Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America by John Loughery Read Now
I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to study history is through biographies, and in the case of “Dagger John”  we get a graduate course on American church and state through the story of Archbishop John Hughes of New York. A proud, smart, pugnacious, energetic, and critical man, Hughes did not need resort to the blade to make his points—even if the cross next to his signature bore a striking similarity to, well, a dagger. Hughes’ weapons were his personality, his pen, his policies, and his politics. As a young Irish immigrant, his eventual understanding of American social and political life is a marvel to behold, to the point that several American presidents would seek his religious/political council. [He was also probably the first, and certainly not the last, American bishop to wear a hairpiece.]
Born in 1797 in Annaloghan, in Ulster Province in Northern Ireland, John Hughes entered the world in a period of high stress in the saga of Irish-British relations complicated in no small part by the French Revolution. His family was devoutly Roman Catholic at a time when observance of the faith was hidden out of necessity. His father, a man of modest means but considerable wisdom, navigated a cautious existence in Ulster where Catholics were a distinct minority, such that young John was able to get some schooling and develop a passion for books and reading. The Hughes family emigrated piecemeal to the United States in 1816, and in doing so avoided the horrors of the potato famine a generation later. They settled along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border north of Baltimore and close to St. Mary’s, the oldest seminary in the United States and still in operation today.
Young John Hughes was not a mystic, nor would he ever become one. His religious experience throughout his life seemed to center on a strong confidence in the truth of the Catholic tradition and a healthy pride in disseminating the faith as it had been preserved and protected by his Irish forebears. Coupled with this was a thirst for justice and an innate sensitivity to the sufferings of the poor, particularly his fellow Irish. It is unclear when the future bishop surmised he had a vocation to the priesthood, but having made this decision, he set his cap for a most improbable goal—admission to St. Mary’s, then a boarding school for teenaged boys and a major seminary. His biographer John Loughery describes the odds: “A man who was too old and too poor to attend the school as a student was going to show up and ask to be admitted as a seminarian-tutor when he had only a few years’ attendance at an Irish grammar school to recommend him.” [p. 35] He suffered several rejections before he was hired by the seminary as a groundskeeper, allowed to sleep in a dilapidated cabin.
Loughery explains that in 1820 there was little glamor in becoming a priest in the United States; anti-Catholicism was quite strong in his day, and even in some respects well into the twentieth century [to the election of President John Kennedy in 1960, one might argue.] The appeal of the priesthood to a candidate in Hughes’ time was, in the author’s words, “being called, and it was a certain kind of empowerment…a sense that one was giving oneself to a formidable cause, both temporal and eternal, potentially living a life beyond what others lived….” [p. 36] I might add here that if we look down the road at the future bishop’s social concern we see his social sympathy—later in life he labored mightily to save young boys and girls in New York from what we call today “sexual trafficking”—and his belief that the priesthood was the best vehicle for him to address these concerns.
Hughes labored on the grounds while hectoring the seminary’s rector, Father John Dubois, for admission. Several local priests took an interest in Hughes but doubted his fitness for the seminary until Elizabeth Seton, whose new community of sisters was also based in Emmitsburg, MD, put in a good word. Dubois finally accepted him on a work-tuition basis; Hughes continued to work on the grounds elbow to elbow with the seminary’s slaves, and he became the butt of jokes from seminarians who, in many cases, were younger than himself. Dubois—a refugee from the French Revolution--eventually came around to respect Hughes’ character and dedication to studies.
It is a testimony to the small number of priests in nineteenth century America that a goodly number of the friends made by Hughes in his seminary days would become bishops and administrators throughout the country into the mid-nineteenth century. It is also true that a growing number of St. Mary’s finest students were of Irish descent, a point of some concern among the seminary’s benefactors who were not prepared for an influx of Irishmen in American churches. Loughery notes that in 1820 there was no standard seminary curriculum; the local bishop determined coursework. Hughes was fortunate to develop a close relationship with the seminary’s one true scholar, Simon Brute, who introduced him to many treasures of Church writing as well as ancient and contemporary general writing. Hughes later demonstrated familiarity with Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and other Enlightenment authors.
Hughes was slow to master public speaking, but once overcoming his hesitancy, he was eager to enter the pulpit. Ordained a deacon, he was assigned to a Philadelphia parish where his preaching caught the attention of the bishop. Ordained a priest for the Philadelphia diocese on October 25, 1826, his first brief assignment in a “ramshackle chapel” was quickly followed by a transfer to a more upscale Philly parish. The Philadelphia diocese included all of Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as western New Jersey, in 1826. This broad expanse was populated by 100,000 Catholics in twenty-two parishes served by, give or take, forty priests. The rugged demands of pastoring broke many priests, and replacements from Europe, mostly, were hard to come by. Some years ago, I read a biography of St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia [r. 1852-1860], the first male canonized saint in the United States and a later colleague of Hughes. Neumann, during his priestly and episcopal duties, employed a horse-drawn buckboard to visit his churches in Scranton and Harrisburg, no easy task. Physical stamina was a necessary charism for pastoral duties. Hughes, who favored the new rail system as well as transatlantic passenger ships down the road, was well served by his arduous youthful physical labors and was a dynamo of energy until Bright’s Disease [kidneys] and rheumatism crippled him to his death in 1864.
Much of his Irish energy was employed in the service of “apologetics,” or spirited defense of the doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic Church. Early in his priesthood, while boarding at a rural inn, he was accosted by three “anti-papists.” A dagger might have brought matters to an unruly end, at least for the three antipapists, but Hughes discovered that “the word is indeed mightier than the blade.” Moreover, the verbal confrontation was exhilarating. On that night at the inn, he powerfully resisted the slurs against the Church in a way that subdued his attackers without a blow being struck. To the future good of the Church, Hughes discovered he enjoyed the repartee with the Church’s enemies, and his written and published wars with other religious antagonists, politicians, and even Catholic critics became the stuff of legend, published prominently in Catholic and secular publications. Later, as bishop, he was overwhelmed with invitations to speaking engagements. Self-assertion would never be found wanting in Hughes’ ministry.
It did not hurt Hughes’ career advancement that his Philadelphia bishop, Henry Conwell was in decline. The Vatican was displeased that Conwell had failed to win over the Catholics at the cathedral, failed to bring order to the diocese, and was too soft with lay trustees who sought to run the local diocese. [See “Trusteeism,” eventually condemned by Rome.] Hughes watched the Vatican-Conwell conflict closely as an important lesson for his own future. Another future giant of the American Church eventually replaced Conwell, Francis Patrick Kenrick, who quashed the Trustee revolt and called for the establishment of a Catholic school system. Kenrick appointed Hughes his vicar general, though he had reservations that his vicar was “so busy, so restless, so political, so opinionated.” [p. 67]
But Kenrick realized that Hughes had an unusual knack of getting things done, and in 1830-Philadelphia there was a lot to do. The vicar was charged with the planning and construction of a new cathedral, to be owned exclusively by the diocese, without trustee involvement. His first two hires—of the architect and the financier—were brilliant, though his extravagant vision of the new cathedral was estimated to cost $60,000. But a greater challenge diverted his pastoral attention—the growing anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S. sparked by the new wave of Irish immigrants arriving in ever larger numbers, and the tenuous Catholicism of the immigrants themselves. For much of his clerical life, Hughes was immersed in the trifold ministries of protecting his people from violence and prejudice, proselytizing them to regular practice of the faith, and providing for their education and assimilation into American society.
I will assume that most of you, from your study of American history, are familiar with our nation’s persistent pestilence of xenophobia, which from time to time rises to dangerous and violent episodes. The “Know Nothings” of the 1850’s would be a problem for Hughes down the road, but in the 1830’s an influx of Irish and German immigrants stirred violence in many cities including Boston, where a convent was burned to the ground. This decade was the age of the lurid novels which portrayed Catholic life and institutions as depraved, devious, and anti-Christian. Hughes engaged in a lengthy war of letters with the anti-Catholic John Breckinridge, a Presbyterian minister who later ran for president of the United States in 1860.
But Hughes came to realize that at some level he would need to enter the national political conversation. This was delicate work: the fear of most Protestants was precisely that the tentacles of Rome would reach across the Atlantic and eradicate democracy in favor of the old “throne and altar” arrangement of European monarchies. In the presidential election of 1832 Hughes broke his own rule that priests should not vote; he cast a ballot for Henry Clay and told his congregation what he had done. [Andrew Jackson defeated Clay.] It is not hard to imagine why Hughes would take a liking to Clay—the latter was a master of compromise, an advocate of public works, and a gentleman with whom one could do business. Hughes was not an intuitive compromiser, but Clay’s success convinced him that he needed to keep this arrow in his quiver.
In November 1837, at the age of forty, John Hughes was appointed coadjutor bishop of New York [i.e., auxiliary with right of succession]. His bishop was none other than John Dubois, his nemesis from seminary days. Dubois was sick and demoralized by his responsibilities, leaving Hughes considerable latitude to steer his own direction in a city of 300,000, of whom about 20% were at least nominally Catholic. Of the seven churches in New York City, five were on the verge of bankruptcy, and the collective indebtedness of the diocese was $300,000. Priests rented rooms as most parishes did not have rectories. New York’s financial situation was obviously untenable, but in the face of it we see something of Hughes’ strength of vision: he was equally concerned that less than half of the Catholic children in New York were attending school at all, either public schools or the few Catholic elementary schools conducting classes in church basements. He realized that without education these children would be condemned to a life of poverty—and in many cases, prisoners of the sex industry.
The coadjutor took a full year to visit his diocese, which reached from New Jersey to Buffalo, and he realized that a certain ruthlessness would be necessary to put the diocese on a healthier trajectory. When trustees threatened to interfere at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he threatened to close the church. He dismissed disobedient or scandalous priests, despite the small size of his presbyterate, and determined that his diocese needed its own college/seminary, in what was then Westchester County, NY, a bold project for the time. The campaign for funds for the seminary project was a disappointment, however, and Hughes learned that he would need to develop a network of new major donors, and thus began his periodic ventures to Europe to solicit support for the success of the American mission, which in fact was the official designation given to our country by the Vatican at this time.
Hughes made the first of several ventures to Europe in October 1839. Future trips kept him away from New York as long as nine months at a time. As a coadjutor bishop, he was granted access to bishops in the dioceses he visited. In Rome, Pope Gregory XVI invited Hughes to assist his Christmas Day Mass. Just before the coadjutor’s arrival in Rome, Gregory issued In supremo apostolatus, condemning the international slave trade. Even today, there is some question about how far the pope’s decree extended. Hughes was painfully aware that outside of the Northeast, Catholic priests and institutions in the United States owned slaves. In fact, before Hughes returned to the States, Martin Van Buren was already crying foul that Catholics were seeking to undermine the American economy by prohibiting slave labor. [p. 114]
Hughes himself would be morally and politically ambivalent about slavery till the end of his life. Unfortunately, he left no record of whether he and Pope Gregory discussed the American situation regarding slavery. His Irish roots and his knowledge of European history certainly made him conscious of the dangers of anarchy, which he believed would result in the United States if the slaves were released quickly, and against the will of half the states of the union. In this respect he was akin to Henry Clay, and he believed the division of the Union, as would occur in 1860, was too high a price to pay for emancipation.
However, his biographer Loughery describes a crisis of conscience endured later in life by then Archbishop Hughes during the Civil War. Hughes had hoped that his close friend William Seward would be the Republican nominee for president in 1860, believing that Seward would affect a diplomatic peace between the North and the South. He suspected—correctly, as it turned out—that Lincoln would go to war to preserve the Union. Called upon to bless regiments of Union soldiers from New York, particularly Irishmen, he was drawn more deeply into the staggering loss of life from among his flock, leading him to examine the question of violence perpetrated for a higher good. Among other things, he began to rethink his attitude toward Fenian radicalism, i.e., militant Irish resistance to British oppression. In his earlier years as a priest and bishop, Hughes believed that Fenian activism was more harmful than good, a position that most of Ireland’s bishops held throughout his lifetime. He could not square this caution, however, against the violence he was blessing in the United States on behalf of national union and emancipation. He died with this conundrum unsolved.
Returning to the states after a so-so fundraising campaign and recruiting drive for priests and religious, Hughes threw himself into the improvement of his diocese, specifically the question of schools. He was joined in this effort by the Governor of New York, the aforementioned William Seward, who agreed in principle with Hughes that Catholic schools should be supported financially by the state. “Knowledge taught by a sect is better than ignorance,” Seward proclaimed. [p. 124] However, the idea ran afoul of continuing class hatred and ethnic bigotry. His efforts to open a Catholic college in New York got off to a very rocky start, though today it survives as Fordham University.
Hughes called a synod of the diocese in 1842. Loughery explains the reason: “There was an air of disorder about everything connected to the Church, a lack of clarity and consistency that did not inspire respect. Hughes felt the need to reverse that course.” [p.144] During this synod Hughes addressed a wide range of issues ranging from pastoral laxity to failure to adhere to Church law and liturgical procedure to prohibiting Irish parishioners from joining “secret societies” based upon tribal allegiances from home. The picture of parochial life that emerges from this synod and other disciplinary interventions underscores the enormous challenges facing American bishops of this era.
Possibly the most peculiar episode of his administrative life occurred in 1846. In Baltimore for a meeting of the American bishops, Hughes received a summons to see James Buchanan, Secretary of State, in Washington. The Mexican War had begun, and President James K. Polk harbored worries about the fallout of the Protestant United States invading Catholic Mexico. Polk was not worried about Protestant American sentiment. He was concerned that the Mexican populace might believe—wrongly, according to Polk—that American intentions included the destruction of Catholicism, and cause Mexico to fight more intensely to save its religion under the rallying cries of its priests.
Polk met with Hughes personally in the White House [no notes were kept] to ask if several Catholic priests might accompany Zachary Taylor’s invasion force, “to assuage Mexican fears about American intentions.” [p. 180] Hughes replied that he had spoken to priests at Georgetown College about serving as chaplains. In the end, two Jesuits from Georgetown—neither of whom spoke Spanish—joined the force, much to the satisfaction of Catholics in Taylor’s force who complained that they were forced to attend Protestant services. One of the priests, Father McElroy, returned to become one of the founders of Boston College.
Back home, Bishop Dubois died eight months after an angry anti-Catholic mob threatened to storm his residence and kill him. Riots of this sort—often sparked by opposition to public funding of Catholic schools—rocked large city Catholic institutions through the 1840’s, including a particularly vicious episode in Philadelphia. [Perhaps the unfortunate incidents of anti-Catholic rioting in Philadelphia and New York had made their way into Mexican papers.] In 1850 Hughes was consecrated archbishop of New York. He was under consideration for a red hat [i.e., naming of a cardinal] but, as far as historians can tell, other American bishops counseled the pope against it because, it would seem in the final analysis, they were not all fond of him. Now in his 50’s, the burdens of his office and the onset of disease began to take its toll. A particular burden, and one that profoundly troubled him, was the Irish Potato Famine and the influx of thousands of Irish refugees in various stages of post-traumatic stress. It is not hard to imagine the utter chaos of providing social services in New York City, already stretched to breaking with previous Irish, German, and other immigrants. Hughes was particularly alarmed about the orphaned youngsters who far outnumbered the few orphanage beds available; he recruited religious communities and sought property to house these unprotected minors, who often made their way through prostitution. The archbishop also established the first Catholic hospital in New York, St. Vincent’s, in 1849.
Soon another project captured his waning energies, the construction of a new, awe-inspiring St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ground was broken with much fanfare, but a financial depression in the late 1850’s, and then the Civil War, halted construction with about twenty feet of wall completed, leading many to refer to the unfinished structure as “the box” and “Hughes’ Folly.” The church as we know it was completed in 1879, fifteen years after the death of the archbishop.
As the Archbishop was slowly dying in 1864, his last battle was not with anti-Catholics but, strangely, with the IRS. With the costs of the Civil War spiraling in its fourth year, Lincoln imposed an income tax. When the New York collectors inquired how much Hughes received in gifts and stipends, he refused to report on the grounds of separation of church and state. The fact that the bishop who fought relentlessly for the state to pay for Catholic schools would trot out this excuse for an IRS agent is not without its humor, and it underscores the truth that Hughes could be a contradictory man, much like most of us. It is some consolation that God has promised to reward us more for feeding the hungry than charming society, a truth that bodes well for the eternal destiny of Dagger John.
Keys to the Council  by Richard Gaillardetz and Catherine E. CliffordRead Now
An expository summary of the theological and pastoral texts of the Council Vatican II is a more complicated venture in the 2000’s than it might have been in, say, 1970. In this century, an author may lay out the Council’s key thrusts by drawing heavily upon the texts themselves and the primary intents of the bishops as they voted in assembly. This is the approach of “Keys to the Council”  and the authors have put forward the Council’s highlights in a reasonably attainable fashion for study and discussion.
However, the further one gets from the close of the Council in 1965, nearly sixty years ago, an author is faced with an added challenge: the Council documents have taken on a life of their own, or more specifically, a few have bloomed, others wilted, and yet others still live in that place once consigned to unbaptized babies. In this age it is impossible to write about the decrees of the Council in their infancy without a word about how they advanced or decayed into middle age, and how their parents either overindulged them or neglected them altogether. In short, can one disclose the documents without a commentary on their reception?
I believe that a working answer is yes, given that the state of adult education is such in the United States that very few adults can even recognize the documents by name [e.g., Lumen Gentium, Sacrosanctum Concilium] let alone identify the Council’s concerns regarding the Eucharistic celebration, the nature of the Church, or divine Revelation. If one is starting from ground zero—as a student or a teacher—it is best to start with a crisp and pristine summary as the one offered here.
“Keys to the Council” is divided into about twenty brief chapters, each headed by a selection from a major Conciliar text. The authors’ selection is eclectic in that it leans toward matters of ecclesiology or the nature of the Church. There are six chapters on Lumen Gentium, three on Gaudium et Spes, and one on Christus Dominus [the role of bishops], totaling a significant collective commentary on the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium [on the liturgy] has two entries, Dei Verbum [on Divine Revelation] has two, and Nostra Aetate [on non-Christian religions] has one. Richard R. Gaillardetz, one of the two contributing editors, has devoted much of his career writing on the nature of the Church, which may explain his emphasis upon the identity and structure of the Church here.
The expositions are generally lucid and comprehensive, providing, when possible, some historical feel for the “pre” and “post” Vatican II understandings of the issues at hand. For example, discussion of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Church in this work evolves from the pre-Conciliar emphasis upon the legal definition of Church structure and the Sacrament of Orders to the post-Conciliar pneumatic or Spirit-filled understanding of Christ’s presence in the Church and world today. The authors explain the use of the “Ressourcement” method by theologians, the attempt to recover the original thinking and practice of the ancient Church fathers and communities. The idea of recovering the ancient origins of faith and practice was a prime interest of the Council. There are throughout the book very useful inclusions of definitions of terms which may be unfamiliar to the novice adult student of theology—such as neo-Scholasticism, magisterium, dogma, infallibility, etc.
Speaking from my anecdotal experience, I see present-day interest in this work coming from those who are engaging in their Synodal processes and the reform program of Pope Francis. The recently completed first phase of the synodal consultation has interested some grassroots among Catholics to delve more deeply into the life of the Church. Granted, less than half of one percent of U.S. Catholics actively engaged in the synod discussions, but many of those who did get involved are motivated to pursue discussion and, more importantly, the principles behind Francis’s reform of the Church. They will be looking for texts and their parochial mentors will be seeking out resources.
In this context, “Keys to the Council” is a useful work. It does not overwhelm the reader/student with the immense content of the Council—close to one thousand pages of material—but provides a focus on the texts of the Council’s vision of the life of the Church, which is probably the best place to begin for a baptized Catholic on the road to an adult understanding of the Catholic life. I would say, though, that this text needs to be taught as well as read, meaning that there is plenty of conciliar material here which needs the academic/professional counsel of background and, as I noted above, something of an informed “state-of-the-union” on why the Council has not produced all the fruits of its promise.
I should note here that Gaillardetz authored another Vatican II study, “An Unfinished Council”  a few years after our text under review. To cite one reviewer of the 2015 work, Gaillardetz “has given us a compelling account of the work that still needs to be done.” While it may be tempting to jump ahead to such speculation, it would seem wise to begin at the source with an analysis of what the Council actually taught—and where its original implementation succeeded and failed. Consequently, I would recommend reading these books in the order they were written—and better still, in a guided reading/study format.
On June 10, 1926, an elderly gentleman on his way to evening Vespers in Barcelona, Spain, was run over by a trolley. He laid unattended for quite some time as passerby’s avoided him because of his disheveled appearance. Finally, someone put him in a cab, and he was taken to a nearby hospital in grave condition. A local priest tending to him was shocked to recognize the dying man as Antoni Gaudi, the architect who had devoted the final forty years of his life to the design and construction of the Sagrada Familia Catholic Church. Gaudi died forty years into the project, and amazingly the church is not yet fully completed as of this writing. The hope is that the final work will be completed on the one-hundredth anniversary of Gaudi’s death, i.e., in 2026. [The church is open for tours if you are in Barcelona.]
Sagrada Familia was conceived and begun in the 1880’s as an attempt to stir the faithful to greater devotion. Gaudi undertook the project with the idea that its completion might take 200 years [most likely, it will be 150 years if completed in the 2020’s.] Gaudi knew that he would not be alive to see it finished, and thus he constructed the main steeple to a remarkable height during his lifetime so that later builders were forced to remain faithful to his master plan. When my wife and I visited the Church on April 29, a crane was at work high above us, working faithfully to Gaudi’s design.
Margaret and I returned from a month in Europe early last Sunday morning, and I am still sorting out my impressions of what I saw in the six countries we visited. [Spain, France, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy.] Sagrada Familia was the first church we visited, but we entered many more over the next twenty-four days. In fact, the Cathedral in Barcelona, which we visited on the evening of our last night in Spain, was very compelling as well. It was a rewarding experience to pray in so many settings. Each seemed to inspire a different direction of spiritual zeal.
I had been to Rome in 2013 where I made it a point to visit the four major churches of the holy city—certainly St. Peter’s, to be sure, but St. Peter’s was built in the late Medieval and early Renaissance era [post 1500 A.D.], funded in part by the sale of indulgences, which touched off the Protestant Reformation. The other major churches date from antiquity: St. Mary Major, St. Paul Beyond the Walls, and St. John of the Lateran Hill, or simply St. John Lateran. St. John’s was the mother church of Rome until St. Peter’s was completed; it was there that Church Councils took place. St. Francis of Assisi received permission to start his Order from Pope Innocent III at St. John Lateran. A funny aside: our tour guide said that the “old families” of Rome still worship on Sundays at St. John’s, and not at the “new church,” St. Peter’s.
My impression of the three oldest churches was their resemblance to ancient temples, which in fact is what they were, until the Roman Emperor Constantine [280-337 A.D.] awarded them to the Christians in the fourth century. Consequently, subsequent designers of Churches in Western Europe were left to develop their own unique styles, and thus the structure and style of the churches we visited were the products of the developing consciousness of theology and spirituality from the late Dark Ages through the high Medieval Era. I found the Medieval churches to be a different experience entirely, raising for me both spiritual and psychological ponderings about our ancestors of the Faith.
The Barcelonan Gaudi was the last of the true Medievalists, though he began his work in the nineteenth century. He entered his project with the full understanding that he would not be alive to see it completed. This was a common experience of all the craftsmen and builders of medieval churches—construction of a typical city cathedral could extend over several centuries. Implied in this is a very profound theology of the meaning of life—that one might devote his most productive years into a work he would never see completed.
Consider the medieval Christian mind: a belief in afterlife so intense, so real, that an artist would freely give of his earthly life to participate in a project that would profit generations he would never live to see. This expanse of years in the construction of the medieval cathedrals is not fully appreciated and it is part of the religious thrill of taking in a cathedral today to appreciate the intense faith of those who helped fund the construction along with those who crafted the buildings.
Typically, the major churches of the medieval era attempted to capture in size and art the immensity of God’s world and the full story of salvation. I was overcome by many of the cathedrals, but in particular “The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia” in Barcelona [not to be confused with Sagrada Familia] the Duomo in Florence, and, not surprisingly, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. These buildings were built to overwhelm, to inspire, and—an important point for catechists—to teach. These structures were built before the invention of the printing press and the gradual shift from the visceral to the intellectual.
Upon walking into a major church, one feels small. This is a good thing. We worship our egos. But step into an edifice that is far longer than a football field and arches so high overhead that it is hard to make out the artistry at that distance. One can get dizzy. We get a visceral sense of humility in this atmosphere which brings home the true relationship of God to his creatures, as well as our sense of belonging to something that is more massive than we can imagine. The term “basilica” comes from the Greek basileus, which can mean either a kingdom or a king.
The great churches were built to inspire, and I mean no disrespect when I say that there is “something for everybody” in the major churches I visited. One feature of medieval design is the large number of “side altars” along the walls and in niches throughout the buildings. Today we would not design a church in this fashion, but in medieval times, before the introduction of the concelebrated Mass, each priest offered a private Mass and there was necessity for multiple altars. A second consideration is that each side altar space was dedicated and decorated with the theme of a particular saint or mystery from the life of Christ. If you visit such a church, be sure to pay attention to these side altars. I should add here that these altars were often funded by rich benefactors, that Mass might be offered in perpetuity for their souls.
The art in the churches can seem cluttered to the modern eye, but it is not superfluous. Again, in a time before printing when sermons were poor and there was little or no common education, the faithful learned about the bible, the life of Jesus, and the saints through the visual media. This would include stained glass, statues, and icons. In some places bas relief or carvings would play out a full panorama of biblical stories, such as creation or the Passion of Christ. In Florence, Italy, the baptistry is across the street from the Duomo, and the bronze doors are exquisitely detailed with biblical figures.
I am continuing to process my reactions to what I saw and experienced. Most of these famous churches are physically deteriorating. St. Mark’s in Venice is settling into the sea. At all my visits there were requests for funds for restorations. In his commentary on the City of Venice, travel guide Rick Steves observes that Venice is losing over one thousand residents per year, and within the next generation its total population will be under 30,000, basically untenable for a city of islands. The city would become essentially an environmentally endangered tourist attraction like Disneyworld, where most of its treasures—including the artwork in the Doge’s Palace—is of a highly religious nature and history.
Can this religious heritage be preserved? Should it be preserved? Notre Dame in Paris is being restored after its 2019 fire at an estimated cost of 600 million Euros with a timetable of twenty years. Despite a drastic decrease in the practice of Catholicism in France in the last century, there seems to be a sense of national pride which evidently maintains the funding to push on with the restoration. Whether cities like Florence, Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona, and dozens of others will be able to maintain their venerable treasures in the fashion of Notre Dame is hard to say. If I had to guess, the financial support for the maintenance and restoration of the great cathedrals and churches would come equally from the arts and humanities communities than from the local church communities themselves. [A few years ago, a rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York told me that the actual parish community of St. Patrick’s was about three or four hundred families. The primary source of income for the Cathedral was the purchase of candles to burn in the sanctuary by tourists and guests.]
The financial lifeblood of many of the medieval masterpieces seems to be tourism. Forbes Magazine focused upon St. Mark’s Venetian financial crisis last year. I scanned my credit card frequently to enter the churches. But this raises the question of whether a great church can function as both a liturgical community and a tourist site. My traveling companions agreed with me that even a church like Sagrada Familia will be hard put to serve for the reason it was built, as a focus of worship unity. It will always be a tourist attraction like Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower. [It is packed now with tourists, even though it is incomplete.] An atheist would find Sagrada or any of the great medieval churches an attraction on artistic and historical grounds alone. It is true, though, that Gaudi had something of an ecumenical spirit in his inspiration for Sagrada Familia. Perhaps the atheist might be moved to consider the inspiration behind this massive edifice.
There are some who would argue that in the twenty-first century we should not be allocating funds toward the restoration of the medieval shrines, that to paraphrase Judas, “This money should have gone to the poor.” I would reply that it was the poor who most profited by the classic cathedrals. It was there that they experienced their most visceral encounters with the divine, where they were able to visually absorb the mysteries of Christ and the Bible, where they were able to express their pious outpourings to the saints.
It would be the height of arrogance to argue that human beings—even in the twenty-first century—do not need sacred space and sacred time. How our generation will meet this need remains unclear. But I can say that after a month of visiting the historical churches across Europe, I have come to a better understanding of my need for a broader religious experience than just reading books and teaching doctrine. The medieval churches were physical and visceral—and who is to say it was wrong? And are we any better off today for having lost this artistic sacramental expression of our faith?
Dogs of God is a compelling historical narrative of Spain under the leadership of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the second half of the fifteenth century. In his introduction, James Reston, Jr., describes his book as “a tapestry of the years leading up to 1492 and of the forces that came together in that apocalyptic year.” [p. xix] And indeed, what a tapestry it is—a fascinating and well-documented narrative of the interplay of royal politics, scientific discovery, military reconquest, religious persecution, exploration—all under the reign of the intriguing Ferdinand and Isabella at a time of high apocalyptic expectations. Who better to tell this story than a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and the son of the legendary journalist Scotty Reston?
This is the kind of book I would utilize as a text for a summer adult education course in my church, or a Catholic book club, though I am guessing it would be a hard sell. History is always a hard sell—mostly because few of us ever had history teachers who could colorfully narrate the captivating big picture and/or connect the dots to our own times. But history is not only a great teacher; it is also a critic of the present. We have a personal stake in Reston’s story because the struggles of late medieval Spain shape our world in ways we can hardly imagine. The relationship of the Christian West with Islam; our enduring struggle with antisemitism; the revisiting of colonial practices and treatment of indigenous peoples which is under scrutiny now; the ambiguities of church and state; even the present-day challenge of catechizing the Inquisition, which as Catholics we cannot run away from, try as we might—a good many things come forth from this book which broadened my own world view and erased my simplistic “a king, a queen, and three ships” narrative of Columbus. [Historical spoiler: Ferdinand paid for just two of the ships.]
A quick glance at a map of the Iberian Peninsula c. 1450 explains much—though not all—of the dynamics played out in this text. The territory we would identify today as “Spain” was a confederation of kingdoms surrounded by enemies of varying intensity. Portugal was a major power to the West and on the cusp of becoming the major naval power of the known world. France, the Hundred Years War now behind her, was contending to expand its borders south into contested regions. A sizable portion of modern Spain was held by the Muslims, the Kingdom of Granada. Again, looking to the map, the largest single territorial expanse was the Kingdom of Castile, which included the City of Madrid. The second largest tract, to the northwest, was the Kingdom of Aragon. It was the union by marriage of these two kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, which provided the backbone for the unification of a modern era nation called Spain.
Chapter 3, “He and No Other,” describes the always convoluted speculation and machinations of arranged royal weddings, in this case the progression of the Queen of Castile, Isabella, to Aragon’s Ferdinand, whose multiple titles included King of Sicily. The teenaged Isabella was disillusioned with the parade of older and at times effeminate men who sought her hand. She was something of a liberated woman for her time who believed that her own passions mattered in the deliberations of state. [Her predecessor on the Castilian throne—1455-1474--had been “Enrique the Impotent,” proving again that recorded history can be most unkind.] Isabella’s confessor/spy reported to her of Ferdinand that “this caballero had no difficulty mounting his horse.” [p. 30] Ferdinand, in fact, fathered two children by other women during the protracted marriage negotiations.
Ferdinand’s weaknesses of the flesh notwithstanding, this couple reigned the combined Castilian-Aragon heart of Spain for thirty years [1474-1503]. Their marriage was fruitful and dynamic; the queen exercised considerable influence upon her husband who generally honored her counsel. They were visionaries who worked toward a united Spain in the flowering of the Catholic Church. In her later years Isabella—highly devout and profoundly impacted by her personal confessor--imparted a deeply apocalyptic vision of uniting the Second Coming of Christ into the destiny of Spain, a vision that inspired her militaristic husband to undertake arduous battlefield labors toward unifying the region. The Queen herself was known to make dramatic appearances on the battlefields to rally discouraged troop, who idolized her as a latter-day Virgin Mary. In 1954 the cause of her canonization was opened in Rome, but for reasons outlined below, Pope John Paul II quietly shelved the cause in 1991.
To this royal couple, the biggest stain on national destiny was the Muslim kingdom of Grenada, which extended along the Mediterranean Coast to Gibraltar. By the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Islam had been firmly planted in Iberia for eight hundred years, long enough to establish a major culture of art, universities, and the sciences. [Islamic scholars had preserved the Greek writings of Aristotle which, by the 1200’s, had pronounced influence on the doctrinal Catholic writings of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.] The Catholic Crusades of an earlier time had hoped to eradicate Islamic presence from the Holy Land, but the age of Crusading had begun to wither after the incredible fiasco of the Fourth Crusade [for which John Paul II apologized in 2001.] What may have stoked the idea of resumed hostilities toward Islam was the fall of Constantinople [Istanbul], at the hands of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in 1453. This event terrified Christians across Western Europe and awakened hostilities toward Muslims that had subsided for a time. Likewise, the conquest of Constantinople in the East may have awakened the old warlike fervor among certain segments of the Islamic population in Spain. Ferdinand himself was nearly mortally wounded in an assassination attempt by a Moor.
Ferdinand’s wars against the Moors were long, difficult, and costly. As a rule, he opted to be reasonably generous to those Islamic strongholds which sought negotiated settlements, and in many cases, he did not require wholesale expulsion of Islam populations. His original goal was unification of Spain, and like his predecessors, he accepted the practice of Muslim conversion to Christianity; a similar tolerance of sorts was extended to Jews who converted to Christianity, though the Inquisition would take a very dim view of this generosity in time. Those Muslims expelled from Spain could take refuge in fraternal North African Islamic lands.
As the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella progressed into the 1480’s a new factor would shape the soul of the land, the emergence of the Spanish Inquisition. It is hard to name a competent historian today who finds justification for the systematic persecutions undertaken in the “name of Christ.” How the Inquisition came to dominate Spanish life and events is complicated. The Inquisition—a Church court established to investigate heresy or thoughts and behaviors contrary to Catholic orthodoxy—originated as early as the twelfth century. Originally, Church diocesan courts managed the proceedings until the Dominican Order assumed responsibility with a particular zeal, hence the name “Dogs of God.”
The full understanding of the Inquisitorial process would require much more information than I can helpfully squeeze into a blog right here. Those who defended the investigatory process, then and even today, would say that its purpose was to save souls from the evils of their ways—primarily theological innovation or devotional excess—and to excise by execution those unrepentant who were judged to be incorrigible dangers to the unity of the Church. Some notable executions: Joan of Arc, Jan Hus [Church reformer], Marguerite Porete [mystic], Savonarola [preacher and major player in Reston’s text, pp. 287-290], and Giordano Bruno [philosopher]. Galileo’s case is possibly the best known, and Reston has devoted a book to Galileo’s life, work, and trials. It is true that not every defendant was found guilty of heresy nor was torture a routine method of extracting confessions. The number of individuals condemned to burning at the stake in the second millennium by the Inquisitory process is hard to say; it certainly runs to the thousands. One would be too many.
Even if one were to argue that the Inquisition’s heavy hand was an honest effort to save souls from the fires of hell, there is no biblical support for this extreme of coercion. What does emerge from the pages of history is a machinery that protected the Church at the cost of much suffering and many lives, particularly among the Jews. The name most associated with the Spanish Inquisition is the Dominican Tomas de Torquemada. An austere friar who wore a hairshirt for perpetual penance, Torquemada was nonetheless an ambitious cleric who endeared himself to Ferdinand and Isabella’s court.
Whatever his good intentions, Torquemada took advantage of several currents in the air in the late 1400’s. The first was Ferdinand’s desire to create a unified Spain; the Catholic faith would be such a glue, after the removal of Moors and Jews, and the Inquisition would be an invaluable propaganda tool in purging unbelievers. The second current was money: the royal court had exhausted its treasury in the military ventures against the Moors. As the Inquisition enjoyed the power to levy significant fines and confiscation as part of its operations, an aggressive campaign targeting Jews and Moors would provide a much-needed infusion into the royal coffers. It is worth noting that in Ferdinand’s time affluent Jews and Moors served in the royal court.
The third current is a bit harder to describe. The term “apocalyptic age” comes closest. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, Ferdinand and Isabella came to believe that they were consecrated by God for a glorious renewal of the Church, the turning of a new page in history. Such a vision changed them and their style of leadership. Apocalyptic times always carry a baggage of extremism, and Catholic apocalyptic has always featured a strong antisemitic odor. Seeing himself as something of a king of divine destiny, Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of all Jews in Spain by 1492.
Again, a quick look at the map indicates that for Spanish Jews expulsion was a significant trial. To the West, Portugal began adopting Ferdinand’s hard line toward Jews. To the south, i.e., Africa, Islamic nations along the Mediterranean were hardly a haven. Italy was a region is disarray with a Borgia pope on the throne. Ironically, one haven for Jews was the Islamic Ottoman Empire of the East, which sent ships to Spain to ferry refugees east. Suffice to say that the expulsion of Jews from Spain is another sad chapter in the long history of God’s Chosen People.
The apocalyptic spirit of the time was instrumental in another way: the emergence of Christopher Columbus. In truth, Columbus was no stranger to Ferdinand and Isabella; the Queen found him dashing and attractive, while many men in the court found him something of a bounder. In fact, Columbus was an accomplished mariner; his previous forays had taken him to the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Iceland. His study of maps, some dating to ancient times, convinced him that a sea voyage west was eminently doable. His problems were not with the sea but with the doubts and scorn of advisors in the Spanish court. Ferdinand consulted Columbus on military matters during his wars against the Moors, but was not ready [or financially able, for that matter] to fund an expedition to the Indies by heading West.
By 1492, however, Ferdinand and Isabella were thinking of themselves as the chosen rulers to win the world to the Catholic faith. The idea of bringing Christianity to yet uncharted kingdoms took on a religious fervor. Moreover, Spain’s archenemy Portugal was making considerable strides in its search to East Asia via a route around the tip of Africa to India. Consequently, the support for Columbus’s venture would materialize. Reston’s narrative of the first voyage to the “New World” is intriguing, as is his description of how the Spanish crown came to interpret what Columbus had and had not accomplished.
Dogs of God is one of those books that stimulates “branching out reading.” The author has provided a bibliography of about 125 sources, and since 2005 more historical interpretations have come into circulation. In recent years there has been considerable controversy about the impact of Spain and other colonial powers on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In his epilogue [pp. 330-338] Reston touches upon these issues in thoughtful ways. Since this work was published, “Columbus Day” and its meaning has been a matter of heated debate. Today’s [November 2, 2021] New Yorker has a lengthy piece on Columbus. History can sometimes be a painful pill to swallow, but we are better people for taking the time to swallow it.
I have never understood why Catholic catechetics—both for young people and adults—does not devote time to the Middle Ages. Perhaps part of the problem is our present-day fixation with a handful of sins and preoccupations of the moment such as politicians and communion. Another factor is the general disinterest with history that seems to pervade our culture. The philosopher George Santayana’s [1863-1952] phrase, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” reminds us of the cost of failing to look backward.
Christianity itself is history. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are history. By the doctrine of the Incarnation, the timeless Second Person of the Trinity entered human history, born during the heyday of the Roman Empire. St. Luke begins his Gospel by establishing his bona fides as a historian: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. [Luke 1: 1-4]” To follow Jesus without a heart open to history will result in recreating Him into our own convenient image and likeness, a dangerous form of idolatry.
The gift of the Holy Spirit, whose coming is described so dramatically in St. Luke’s Acts 2 makes the history of the Church—in its glory and its sinfulness—a teaching commentary for the ages to come. We learn from the study of Church History what analogies and commentaries on the Scriptures have consistently enriched the faithful and which have confused them. We learn what kinds of missionary outreach has captivated searching souls and which has repulsed them. We learn how certain styles of living induce holiness and communion with God, and which destroy the fiber of human dignity.
For a brief period of my life, I was carrying an undergraduate double major of philosophy and medieval studies at Catholic University. Truth be told, I was not prepared to do both. I needed the philosophy to be ordained, so I dropped the Middle Ages. But several years later, in graduate theology studies, I stumbled into a history project involving the end times [the theological term being eschatology, “the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”] I became acquainted with an early medieval mystic named Joachim of Fiore [1130-1201] whose mystical experiences led him to believe that a new age of the Holy Spirit had dawned upon the Church. Joachim was hardly the only religious eccentric in his day, but his concept of a new age of the Holy Spirit was adopted in the later 1200’s by the extreme wing of the Franciscan Order. This wing, the “Spiritual Franciscans,” held that Francis of Assisi’s teaching on poverty was absolute and could not be softened or reinterpreted by anyone, not even by a pope. [See my review, The Spiritual Franciscans, 2001.]
The Spiritual Franciscan crisis, which concluded in a sad ending for all involved, is symbolic of several major tectonic shifts in the Medieval Church. Religious experience was traditionally a matter of structured Catholic living. Mass, Confession, the Angelus, the Rosary, feast days, the chanting of the Divine Office, pilgrimages, etc. were all matters of the official Church who approved the style and content of individual religious observance. Throughout the Medieval era, however, grassroots movements of faith and devotion spread throughout the West, beyond the reach and supervision of Church officials. The Franciscan Order began as a ragamuffin band of brothers doing penance for sins, working as day laborers, and celebrating a brotherly piety. Such groups were common enough; Francis had the wisdom to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III and welcomed a cardinal protector. Other such bands went about with little or no supervision; the earliest Inquisition was established in part to address freelance spirituality.
Recent research and new translations of Medieval texts give us a better idea of how widespread the religious imagination was expanding during this era. This is not surprising; the first classic poetry and story telling in the Romance languages was developing. This is the age of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Inferno; the time of Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch. Medieval life for peasants was drab and hard. In his Medieval Christianity [2015; see my review] Kevin Madigan describes the faith life of typical peasants as drab, limited, and one-dimensional. Parish priests of the time were trained, like all laborers, as apprentices who learned just enough Latin and rubrics to conduct a brief Mass. Preaching was virtually nonexistent in the countryside. The typical tourist in Europe today probably lays eyes on more cathedrals than a peasant of the thirteenth century who rarely traveled.
It is not hard to imagine that “the simple faithful” would be stirred by the unusual and the psychological. Wandering self-proclaimed charismatics with bands of followers would have provided a welcomed opportunity for a visceral religious experience. The Franciscans, one of the few groups bearing ecclesiastical approval, were immensely popular with the faithful and were granted pastoral privileges by popes. The preaching of St. Francis gives us a window into medieval piety: his veneration of the crucified Christ, his devotion to the Eucharist, his respect for priests, his sense of wonder at God’s creation. Francis was a revolutionary in another sense: he did not try to abolish poverty as much as he elevated the life of poverty to a dignity before God and man. Francis’ theology was biblically sound: he worshipped the Christ “who had nowhere to lay his head.” Recall that the Medieval era marked the beginning of a capitalist economy; Francis was the son of an entrepreneur cloth merchant marketing cloth from new exports from the East.
It is equally true, though, that the psychosocial world of Francis’ time could be equally fearful, violent, and susceptible to grassroots pathology. What little religious education percolated at the time tended to highlight the last things, with notable emphasis on Purgatory and Hell. Toward the end of the Medieval Era the fear of hell fire reached a point to which the sale of indulgences [remission of the afterlife punishments of sin] would actually seem like a good idea, a practice which touched off the Protestant Reformation in 1517. But long before that, a bishop could strike terror into a king by just threatening to place his region under interdict, i.e., forbidding the celebration of all sacraments, including those for the dying. The belief in the personification of evil was very common. Joan of Arc, you might recall, was prosecuted as a witch [though in actuality her prosecution was a political tactic of the Hundred Years’ War.]
Modern day students of the Middle Ages now appreciate another fear factor of the time: climate change. In this case, a significant cooling beginning around 1300, traced to Atlantic conditions, led to diminishing harvests which weakened immunity and led many farmers to move to crowded cities. Western Europe was thus highly vulnerable to disease, which was introduced dramatically in the form of the Black Plague, which killed at least one-third of the population of Europe in five surges between 1348 and 1353, and in future smaller outbreaks for many years thereafter. How bad was the Plague? In the atomic war planning of the United States military, the devastation of the Plague is used as one computer model to project scope of loss and impact of an atomic war.
Chroniclers of the age describe the frightful experience of this catastrophe in graphic and reliable accounts. [See my review of The Great Mortality, 2005] While the Covid-19 outbreak of 2020 and beyond does not come close to the measure of destruction of this fourteenth century outbreak, we can already appreciate the crippling of many aspects of society, from education to economy to politics to religion. For Medieval Europe, the Black Plague was an experience that essentially changed the culture of Medieval life. Primary among its impact was depopulation, if contemporary estimates of up to 50% fatalities are anywhere near correct. [Only Ireland escaped the brunt of the disease.] Among other factors, the best priests and religious stayed at their posts at the plague’s height to meet the spiritual and material needs of their people. This generation of servants died at their posts while the less inspired clergy fled to the mountains.
Those who survived the plague needed a rationale for its scourge, and as happened time and time again in Christian history, the scapegoats for this physical horror became the Jews. The Medieval world tended toward literal interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, Matthew’s account of the Good Friday condemnation of Jesus at the hands of a Jerusalem mob which cried “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children” [Matthew 27: 25] was embraced throughout history—and even, regrettably, in our own time—as justification by the Church for institutional persecution. The City of Venice had already restricted Jews to a walled ghetto in 1140. The Plague amplified a tradition of Christian hate narratives about Jews, tales which included desecration of communion hosts, poisoning of wells, and the abuse, torture, and crucifixion of young boys by Jewish enemies of Christianity. [It is troubling to see hints of overlap of Medieval antisemitism to current Q-Anon conspiracy tales.] Persecution of Jews was a staple of Medieval life; Ferdinand and Isabella unleashed the Inquisition upon Spanish Jews even as Columbus was preparing for his famous journey in the late 1400’s.
It is fair to ask what kind of leadership proceeded from the Church in the Middle Ages. The natural question turns to the office of the papacy, and the range of men who held the office of Bishop of Rome varied considerably. [St.] Gregory VII [r. 1073-1085] was the age’s first great reformer who brought the ideals of monastic life—including priestly celibacy—into his efforts to discipline and sanctify the Church. The most powerful medieval pope was undoubtedly Innocent III [r. 1198-1216]. Innocent died prematurely at the age of 52; it is worth reflecting on how his early death impacted the Medieval Church. Innocent convoked the Council Lateran IV , one of the best planned and prepared Councils in history. He strengthened Church discipline in many pastoral areas and was probably the strongest figure in Western Europe at the time. At the same time, he understood the need for reform, and gave Francis of Assisi his first permission to gather members to his movement, at a time when new orders were frowned upon as unnecessary and possibly dangerous.
Innocent stands as a mountain in a rather bleak field. By 1300 the sitting pontiff, Boniface VIII, made the strongest claim yet for universal supreme authority in his 1302 encyclical Unam Sanctam: “It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Unlike Innocent, Boniface had no military or popular support for such a claim. He was hounded out of office by King Philip IV of France, who transferred the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France, the “Avignon Papacy” [1309-1376]. When the papacy was returned to Rome, several men claimed the position, a major disruption of governance known as “The Great Western Schism.” [1378-1417] This scandal was ultimately settled at the Council of Constance [1414-1418] when the bishops used collective authority to declare an official pope and depose the impostors. Fearful that bishops could collectively override a future pope [a process called conciliarism] the remaining popes of the Medieval Era were loathe to summon desperately needed reform councils as the 1500’s saw Martin Luther and others take reform into their own hands.
For all this controversy and scandal at the top, the Church continued to function. Probably the most respected authoritative body within the Church was its network of universities. Close to 200 were established in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, including Oxford , Cambridge , and the University of Paris . Professors were generally clerics and later members of religious orders. The most famous is the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274]. Aquinas is famous for his summas or compendiums of theological and philosophical thought which have been incorporated into the standard definitions of Catholic theological terms. He wrote and taught in propositional form, which historians refer to as scholasticism or method of the schools. Aquinas was the happy recipient of new translations of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, which arrived via Islamic copyists and translators. Aristotle’s realism played a significant role in Aquinas’s intellectual outlook.
Aquinas has enormous impact upon the Church today, and it is interesting to see today’s theologians revisiting “the Angelic Doctor” in many areas of theological research. The Church embraced his work over the past eight centuries because of his realism, which gives backbone to Church teachings, particularly in such matters as sacraments and morality.
There is an old saying that some of Aquinas’s worst enemies were his friendly commentators, and by the late Medieval Era the scholastic method was showing its age. An anti-Thomas philosophy/theology emerged, spearheaded by the Franciscan William of Ockham. Ockham held that God is not bound to any system of reason. “The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover." Goodbye, theology. Ockham’s school became known as Nominalism, [from nomen, “name”] which holds that only particular things are real, i.e., there is no such thing as “general reality.” Ockham would influence Martin Luther two centuries later, and then the French philosopher Rene Descartes [1596-1650] in the modern era who declared “I think, therefore I am,” which opened the door to our modern emphasis, for better and worse, on personal experience to determine what is “real.”
For everything discussed thus far, it need be emphasized that the entire Medieval Era was profoundly affected by Islam. In 1000 A.D. Islam occupied the Iberian Peninsula to the West, threatened incursions from North Africa, and occupied the Middle East including Jerusalem and the region of the Holy Lands. In 1095 the Church made its first foray toward recovering the Holy Land in a military endeavor of unprecedented size, a force known today as the First Crusade [1096-1099]. Various estimates place the size of this army as high as 125,000, so large that it was necessary to travel in three separate vanguards. It was a harsh and cruel campaign; barely 1000 hardened warriors survived to take Jerusalem and massacred many of its occupants indiscriminately.
Unable to hold Jerusalem, Christian leaders attempted two more campaigns with modest success. Finally Innocent III called a Fourth Crusade [1202-1204] which adopted a new overall battle plan, choosing to sail to Jerusalem in partnership with the naval power Venice. In a bizarre series of mishaps, the Crusade proceeded not south but north, seizing the city of Constantinople [Istanbul], the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and conducting a pillage of massive proportions. Any hope of reunion of Eastern and Western Christianity was dashed. Two centuries later, on May 29, 1453, Constantinople was seized by the Islamic Ottoman Empire; its fall was received with shock and fear when word reached Western Europe.
The Middle Age of Christianity stands as a bridge between the ancient post-Apostolic Church and the post-Reformation Catholic Church of our experience. It is possible to draw from this era significant insights into issues we think of as totally modern religious issues. Teaching or reading from this era is intriguing and the resources are quite good. And what a refreshing change of focus.
The medieval era gave us two of the great religious movements of all time, the Franciscan and Dominican Orders. When I entered the Franciscan Order in the 1960’s, for example, Francis was portrayed by my mentors as a rare meteor of Church reform lovingly embraced by the most powerful pope of the Medieval era, and possibly of all time, Innocent III [r. 1198-1216], who reportedly saw in Francis and his small band of brethren the means of renewing the spiritual life of the Church by an exemplary public life of Gospel simplicity. Francis’ mission attracted men and women, notably the young Clare of Assisi, who at age 18 abandoned her place of nobility and became his first female follower and foundress of the religious order that lives the Franciscan rule to this day. Sister Margaret Carney, past president of St. Bonaventure University, has written a timely new introductory biography of Clare, Light of Assisi: The Story of Saint Clare,  to reacquaint us with the foundress who sometimes seems to get lost in the Franciscan shuffle.
Historians of the high medieval era (1050-1500) are revisiting the surprising strength and diversity of what we might call grassroots mystics, a source of free-spirited piety and energy which until recently, was regarded as dangerously independent of the mainstream Church. The Franciscans did not invent this nomadic lifestyle of prayer, penance and paucity; they were in fact one of its products who happened to enjoy the good fortune in having a charismatic leader who prudently cultivated communications with the local bishop, Guido of Assisi, and ultimately the age's most powerful pope, Innocent III. Medieval religious enthusiasm was a two-edged sword: some of its leaders and writers were highly regarded in their own time (Hildegard of Bingen) and some went to the inquisitor’s flames (Marguerite Porete).
In his final years St. Francis of Assisi would write that “the Lord sent me brothers.” It is equally true that the Lord sent him sisters, the first and most famous being Chiara di Favarone di Offeducio di Bernardino [1194-1253]. History has kindly passed down her memory as simply Clare of Assisi, her first name meaning “light.” During her adolescent years Francis and his early friars would have passed through Assisi preaching and doing works of charity. Like many of her fellow townsfolk, Clare was captivated by the friars’ direct preaching, which was reinforced by their austerity and devotion, in vivid contrast to most of the uneducated and uninspired secular clergy. It is also true that Clare’s mother, Ortulana, a woman who had made several pilgrimages including one to Rome, was well-traveled for her time and probably raised her daughters with more expansive religious experience.
Clare, then, was well suited to embrace the distinctive lifestyle of the friars, with their absolute poverty and community around devotion to the person of Jesus Christ, and as she turned eighteen, she postponed or evaded suitors for marriage. She had something else in mind, possibly a life in an established religious community, or an even more radical departure toward the friars’ style of Christic community and service. How Francis and Clare first communicated about such a possibility is not known, but the author explains that several of Francis’s first followers knew Clare and her family, and clearly Bishop Guido of Assisi, who admired and advised Francis, became a party to Clare’s plan to make the plunge into the friars’ life.
Regardless of how the idea was brokered, it was at the same time audacious and dangerous. The Offreducio family would certainly object, primarily to the idea of her not marrying. But beyond that, Clare was not aspiring to the safety and respectability of the Benedictine tradition of cloistered women, where she might someday assume the office of abbess, but to a new and yet unapproved band of exclusively men ministering in raw medieval cities and eschewing earthly honors. Francis certainly understood the impropriety of Clare’s joining his male community while respecting her desire for a spiritual life in imitation of the absolute poverty of Christ. Thus, on the night of Palm Sunday, 1212, Clare conspired with several parties to discretely leave her home and slip past the guards at the city walls to journey to a country church called Santa Maria degli Angeli. Here she was formally received into the fraternity, exchanging her worldly clothes and embracing the penitent’s robe of the friars. Her hair was shorn, and she professed her dedication to Jesus and to poverty and the simple rule of the brotherhood. In Carney’s words, “all that she would become as a woman fixed on God would be accomplished in partnership with them,” i.e., the friars.
But maintaining this unity would not be easy. Clare took immediate shelter in an accommodating cloistered monastery of Benedictine sisters where her angry family could not violate the cloister and carry her off. She remained there until several other women aspirants came forward; then the group took shelter in a non-cloistered residence, a small church where the community could serve the needs of needy neighbors and observe a daily routine of prayer and fasting. Eventually Clare’s sisters moved to the church of San Damiano under the protection of the bishop. San Damiano was a site of reverence among Francis’ followers; it was here that Francis had encountered Christ in the crucifix, who instructed him to “rebuild my house.” San Damiano functioned as a hostel, and its fountain gave it a reputation as a place of healing and restoration of body and soul.
Carney describes the San Damiano site as a cloister, but not as strict as would be enforced in a large, established order. The followers of Clare labored for several years to refurbish the site for community living. In this they had help from friars and other townspeople. Moreover, San Damiano serviced a stream of local indigents. It would seem from this account that the work of the Clare’s original sorority was restricted to this site; it is unknown if the sisters visited leper colonies as did the friars. It is safe to say that Clare’s community enjoyed greater public freedom at this early juncture than in later years when church authorities pressured Clare’s community toward more traditional cloistered formats of community living.
The material and spiritual life of the early sisters was hard, but its reward was the assurance and exhilaration of a union with Christ whom they followed with literal detail. Meanwhile, at the Church Council Lateran IV  Pope Innocent III, having approved the new Franciscan and Dominican communities as legitimate religious orders, closed the door to new communities, a strategy to maintain both legitimate reform and good order in the Church in the face of the spontaneous proliferation of enthusiastic grassroots religious movements. In view of Innocent’s intentions, both Francis and Bishop Guido harbored concern about the legal standing of Clare’s community, which had no separate formal rule of its own but lived under the ecclesiastical permission granted to Francis. Clare initially refused to accept the title of “abbess” recommended by both Francis and Guido, doing so only grudgingly and using it infrequently in the face of “strict new laws for women…blowing northward from the Tiber.” Francis and Guido, it would seem, were trying to buy time for Clare to continue to live under the pristine early vision of Francis.
In some respects, Clare and her community seem to have suffered the fallout of governmental issues plaguing the male order of friars. Francis, for all his remarkable charisms, was a poor administrator and frequently an absentee landlord. In his 2012 biography Francis of Assisi, [see my 2014 review here], Augustine Thompson cites Rome’s concern over deficiencies in the new Franciscan order, specifically in the screening and formation of novice members. In fairness the order was now home to thousands of friars spread throughout Europe, but Francis continued to engage in his own pursuits such as his attempts to convert the Sultan during the Fifth Crusade. In its work to create a governing structural rule for the Franciscan order of men to survive the inevitable death of the founder Francis, the Roman Curia was faced with the accompanying question of the legal identity and lifestyle of Clare and her women followers.
Subsequent wrangling and the imposition of a new constitution for the women followers of Francis is noted with wry dismay by the author; the final legislation “would be the source of endless headaches for scholars trying to untangle the web of Poor Sisters and San Damiano houses to the present day.” In short, Pope Honorius [r. 1216-1227] imposed a strict cloistered constitution for the general community of Clare’s followers, the Poor Sisters, with a temporary exemption for Clare’s immediate community at San Damiano. What followed was years of curial persuasion to convince Clare to submit to the comprehensive traditional cloistered rule, which Clare persistently rejected in favor of the stricter adherence to poverty of Christ, the initial charism of the Franciscan movement.
The admiration of Roman churchmen for the zeal of Clare probably averted a major conflict with her during her lifetime. It would be hard for any cleric to look past the lifestyle of Clare and her adherents without respect. Moreover, Clare’s community worked in tandem with the Church in producing linen altar cloths made from silk—an expensive and technical ministry which would have networked the community with women of the wealthy classes. More to the point, the product was manufactured for contact with the Eucharist. Clare’s devotion to the holy sacrament was unshakeable and stands as witness that there was nothing heretical about her beliefs or her intentions.
The motherhouse of Clare’s closest followers, the San Damiano church, retained its reputation as a place of healing. Francis himself convalesced there after receiving the stigmata. The sisters were sought by visitors from Assisi and other towns for prayers and religious comfort in times of trial. There was ecclesiastical concern about the rigors of Clare’s personal regimen. Bishop Guido’s successor, Guido II, enlisting the help of Francis, visited Clare with the intention of mitigating her strenuous fasts, though she seems to have gently sidestepped their concerns.
The exact relationship of Francis and Clare is known only to them. Information is sketchy. In the early part of their fifteen-year friendship Francis was certainly the mentor, and Clare exerted much energy to preserve the experience of the early days of her conversion at the feet of the poor man of Assisi. However, they did not see each other as much as one might expect, and a major conduit between them would have been other friars and personal correspondence.
Clare could not be with Francis at the time of his death, but he did leave her a last testament encouraging her to stay the course. It is tempting to think that he was encouraging her to do what he had ultimately been unable to do and avoid the compromises he had been forced to make as the leader of a large contingent, but his interventions with Bishop Guido that she take a moderate course in her spiritual observance in obedience to the Church suggest that he knew how vulnerable an outspoken woman leader could be in the medieval milieu. Francis was barely cold in his grave when major cracks in the Franciscan fraternity become to emerge.
In some ways these cracks were developing even toward the end of Francis’ lifetime. As more priests and professors joined the fraternity, their need for property [e.g., books, libraries] and even permanent residences led the Roman Curia to formulate an interpretation of poverty to accommodate a distinction between “ownership” and “[temporary] use.” In theory, a friar still owner nothing. But a friar could retain property for his mission. This interpretive loophole still stands in the twenty-first century in the Franciscan Orders as a necessity of pastoral ministry and earning a livelihood. Not surprisingly, the old guard of friars found this redefinition of poverty an abominable betrayal of Francis’ early vision. Some extreme friars held that the doctrine of perfect poverty was handed to the friars by the Holy Spirit and that no pope had the right to mitigate it. This extreme wing of the men’s order became known as the “Spiritual Franciscans” and would come to a tragic end. [See my review of The Spiritual Franciscans  by David Burr.
Clare would die before the Spiritual Franciscan crisis became a full-blown revolution, but she certainly sympathized with the surviving early followers of Francis, particularly as Pope Honorius approved a rule for the women Franciscans that in its detail resembled the standard lifestyle of most existing cloistered communities in existence for centuries. Clare had the wisdom not to confront the Church head on, and it appears that some sort of grand-mothering clause was arrived at whereby something of Clare’s founding lifestyle was permitted to endure through her lifetime. Several popes conceded to Clare a recognition of outstanding personal sanctity but could not bring themselves to let Clare’s rule of life endure through perpetuity.
This Roman ambiguity has produced a contemporary enigma, Today, the Order of Saint Clare lives in strict cloistered distance, while in recent centuries new communities of women teachers, nurses, and ministers—inspired by the Franciscan ideal--have been approved by Rome and reside in modified communities and work publicly in the Church. In her biography of Clare, the author has attempted to correct what one might call a domestication of Clare: the young woman of Assisi who left her family at great cost was not motivated toward the walls of a cloister, any more than Francis was. With that in mind, it is fitting to revisit her life as the public servant of the poor Jesus.
Banners...the Hamburger Helper of the early Vatican II Liturgical RenewalRead Now
Today I am feeling my age. I was perusing one of my favorite Facebook sites, Catholic Directors of Faith Formation / Religious Education, when I came across a discussion between several catechists speculating about the origin of banners. Specifically, someone proposed the idea of each First Communicant making a little banner to hang on the end of his or her family’s pew for the big day. Several participants in that discussion observed that they had not been able to trace the origins of the modern liturgical use of banners, even with thorough Google searches. And I thought to myself, maybe even Google has seen fit to obscure a true icon of the early post-Vatican II liturgical renewal era. Depending upon your pragmatic or educational tastes, banners were either the Swiss Army Knife or the Hamburger Helper of parish life.
The official Vatican declaration on the Church’s worship, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was promulgated on December 4, 1963. SC and its supporting directives were fairly clear that the reforms were to be undertaken with a measure of artistic excellence, while at the same time calling for all the faithful to be fully involved in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. In the United States and Western Europe there was a pent-up energy to get on with this renewal, probably ahead of the due diligence that such a change should have evoked. Consider that such things as vital as an official Roman Missal, English translations, music standards, and church architecture would take some years to produce—the official Novus Ordo or rite of the Mass in the Roman Rite which we use today did not appear until 1970, and some complained that this rite was composed with too much haste. [The Vatican did provide a linguistic overhaul of the Mass in 2011.]
But because of the grass roots enthusiasm for change among many Catholics, the era of the 1960’s can be remembered as a true age of “liturgical improv.” For the record, I graduated from high school seminary in 1966 and Catholic University in 1971, so I had a front row seat, to be sure, and I will admit at the onset that I was also a supporter and occasional perpetrator of some liturgical innovations better retired today, being armed with my 12-string Martin guitar. Some day I may write a book about those years, but for the moment I will stick with my recollections of banners.
With a guiding principle of the liturgical reform being “participation,” the term was interpreted as involving as many people as possible in the preparation and execution of the rites. Thus, a proliferation of ministries appeared, such as baking breads, writing songs…and creating banners. Banners served a multitude of needs. Remember that in 1963 most churches and schools looked pretty much like churches of 1900, old and cluttered. There was a perceived need—visceral, in fact—to roll out symbols of change which emphasized, well, change. It would take time and money to remodel church worship space along the lines of Vatican II’s theology of worship. The large banner or banners in the sanctuary had a colorful immediacy and flexibility. They could be rotated with the seasons and the feasts as well as obscuring that 1895 plaster statue of St. Leo the Great. The first banners were relatively cheap and were usually a local product of church members and volunteers. It would be a while before the large liturgical production companies were turning them out en masse. Later, the commercial liturgical banners would be a godsend to communities celebrating Masses in social halls and other neutral sites. I bought a 16’ banner for our social hall in 1980 for about $800-$1000. Not Michelangelo, but not a third grade felt and glue creation, either.
In the atmosphere of the 1960’s, though, it is easy to see how catechists might be eager to incorporate banners into the curriculum of initiation. This was a hands-on project that incorporated arts and crafts into classroom instruction and, in the case of pew identifiers, family interaction. It was of a piece with making the first communion bread in class, a practice employed in several parishes until nervous canonists pointed out that the addition of honey and baking powder and whatever else goes into edible bread was not permitted by liturgical law—wheat and water are the only permissible ingredients in Eucharistic breads. In the 1980’s the liturgical diocesan director of a major city told a workshop I was attending that all those thousands of children who baked their communion breads had received invalid communions. “You take yourself too seriously,” I told him. But today that wheat and water rule is strictly observed, so do not get any ideas.
Banners in the 1960’s and beyond did have catechetical value, though in retrospect that is debated. Banners promulgated catechetical content by illustrating the sacramental signs [bread and wine, for example] and/or communicating a pithy instructional message, i.e., Bread of Life, for example. They could be made in all sizes: wall size, picture size, identification size. The practice of children and teens making banners for initiation sacraments and other purposes developed at this time.
In haste, though, the goal of participation should never have trumped artistic quality. The Church has a long tradition of patronizing and protecting the ageless wonders of the masters—the power of the Sistine Chapel is its seamless artistry and theology which has inspired the secular and religious soul for half a millennium. Having built a post Sacrosanctum Concilium church myself, I can tell you that the formative process of bringing a congregation from the mediocrity of plaster statues to exquisite wood, stone, wrought iron, and design is a struggle. In other words, a major ministry of any parish is education toward the fine arts over weddedness to the economical and the familiar, and it is Catholicism’s gift to its secular culture, too, in our case the utilitarianism of the United States. The nobility of sacred art is a stated liturgical goal of Vatican II. A leather-bound book of readings and hymns is an artistic sacramental in itself when held in the hands; even today, however, we remain bound to throwaway missalettes in many places, characteristic of our throwaway culture.
The religious nature of artistry is a principle that our post-Vatican II haste forgot to accommodate. A typical early renewal Mass could be a configuration of homemade banners in glaring disharmony with the older churches in which they were placed. Music—often played by musicians like me who knew three chords--was sung from mimeographed sheets, not bound hymnals. In the early 1970’s the reproduction of song sheets resulted in lawsuits by the rightful owners of the lyrics; art has its costs, too, another lesson that needs constant reminding where worship is concerned. More astute liturgists of that era criticized the chintz of these early experimentations, and conservatives rightly complained that poor artistic quality was a serious distraction from the power of the sacramental celebration.
Another issue with banners was their content and message. In the interest of space and good feeling, banner messaging could also be insipid. In college we would refer to some over-the-top creations as “kicky relevant,” in a derisive tone. For example, in 1968 I spent a year in a classroom facing a decorative banner made up of little gingerbread people holding hands over the message “Oh the more we get together the happier we’ll be.” Banners could also mangle theology. A story from the 1960’s era recalls how a famous theologian stopped to look at a home-made banner that hung from his podium. It read, “God is other people.” He thought for a moment, and then turned to the audience. “There is a grammatical error in your banner. It needs a comma,” he announced. “It should read, “God is other, people.”
As more churches were constructed or refurbished under the guidelines of the Council, there was less need for banners as the years went on, though I do see quite a few companies advertising them on-line. The banner-on-the-end-of-a pew is a popular item today, either as a finished product or as a do-it-yourself-kit. If they are well done and do not distract from more important elements of sacramental formation, I guess there is no harm. But if banners are a major part of your liturgical presentations of any kind, remember that all of us of Social Security age remember the old “kicky-relevant” days, so forgive us a discrete smile down our sleeves.
Jean Gerson [1363-1429] is one of the greatest figures of the Medieval Church who will never become a saint. He was a priest, scholar, writer, mystic, and Chancellor of the University of Paris at a time when the Church looked to its great European universities for doctrinal and moral guidance on the issues of the day. His career coincided with the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and most notably, the age of the Great Schism, when multiple candidates claimed to be the lawful successor of St. Peter. Gerson championed reform of the Church and condemned violence and political assassinations.
Although saintly, he was never canonized and there is truly little likelihood that he ever will. No English language collection of his works appeared until Paulist Press published a major collection in 1998, and the first epic biography in English, Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation appeared in 2005 by the noted medievalist Brian Patrick McGuire. [See my review here.] It is interesting to note however that in the past twenty years there has been a resurgence in interest on Gerson; Amazon has two full pages of new offerings, including many new translations.
However, as I noted in my book review, the Church has always felt uncomfortable about Gerson, for his major claim to fame is his role in ending the Great Western Schism, the era of two [and sometimes three] competing popes. This era of papal confusion has been considered a major embarrassment to a church which esteems unbroken apostolic succession. Moreover, Gerson’s solution to this papal problem was the invocation of a reform council, which was eventually convened as the Council of Constance [1414-1418] and was planned by Gerson along with other scholars and civil rulers.
The first session of this council of Constance issued the decree Haec Sancta [“this holy (Council)”] which declared that a church council exercised a greater authority than the pope. Obviously, Constance was playing out this scenario when it deposed two popes and designated the third as the true successor of Peter, though it is hard to see what other options were open to the council fathers. The theory that a council could override and/or depose a pope came to be known as Conciliarism. After the Protestant Reformation Conciliarism fell into disfavor as Roman Catholicism dismissed Haec Sancta as a church teaching and rallied around the authority of the pope, and Conciliarism was formally condemned at the council Vatican I in 1870. Gerson, identified closely with Conciliarism, carried a taint after his death into modern times, though in truth his work was instrumental in restoring Church order in the fifteenth century. Modern Catholic scholars such as McGuire are looking at Gerson in a much more favorable life.
Gerson’s work and ministry made him other enemies in his lifetime. The murder of his political protector in Paris led him to decry civil murder and tyrannicide, making it unsafe for him to remain in Paris. Moreover, despite his scholastic training, he became more open to mystical experience. He expressed his belief that Joan of Arc’s “voices” were genuine divine messages. He eschewed Latin for his native French, so that more of his writings could be accessed by the laity, thus encouraging a democratization of spirituality that churchmen generally regarded as dangerous. Throughout his busy life he longed for the solitude of a life of prayer and reflection, and he would eventually take up residence in his brother’s monastery.
For all his demanding responsibilities, according to McGuire, Gerson found time to develop an intense devotion to St. Joseph. McGuire explains how innovative Gerson’s devotion was: “Joseph up to this time had no universal cult [following] in Western Europe and was often portrayed in art and in plays as a rather silly old man, tired and peripheral to the great events he witnessed.” [p. 235] Gerson investigated the apocryphal stories of Jesus and discovered that they were inconsistent with the Biblical description of Joseph, most notably that of the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Gerson composed a Mass formula for a proposed feast of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, an observance he hoped to see adopted by the universal church. As McGuire writes, “The chancellor imagined Joseph as a young man, full of energy and potency, able to take care of his wife and son by hard work, and not the broken-down, tired figure of popular imagination.” Gerson demonstrated a familiarity with Matthew’s Gospel narrative of the arduous trials of the Holy Family, fleeing Herod and resettling in an unfamiliar Nazareth.
Like many preachers of his time—and Gerson was the court preacher in Paris--he took texts from the Bible and used his imagination to elaborate on the stories. Again, from McGuire’s research, Gerson asserted that “Joseph knew Mary from friendly visits to her each year in Jerusalem, where she lived in the Temple. He was related to Mary by blood because Anne, her mother, after the death of her husband Joachim, had married Joseph’s brother, Cleophas. According to the Jewish custom of the time, Joseph took Mary to live with him in Nazareth.” [p. 237] In his attempt to explain the nature of this marriage, Gerson speculated that Mary told Joseph she was with child but did not have sexual experience. “Joseph was struck by ‘so great a novelty’ but subsequently an angel appeared to him and explained how it was God’s will.” [p. 237] This is a captivating mix of Gerson's imagination with the core Biblical teachings on the nature and birth of Christ.
McGuire examines Gerson’s groundbreaking reflection on the holy marriage. “Their union was a real marriage; it contained marital love with sexual abstinence. As a man whose way of life required chastity and sexual abstinence, Gerson found in Joseph a model, a loving man who embraced a woman, who brought up a child, and who at the same time remained calm, content, and pure.” Gerson would tell his readers and listeners that there was nothing doctrinally necessary in his description of the marriage, but he believed that their marriage should be an essential part of Church devotion. He suggested that his proposed feast of their union be celebrated during the week before Christmas.
Gerson’s writings on Joseph are exhaustive, composed of both prose and poetry. He advocated that Joseph was a true father of Jesus because he was the one who “nourished, guarded, and served” him through his own labor. For Gerson, McGuire observes, “Fatherhood is thus not biological: it is a function that is assumed when one takes on responsibility for a child. Joseph became the father of Jesus by acting as his father; in taking him by the hand, feeding him, comforting him, teaching him, Joseph was his father.” [p. 238] Gerson’s writings on Joseph were composed in French, for the edification of the populace at large.
It is somewhat surprising that in Gerson’s day there was yet no feast of St. Joseph in the Church’s calendar of saints. Although Gerson proposed the idea at the Council of Constance [1414-1418] it was not until the papacy of Sixtus IV [1474-1481] that the major Feast of St. Joseph as we know it today was established on March 19. Joseph’s identity as a laborer led Pope Pius XII to establish the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 as a response to the Communist observance of May Day. In establishing 2021 as the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis observed that the current Covid-19 pandemic “has helped us see more clearly the importance of ‘ordinary’ people who, though far from the limelight, exercise patience and offer hope every day. In this, they resemble Saint Joseph, ‘the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence,’ who nonetheless played ‘an incomparable role in the history of salvation.’”
It is one of history’s ironies that another unsung worker in the Church’s long history would be responsible for promoting Joseph to his rightful place in the devotional life of the Church.
,It has been three months since the last post on the Reformation, and I feel bad about that because the Reformation stream has [or had] its unique band of followers. Alas, the issue of the Church and the Covid-19 crisis, particularly the future of the Church and the specter of this unexpected sabbatical, grabbed all my attention over the past summer. However, I think I have said about everything I can say about the Reformation through 1525, and particularly about Martin Luther, so I want to use today’s post to philosophize a bit about how Luther has changed the way all of us think about ourselves, our religion, and our civic lives.
In 1517, when Luther famously posted his 95 theses in response to the sale of indulgences, he did not intend to leave the Church nor to start another. His goal was simple enough: to engage Church authorities and the academic communities in what we would call a colloquy or a friendly debate over the practice of “selling salvation.” While it was true that Luther was outraged by the claims and tactics of the Dominican monk Tetzel [“when a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs”] Luther believed that the Church was open to a heartfelt appeal from one of its professed sons that it move away from the monetary bartering.
Unfortunately, Luther’s timing could not have been worse in terms of capturing the Church’s attention. The Church was in desperate need of money. While many Catholics may know that part of the proceeds of Tetzel’s indulgence campaign was allotted to the construction of St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, it is not as well appreciated that the Islamic Turks were making major inroads in Christian Eastern Europe, conquering Belgrade [Yugoslavia] in 1521, Hungary and Cyprus. Catholics of Luther’s time lived with apocalyptic fear that the Turks would take over the entire Christian West and talk of a new crusade was heavy in the air.
Luther’s defining conversion moment was his realization that humans needed a direct intervention from God to be saved, or to use his terminology, “justified.” Luther had studied the theology of St. Augustine from a millennium earlier; Augustine argued that the original sin of Adam had so wounded the human species that nothing a man could do would affect his forgiveness and grace. God would make the first move in a miraculous and generous outreach—and a man’s only response could be total faith in the revealed word of the Bible.
For all practical purposes, Luther cut the legs out from under the Church, which had always envisioned itself as the interpreter, guardian, and dispenser of saving grace. The indulgence controversy makes more sense in this light; Luther objected to indulgences not only because they were offensive, but more so that they were useless, unbiblical, and a usurpation of what belongs only to God, the power to save. Luther was not the first to drive daylight between the power of God and the practices of the Church, but he lived through a perfect storm of circumstances that his reforming predecessors had lacked.
To understand the historical meaning of the man, consider that every human in Western Christendom carried around the same “cosmic outlook,” a multidimensional mindset on reality which embraced God, creation, the Church, civil authorities, nature, and the human psyche. Much of the citizenry of Luther’s day at every level of society experienced life as this intertwined glue of reality. This conscious and subconscious mixture of reality existed for millennia before Luther; these various components of reality were sometimes at war with each other, but no one questioned the world order itself. Jesus referred to the corrupt King Herod as “that old fox” in Luke 13:32 but he also counseled “to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Even the most original scientific minds of Luther’s day worked within this synthesis. In his The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve , Stephen Greenblatt observes that when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World and discovered peaceful, naked communities, he wondered out loud if he had discovered a part of the Garden of Eden untouched by sin.
Luther’s thesis—his deepest belief, actually—that justification or salvation originated directly from God and called for a personal faith in God’s love and power—effectively unraveled the synthesis by which nearly everyone lived. The idea of God’s direct relationship to each person ennobled Christians to live free of the fear of damnation at the hands of the Church and the state. Many authors hold that Luther was the gateway of the Modern Era and the Enlightenment. Philosophers began addressing reality from subjective experience. The “Father of Modern Philosophy,” Rene Descartes [1596-1650], proclaimed a century after Luther a new rule of defining reality: “I think, therefore I am.” For better and worse, Luther’s thinking—with the help of Pascal and many others--continues to impact Catholics even today who make a personal assessment of Catholic formal teaching based upon personal impact and impression before automatically giving assent to the teaching. Even our country’s approach to wearing Covid masks demonstrates the individualist strain of thought we live with today.
The Lutheran revolution, then and now, is interpreted in the popular mind as the ultimate freedom. Luther understood his teaching as a freedom from the Church-imposed laws and rituals, particularly those involving judgment. He believed his reforms in this direction would save the Church, not destroy it. His debates with noted Catholic representatives failed; Luther talked reform, while the Church talked authority. Several of Luther’s insights—the importance of Sacred Scripture for each member of the Church, for example—are part of Catholic Church life today. But Luther was an activist more so than a mystic, which meant that he was neither a self-critic nor a long-range visionary.
Luther was correct to articulate the need to return to the Bible and, in his case, to St. Paul’s teachings on justification by faith. But he erred in ignoring the warning of James 2: 14-26 that faith without good works is useless, and over time the question arose among his followers as to where one turns for the proper interpretation of the source of salvation, the Holy Bible. It would surprise no one that disputes—quite violent ones—would break out among reformers who took Luther’s teachings further than Luther had, and that fragmenting of reform bodies would take on new energy.
Perhaps more tragic is the fate of the poorer populations who saw Luther’s preaching as an invitation to overthrow the entire social order. Luther was traditional enough to disengage from the determined militias whose quest for a better economic life led to wholesale loss of life in Germany. In his famous Address to the German Nobility  Luther invited German princes to take the lead in reforming the Church given the papacy’s excommunication of Luther and his writing. But soon the European princes sympathetic to religious reform rather enjoyed their newfound powers. [Think England’s Henry VIII.] As the number of different “denominations” continued to proliferate through the sixteenth century, a new political-religious principle emerged, cuius regio, eius religio. Roughly translated, “whoever is king, that is the religion [of his territory].
The Reformation would spread throughout Europe in many different forms, and eventually there would be the plurality of churches we have today. But it is important to understand the roots of the major Christian Churches and some of the outstanding leaders whose contributions overlap denominational boundaries. In post 46 of the Reformation posts I will turn to one of the most familiar names alongside Luther’s, John Calvin. The receiving dock of The Catechist Café has informed me that John Calvin for a New Reformation  has just arrived, so our Reformation series will push on.
If you are interested in a full treatment of the Reformation, I have recommendations. My favorite is The Reformation: A History  by Diarmid MacCulloch, which, although detailed, reads very well. The second is Carlos M.N. Eire's Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 , which sets the table of religious unrest quite well.
Over this sad and violent week across our country, I pondered some reflections to post today, but good folks of all faith traditions and humanitarian impulses have written and spoken with far more credibility and insight that I can muster. Of note is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement of Friday, May 29, which included this:
“Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.
While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests, and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged. Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.”
I had planned to pick up our Reformation stream on the Café today, and at first my heart was not in it. But upon reflection, I returned to where we left off the stream in February, and I realized that we had reached a point in the narrative where the theological debates between Luther and the Catholic Church would soon pass into violent confrontations and then to wholesale wars. 1524 began a period of violence that extended well over a century until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and even beyond, that essentially divided Europe into Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist regions which did not necessarily correspond with national boundaries. It is impossible to know how many people were killed in what history now calls The Religion Wars [1524-1648].
Given the intertwining of religion and state in the late medieval and renaissance era, any significant stirrings in religious practice were bound to have implications throughout society. When Luther proclaimed his 95 theses of reform in 1517, he did not wish to eliminate the Roman Catholic Church. His hope was purification. His need was direct conversation with Church leadership to explain the theological principles of his protest, most notably his contention that the Scripture was final arbiter of faith and morals in the Church. He contended that too many aspects of faith and practice were man-made, notably but not exclusively the sale of indulgences and commercial means of attaining salvation.
Luther was excommunicated in 1521 and summoned to the Diet of Worms, conducted by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, where he would contend with the noted scholar Johann Eck. There are various opinions about this classic confrontation of Luther and Eck. The papacy, which Eck defended, did not appear interested in the various aspects of Luther’s theology, but instead pressed Luther to renounce several key points which could be interpreted as undermining the supreme power of the pope. For our purposes, Luther’s belief in sola scriptura, by Scripture alone is man saved, [the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica outlines the precise points of contention] was the turning point. He would not turn his back on the freedom of conscience to obey the Bible. “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Luther’s position rendered him a heretic and an outlaw; any civil authority was bound by the Church to arrest him and turn him over to Church authorities for what would no doubt be public execution by burning.
Luther was ready for this martyrdom to his ideals, but his civil protector Frederick, Elector of Saxony, whisked him away to a hidden mountaintop retreat in Wartburg where he remained for about one year and produced one of his greatest works, a German text of the New Testament. While Luther was sequestered, his location known only to Frederick, circumstances in his home base of Wittenberg conspired to bring about a slow but certain nuclear meltdown of religious and civil disorder. The beginnings were simple enough. Luther had a devoted following across the board in Saxony, where he lived and taught at Wittenberg University. When Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and ordered his writings burned in 1521, Frederick did not carry out his orders; Luther’s students and supporters instead burned the decree of excommunication.
Luther’s teaching on freedom to obey one’s conscience informed by Scripture was subtle for its time; the indispensable codicil, “informed by Scripture” was often forgotten by those who interpreted Luther as a prophet of free conscience, period, more along the lines of the contemporary “do your own thing.” In 1524 an army of peasants, inspired by two mis-interpreters of Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and Thomas Müntzer, decided to take up arms against German princes. This action was a major war; 100,000 peasants were killed by 1525 fighting for agrarian reform and fair taxation. Luther, returned to public life from Wartburg, was appalled at this breakdown of order, and sided with the princes in crushing the rebellion.
Among the Reformation figures, Luther was conservative. His goals were religious, pastoral, and theological. He was backward looking, drawing from early church structure and ancient writings of church fathers in his study of Scripture. He respected civil authority as an instrument of protection of reformed religious practice, just as he recognized the need for a holy church to promote community prayer, sacraments [Baptism and Eucharist], and theological competence. Perhaps because he was busy laying the groundwork for the German needs of the Church—creating and writing hymns for public worship, translating the Mass and the Scriptures into German, the vernacular language—he did not have time to think through the possible misuses of his teachings, which at their worst led to anarchy, bloodshed, and the further divisions of the Body of Christ. Nor was he always available to tamp the
Luther’s support of the princes led to great disappointment among the desperate farmers, and won him support among nobility, who themselves now felt free to engage in another assault on the accepted order, a refusal to pay church taxes to Rome. It was the German princes who provided Luther with something his reformist predecessors such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus never enjoyed, civil protection in their regions. The common classes, disenchanted with emerging Lutheranism, often moved toward apocalyptic, future oriented sects and religious assemblies such as the Anabaptists, who held that only an adult could be baptized and who condemned the practice of infant baptism. In 1535 40 Anabaptists seized a police station in Amsterdam. Twenty-eight were killed, and the survivors were butchered in the town square while still alive.
The development of the Reformation is enormously complicated on the ground. If one were to rise above the European continent in around 1550, the general picture is the domination of three main Christian bodies, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. [England, under Henry VIII, had its own crisis of religious division.] One of the causes of so much warfare across the European continent was a new principle of governing independent of the Catholic Church, cuius regio, eius religio, “whoever is king, his is the religion.” The idea of two religions in the same region was considered at the time to be a danger to the state, such that conquest and eradication fueled the relationships of religious movements, nationally, regionally, and locally.
Conflicts great and small erupted regularly from the 1524 German peasants’ revolt to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Wikipedia has an extremely colorful and useful graphic of the forty or so major conflicts; by placing the computer cursor over a particular war, its reasons and casualties are immediately available. The history of sixteenth century France is but one of these wars but is a good example of the complications and violence of such engagements. About three million persons lost their lives in a 36-year conflict [1562-1598] between Catholics loyal to Rome and Calvinists, called Huguenots, loyal to the reforms of John Calvin, who trained young preachers and ministers to cross the border to return to France and make Huguenot converts. This war is remembered for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the conversion of Henry IV to Catholicism. Henry’s observation is still cited today: “Paris is worth a Mass.”
It is impossible to summarize the destruction and loss of life that plagued Europe during the Reformation, and hopefully it is inconceivable to believe that this mayhem pleased God or brought credit to any religious body. At the end of his comprehensive The Reformation , the historian Diarmaid MacCullough tallies the greater ironies of the religious war era: by 1648 many devout members of all the major religions longed for an inner peace and personal spirituality. The controversies and bloodshed had exhausted organized Christianity. Little wonder that the Catholic resurgence of devotion to the Sacred Heart in the seventeenth century led to the universal observance of the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1670.
But there was another reaction to this troubled age. Given that one of the major dynamics of this troubled time was conflict between churches, educated persons across the Western world began to question the idea of divine providence and denominations in general. Again, no mystery that Rene Descartes [1596-1650] developed a philosophy of man as the center of reality, coining his famous Cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.” The Enlightenment and the modern era of life, law, and science without religious reference was born and created the stage for life today as we know it.