Today is the feast day of Pope Saint Paul I. Ora pro nobis.
Pope Saint Paul I’s date of birth unknown; he died at Rome, 28 June, 767. He was a brother of Pope Stephen II. They both were educated for the priesthood at the Lateran palace.
Stephen entrusted his brother Paul with many important ecclesiastical affairs. Paul approved of the pope’s course in respect to King Pepin. These affairs included the restoration to the Roman cities which had been seized by the Lombard Kings Aistulf and Desiderius.
While Paul was with his dying brother at the Lateran, a party of the Romans gathered in the house of Archdeacon Theophylact in order to secure the latter’s succession to the papal see. However, immediately after the burial of Stephen (died 26 April, 757), Paul was elected by a large majority of cardinals anyway. Paul received episcopal consecration on the twenty-ninth of May, 757.
Pope Paul worked with King Pepin the Short to maintain the papacy‘s temporal powers. In 765 he settled an agreement with the Byzantine Desiderius regarding their boundaries.
Pope Paul built churches and monasteries in Rome. Paul showed great activity and zeal in encouraging religious life at Rome. He turned his paternal home into a monastery, and near it built the church of San Silvestro in Capite. The founding of this church led to his holding a synod at Rome in 761. To this church and other churches of Rome, Paul transferred the bones of numerous martyrs from the decayed sanctuaries in the catacombs devastated by the Lombards in 756.
Paul also built an oratory of the Blessed Virgin in St. Peter’s, and a church in honor of the Apostles on the Via Sacra beyond the Roman Forum. He died near the church of San Paolo fuori le mura, where he had gone during the heat of summer. He was buried in this church, but after three months his body was transferred to St. Peter’s.
Today is the feast day of Saint Irenaeus. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Irenasus, one of the earliest and most renowned Fathers of the Church, was born in Asia, and placed under the charge of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, a disciple of St. John, the Evangelist. Under this holy teacher, Irenasus made such progress in virtue and sacred science, that he was by him ordained priest and sent to Lyons, in France, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the heathens, and to assist the persecuted Christians. On his arrival after a most tedious voyage, he began at once to discharge the duties of his function with truly apostolic zeal. To the heathens he preached the Gospel of the Lord, and bore testimony to it with many miracles; hence almost all, who had not yet embraced Christianity, became believers in the true God. The Christians, who had to surfer persecution, he encouraged to remain constant in their faith in the midst of their tortures. After the persecution of the faithful had somewhat subsided, Photinus, Bishop of Lyons, sent him to Rome, to get the solution of several questions and doubts which the Christians of that city had addressed to Eleutherius, who at that period was Pope. The latter received Irenaeus with great joy, as he had been informed of his zeal, and gave him the answers to all questions and doubts. On this occasion, Ireneus watched carefully all the ceremonies which were performed at Rome, and acquainted himself with the ancient traditions which had been left there by the Apostles, that he might be able to introduce them at Lyons.
Meanwhile the holy bishop Photinus, received the crown of Martyrdom at Lyons, and Irenaeus, on his return, was chosen to fill the vacant See. Having taken upon himself this heavy and dangerous burden, he employed all his efforts to gather his flock, which, partly discouraged by long persecutions, had dispersed hither and thither. He encouraged the despondent, strengthened the wavering, raised the fallen, consoled the sorrowful, instructed the ignorant, and comforted the needy, both by words and deeds. After having thus, in every way, bettered the condition of his Church, he sent several excellent and zealous priests to the neighboring cities and villages, charging them to convert the inhabitants, who were idolaters, to the faith of Christ, which, to the salvation of numberless souls, was happily effected.
Satan, unable to bear the success of the holy bishop’s endeavors, sent the two notorious arch-heretics, Marcion and Valentine, into the neighborhood of Lyons, to sow the seeds of their heresy among the newly converted. The Saint, however, manifested no less watchfulness in protecting the faithful, than solicitude in converting the heathens. He not only disclosed and refuted, in his sermons, the falsehood of the doctrines which were disseminated by these heretics, but he also used the pen against them, and wrote several learned books, in which he placed the truth of the apostolic faith and the errors of heresy so clearly before the eyes of every one, that no heretics dared further to disturb the peace of his flock with their wicked doctrines. The faithful were strengthened to such a degree in their belief by these works, that, in a persecution which took place later, they preferred to sacrifice their lives, rather than depart in the least from the precepts of their Church.
The heroic constancy of so many Christians has been most justly ascribed to the indefatigable zeal of Irenaeus. It was also the result of his endeavors, that several bishops, who had forsaken the Pope, returned to him, and that others remained obedient to the holy Father. Victor, the holy Pope, had decided that the Christians should not celebrate Easter on the same day as the Jews; but, according to a verbal direction of St. Peter, on a Sunday. Many bishops in the East had adopted a different rule for the celebration of the feast, and would not alter it. Irenaeus exhorted all, in several letters, to be obedient to the Church at Rome, as the mother and instructress of all the other Churches. The high esteem in which the holiness and erudition of Irenasus was held by every one, was the cause that almost all the refractory Bishops submitted to the judgment of the Pope.
After this and many more labors of St. Irenaeus for the Church of Christ and for the salvation of souls, a new persecution of the Christians arose in the reign of the Emperor Severus. So many were executed in Lyons, that according to the language of St. Gregory, Bishop of Tours, the streets were overflowed with blood. And among those who thus testified with their lives to Christ’s teachings, was also St Irenaeus. He taught by his example what he had so often preached to his fold, namely, to suffer the most cruel martyrdom rather than abandon the true faith. The body of this Saint was buried by Zachary, a Priest, and was always kept in great honor, until the year 1562, when Lyons was besieged and taken by the Huguenots. They tore the holy relics out of the tomb where they rested and threw them into a well, while they cast the head, after treating it most indecently, into a pit. The head was, however, found after some time and publicly exposed to receive due honor.(2)
Born in Asia Minor, probably Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey), between 115 and 125. Saint Irenaeus, was one of the earliest and most renowned Fathers of the Church. He was placed under the charge of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. Under this holy teacher, Irenaeus made such progress in virtue and sacred science, that he was ordained priest and sent to Lugdunum (Lyons), in France, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the heathens, and to assist the persecuted Christians.
To the heathens he preached the Gospel of the Lord. The Christians, who had to suffer persecution, he encouraged them to remain constant in their faith in the midst of their tortures. After the persecution of the faithful had somewhat subsided, Photinus, Bishop of Lyons, sent him to Pope Eleutherius in Rome. The latter received Irenaeus with great joy, as he had been informed of his zeal. On this occasion, Irenaeus watched carefully all the ceremonies performed at Rome, and acquainted himself with the ancient traditions left there by the Apostles– that he might be able to introduce them at Lyons.
Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Photinus as Bishop of Lyons. During the religious peace which followed the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the new bishop divided his activities between the duties of a pastor and of a missionary (as to which we have but brief data, late and not very certain). His writings include: Against heresies and The Presentation of the Apostolic Preaching. They have a twofold aim: to explain the truth of the faith clearly and to defend the true doctrine from the attacks of heretics.
Before Irenaeus, Christians differed as to which gospel they preferred. The Christians of Asia Minor preferred the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular overall. Irenaeus asserted that four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were canonical scripture. Thus Irenaeus provides the earliest witness to the assertion of the four canonical Gospels.
Nothing is known of the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. In spite of some isolated and later testimony to that effect, it is not very probable that he ended his career with martyrdom. His body was buried at Lyons in the Church of St John (later, the Church of St Irenaeus), but the shrine was destroyed by Calvinists in 1562. (4)
Today is the feast day of Saint Ladislas I, King of Hungary. Ora pro nobis.
Ladislaus (Ladislas) I was the grandson of the cousin of Saint Stephen of Hungary and the second son of his father, King Bela. As a young man he had seen his father ascend the throne by a war against his uncle. His cousin Solomon, legitimate heir, was cruel and had been driven out by Ladislas’ older brother, Geiza, who after taking his place had reigned for only three years before his death. The people of Hungary knew of Ladislas’s bravery in combat, his chastity, and his sobriety, above all his charity. He knew many of them by name, and they had named him the pious Prince, for he had built magnificent Christian churches in a land where many still honored the pagan idols. It was with joy that the people chose Ladislas to replace his brother as King of Hungary.
He soon showed himself to be a perfect Christian king by the moderation of his judgments, his affability in receiving even the least of his vassals, his fatherly kindness to all. He restored the good laws and discipline which Saint Stephen had established. Chastity, meekness, gravity, charity, and piety were from his infancy the distinguishing traits of his character. His life in the palace continued to be very austere. He was very frugal and mortified personally, but very generous to the Church and the poor. He always sought God’s greater honor. Generous and merciful to his enemies, he was vigorous in the defense of his country and the Church.
During his reign his kingdom was attacked by numerous neighboring peoples. Before going out to repulse them he always commanded public prayers and a fast of three days. Then at the head of his armies fought and was invariably victorious with the help of God. He was preparing to depart, at the request of the princes of France, Spain and England, as General-in-chief of the 300,000 recruits of the great first crusade of the Christians against the Saracens for the recovery of the Holy Land, when God called him to Himself, on July 30, 1095, at the age of fifty-four years, at Neutra. Miracles were numerous at his tomb, and he was canonized one hundred years later, in 1199 by Celestine III. The same day a small child born without hands and feet was cured by the invocation of Saint Ladislas. (1)
Ladislaus is a patron saint of Hungary, especially along the borders. In particular, soldiers and the Székely people venerate him. A late medieval legend says that Ladislaus appeared at the head of a Székely army fighting against and routing a plundering band of Tatars in 1345. He is also called upon during times of pestilence.He is often depicted as a mature, bearded man wearing a royal crown and holding a long sword or banner. He is also shown on his knees before a deer, or in the company of two angels. (3)
Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Ora pro nobis.
The name of Our Lady of Perpetual Help derives from one of the most famous of all pictures of Mary, an icon of the fourteenth century painted on walnut wood perhaps in Crete; from where it was thought to have been stolen by an Italian merchant and brought to Rome.
It is the story of an unknown artist, a repentant thief, a curious little girl, an abandoned church, and old religious and a Pope.
1. The merchant who stole “our Lady” There is a tradition from the 16th century that tells of a merchant from Crete who stole a miraculous picture from one of its churches.
He hid it among his wares and set out westward. It was only through Divine Providence that he survived a wild tempest and landed on shore. After a year he arrived in Rome with his stolen picture.
It was there that he became mortally ill and looked for a friend to care for him. At his hour of death, he revealed his secret of the picture and begged his friend to return it to the church. His friend promised that he would do so, but because his wife did not want to relinquish such a beautiful treasure, the friend also died without fulfilling the promise. At last the Blessed Virgin appeared to the six year old daughter of this Roman family and told her to tell her mother and grandmother that the picture of Holy Mary of Perpetual Help should be placed in the Church of St. Matthew the Apostle, located between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
The tradition relates, how, after many doubts and difficulties, “the mother obeyed and after consulting with the priests in charge of the church, the picture of the Virgin was placed in St. Matthew’s on the 27th of March, 1499.” There it would be venerated during the next 300 years. thus began the second phase of the history of the icon, and devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help began to spread throughout the city of Rome.
2. Three Centuries in the Church of St. Matthew
St. Matthew’s Church was not grand but it possessed an enormous treasure that attracted the faithful: the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual help. From 1739 to 1798 the church and adjacent monastery was under the care of the Irish Augustinians who had been unjustly exiled from their country and used the monastery as a formation center for their Roman Province. The young students found an abode of peace in the presence of the Virgin of Perpetual Help while they prepared for the priesthood, the apostolate and martyrdom.
In 1798, war raged in Rome and the monastery and church were almost destroyed; several Augustinians remained there for a for more years, but they, too, had to leave, some returning to Ireland, others to America, while most of them moved to a nearby monastery. This last group brought the icon with them. Thus began the third stage of her history, the “hidden Years.”
In 1819, the Irish Augustinians moved to the Church of St. Mary in Posterula near the “Umberto I’ bridge that crosses the Tiber, and with them went the icon. But as “Our Lady of Grace” was already venerated in this church, the newly arrived picture was placed in a private chapel in the monastery where it remained, all but forgotten, but for Brother Augustine Orsetti, one of the original friars from St. Matthew’s.
3. The Old Religious and the Young Boy
The years passed and it seemed that the icon had been saved from the war that destroyed St. Matthew’s, was about to be lost in oblivion.
A young altar boy, Michael Marchi, often visited the Church of Sancta Maria in Posterula and became friends with Brother Augustine. Much later, as Father Michael, he would write:
“This good brother used to tell me with a certain air of mystery and anxiety, especially during the years 1850 and 1851, these precise words: ‘Make sure you know, my son, that the image of the Virgin of St. Matthew is upstairs in the chapel: don’t ever forget it . . . do you understand? It is a miraculous picture.’ At that time the brother was almost totally blind.
“What I can say about the venerable image of the ‘Virgin of St. Matthew,’ also called ‘Perpetual Help,’ is that from my childhood until I entered the Congregation of the Redemptorists I had always seen it above the altar of the house chapel of the Augustinian Fathers of the Irish Province at St. Mary in Posterula . . . there was no devotion to it, no decorations, not even a lamp to acknowledge its presence . . . it remained covered with dust and practically abandoned. many were the times, when I served Mass there, that I would stare at it with great attention.”
Brother Augustine died in 1853 at the age of 86, without seeing fulfilled his desire that the Virgin of Perpetual help be once again exposed for public veneration. His prayers and boundless confidence in the Virgin Mary seemed to have gone unanswered.
4. The Rediscovery of the Icon
In January of 1855, the Redemptorist Missionaries purchased “Villa Caserta” in Rome, converting it into the general house for their missionary congregation that had spread to western Europe and North America. On this same property were the ruins of the Church and Monastery of St. Matthew. Without realizing it at the time, they had acquired the land that, many years previously had been chosen by the Virgin as her sanctuary between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
Four months later, construction was begun on a church in honor of the Most Holy Redeemer and dedicated to Saint Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Congregation. On December 24, 1855, a group of young men began their novitiate in the new house. One of them was Michael Marchi, the former altar boy.
The Redemptorists were extremely interested in the history of their new property. But more so, when on February 7th, 1863, they were puzzled by the questions from a sermon given by the famous Jesuit preacher, Father Francesco Blosi, about an icon of Mary that “had been in the Church of St. Matthew and was known as The Virgin of St. Matthew, or more correctly as The Virgin of Perpetual Help.”
On another occasion, the chronicler of the Redemptorist community “examining some authors who had written about Roman antiquities, found references made to the Church of St. Matthew. Among them was a particular citation mentioning that in the church had been an ancient icon of the Mother of God that enjoyed “great veneration and fame for its miracles.” Then “having told all this to the community, a dialogue began as to where they could locate the picture. Father Marchi remembered all that he had heard from old Brother Augustine Orsetti and told his confreres that he had often seen the icon and knew very well where it could be found.”
5. The Reception of the Icon by the Redemptorists
With this new information, interest grew among the Redemptorists to know more about the icon and to retrieve it for their church.
Pope St. Pius IX gives the Icon of Perpetual Help to the Redemptionist Missionaries
The Superior General, Fr. Nicholas Mauron, presented a letter to Pope Pius IX in which he petitioned the Holy See to grant them the Icon of Perpetual help and that it be placed in the newly built Church of the Most Holy Redeemer and St. Alphonsus, which was located near the site where the old Church of St. Matthew had stood. The Pontiff granted the request and on the back of the petition, in his own handwriting, he noted:
“December 11, 1865: The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda will call the Superior of the community of Sancta Maria in Posterula and will tell him that it is Our desire that the image of Most Holy Mary, referred to in this petition, be again placed between Saint John and St. mary major; the Redemptorists shall replace it with another adequate picture.”
According to tradition, this was when Pope Pius IX told the Superior General: “Make Her known throughout the world!” In January, 1866, Fathers Michael Marchi and Ernest Bresciani went to St. Mary’s in Posterula to receive the picture from the Augustinians.
Then began the process of cleaning and retouching the icon, the task of which was entrusted to the Polish artist, Leopold Nowotny. On April 26, 1866, the image was again presented for public veneration in the Church of St. Alphonsus on the Via Merulana. With this event the fourth phase of her history began: the spread of the icon throughout the world.
6. The Latest Restoration of the Icon
In 1990, the picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was taken down above the Main altar to satisfy the many requests for new photographs of the icon. It was then that the serious state of deterioration of the image was discovered; the wood, as well as the paint, had suffered from environmental changes and prior attempts at restoration. The General Government of the Redemptorists decided to contract the services of the Vatican Museum to bring about a general restoration of the icon.
The first part of the restoration consisted of a series of x-rays, infra-red images, and analysis of the paint and other tests. It was determined that the wood of the Icon of Perpetual Help could safely be dated from between 1325-1480.
The second stage of the restoration involved filling cracks and perforations in the wood, cleaning the paint and retouching affected sections, etc. This work was limited to the absolute minimum because all restorative work, somewhat like surgery, always provokes some trauma. An artistic analysis concluded that the pigmentation of the paint after the 17th century; this would explain why the icon offers a synthesis of oriental and occidental elements, especially in its facial aspects. (1)
The original picture painted on gold ground, is the work of a devout and skillful master. The best judges concede that it must have been painted in the 13th or 14th century, in the East, as its Grecian or Byzantine style plainly shows. The Blessed Mother, in half-figure, has her child on her left arm, and in her right hand, she holds the hand of her Divine Infant. Her beautiful eyes are directed towards the beholder with an expression of tender reproach, and speak eloquently of her great anguish at the sufferings of her Son. On either side of her head are four Greek letters, which stand for the words “Mother of God.”
The Divine Infant is in full figure. On his head is a crown. He wears sandals, one of which is fastened to his left foot, the other hangs loose from the right. Over his left shoulder are the Greek letters signifying “Jesus Christ.” He clasps his mother’s right hand in both his own, as though seeking protection from the instrument of His Passion, presented to Him by the two angels at his side. The Angel on the right, over whom are to be seen in Greek the initials of the name of “Michael the Archangel,” presents to the Holy Child, the Lance, the Reed and the Sponge of His future Passion, while the Angel on the left holds up before His gaze four nails and a cross, with two beams, as well as the tablet of the inscription; over Him are the initials in Greek of “Gabriel the Archangel.” The drapery of the picture is exquisite. (3)
Image: Crop of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Byzantine icon said to be 13th or 14th century (7)
Today is the feast day of Saint Anthelm of Belley. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Anthelm of Belley was born near Chambéry, in Savoy, France in 1107. He would later receive an ecclesiastical benefice in the area of Belley. When he was thirty years old, he resigned from this position to become a Carthusian monk at Portes. Only two years after joining the order, he was made the prior of the Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of his order.
He was an effective administrator. While under his direction, the community increased in numbers. He restored and improved the buildings, including constructing a defensive wall and an aqueduct. The rules of the order were standardized, and changed to allow women the opportunity to enter the order in their own houses. He also brought the other houses of the order into closer alignment with the motherhouse. The monks under his direction included Hugh of Lincoln, who expressed great fondness for Anthelm.
Anthelm continued in his office almost constantly for twenty-four years, barring a period of a few years when he was a hermit. After that period, in 1152, Anthelm returned to the Grand Chartreuse, and helped defend the sitting Pope Alexander III against the antipope Victor IV. Alexander III appointed Anthelm bishop of Belley in 1163. In that position, he is said to have been fearless and uncompromising, working to reform the clergy and regulate the affairs of the diocese. One example of his fearlessness occurred in 1175, when Anthelm excommunicated Count Humbert of Maurienne for having taken one priest captive and murdering another priest who had tried to free him. Humbert appealed his excommunication to Pope Alexander III, who reversed Humbert’s excommunication. Anthelm, who believed that Humbert was not penitent for his misconduct, withdrew from his diocese in protest.
Pope Alexander then commissioned Anthelm to travel to England to try to reconcile Henry II of England and Thomas Becket. Anthelm’s health was such that he was unable to take the journey. Anthelm returned to Belley to help care for the poor and the lepers of the area.
Anthelm died at Belley in 1178. On his deathbed, he received Humbert, and recognized that at that time Humbert truly had repented of his earlier acts. In liturgical art, Saint Anthelm is depicted with a lamp lit by a divine hand.
Today is the feast day of Saints John and Paul. Orate pro nobis.
These two Saints, not to be confused with the Apostles, were brothers and were officers of the Roman army in the days of Constantine the Great. They served in the house of Constance, daughter of Constantine, who was consecrated to God. Their virtues and services to her father rendered them very dear to her.
With the aid of Constance, they practiced many works of charity and mercy, until the deaths of both Constantine and Constance. Then, at the accession of Julian the Apostate to the imperial throne, they resigned their position in the palace. Julian had returned to the cult of idols and was attempting to re-establish it in the empire. The brothers saw many wicked men prosper in their impiety. They considered that worldly prosperity accompanied by impunity in sin is the most dreadful of all judgments, indicating reprobation. And history reveals how false and short-lived was the glittering prosperity of Julian.
While still in power the apostate attempted to win back John and Paul into active service. When he was refused, he gave them ten days to reconsider. The officer Terentianus, who at the end of that time brought to their house a little idol of Jupiter for their adoration, found them in prayer. In the middle of that night on June 26 they were decapitated secretly in their own garden. The emperor feared their execution might cause a sedition in Rome. He instigated a rumor that they had been exiled.
The martyrs, by their renouncement of favors and their heroic resistance, purchased never-fading glory. Their house on the Caelian Hill became a magnificent Christian basilica by the end of the fourth/fifth century.
House and Christian basilica on the Caelian Hill In the second half of the fourth century, Byzantius, the Roman senator, and Saint Pammachius, his son, fashioned the house on the Caelian Hill into a Christian basilica and the tomb of John and Paul was venerated there from as early as the fifth century. The church was damaged during the sack of Rome by Alaric I (410) and because of an earthquake (442). It was restored by Pope Paschal I (824), sacked again by the Normans (1084), and again restored, with the further building of a monastery and a bell tower.
Names in the Roman Canon and Sacramentarium Veronense
John and Paul’s early veneration is also indicated by the fact that the names of the two saints were inserted into the Roman Canon (First Eucharistic Prayer) of the Mass. Also the Sacramentarium Veronense, which dates back to Pope Leo the Great (440-461, indicates in the preface to the feast of the saints that they rested within the city walls.
Home to the Passionists and link with New York Since 1773 the Basilica of St John and Paul has been home to the Passionist order and is the burial place of its founder St. Paul of the Cross. Among previous cardinal priests of this church are two who became pope: Pope Honorius III (Cencio Savelli, elevated to cardinal in 1198) and Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli, elevated to cardinal in 1929).
Today is the feast day of Saint Prosper of Aquitaine. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Prosper was born in the Roman province of Aquitaine in the year 403. He is known chiefly through his writings. In his youth he had applied himself to all branches both of sacred and secular learning. Because of the purity and sanctity of his manners, the writers of his time testify that he was a holy and venerable man. (1)
By 428, he was a layman living with monks at Marseilles, who disagreed with Augustine’s theology of grace and predestination. To strengthen his arguments, Prosper wrote to Augustine, who responded with On the predestination of the Saints and On the gift of perseverance. He became known as “the best disciple of Augustine.”
Prosper seems to have labelled anyone who disagreed with Augustine “semi-Pelagian,” and the list included John Cassian, Hilary of Arles, and Vincent of Lérins. The enemies of Saint Augustine turned against Saint Prosper also, publishing fifteen errors which they attributed to the latter, then sixteen propositions supposedly clarifying Augustine’s true sentiments, and spread them widely. The Saint with gentleness answered all these writings without acrid reprisals. In 431, the year after Augustine’s death, Proper and a friend named Hilary travelled to Rome to ask Celestine I, who had praised Augustine, to proclaim the truth of his teachings.
Saint Prosper was not an ecclesiastic. Saint Leo the Great, when chosen Pope in 440, invited him to Rome, made him his secretary, and employed him in the most important affairs of the Church. It was primarily Saint Prosper who finally crushed the Pelagian heresy definitively, when it was raising its head in the see of Peter. Its complete overthrow is said to be due to his zeal, learning, and unwearied endeavors. The date of his death remains uncertain, but he was still living in 455, the date at which his Chronicle concludes. But, Prosper’s history ends with the Vandal sack of Rome (455).
Works by St. Prosper of Aquitaine ca. 390-455
The Church pleads before God everywhere, not only for the saints and those regenerated in Christ, but also for all infidels and all enemies of the Cross of Christ, for all worshippers of idols, for all who persecute Christ in His members, for the Jews whose blindness does not see the light of the Gospel, for heretics and schismatics who are alien to the unity of faith and love.
But what does she beg for them, if not that they leave their errors and be converted to God, that they accept the faith, accept love, that they be freed from the shadows of ignorance and come to the knowledge of the truth? (The Call of All Nations, 1.12) (4)
Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the Apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing. (Patrologia Latina 51:209-210) (4)
Like ointment on the head, which ran down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron…(Ps. 133.2) By the priest Aaron, that Priest is indicated who alone fulfills the sacrament of the true High Priest, not with a victim of another kind, but in the oblation of His own body and blood: same Priest, same Victim, Propitiator and Propitiation, the One who effects all the mysteries for which He was announced. Who died, was buried, and rose again, He ascended into heaven, exalting human nature above every other name, and sending the Holy Spirit, whose unction would penetrate every Church. (Explanation of the Psalms) (4)
June 25 Today is the feast day of Saint William of Vercelli. Ora pro nobis. Saint William of Monte Vergine, was born in Vercelli, a city of Lombardy. He lost his father and mother in his infancy and was brought up by a relative. At fifteen years of age, he left his native region and … Read more
Today is the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. Ora pro Nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
In the holy Gospel, the nativity of St. John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, is described by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not only for our instruction, but also that we may rejoice in the Lord our God. In the mountains of Judaea, at Hebron, eight miles from Jerusalem, lived Zachary and Elizabeth. They were just people, and lived in accordance with the commandments of God, but had no children, although they had prayed for them many years. The great age which they had attained, naturally gave them no longer any hope of issue. But still they continued their prayer. One day, when Zachary, who was a priest, offered incense in the Temple at Jerusalem, he saw at the right side of the altar, an angel, whose appearance filled the pious old man with fear and trembling. The angel, however, said to him: ” Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard. Elizabeth, thy wife, shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. He shall bring thee joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. He shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. He shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God: and he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.”
Zachary listened with great astonishment: the angel’s promise seemed to him to be out of the course of nature. Hence, he said: “Whereby shall I know this? For, I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel answered: “I am Gabriel, who stand before God, and I am sent to speak to thee and bring thee these good tidings. And behold, thou shalt be dumb and not able to speak until the day wherein these things shall come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time.” After this the angel disappeared, and Zachary, mute from that hour, returned home after he had discharged his priestly functions.
The words of the Archangel Gabriel came to pass. Elizabeth conceived and gave praise and thanks to God that He had removed from her the disgrace of being barren. Six months later, the Most High sent the angel Gabriel to the blessed Virgin, at Nazareth, to announce to her that she should become the mother of the long expected Messiah. He at the same time informed her that her cousin Elizabeth, although she was old and barren, had conceived a son, as to God nothing was impossible. After Mary had resigned herself with deep humility to the will of the Almighty, and become the mother of the Son of God, she went into the mountains of Judaea, to the house of Elizabeth and Zachary. She did not go to see if the angel’s words in regard to Elizabeth were true, but to congratulate her happy cousin, and render her such services as she would need. The Gospel assures us that when the Virgin Mother entered the dwelling of Zachary and greeted Elizabeth, John, the yet unborn child, leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, as soon as Mary’s words of salutation reached Elizabeth’s ear, and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Ghost. This leaping of the unborn Saint, was, according to the holy fathers, a sign that John, by special favor of the Almighty, knew the Saviour, yet concealed from the eyes of the world, and rejoicing in His presence, adored Him. Hence they teach that John was at that moment cleansed from original sin and filled with the Holy Ghost, and thus fulfilled the words of the angel and was sanctified in the womb of his mother.
At length came the time when he was to see the light of day, and Elizabeth gave birth to him whom the angel had promised and prophesied. When the neighbors and relatives heard how gracious God had been to Elizabeth, they all went to see her and congratulate her. On the eighth day the child was circumcised according to the law. As children, on this occasion, received a name, the relatives wished to give him that of his father, but Elizabeth opposed it, saying: ” John is his name!” “But there is none among thy kindred that is called by this name,” said her friends. Elizabeth, however, remained inflexible. Turning to the still mute Zachary, they desired to know how he would have him called. Zachary asked for a writing-table and wrote; “John is his name.” And at the same time his speech returned, and filled with the Holy Ghost, he gave thanks to God in the beautiful hymn which is one of the daily prayers of the Church, and begins: ” Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people.” All those present marvelled at these events, praised God, and spread among the people all that they had heard and seen, and concluded from it that the new-born child was destined to be great among them. Hence they said to each other: “What do you think shall this child be? for the hand of the Lord is with him.”
Thus writes St. Luke, in his gospel, of the nativity of St. John, and then adds that, “he grew and was strengthened in spirit;” and was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel, by his preaching and baptizing.
Several holy fathers write that Elizabeth fled with her child into the desert, to conceal herself from the cruelties of king Herod; and that John was nourished and kept either by an angel or in some other manner by divine Providence. Others write that, in his third or at most in his fifth year, he had voluntarily gone into the desert, eager to serve God more perfectly and to prepare himself for his mission. No one ought to think this incredible; since, even before he was born, he was gifted with the use of his reason, and comprehended the great mission to which he was called by the Almighty. So much is certain that he was from his most tender years in the wilderness. The holy Evangelists and the holy fathers tell us what manner of life he led there. He subsisted on wild honey and locusts, which are used as food in the East; but he ate so little, that our Lord said of him, that he had neither taken food nor drink. His drink was water; his garments, a coat of camels’-hair, which was fastened round his loins by a leathern belt. The ground was his bed, and he employed day and night in prayer and meditation. By fasting and other austere penances, he prepared himself for his mission. St. Augustine remarks that the severe life of penance of John was the model after which the hermits regulated their lives; hence they acknowledge him as their founder.
When in his thirtieth year, St. John was admonished by God to leave the wilderness and commence his mission. Going to the river Jordan, he preached penance and baptized the penitents. This baptism was not that which Christ instituted in the course of time: neither had it the power which the baptism of Christ has; but was only a sign of penance. In the Gospel it is related how great a multitude of people came to St. John; what he preached; how he exhorted them to do penance: how he had the honor to baptize Christ Himself, and what occurred during this event. The splendid testimony is spoken of, which he gave at different times, to the effect that Christ was the true Messiah. It is also recorded what he answered to those who were sent to him to ask whether he was the promised Messiah; for, his life was so holy and wonderful, that many believed him to be the long promised Redeemer. The events of the latter part of the life of this Saint will be related in the chapter for the day on which the church commemorates his decapitation.
Among the writings of the holy Fathers we find many sermons which contain magnificent praises of the virtues of St. John, the Baptist. They call him an angel in the flesh; an apostle in his sermons; a miracle of penance; the first hermit who induced so many thousands to imitate him; the first preacher of repentance, and proclaimer of the heavenly kingdom. They praise his fearlessness in reproving vice, both in high and in low; his deep humility, by which he deemed himself not worthy to baptize Christ, or even to unloose the latchet of His shoes; his angelic purity; his continual penance and his unwearied zeal for the honor of God and the welfare of men. But what should inspire every one with the greatest reverence towards this Saint is the fact, that Christ our Lord Himself praised the greatness and holiness of St. John so frequently, and said that among men there had been none greater than John the Baptist. What more can be said in his praise? (6)
Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
(from the Liturgical Year, 1904)
The Voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; behold thy God (Is. xl. 3-9)!” Oh! in this world of ours grown now so cold, who can understand earth’s transports, at hearing these glad tidings so long expected? The promised God was not yet manifested; but already have the heavens bowed down (Ps. xvii. 10), to make way for His passage. No longer was He “the One Who is to come,” He for whom our fathers, the illustrious saints of the prophetic age ceaselessly called, in their indomitable hope. Still hidden, indeed, but already in our midst, He was resting beneath that virginal cloud compared with which, the heavenly purity of Thrones and Cherubim wax dim; yea, the united fires of burning Seraphim grow faint, in presence of the single love wherewith she alone encompasses Him in her human heart, she that lowly daughter of Adam whom He had chosen for His mother. Our accursed earth, made suddenly more blessed far than yonder heaven so long inexorably closed to suppliant prayer, awaited only that the august mystery should be revealed; the hour was come for earth to join her canticles to that eternal and divine praise, which henceforth was ever rising from her depths, and which being itself no other than the Word Himself, would celebrate God condignly. But beneath the veil of humility where His divinity, even after as well as before his birth, must still continue to hide itself from men, who may discover the Emmanuel? who, having recognized him in His merciful abasements, may succeed in making him accepted by a world lost in pride? who may cry, pointing out the Carpenter’s Son (St. Matth. xiii. 55), in the midst of the crowd: Behold Him Whom your fathers have so wistfully awaited!
For such is the order decreed from on high, in the manifestation of the Messias. Conformably to the Ways of men, the God-Man would not intrude Himself into public life; He would await, for the inauguration of His divine ministry, some man who having preceded him in a similar career, would be hereby sufficiently accredited, to introduce Him to the people.
Sublime part for a creature to play, to stand guarantee for his God, witness for the Word! The exalted dignity of him who was to fill such a position, had been notified, as had that of the Messias, long before his birth. In the solemn liturgy of the Age of types, the Levite choir, reminding the Most High of the meekness of David and of the promise made to him of a glorious heir, hailed from afar the mysterious lamp prepared by God for His Christ (Ps. cxxxi. 17) Not that, to give light to His steps, Christ should stand in need of external help: He, the Splendour of the Father, had only to appear in these dark regions of ours, to fill them with the effulgence of the very heavens; but so many false glimmerings had deceived mankind, during the night of these ages of expectation, that had the true Light arisen on a sudden, it would not have been understood, or would have but blinded eyes now become well nigh powerless, by reason of protracted darkness, to endure its brilliancy. Eternal Wisdom therefore decreed that just as the rising sun is announced by the morning-star, and prepares his coming by the gently tempered brilliancy of aurora; so Christ, who is Light should be preceded here below, by a star, His precursor; and his approach be signalized by the luminous rays which He himself, (though still invisible) would shed around this faithful herald of His coming. When, in by-gone days, the Most-High vouchsafed to light up, before the eyes of his prophets, the distant future, that radiant flash which for an instant shot across the heavens of the old covenant, melted away in the deep night, and ushered not in, as yet, the longed-for dawn. The “morning-star” of which the psalmist sings, shall know naught of defeat: declaring unto night that all is now over with her, he will dim his own fires only in the triumphant splendour of the Sun of Justice. Even as aurora melts into day, so will he confound with Light increased, his own radiance; being of himself, like every creature, nothingness and darkness, he will so reflect the brilliancy of the Messias shining immediately upon him, that many will mistake him even for the very Christ (St. Luke, iii. 15).
The mysterious conformity of Christ and His Precursor, the incomparable proximity which unites one to the other, are to be found many times marked down in the sacred scriptures. If Christ is the Word, eternally uttered by the Father, he is to be the Voice bearing this divine utterance whithersoever it is to reach; Isaias already hears the desert echoing with these accents, till now unknown; and the prince of prophets expresses his joy, with all the enthusiasm of a soul already beholding itself in the very presence of its Lord and God (St. Luke, iii. 15). The Christ is the Angel of the Covenant; but in the very same text wherein the Holy Ghost gives Him this title, for us so full of hope, there appears likewise bearing the same name of angel, the inseparable messenger, the faithful ambassador, to whom the earth is indebted for her coming to know the Spouse: Behold, I send My angel, and he shall prepare the way before My face. And presently the Lord Whom ye seek, and the Angel of the testament whom you desire, shall come to His Temple; behold he cometh, saith the Lord of hosts (Malach. iii. 1). And putting an end to the prophetic ministry, of which he is the last representative, Malachias terminates his own oracles by the words which we have heard Gabriel addressing to Zachary, when he makes known to him the approaching birth of the Precursor (Ibid. iv. 5-6).
The presence of Gabriel, on this occasion, of itself shows with what intimacy with the Son of God, this child then promised shall be favoured; for the very same Prince of the heavenly hosts, came again, soon afterwards, to announce the Emmanuel. Countless are the faithful messengers that press around the throne of the Holy Trinity, and the choice of these august ambassadors usually varies, according to the dignity of the instructions, to be transmitted to earth by the Most High. Nevertheless, it was fitting that the same archangel charged with concluding the sacred Nuptials of the Word with the Human Nature, should likewise prelude this great mission by preparing the coming of him whom the eternal decrees had designated as the Friend of the Bridegroom (St. John, iii. 29). Six months later, on his deputation to Mary, he strengthens his divine message, by revealing to that purest of Virgins, the prodigy, which had by then, already given a son to the sterile Elizabeth; this being the first step of the Almighty towards a still greater marvel. John is not yet born; but without longer delay, his career is begun: he is employed to attest the truth of the angels promises. How ineffable this guarantee of a child hidden as yet in his mother’s womb, but already brought forward as God’s witness, in that sublime negotiation which at that moment is holding heaven and earth in suspense! Illumined from on high, Mary receives the testimony and hesitates no longer. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, says she to the archangel, be it done unto me, according to thy word (St. Luke, i).
Gabriel has retired, bearing away with him the divine secret which he has not been commissioned to reveal to the rest of the world. Neither will the most prudent Virgin herself tell it; even Joseph, her virginal Spouse, is to receive no communication of the mystery from her lips. Yet fear not; the woeful sterility beneath which earth has been so long groaning, is not to be followed by an ignorance more sorrow-stricken still, now that it has yielded its fruit (Ps. lxxxiv. 13). There is one from whom Emmanuel will have no secret, nor reserve; it were fitting to reveal the marvel unto him. Scarce has the Spouse taken possession of the sanctuary all spotless, wherein the nine months of his first abiding amongst men, must run their course, yea, scarce has the Word been made Flesh, than Our Lady, inwardly taught what is her Son’s desire, arising, makes all haste to speed into the hill-country of Judea (St. Luke, i. 39). The voice of my Beloved! Behold he cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills (Cantic. ii. 8). His first visit is to the “Friend of the Bridegroom,” the first out-pour of His graces is to John. A distinct feast will allow us to Honor in a special manner, the precious day on which the divine Child, sanctifying his Precursor, reveals himself to John, by the voice of Mary; the day on which Our Lady, manifested by John, leaping within the womb of his mother, proclaims at last the wondrous things operated within her, by the Almighty, according to the merciful promise which he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever (St. Luke, i. 55).
But the time is come, when the good tidings are to spread, from children and mothers, through all the adjacent country, until at length they reach the whole world. John is about to be born, and, whilst still himself unable to speak, he is to loosen his father’s tongue. He is to put an end to that dumbness, with which the aged priest, a type of the old law, had been struck by the angel; and Zachary, himself filled with the Holy Ghost, is about to publish in a new canticle, the blessed visit of the Lord God of Israel. (Ibid. i. 68).
The hymn which follows, furnishes the Church with a beautiful formula of prayer and praise. There are few pieces so famous as this, in the holy liturgy. Its composition is attributed to Paul the Deacon, a monk of Monte Cassino, in the eighth century; and the story attached to it, is particularly touching. Honoured with that sacred order the very title of which remains through the course of ages inseparably linked with his name, Paul Warnefrid, the friend of Charlemagne and the historian of the Lombards, was on a certain occasion, deputed to bless the paschal candle, the triumphal appearance whereof, yearly announces to Holy Church, the Resurrection of the Spouse. Now it happened, that whilst he was preparing himself for this function, the most solemn of those reserved to the Levites of the New Testament, he suddenly lost his voice, until then clear and sonorous, so that, he was powerless to sound forth the glad notes of the Exsultet. In this extremity, Paul recollected himself; and turning to Saint John, patron at once of the Lombard nation and of that Church built by Saint Benedict at the top of the holy mount, he invoked him whose birth had put a stop to the dumbness of his own father, and who still preserves his power of restoring to ” vocal chords their lost suppleness.” The son of Zachary heard his devout client. Such was the origin of the harmonious strophes which now form the three hymns proper to this feast.
What is still better known, is the importance which the first of these strophes has acquired in the history of Gregorian chant and of music, The primitive air to which the hymn of Paul the Deacon was sung possessed this peculiarity, namely, that the initial syllable of each hemistich rose just one degree higher than the preceding, in the scale of sounds; thus was obtained, on bringing them together, the series of fundamental notes which form the basis of our present gamut. The custom was afterwards introduced of giving to the notes themselves, the names of these syllables: Ut, Be, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. Guido of Arezzo, in his method of teaching, originated this custom; and by completing it with the introduction of the regular lines of the musical scale, he was the cause of an immense stride being made in the science of sacred music, until then so laborious to render, and so tedious to acquire. He thus acknowledged that the divine Precursor, the Voice whose accents reveal to the world the harmony of the eternal canticle, ought to have the honour of having attached to his name the organization of earth’s melodies. (4)
Image: Natività del battista, artist: Jacopo Carucci, circa 1526
Today is the feast of the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist.
There was in the days of Herod, the King of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia, and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth. And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame. And they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were well advanced in years. And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord; and all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an Angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him was troubled, and fear fell upon him; but the Angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord: and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.–St. Luke, i. 5 – 17
So sacred was St. John’s day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on 23 June, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast (Battle of Fontenay, 841). “Joy, which is the characteristic of the day, radiated from the sacred precincts. The lovely summer nights, at St. John’s tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away when, all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain-top, and in an instant, every town, and village, and hamlet was lighted up” (Gueranger). (2)
The custom of the “St. John’s fires” has endured unto this day. All over Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, and from Ireland to Russia, Saint John’s Day festivities are closely associated with the ancient nature lore of the great summer festival of pre-Christian times. Fires are lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his feast. These “Saint John’s fires” burn brightly and quietly along the fiords of Norway, on the peaks of the Alps, on the slopes of the Pyrenees, and on the mountains of Spain (where they are called Hogsueras). They were an ancient symbol of the warmth and light of the sun which the forefathers greeted at the beginning of summer. In many places, great celebrations are held with dances, games, and outdoor meals. (3)
It should be noted that in the Catholic sections of Europe the combination of the ancient festival of nature lore with the Feast of the Baptist has resulted in a tradition of dignified celebration, which has come down to our day. People gather around the fireplace, dressed in their national or local costumes, and sing their beautiful ancient songs. When the fire is lighted, one of them recites a poem that expresses the thought of the feast. Then they pray together to Saint John for his intercession that the summer may be blessed in homes, fields, and country, and finally perform some of the traditional folk dances, usually accompanied by singing and music.
At sunset on June 23rd in Ireland, the festivals begins. This midsummer festival was known as St. John’s Eve, or Bonfire Night, and not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition. For several days beforehand, children and young people went from house to house asking for donations for the blessed fire. It was considered very unlucky to refuse. In fact, at some fires, the names of generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer. But then, the names of the miserly were also announced and these were greeted with jeers and catcalls.
Imagine what it must have been like. Around the fire were assembled all the people of the locality – from the smallest children to the oldest men and women. As the sun set, the fire was lit. Usually, this honor was given to a knowledgeable elderly man who would say the traditional prayer for the occasion. One verse of this prayer is:
In the honor of God and St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (3)
And if you’re looking for an excuse to build a bonfire, the Church gives us a great reason to do so tonight, for tonight is the vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the prophetic forerunner of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist was a man on fire with the Holy Spirit. His words burned like a furnace, and he feared no one, even the powerful rulers of his day. He called all to repentance without exception, and lightened the way for the messiah like a blazing torch. What better way to commemorate this zealous prophet than with a roaring bonfire?
And indeed, it is an ancient tradition of the Church to build a bonfire on the night of June 23, the vigil of St. John’s nativity, and keep watch through the night. The vigil of this feast is also symbolic in that it takes place only a few days after the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, calling to mind St. John’s declaration that, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
So build a fire tonight, like centuries of Catholics before you, and spend time with your family and loved ones. Remember this great saint who courageously preached the coming of the Messiah, and ask him for his intercession.
The Roman Ritual contains a priestly blessing for the vigil fire, and it is one of the oldest prayers contained in it. But if no priest is available to bless your fire, the family can sing the hymn together and the father can recite the closing prayer. Enjoy! (5)
Image: The Holy Children with a Shell, artist: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (4)