straightforward - the Dominican friars at Bari even insisted on photocopying our celebrets (which took about 20 minutes) - but if you are prepared to play along, there is a rich reward.

I suspect foreign priests on holiday in this country would find it even more of an uphill battle to arrange Masses in our churches!
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