Plagues and Strife, Six Centuries Ago

Catherine Benincasa lived through two outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Siena (in what we now call Italy). Her mother gave birth to Catherine during the devastating first outbreak of the disease. Then the Black Death came back, 26 years later. Catherine lost three of her siblings.

St. Catherine of Siena

In those days, the pope lived in France. Odd. Since the pope is, by definition, bishop of Rome.

Catherine wrote to Gregory XI. She reasoned with him: If you prefer French living to doing your pastoral duty in Rome, then you ought to resign.

The pope actually did as the young nun asked. Not resign, but come to Rome.

Problem solved? Not exactly. Gregory then died. The Cardinals elected a successor, who insisted on remaining in Rome, rather than return to France (home of most of the Cardinals, at that time.) So the Cardinals asked him to resign. When he wouldn’t, they elected a different pope.

Catherine called the Cardinals “incarnate demons” for causing a schism.

The “Western Schism,” as we call it, lasted for the next forty years. Pope Martin V finally succeeded in both a. returning the papacy to Rome and b. achieving universal recognition as pope, during the 1420’s.

Today at Holy Mass, we read the passage from John 6 where Lord Jesus says: I will not lose anything that the Father gives Me. Everyone who sees the Son, and believes in Him, will have eternal life.

St. Catherine of Siena died in Rome, 640 years ago today. She breathed her last surrounded by ecclesiastical turmoil, but totally united with Jesus, even in His wounds. (She received the stigmata.)

St Catherine of Siena tomb Sopra Minerva

In 2005, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass on the altar that holds St. Catherine’s mortal remains.

Also, last year I got to visit the relics that they keep in Venice. May St. Catherine intercede for us with the Son of God.

foot of St Catharine of Sienna, Saints John and Paul Venice

Feast of St. George

Our Holy Father Pope Francis’ baptismal patron died as a martyr 1,717 years ago today. The emperor Diocletian sentenced George to death, because the saint refused to recant his Christian faith.

The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.

(John 3:35-36, which we read today at Holy Mass.)

During the ensuing century, after St. George’s martyrdom, the persecutions of Christianity by the Roman emperors ceased. In Milan, in AD 313, the emperor Constantine declared Christianity tolerable.

But the fourth century saw tumult within the Church. Tumult the likes of which we could hardly imagine now. The college of bishops convulsed with party factions; the U.S. Senate of today looks like a club of polite, like-minded friends by comparison.

St. John Henry Newman narrated the hugely complicated business in his book, The Arians of the Fourth Century. I highly recommend reading it. To all past, current, and potential seminarians. (Others might find it rough sledding.)

Card Newman
John Henry Newman

The original faith of the Church needed a word to express itself. Homoousion in Greek, consubstantialem in Latin. With that word, we Christians confess the Incarnation and the Trinity, the essential mysteries of our faith.

Eh, Father?

Let me put it like this: The Son of God shares in the God-ness of God. To practice religion honestly, man must always divide everything that exists into one of two categories. 1. God. 2. Things created by God out of nothing. The eternal Son falls into Category 1, not 2.

We think of this question as settled forever at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The Council did settle the question, doctrinally. But not Church-politically.

In ten days, we will keep the anniversary of the death of St. Athanasius. He held fast to the Nicene Creed, through all the internal strife the Church faced in of the fourth century. Newman wrote of Athanasius: “he was the principal instrument, after the Apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world.”

Athanasius held fast to the Nicene Creed; he confessed the Trinity and the Incarnation. For his pains, he was excommunicated and exiled five times. All of this after the Council of Nicaea.

The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church survived the fourth century. She continued, full of life, on Her pilgrimage through time. How? She clung with desperate love to Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.

St. George day selfie
St. George Day selfie, with the paschal candle still lit after Mass

The Basis of Psychological Health

[written 2/3/20]

The good Lord wills our integrity as human beings, our physical/spiritual health, our interior unity—however you want to put it.

The angels and demons perceive the divine power of Christ by some means of perception that we don’t have. For us, it’s a matter of… Faith.

El Greco crucifixion Cristo sulla croceInterior unity, genuine psychological and spiritual integrity, human virtue; a reasonable, honorable, and steady life–it all starts with faith in the Incarnation, in the divine love of the triune God.

We don’t wear red vestments today in honor of the Kansas City Chiefs. Much as they deserve congratulations. The red represents the blood of the martyr St. Blase.

Christ died in utter physical degradation, but with perfect interior virtue, total loving communion with the eternal Father. The martyrs have died likewise: Physically crushed, but interiorly as healthy as a human being can be. That is, united with God by faith in the Christ.

St. Francis de Sales and the Visible Church

(written 1/24/20)


st francis de sales catholic controversy

Those Apostles being gathered together in Jerusalem with the little company of the disciples and the most glorious Mother of the Savior formed the true Church. And of what kind? Visible without doubt, yea so visible that the Holy Spirit came to water those holy plants and seed-plots of Christianity.

–St. Francis de Sales, “On the Mission of the Church”, chap. V

The Church: The Scriptures, the sacraments, the family bound together by divine love. We take for granted that this institution is an end in itself. We don’t belong to the Catholic Church because we get free exercise classes, or free meals–though we enjoy a nice church dinner every now and again. We belong to the Catholic Church because we believe we find salvation in Her.

The life of the visible Church itself gives us a reason to believe in Christ and His revelation of God. Jesus of Nazareth founded this institution which has stunning marks of holiness—that is, the courage of the Apostles and martyrs, the beautiful lives of the saints, the universality of our Church’s ceremonies, the unique staying power of this two-thousand-year-old enterprise.

Our Church certainly seems to have supernatural integrity. She also seems to have managerial problems. Pretty severe ones. Severe enough that the unified whole seems to break down.

On the one hand, the evidently holy stuff: Christ, His Scriptures, His sacraments, the ancient saints. On the other hand, the evidently messed-up stuff: Extended sex-abuse cover-ups, lack of accountability, internecine strife ad nauseam, bishops shutting down peoples’ blogs and squelching free speech, etc.

No need to wonder how Protestantism started. We can see it clearly from where we find ourselves. The impetus to break down the whole that is the visible Church that carries invisible graces. Let’s keep the ‘pure’ stuff, and jettison the ‘worldly’ stuff. Let’s keep Scripture and jettison so-called ‘tradition.’ Let’s keep our ‘pure’ local group and jettison communion with compromised Rome. Let’s keep the doctrines I agree with and jettison the ones that I don’t. The pope runs an institution rife with corruption; therefore, I have the right to appoint myself my own personal pope.

We can see how it started, Protestantism. But: Now it’s 500 years later, and we can also see clearly that it doesn’t really work. St. Francis de Sales put it like this:

It does not follow that if a body is everywhere diseased, that it is therefore dead. Thus, widespread failure of faith does not mean that faith has failed in the Church, or that the Church is dead. (chapter X.)

Being “half-Catholic” doesn’t work, or trying to be Christian without Christ’s Church. The Church he founded is simply one, unbreakable thing. All the holy stuff has tons of perfectly human and messed-up aspects to it. And all the ‘worldly’ parts partake so intimately of the holiness that you actually can’t just chuck anything, without ultimately sinking the whole ship. As soon as anyone says to him- or herself, “Well, this solemn teaching; or this pope; or this Ecumenical Council just isn’t for me”—you wind up actually having nothing left. Because you don’t have Catholicism anymore.

They got through it, five centuries ago, the Catholics. They belonged to a holy Church with a lot of problems, but they did not become Protestants. St. Francis de Sales helped a lot of them. They had enough faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We can, too.

Pope Fabian and the Dove Election

(written 1/20/2020)

Pope Fabian dove
Jaume Huguet the Elder, “The Election of Pope Fabian”

Anyone see The Two Popes? The filmmakers depict the papal conclaves of 2005 and 2013, with plenty of papal politicking thrown in.

In the papal election of AD 236, however, St. Fabian became pope with no politicking at all. Rather, as the electors met to choose the twentieth pope, a dove descended from above, like at the Baptism of Christ. It landed on Fabian.

Fabian had to heal a schism in the Church. Remember this was before the Fathers met to formulate the precise Trinitarian doctrine in the Nicene Creed. Before Fabian’s election, there had been an “antipope,” not duly elected, who had actually made more-cogent theological arguments than the popes who preceded Fabian.

A persecution had led to the exile of both Pope Pontian and antipope Hippolytus. They wound up working together as slaves in the mines of the Isle of Sardinia. The two of them reconciled there, with Hippolytus renouncing his false claim to the papacy. Then they both died as prisoners. Once Pope Fabian had been elected successor, he brought both of their remains back to Rome and buried them with honor.

Then, fourteen years later, Fabian died as a martyr, too–1770 years ago today. The Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christians to burn incense to the pagan gods of Rome. Fabian of course refused.

Pope St. Fabian’s remains lie in the Church of St. Sebastian outside the ancient walls of Rome. The church sits on top of an ancient catacombs. I said Mass there with two priests friends, back in 2005.

Being there takes you back to those early centuries of the Church, when so many heroes unhesitatingly gave their lives for the Gospel. May they all pray for us.

Memorizing the Bible

(written 1/17/2020)

Piero di Cosimo St Anthony

According to St. Athanasius, St. Anthony became so intimately familiar with the Scriptures that he came hardly to need the books anymore. St. Anthony could rely solely on his memory. Same thing for Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—memorized the whole Bible.

For St. Anthony, it all began listening to the gospel at Mass, like all of us who frequent the parish church. Anthony heard the words, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor. Then come, follow Me.”

Anthony heard those words as addressed personally to himself. So he sold everything and went out into the desert to follow Christ. In other words, Anthony did not memorize the Bible in order to train himself for some kind of ancient Bible-Jeopardy game show. Anthony understood that God spoke personally to him through the words of Scripture, so he took great interest in those words.

Now we know the key to solving the question: Who knows the Scripture best, Catholics or Protestants? No. The answer is: People who genuinely believe that God speaks to us this way, and who want to listen–they know the Bible best. People willing to learn the sacred history recounted in the Scriptures, because that history literally means the difference between heaven and hell for us.

You and I might not have the intellectual endowment to memorize the entire Bible. But we can have the desperate desire to hear and embrace God’s words to us. We can grasp those words to our bosoms and live by them, like St. Anthony lived by them.


The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel. Your sins are forgiven, child. Your faith has saved you.

St.-Joseph-Day Homily

Natural questions, as the rug comes out from under the human race:

How could God allow this catastrophe?! He must not exist! Or not be “good.” Show me how this nightmare makes any sense, naive believer!

On the Solemnity of St. Joseph, we Catholics read at Holy Mass about the faith of our spiritual father Abraham.

Abraham never believed in anyone’s idea of God. Abraham simply believed in, and obeyed, God Himself. Abraham’s faith and obedience began the process through which the Messiah entered the world.

We Catholics don’t believe in anyone’s idea of God, either. We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Whose only-begotten Son became man.

God Himself died of suffocation. Granted, not suffocation brought on by severe pneumonia, caused by coronavirus. Rather because, on the cross, His diaphragm became too exhausted to distend His lungs.

But the fact remains: Almighty God died of suffocation, like all the coronavirus fatalities. Then He rose on the third day. They will all rise, too, on the last day.

Point is: We Catholic believers have no glib answers about why the good and merciful Lord allows suffering. We don’t need them. We simply gaze with love at our crucified God.

Solemnity selfie
Solennità di San Giuseppe selfie

Martyrs’ Mother

As we read at Holy Mass today, the mother of the Maccabean martyrs said to her sons:

I do not know how you came into existence in my womb… Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who… brings about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.

In other words, the mother had the courage to pray for the martyrdom of her sons.

Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”

St. John de Brébeuf suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Iroquois, in what is now Ontario, Candada. He had prayed for martyrdom. Every Jesuit, and everyone who prays the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, prays to lose all honor in this world, and be thought a fool—out of loyalty to the Great Fool, Jesus Christ.

In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More did not pray for, or seek, martyrdom. He had a family; he loved his family. And his family wanted him home with them, not in jail–and certainly not dead. More’s wife and daughter laid guilt trips on Thomas for ‘playing the hero,’ in his dealings with King Henry. In the end, More suffered martyrdom not for something he said, but for his silence.

On the other hand, the Maccabean mother set aside her desire to have the earthly company of her sons. She reckoned, correctly, that the Lord had given her her sons in the first place. So He could give them back to her, in the next life–provided they stayed faithful.

The mother did St. John de Brébeuf one better. A devoted servant of God, with no dependents, might pray for his or her own martyrdom, if it should serve God’s glory. An even-more-devoted servant of God prays for the martyrdom of her beloved children, should it serve God’s glory.

Saint on the Mississippi

St Rose Philippine Duchesne St Louis cathedral

Remember how we talked in August about St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests? About how he received first Holy Communion during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror? Rose Philippine Duchesne was an eighteen-year-old French nun at the time. And John Vianney’s future seminary classmate Mathias Loras was a baby, who lost his father to the guillotine.

The Curé of Ars never came to America, of course. But his seminary classmate Mathias Loras did. Loras eventually made his way up the Mississippi River to found the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa. He traveled right past the log cabin in St. Charles, Missouri, where Sister Rose Philippine Duchesne was living and teaching.

Meanwhile, east of the Mississippi: The Andrew-Jackson administration had no scruples whatsoever about breaking treaties with Native-American tribes and forcing them to migrate west. Here in the South. we know about the Cherokee Trail of Tears. But the Potawatomis of northern Indiana had to follow what they called the “Trail of Death.”

The Potawatomis who survived the trip eventually settled in Kansas. Rose Philippine Duchesne wanted to teach the children. But she couldn’t master their language.

So she prayed for them instead. Hour after hour.

Sister would pray for so long that the children would encircle her with little pebbles, then go to sleep. When they woke up, they would check to see if any of the pebbles had been disturbed. They hadn’t. Sister had been kneeling and praying in the same position the whole time. They called her Quahkahkanumad, the Woman Who Always Prays.

The cathedral basilica in St. Louis has a huge mosaic of St. Rose. She died 23 miles from there, in St.Charles, 167 years ago today. She lies in a marble sarcophagus in a small shrine dedicated to her memory.

May she pray for us, that we might have the kind of missionary courage and perseverance that she had.

Homily for St.-Albert-the-Great Day

By happy God-incidence, on the anniversary of the death of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teacher, we read at Mass from the book of Wisdom. About how the beauty of creation demonstrates the even-greater, unseen beauty of the Creator.

Albert the Great Septicentennial StampTwo quick points on this:

1. Many skeptics and atheists argue that the world does not show forth the hidden glory of the Creator, because the world abounds with evil. We concede: Yes, this world, though fundamentally beautiful, does indeed abound with evil. We answer: Evil entered God’s good creation because of the moral failure of angels and mankind.

To which the clever atheist replies: ‘Hold on. We cannot chalk all the evil in the world up to moral faults. What about: Earthquakes, floods, volcanoes? Lions eat gazelles. Alligators eat defenseless deer fawns trying to get a drink of water. What kind of beautiful, kind God would make a world in which foxes eat cute, little peacock chicks?’

I think we have all heard these kinds of rhetorical questions. This kind of attack on God’s existence tries to paint our faith as naïve sentimentalism.

But who exactly falls into naïve sentimentalism here? After all, only we human beings reckon even this physical evil of nature as categorically evil.

I’m not saying that the gazelle wouldn’t prefer to survive, rather than serve as dinner for the lion; I’m not saying the gazelle sings an interior hymn to God, praising Him for the chance to serve in the food chain, at the very moment when the lion’s fangs crush his neck.

No, I’m not saying that. But: the gazelle does not question the whole business as a matter of good vs. evil. The gazelle does not fit his demise into the grand scheme of things.

So to say that physical evil proves that God does not exist, or that He’s mean—that actually requires unscientific sentimentality. A genuine scientist would acknowledge that my personal aesthetics regarding the climate or the food chain cannot stand in judgment over anything. A fawn dying in an alligator’s mouth seems sad to me, to be sure. But I can’t judge the order of nature based on such feelings.

Venice Patriarch aqua alta hip waders
Speaking of floods, poor Patriarch of Venice had to don his hip-waders because of unusually alta aqua alta this fall. Let’s pray for the dear Venetians. (Saint Mark’s bones are safe.)

2. Which brings us to the second little point. What we have considered so far shows another major flaw in the typical atheist attack on our faith in the good, beautiful God.

Now, the size of the universe, and this planet’s relative position in it: these physical facts have no bearing on what we Christians believe. But we insist that our earth is the spiritual center of the material universe.

After all, this is where the action is. God created the whole universe for our sake. We sandwich-eating, book-reading mammals on the third rock from this star. The Creator of the vast cosmos Personally became one of us, here. Which makes earth the center of the universe.

The typical atheist dismisses such a statement as naïve and sentimental. And points out that: Because there are so many galaxies out there, we little dudes and dudettes are obviously insignificant in the grand sweep of heavenly movements. The enemies of our faith even go so far as to insist that courage requires recognizing the basic meaninglessness of our obscure ant-like existence in this huge, pitiless universe.

But, again: Who’s being unscientific? From whose point-of-view does such a debate even arise? Who thinks at all about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our existence? Do the airless planets around the stars at the far end of the Milky Way ponder these things? Hardly. And even if they did, we have to admit that we have absolutely no way of knowing anything about what they think.

In other words, for good or ill, a genuinely scientific assessment of our situation has to place us human begins at the center of the universe. Because we human beings are the only center of the universe that we can ever know. That’s the way it is, from the moment we first open our eyes.

Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! He has revealed to us that our heavenly Father sees us the same way.