The First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Die

Adoramus te Christe, et benedicimus tibi.

“We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee”

Quia per sanctam Crucem tuam redemisti mumdum.

“Because by thy Holy Cross, thou hast redeemed the world!”

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.” -Matthew 27:24

Another Trial

The morning after His trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas and the other Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the Roman praefect of the province of Judaea. They already decided that Jesus had to die for claiming to be the Son of God. They could not, however; execute Him under the Law of Moses, which requires that there be two corroborating witnesses for a capital offense. Thus, they had to bring Jesus before Pilate on a charge of sedition.

They were afraid. Many people believed that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, the descendant of King David who would liberate Israel, return it to its former glory and drive out the Romans.

Political Considerations

The Romans appointed the High Priest and allowed him and the Sanhedrin to control Jewish religious affairs with relative autonomy. Caiaphas and the ruling priestly class owed their positions to the Romans because they were seen as being loyal to Roman rule. It was for this reason that Jesus called them “a wicked and corrupt generation,” because they collaborated with the pagan occupiers of their nation. A revolt would have caused Caiaphas and most likely many of the high ranking members of the Sanhedrin to lose their positions. There was even the possibility that the Romans would have disbanded the Sanhedrin. For Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin to maintain their positions, Jesus had to die.

The Possibility of Rebellion

My biggest problem with The Passion of the Christ is the depiction of Bar Abbas as some kind of deranged psychopathic killer

There was even more at stake than loss of positions. There had been rebellions before, and the Romans had put them down with brutality. The historian Flavius Josephus records that the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews following a rebellion that occurred in the early years of the life of Jesus. There were subsequent rebellions but they were relatively small, with only a handful of diehard followers. All the Gospels describe Bar Abbas as having committed murder during an insurrection. Although the Greek word lestes, used to describe the men who will be crucified on each side of Jesus, is usually translated as “thief” it can also mean “insurrectionist” or “rebel,” and some translations use that instead of “thief.” The two men were likely part of the same insurrection in which Bar Abbas was captured and may have been captured with him.    

Jesus had many followers and a rebellion led by Him would have been much larger. It could have been much more successful as well; and that success would cause Rome to send her legions and deal such a crushing blow to Judea that there would never be another rebellion, ever. They would destroy Jerusalem and, more importantly, the Temple. One man had to be crucified to prevent the crucifixions of thousands more.

Pilate Questions Jesus

Pilate questioned Jesus. As the praefect of Judea, he had to take sedition seriously. But when he asked Jesus if He is a king, Jesus simply stated that His kingdom is not an earthly one, and pointed out that if He were an earthly king, His followers would be fighting to save His life. Pilate thought Jesus might be innocent but he could not simply let him go.


Pilate was a shrewd man. He knew that the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead for fear that he would lead a rebellion but he did believe that Jesus would actually ever lead a rebellion. He probably realized that the Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus for the size of His following and afraid that His teachings would diminish their own religious influence. But he also knew that he could not simply dismiss the charges against Jesus out of hand.

More Political Considerations

Pilate had to be more conciliatory to the Jewish leaders because he needed their cooperation to effectively run the province. Pilate’s predecessor Valerius Gratus had replaced the High Priest three times before finally appointing Caiaphas in A.D 18. Caiaphas had served as high priest for eight years when Pilate became prefect and would remain High Priest for the entirety of Pilate’s decade long term. Caiaphas was clearly someone with whom Pilate felt that he could work well. Pilate would not have wanted to squander this good will, especially on a prisoner whom the priests had brought to him with the accusation of sedition against Rome. So, he tried to outmaneuver the High Priest and his entourage.

“Give Us Bar Abbas!”

Bar Abbas
Jesus or Bar Abbas?

It is for this reason that Pilate offered to release Bar Abbas. He knew that the Jewish leaders feared that Jesus will lead a rebellion. So instead he offered a prisoner who actually had led one. He is telling the Jewish leaders that as the Roman governor, he does not consider Jesus to be as much of a threat as they are making Him out to be. Bar Abbas was a true threat to Roman power and given the choice between the two, Pilate assumes that the High Priest, focused on keeping the peace and preventing a rebellion, will choose Jesus.

91qItbe1yMLPilate underestimated the resolve of the Jewish leaders to destroy Jesus. Moreover, he did not take into account the crowd or their agitation. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, contrary to popular belief, the crowd that acclaimed Jesus as king when He entered Jerusalem has not suddenly turned on Him. That group was likely composed primarily of Galilean pilgrims who had accompanied Jesus up to Jerusalem. They were likely still asleep at this point. The crowd at the trial of Jesus before Pilate is composed of inhabitants of Jerusalem. They were afraid of Jesus when He arrived in the city.

They have also witnessed Bar Abbas rise up against Roman occupation. Now, their religious leaders are urging them to choose Bar Abbas over a man who has not lifted a finger against their oppressors yet stands accused of blasphemy. It is easy to see how the people of Jerusalem must have thought that their leaders were finally throwing their support behind efforts at winning freedom from the Romans. Therefore, they were more than happy to be manipulated into voicing their support for Bar Abbas.

This choice between Jesus and Bar Abbas is a choice between the true Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is His Cross, and the false messianism that offers worldly power and freedom from both persecution and suffering. It is a choice that will be made again and again over the course of the subsequent two millennia. Every time Christians seek political power in order to avoid persecution, to avoid the Cross, they reject Christ in favor of Bar Abbas.

Son of God

Not only did the High Priest and Jewish leaders call Pilate’s bluff but they upped the ante. Part of the charge against Jesus was that He “made Himself the Son of God.” To a Jew, of course, this is a blasphemous repudiation of the strict monotheism of Judaism. Yet, to a pagan Roman like Pilate, the idea that a seemingly ordinary man could be the son of a god is not far-fetched at all. This is why Pilate becomes afraid and asks Jesus, “Where do you come from?”

However, Pilate had another reason to be scared. To a Roman, the “Son of God” was an imperial title for Caesar. In 42 B. the Senate deified Julius Caesar. Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, adopted the title was filius divus Iulii (son of the divine Julius) Augustus himself was deified by his successor Tiberius. Therefore, it could be argued that anyone who called Himself the “Son of God” was setting himself against the authority of Caesar and usurping one of his titles.

Friend of Caesar

Caiaphas drives this point home by telling Pilate, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar.” In Rome, Friend of Caesar (amicus Caesaris) was a semi-official honorific title. The Jewish leadership was reminding Pilate that his political career could easily be stalled if he does not condemn Jesus. He might never be as powerful or influential as he desired to be.

There is no indication that Pilate was an ambitious man. Moreover, Judaea was a far flung and relatively minor province of the Roman Empire. Tiberius might never have found out what happened on that Friday morning. But the agitation of the crowd could have quickly turned into unrest, unrest into a riot and a riot into full scale rebellion. Jerusalem was a city that could quickly erupt into rebellion at the slightest Roman provocation, especially at Passover. The refusal of a solicited request to release a man seen to be a liberator, especially after that request was ratified by the religious leadership, would have been just such a provocation.

The prime directive of a Roman governor was to keep the peace in his province. A governor who could not do this was seen as incompetent or worse, treasonous. Pilate already had dealt with one uprising relatively recently: the one in which Bar Abbas, and likely the two “thieves,” had been captured. He does not need another one. That, especially if it came as a result of his release of man seen to be an opponent of Caesar, would ensure a that he was removed from office or worse, executed.


The hypocrisy of the High Priest and other Jewish religious leaders is on full display here. Jesus is the Messiah, a descendant of King David, and therefore the rightful king of Israel They reject the true Son of God as a blasphemer because He is a threat to their power and comfort and yet they accept a son of a false god as their ruler by saying “We have no king but Caesar.” This makes matters even worse for Pilate.

So Pilate washes his hands and declares himself to be innocent of the blood of Jesus. “See to it yourselves.” How many times have we been faced with the prospect of doing something that was right but unpopular, the consequences of which would have been great personal or even professional cost? How many times we said “It’s not my problem” or “There’s nothing I can do?” How many times have we metaphorically washed our hands?

Pilate washing his hands

For all the times that we have refused to embrace our crosses and rejected You in favor of the worldy power offered by Bar Abbas, forgive us, Lord. For all the times we did not do what was right out of fear of unpopularity and wordly consequences, forgive us, Lord. For all the times we did not speak for the unjustly accused and the innocent, forgive us, Lord.

Stabat Mater dolorosa

iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,

dum pendebat Filius.


People of the Passion: Middle Earth Edition (Part II)

In my previous piece, I mentioned briefly the principles of Christian typology found in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings saga. Namely, unlike a direct allegory, one character can be a type of multiple Biblical figures. Frodo’s loyal companion Samwise Gamgee, for example, serves as an image both of St. John the Beloved Disciple and Simon of Cyrene. Conversely, one figure from salvation can be represented by multiple characters. Different aspects of Our Lady are represented by Galadriel, Eowyn and Arwen while the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King is represented by Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn.

Just as the figures of Our Lady and Our Lord are not perfect analogues, neither are other figures from the Passion whom Tolkien chooses to use his characters to represent.  In the previous piece, I described how Gollum/Sméagol is a Judas figure. However, Judas is also represented by Denethor, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor.

Denethor as Judas

Even his cup is made of silver!

At first, such an identification seems strained. Denethor was not a member of the Fellowship (though his son Boromir was). Moreover, he was not even aware of Frodo and his mission to destroy the Ring until Frodo and Sam were already in Mordor (having been aided in their journey there by his other son Faramir). He does not actively betray anyone, lest of all Frodo (though Boromir does…somewhat). Denethor is a Judas figure because he succumbs to the same sin that Judas did.

The Despair of Denethor

Judas fells remorse soon after the arrest of Jesus, perhaps once his former Master is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. He goes to the priests, states that Jesus is innocent and tries to give back the silver he was paid to betray Him. After he is coldly and hypocritically rebuffed, he throws the silver away, then goes out and hangs himself. This is despair because he does not believe he can be forgiven and does not want to live with the guilt of his betrayal of Christ.

Denethor’s descent into despair is not so sudden but it is no less dramatic. Denethor gives into a fear that Sauron is so powerful that there is no way to defeat him. He loses all hope and even goes so far as to order his men to abandon their posts and flee, leaving Gandalf to command the defense of the city of Minas Tirith. This despair is exacerbated when Faramir appears to have fallen in a battle to which Denethor sent him. In the end, like Judas, his despair leads him to commit suicide, albeit by self-immolation rather than hanging.

Does this count as hanging?

Qui est Petrus?

Who then is Peter? Denethor certainly exhibits some Petrine attributes. He is, after all, Steward of Minas Tirith, the city of the King of Gondor. The purpose of his office is to rule the city in the King’s stead until he returns. (Hence, Gandalf’s rather epic, biblical sounding line, “Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King, steward!“) Another for steward is “vicar.” Also, many have taken the biblical office of steward in Davidic kingdom (described in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah) to be a prefiguring of the Petrine Office (which is why the reading is often paired with the Gospel reading in which Christ gives the keys to Peter). However, the primary Petrine figure in the Lord of the Rings is Saruman.

Saruman the White

SarumanSaruman, like Denethor, was never part of the Fellowship and his actions are more similar to those of Judas as a betrayer rather than Peter as a denier. However, there are certain very “papal” aspects to Saruman’s characters. He is the head of the order of Istari, or wizards, whose job is guard against the rising power of Sauron and lead the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth in combat against. Although he himself is an Istari, Saruman is nevertheless their head. He, like his fellow Istari, carries a staff as symbol of the power of his office. And he wears white robes.

It is not until Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White that he overthrows Saruman and, in effect, takes his place. He does so by magically breaking Saruman’s staff, the symbol of his office. The Petrine nature of Saruman’s office is further made clear in Saruman’s dialogue with Gandalf immediately prior to this. Attempting to sow dissension between Gandalf and his allies, Saruman accuses him of desiring power and using Théoden, Aragorn and others merely as means to that end. Saruman asks Gandalf if he wants “the key of Orthanc.” Orthanc is the name of the tower that is Saruman’s base of operations, one of the eponymous Two Towers.

The Pride and Presumption of Peter

Ultimately however, Saruman is a reflection of Peter not because his actions precisely match those of Peter but that their cause does. Peter is often contrasted with Judas in that Peter is what Judas could have been. Both betrayed Jesus in some way, though the betrayal of Judas is inarguably worse. Nevertheless, they both showed signs of repentance. In the end, Peter requests and receives forgiveness for his denial. Judas on the other hand, sinned against the virtue of hope, despaired of the virtue of hope and hanged himself.

Peter and Judas: sinners against the virtue of Hope

The sin of despair made Judas think that nothing he could do would merit the forgiveness of Jesus. He failed to realize that while this was true, the grace of Christ was sufficient for him and Jesus would have willingly showed mercy on him had he asked.  Peter sinned against the virtue of hope but in the opposite way. He presumed that he could remain faithful through his own strength and that he did not need the grace of Christ. Peter told Jesus, with his characteristic brash boldness, that “”Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matthew 26:33) This of course leads Jesus to warn Peter that Satan has demanded “to sift him like wheat” and prophesies Peter’s threefold denial “before the cock crows.” Thus, the parts played in the Passion by Peter and Judas are both caused by the sins against the virtue of Hope.

The Palantir

Likewise In The Lord of the Rings, Denethor falls to despair while Saruman falls to presumption. Gandalf warns Saruman of the dangers of using a “seeing stone” known as palantir. The palantiri were originally created as a means of communication between realms but one was captured by forces of Sauron and therefore corrupted. Gandalf warns Saruman not to use a palantir because Sauron could corrupt and influence him through it. In his pride, Saruman thinks that he is strong enough to contend with the will of Sauron. He ignores Gandalf’s warning and precedes to use the palantir, thus coming under the influence of Sauron. (This can, of course, serve as powerful allegory and warning of the dangers of various occult practices, even “white” magic and fortune-telling)

Especially these things…*shudder*

Saruman_PalantirThrough the palantir, Sauron demonstrates his power and convinces Saruman that “against the power that is arising in the East, there is no victory.” However, rather than despairing as Denethor did, Saruman decides to join forces with Sauron, presuming in his pride that he is strong enough to contend with Sauron and treat with him, in not as an equal, at least as a valuable asset. In doing so, he once again ignores the warning of Gandalf that “There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will, and he does not share power”

It is barely hinted at in the movies, but in the books, Denethor is also corrupted by his use of a palantir, though which Sauron shows him the forces arrayed against Gondor. Thus, like Peter and Judas, Saruman and Denethor commit the same sin (using a palantir) but the results manifest in different ways. Like Peter and Judas, one sins by presumption and the other by despair.

Based on the books, this artwork captures the moment where Denethor reveals his palantir 

It is thus no accident, that the one man who can safely use the palantir is Aragorn, who was given the name Estel by his foster-father Elrond. Estel is Elvish for “hope.”

This scene is, unfortunately, an Extended Edition exclusive

People of the Passion: Middle-Earth Edition (Part I)

“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” -J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 142.

Tolkien and Lewis

Lewis and Tolkien

Unlike his friend, contemporary and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, Tolkien did not approve of nor employ direct allegory. In the Chronicles of Narnia, (contrary to what Liam Neeson would want you to be believe) Aslan IS Jesus. Lewis had the idea that if Jesus were to become incarnate, as He did on earth, in a world mostly populated by talking animals, He would do as a lion. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan tells Lucy that must remain in her world and not return to Narnia again. When her cousin Edmund asks him if he is also present in their world, Aslan responds “I am. But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.” That name is, of course, Jesus Christ.


Threefold Typology

In The Lord of the Rings, there is not just one character who is analogous to a figure in salvation history. For example, he has three characters who personify different aspects of Our Lady. Galadriel is the powerful and beautiful “Lady of Light” who represents Mary as Queen. Arwen, who chooses bear marry Aragorn and bear his son, knowing that their deaths will cause her immeasurable sorrow, is the Sorrowful Mother. And Éowyn is the Woman (“No living man am I!”) who fatally strikes at the serpent’s (Dragon/”fell beast”) head.


The same is true for Christ. Aragorn, living a hidden life in exile before ascending to the throne of his ancestors, is obviously Christ as King. Gandalf, warning of the growing power of the Enemy, is Christ as Prophet. And Frodo, who bears a burden of evil that is not his up a mountain so that it may be destroyed, is Christ as Priest. The sacrificial nature of the Passion connects it to the priestly aspect of Christ. Thus, Frodo suffers greatly in his body. Besides being stabbed by the Witch-King and stung by the Shelob, he is wounded in his hand and bears the mark of his suffering there for the rest of his life.


Samwise the Brave

Samwise2In the Passion Narratives in the Gospels, the Apostles flee upon Christ’s arrest. The Gospel than focuses on three of the Apostles: Peter, John and Judas. Like the Apostles, Frodo’s Fellowship is broken and scattered and he must continue on his quest alone. He is accompanied only by his faithful friend Samwise who stays with him through all his sufferings and is there with him “at the end of all things.” Although he briefly serves the role of Simon of Cyrene, temporarily bearing Frodo’s burden and when that fails, bearing Frodo himself (“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” still gets me every time), Samwise clearly represents St. John, the Beloved Disciple.


SmeagolSimilarly, Gollum/Sméagol rather clearly represents Judas Iscariot. He enters the service of Frodo and even refers to him as “Master.” Yet, he betrays him. In the end, that betrayal enables Frodo to accomplish his mission. Frodo fails at the very last moment and Gollum forcibly takes the Ring from him, only to fall into the lava of Mount Doom and destroy the Ring along with himself. This to assert (as a certain movie blasphemously did) that Judas is the true hero of the story nor that Jesus could not have accomplished his mission without the betrayal of Jesus. Tolkien having Frodo fall is not a denigration of Christ but rather an affirmation that no Christ-figure is a perfect representation of Our Lord because it is by definition a figure of Christ and not Christ Himself.

It is also an affirmation of the role of Providence. Christian creative imagination, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to modern vampire movies, has damned the betrayal of Judas as a singular evil.

Specifically, these two. The move version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (you read that correctly) mentioned the betrayal of Judas as the reason silver weakens vampires

Jesus Himself said, “It would have been better for him had he never been born.” Yet, the evil act facilitated the greatest good ever. When Frodo wishes that his uncle Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf rebukes him. “[D]o not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends…My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” In the same way, though Judas no doubt deserved death, as Gollum did, at the same time he is pitiable, and he had an important part to play in the Passion. As my brother once commented , “Judas is the Gollum of the Gospels.”

Pope St. Damasus I

Introduction and Biography

Pope_Damasus_IPope St. Damasus I is the eponymous patron saint of this blog. He was the thirty-seventh bishop of Rome. He reigned from 366 until 384 A.D, during a period of swift, monumental change for the Christian Church. In his lifetime, Damasus saw Christianity go from a viciously persecuted minority sect to the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Damasus was born sometime between the years 304 and 306, during the Great Persecution, perhaps in province of Lusitania, in the diocese of Hispania. This territory fell under the jurisdiction of the Western, and junior, Augustus Maximian. The persecution in the west was not as fierce as that in the east, under Diocletian and Galerius, but there were nonetheless a significant number of martyrs. The persecution undoubtedly had a formative impact on the young Damasus. Years later, when Damasus composed the epigram for the tomb of the martyrs Marcellinus and Peter, he recalled hearing the story of their execution from the man who carried it out. Around the same year that Damasus was born, Maximian abdicated and his Caesar Constantius Chlorus succeeded him. As befit his new position within the Tetrarchy as Augustus, Consantius added Spain to his territories of Gaul and Britain.


Constantius had always been more lenient toward the Christians than his imperial colleagues, thus with his accession, the persecution effectively ended in Spain. Two years later, Constantius died at Eboracum (York), while on campaign against the Picts, after which his troops acclaimed his son Constantine as emperor. During the childhood of Damasus, Constantine conquered his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge and subsequently issued the Edict of Toleration that legalized the practice of Christianity. In 325, when Damasus was about nineteen or twenty, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. The council formally anathematized Arius and condemned his teaching that the Son was of a “different essence” than the Father. Nevertheless, Arianism was far from dead.

Image of Constantine in York, where he was acclaimed as emperor

The Liberian Controversy

Liberio_papa1 (1)
Pope Liberius, predecessor of Damasus

Constantine himself was baptized on his deathbed by Eusebius, the Arian bishop of Nicomedia. Eusebius heavily influenced Constantine’s son and eventual sole heir Constantius II, who supported the Arian cause and exiled the staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria. Sometime between 355 and 356, Constantius also exiled Liberius, the bishop of Rome, to Thrace for not supporting the condemnation of Athanasius. Damasus served Liberius as a deacon and the crisis following the banishment would have dramatic repercussions for him, even after he became pope himself. Damasus would have to deal with some form of the Arian heresy through almost the entirety of his pontificate. It was not until Theodosius the Great (I) became emperor in the East that the tide turned officially against Arianism. Theodosius, with his western colleagues Gratian and Valentinian II, issued an edict in 380 that decreed that the Nicene faith would be the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The degree of influence that Damasus had directly on this imperial act is a matter of some debate, but the decree explicitly identifies the acceptable religion as that “which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus.” Only four years later, Damasus passed to his eternal reward.

Triumph of Orthodoxy

Damasus witnessed the beginning of the triumph of Nicene Christianity over paganism and Arianism. As was the case with his participation in the Altar of Victory controversy, Damasus played a mostly supporting role to notables such as Athanasius, Ambrose and Jerome in various crises. His was not a force of personality that shaped his century. But his confident assertions of Roman primacy, when they were necessary, established a precedent, at least in the West, of looking to the Roman see as a guarantor of orthodoxy. When Damasus believed that these assertions were being challenged by the East, he acted quickly to ensure the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome.


Although some of them had far reaching effects, the most successful of the achievements of Damasus were those that he accomplished in Rome itself. Most significantly, he wrote a series of epigraphs for the tombs of martyrs and other Christians which allowed him to literally leave his mark on the Eternal City. Whatever their overall literary merit, these inscriptions were part of an attempt by Damasus to demonstrate that intellectual culture was not in the purview of pagans alone.

St. Jerome, who had served as secretary to Damasus, began his work on the Vulgate at the Pope’s request

In a similar vein, Jerome began his great project of revising the old Latin translations of Scripture at the urging of Pope Damasus. It was also during the pontificate of Damasus that the liturgy began to be said in Latin. All of these events are modestly significant by themselves, but taken together, they demonstrate a Romanizing trend developing in Western Christianity simultaneous with the Christianization of Rome. Damasus’ appropriation of Roman geography, his Latin language initiatives, both scriptural and liturgical, and the epitaphs he wrote and placed in the catacombs were part of a concerted effort to establish Rome as the center of the Christian world, with the bishop at its head. Indeed, the whole of the papacy of Damasus was devoted to maintaining the primacy and expanding the power of the bishop of Rome.

From Damasus to Leo

Pope St. Leo the Great

Most historians have seen the pontificate of Leo I and his confident assertion of papal power to be the beginning of the monarchial style of power which would characterize the medieval papacy. However, the description of Damasus as pontifex in Cuncto Populos is but one example of Damasus setting the stage for Leo. Henry Chadwick put it best when he wrote, “The basis of Leo’s self-confidence is the conviction expressed by Damasus that Rome has a claim upon the apostles which is unique and unrivalled by any other community.”

It is certainly arguable that the acknowledgment of the primacy of Rome was a generally increasing trend even from the pontificate of Clement I (c. A.D. 92-99). Kenneth Whitehead sees Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians as an early example of the bishop of Rome authoritatively intervening in the affairs of a different see, as if he had jurisdiction. He writes, “It is clear from Clement’s Letter that he was conscious of occupying a place in the Church of Christ that allowed—even obliged—him to adopt the didactic and hortatory tone toward a sister Church.” From that point, Whitehead provides an exhaustive list of examples going past Damasus and even Leo all the way to Pope Hormisdas in A.D. 519.349

Damasus wrote an inscription, presumably in honor of St. Clement, the remains of which can be found in the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome

Rising from the Ashes

The Latin inscription reads “Constantine, victor through the cross, having been baptized here by Sylvester, spread the glory of the cross”. It is historically inaccurate

However, the continued ascendance of the Roman see was by no means a matter of course. The influence and deference that had caused others to look to Rome made the apparent capitulation of Liberius, whether factual or not, all the more devastating. The aftermath of the crisis, with the turmoil that ensued upon the death of Liberius, brought into question not only the legitimacy of his successor but whether the ostensible bishop of Rome could even maintain his position. Furthermore, by the time of Damasus, the status of the city of Rome had already begun to decline and the status of its bishop with it. Contrary to popular belief generated by forged medieval documents and exacerbated by Renaissance paintings, Pope Sylvester I did not baptize Constantine. In fact the pope probably did not ever meet the emperor. Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople and establishment of the city as a new capital further accelerated the loss of prestige that the city had endured during the Tetrarchy.

Arguably, when Damasus ascended to the throne of Peter in A.D. 366, the papacy was at its nadir. Damasus managed to turn the situation around and he did so rather quickly. Damasus did not have an exceptionally long papacy. It was just above average length: he reigned for eighteen years, in a period where the average length of a pontificate was about fourteen years.

Imperial favor

By the end of those eighteen years, Damasus had reestablished the prestige of the Roman see and fired the first salvo in what would become an escalating struggle for primacy with Constantinople. The events of the Liberian crisis clearly demonstrated to Damasus the unfortunate effects of being on the wrong side of imperial power. Damasus was fortunate to receive imperial support when faced with the Ursinican schism following his election. Whether Damasus bought this support with bribery, as alleged by the Ursinians, or not, he adroitly employed it to rid himself of his opposition. While the extent of the violence he allegedly inflicted on the Ursinicans is surely exaggerated, Damasus clearly suffered no rivals and was resolutely determined to root out those who set themselves up as such.

At the same time, Damasus shrewdly realized that it was not enough to remove his opposition but it was necessary to erase the memory of his enemies as well. This he accomplished by reclaiming locations associated with his opponents by means of strategically placed epigrams. These epigrams honored the classical heritage of Rome while appropriating it for the new Christian faith. In so doing, Damasus created a new material culture for Christian Rome, free from the taint of paganism. At the same time, by inserting his name into almost every epigram he forever associated himself with the martyrs. Damasus further this effect by singling out for special honoring those bishops and even martyrs with whom he could demonstrate personal connections.

Damasian Inscription of St Agnes
The inscription by Damasus in honor of St. Agnes

Latina Lingua Ecclesiae 

The prestige of the see rose with the power of the bishop. His epigrams evidence his conviction that Rome was, and should remain, the center of the Christian world. With the backing of such notables as Sts. Ambrose and Jerome, Damasus set about to make Latin the language of the Church in liturgy as well as in Scripture. In addition to ordering St. Jerome to start what eventually became the Vulgate, it is likely that the Canon of the Mass was composed during the pontificate of Damasus. It is interesting to note that many of the saints commemorated in the Canon (Peter and Paul, Agnes, Lawrence, Comsos and Damian, Marcellinus and Peter) were also commemorated in epigrams composed by Damasus.

The First Pontiff

Even at the end of his life, Damasus rose to meet challenges to the preeminent status of Rome as Christian capital both from within and without the Church. Damasus was the first pope to be called pontifex. He did not possess all the pomp and prestige that would later be associated with that office. Yet, he had risen to new heights of power from which his successors would not descend for centuries. It is therefore most appropriate to refer to Damasus as the first pontiff of Christian Rome.

The information in this post, and in most of the posts on this blog, is taken from my Master’s thesis The First Pontiff: Pope Damasus I and the Expansion of the Roman Primacy.”

Ambrosius of Mediolanum

Ambrosius and Damasus

Pope St. Damasus I

Pope St. Damasus I was born ca. A.D. 304/5 and died in A.D. 384. Aurelius Ambrosius was born ca. A.D. 340 and died in A.D. 397. (This was only 13 years after the death of Damasus and Ambrosius was over twenty years younger than Damasus was at the time of his own death.) Damasus was bishop of Rome and Ambrosius bishop of Mediolanum (hereafter referred to by its modern name: Milan). These were the two greatest sees in Italy, both having been imperial cities. There was only a decade of overlap wherein  but during these years they were frequently and quite close collaborators in the work of the Lord. So close was their collaboration that the ecclesiastical historian Theodoret invariably pairs the two with each other, as one might pair St. Peter with St. Paul

Auxentius the Arian

Liberio_papa1 (1)
Pope Liberius was the first pope to not be recognized as a saint

With his position within the city of Rome itself finally firmly secure, Damasus needed to further establish himself by extending his power beyond the confines of the city. This entailed dealing with the aftermath of the Arian crisis which had so dramatically affected his predecessor Liberius. Liberius had allegedly agreed to the problematic creed formulated at the Council of Arminum under Constantius II. Once Liberius had safely returned to Rome, he repudiated the creed in a letter that Socrates preserved in the text of his historical work.

Emperor Valentinian I

One of the few Western bishops who still supported the Arian creed was Auxentius, the bishop of the imperial city of Milan. Eusebius of Vercelli and Hilarius of Potiers, who like Liberius had suffered exile under Constantius, worked hard to remove Auxentius. Their efforts to do so were thwarted in 364 by the emperor Valentinian I who, while personally Nicene, advocated a policy of harmony and toleration among the Christian factions. In A.D. 371, Damasus called a synod of Western bishops in Rome that repudiated all the decrees passed at Ariminum. No doubt this was at least partially motivated by the controversy which still surrounded the memory of Liberius that the followers of Lucifer of Cagliari were using to their advantage.

In an epistula addressed to the bishops of Illyria, Damasus wrote that “Those who devise strange doctrines ought not to be followed…Auxentius, bishop of Milan, has been publically declared to be condemned preeminently in this matter.” Nevertheless, even the full weight of the authority of the Roman see was not enough to dislodge Auxentius from his own, until his death in A.D. 374.

Arrival of Ambrosius

Early mosaic of Ambrosius

Ambrosius Aurelius was the consularis of the province of Aemelia-Liguria, of which Milan was the capital. He came from a Christian family but was still a catechumen. (Early Christians typically put off baptism until close to death, to ensure entrance into Heaven. The emperor Constantine was not baptized until close to death.) Foreseeing a heated dispute over the episcopal succession that would likely generate significant unrest, Ambrosius went to the church where the election was occurring, ostensibly to maintain order.

Neil McLynn has argued that the intervention of Ambrosius had a pro-Nicene slant and that he took over the proceedings to ensure that the Nicenes at least had a voice in the proceedings. The Nicenes viewed this action as support for their cause and acclaimed Ambrose as bishop. He initially dramatically refused and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid being consecrated, but reluctantly took up the episcopal office when Valentinian ordered him to do so.

Episcopus Ambrosius

Ambrosius proved himself to be the foremost ally of Damasus in the West. Ambrosius himself stressed his allegiance and adherence to Rome, to the point that one of his opponents even referred to him as the “servant” or mouthpiece of Damasus.

Ambrosius also shared the conviction of Damasus that to be truly Christian was to be Roman. It was at some point during the time when Damasus ruled over Rome and Ambrosius ruled over Milan, that the church in both cities began to formulate a standard liturgical text. Whereas the liturgy had originally been in Greek, the new prayers were written in Latin. Mauren Lafferty argued that, “An examination of Ambrose’s anti-Arian writings reveals that Ambrose repeatedly figures the Arians in Milan as uncivilized, non-Latinate barbarians, despite the reality that both Latin-speakers and Greek speakers…also belonged to the Arian community there.” In order for the arguments of both Ambrose and Damasus in this case to hold, the identity of Rome as a Christian city had to be maintained

Altar of Victory

A significant threat to such a maintenance came in the last year of the pontificate of Damasus. Augustus had installed the Altar of Victory in the Curia in 27 B.C. to commemorate his victory at Actium. It remained there until Constantius II removed it in 357. His successor Julian the Apostate subsequently restored it. In A.D. 382, Gratian removed the Altar for a second time and when a group of pagan senators rebuked him for thus neglecting his duties as pontifex maximus, the emperor rejected the title. After the assassination of Gratian the next year, a group of senators presented a relatio to the new emperor Valentinian II, in which they protested the removal of the Altar and requested its reinstallation.

Emperor Gratian

The relatio, authored by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, prefect of Rome, argued that the disasters which had befallen the Empire in the later part of the fourth century, particularly the defeat at Adrianople, were the result of neglecting the ancestral rites of the Romans. In response to this petition by Symmachus, Ambrosius wrote a letter to Valentinian, in which called him “most Christian emperor,” to argue against putting the Altar back. Ambrose mentioned to the emperor that Damasus had sent him a memorandum from the Christian senators protesting that they did not support “the request of the heathen.” The senators also threatened to boycott Senate meetings if Valentinian restored the Altar. Convinced that the Senate was not unanimous in its request, Gratian rejected the restoration request.

This passing mention is the solitary reference to Damasus in the Epistulae of Ambrose. Nevertheless, it depicts Damasus and Ambrose closely collaborating in the context of a significant event with both political and religious implications. Such close collaboration was clearly the norm and was not exceptional. Ambrose was a staunch and invaluable ally of Damasus in increasing the power of the papacy, in no small part because the proximity of Milan to Rome meant that an increase in Rome’s prestige helped increase that of Milan as well.

Theodosius Magnus

Theodosius (I) the Great

Damasus exerted a subdued, but nonetheless significant influence on Theodosius. Damasus was at the very least of Spanish extraction and Theodosius certainly was born in Hispania, in what is now the city of Coca.  However, the most significant influence exerted on Theodosius by Damasus was in the person of Acholius, the bishop of Thessalonica. Acholius baptized Theodosius following a serious illness that left the emperor near death in A.D. 380. Thus, it is no accident that in that same year, Theodosius issued the famous edict Cunctos Populos from Thessalonica, for which reason it is also known as the edict of Thessalonica. The Edict established orthodox Christianity, defined as “that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter…and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria” as the state religion of the empire. It is likely that this definition on the part of Theodosius was a result of the influence of Acholius, who was in regular communication with Damasus.

This new “favored faith” status for Christianity did not prevent Ambrosius from speaking truth to power. During the episcopate of Ambrosius, his see of Milan, rather than Rome, served as the Western imperial capital and thus was frequented by the emperor. Ironically, in the same place in which he declared Christianity to be the faith of the Empire, Theodosius committed his most egregious offense against its tenets. In response to a revolt that broke out in Thessalonica and cost the Roman governor his life, Theodosius massacred 7,000 inhabitants of the city.

Despite having closely collaborated with a man who himself had been born during the Great Persecution and made it his life endeavor to maintain the memory of the martyrs, Ambrosius was unafraid to risk imperial ire and possible retribution. He excommunicated Theodosius and called him to repentance, going so far as to refuse to celebrate Mass in the presence of the emperor and physically bar the emperor from entering the cathedral at Milan. Only after eight months did Ambrosius decide that Theodosius had demonstrated the appropriate amount of repentance and readmitted him to Communion.

Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral- Anthony van Dyck


In this day and age of doctrinal confusion, wherein so many bishops abdicate their duty to stand up and rebuke heresy espoused by both within the Church and without it, it would do well for them to remember and emulate the example of St. Ambrose. Let us pray that more bishops follow the example of Ambrosius in defending the truth of the Faith and its proper practice.

Sancte Ambrosi et Damase, orate pro nobis!

Review: Storm of Fire and Blood

With Storm of Fire and Blood, Dr. Taylor Marshall’s epic trilogy centered on the life of Lucius Aurelius Georgius Cyrenicus, a.k.a. St. George, takes its place among Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings as an outstanding trilogy with a resounding, glorious conclusion that will make readers both weep and triumphantly exult simultaneously.SoFB

Most trilogies turn on the middle installment. Either, the second book/movie is the best of the three, as is the case with Star Wars, or it seems like it is just holding time for the conclusion, as many critics (quite wrongly) say with The Lord of the Rings. In this case, the Sword and Serpent trilogy has more in common with Star Wars. Narrative themes are shared more closely between these two novels than the sequel that comes between them.   

10thRotNBest of Three?

Moreover, the first and third installments somewhat share a similar narrative structure, in that anyone who is familiar with the story of St. George will know how each novel ends. In The Tenth Region of the Night, Dr. Marshall was largely free to tell his own story, adding to the story he told in the eponymous novel of the trilogy, continuing narrative threads and most importantly, developing characters. In both the first and third novels, there is a certain ending that Dr. Marshall must reach and the success of both novels depends on his ability to do so in a way that is both convincing and compelling.

As I wrote in my review of Sword and Serpent, this process seemed rushed in the first novel. However, it is clear that Dr. Marshall has matured as a novelist over the course of writing this trilogy. My only complaint is that the climax of this novel, and therefore the conclusion of the trilogy, seems rather abrupt. I would have liked to see more dialogue and debate between Diocletian and Jurian (as the martyr is called in the trilogy) and a fuller development of the hints that Diocletian and the dragon from the first novel are somehow connected. However, while the rushed nature of the first novel’s storytelling detracted from the overall plot, the abruptness of that of the final novel adds to the pathos and devastating nature of its conclusion.

Historical Research

It is once again evident that Dr. Marshall has been diligent in the research for this trilogy, weaving in facts and personages that of which only someone with a commanding knowledge of the historical context upon which the events of this novel are based would even be aware. I daresay that I am quite knowledgeable on the historical and hagiographical context of the Tetrarchy and rise of Constantine. Dr. Marshall hits all the right points and yet I learned a number of things through further research inspired by my reading of Dr. Marshall’s work. This has led to much use of foreshadowing throughout the novel as well as a powerful employment of dramatic irony.


Emperor Constantine and Helena
While his mother Helena is venerated as a saint in both the East and West, Constantine is only venerated in the East

While reading book two, I realized that Constantinus would play more than a supporting role in the trilogy. Since reading that Dr. Marshall was a fan of English Catholic author Evelyn Waugh’s fictional biography of St. Helena, I knew he would include a certain fact in the narrative of the trilogy and sure enough he did.  Although this particular minor point flies in the face of accepted scholarship, as a historian, I appreciate that Dr. Marshall does not simply ignore the historical consensus but both responds to and maneuvers around it with authorial adroitness. Once again, Dr. Marshall has done an outstanding job of taking the historical anachronisms present in the legends surrounding his dramatis personae and integrating them into his narrative in a way that makes sense within the historical context of his novels.

King Arthur

Ex Cal(ce) Ab Ur(so)

The aforementioned narrative fact further connects the Sword and Serpent trilogy with Arthurian legend, which is one of my favorite subjects. One of the most important narrative threads shared by the first and final novels of the trilogy is the importance of the sword Excalibur to the plot as whole and most importantly to the climax of the novel. This was but one of my many favorite parts of the novel, as well as the trilogy as a whole. My least favorite part was always the villain Casca. However, nowhere has the development of Dr. Marshall as a novelist been more evident than in the development of his Casca character and nowhere is this complexity more evident, and unexpected, than in the final novel.

One More Book?

I had thought that the final novel of the trilogy would detail the fates of the other martyrs that Dr. Marshall chose to include in his story of St. George, however; I am glad that, in the end, he does not. This is Jurian’s story, after all, and nothing should detract from his triumph. Perhaps, Dr. Marshall will write a follow up or companion novel to conclude these stories. If he does, I would most certainly read it with great enthusiasm.

You can purchase Storm of Fire and Blood here:


Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Wisdom 6:12-16

Epistle: I Thessalonians 4:13-18

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13

In the readings for a Sunday Mass, the first reading (usually taken from the Old Testament) and the Gospel are usually connected by some sort of theme. It is rare for the readings to all connect with each other thematically. It is even rarer for the Second Reading (usually from the Epistles) to connect with the Gospel while the First Reading is only tangentially related (more than that later).

To the Church at Thessalonika

Such is the case this Sunday. In the passage from his first epistle to the church at Thessalonika, Saint Paul writes of the fate of those who have died before the return of Christ. Here, it is important to note that epistle is likely the first New Testament writing. It was composed in A.D. 52, less than twenty years after the death and Resurrection of Our Lord. At this time, the early Christians believed that Christ’s Second Coming, or Parousia, was imminent and that most of those alive at the time would witness His return. Thus, what will happen to those who have died before this blessed advent was of paramount concern.

st-paulSaint Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who have died have only “fallen asleep” and will wake to new life when Christ returns. A person who is asleep is expected to awaken. Not only will they share in the experience of witnessing the returning, glorified Christ but they will share in His Resurrection before those who are alive. “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Those who are alive when Christ returns must be “sober and awake” as Saint Peter would say in order to be adequately prepared for the Lord’s return.

The image of a wedding feast or banquet is often used as a metaphor for the joy of the blessed in Heaven. The Bridegroom coming to claim his Bride and take her into His home is a well-known image for the return of Christ in glory. Those whom Saint Paul talks about rising to meet the Lord in the air are like the members of the wedding party who, in ancient times, when the arrival of the bridegroom was announced, would go out to meet him and accompany him as we went to claim his bride. This is illustrated in the parable from this week’s Gospel reading. It is interesting that Saint Paul and most of the early Christians believed that Christ’s return was imminent when Our Lord’s own words here hint that was not to be the case.

Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

In the culture of the time, wedding feasts were extravagant. Part of the ceremony involved a procession, at night, during which the bridegroom would come to take his wife into his home, where the wedding feast would take place. His way was let by attendants, usually young virgins, with lamps or torches. In the parable, the Bridegroom is “long delayed” and as a result the virgins whose job it is to light his way fall asleep. When the imminent arrival of the bridegroom is announced, the wise virgins do not have enough oil. However, the wise virgins, who thought that the bridegroom might be delayed, brought extra oil.

This week’s readings are the first in a series of eschatological readings focusing on the end times. As the Church approaches the end of the liturgical year and starts to prepare for the celebration of Our Lord’s First Coming, she calls for us to be mindful of his Second Coming.

It is almost cliché to ask, but if Our Lord returned in glory tomorrow would He find us prepared? In every age, Christians have asked the question if their time was the one in which Christ would return. That day will come, sooner or later. Will we be prepared? Or will we have become drowsy and fallen asleep because He was “long delayed”?

Every Christian who has lived from A.D 33 until 2017 has meet Our Lord, not at His coming in glory, but at that person’s individual death. Such will likely be the fate for all Christians alive at this moment on the planet. We may not be alive to witness the glorious return of Our Lord, but we will certainly all die one day. Either situation ends with judgment on our souls by Our Lord.

TFAn old Latin proverb says Tempus fugit. Memento mori. (“Time flies. Remember death.”) To most of us, our deaths seem a far way off. Yet, our hora mortis could be this week, tomorrow or this very hour. It could come upon us suddenly and unlike the return of Christ, without signs to give us warning. Are we prepared for death? When was the last time you went to Confession? Do not delay. “For you do not know the day or the hour”

On Purgatory

A photograph of St. Therese of Lisieux

Last week, the Church commemorated the souls of all the Faithful Departed on the day after the Solemnity of All Saints. In doing so, she reminds us that not only there members of the Church both in Heaven and on Earth, but there are members of the Church who are suffering as they work off the last vestiges of their sins in the purifying fires of Purgatory. Although these “poor souls” are infinitely better off than all us “saints still striving” because their eventual entrance into Heaven is assured, such suffering was tragically avoidable. St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, said that no soul ever had to go to Purgatory. Rather they do because they do not trust God in everything.

In His infinite mercy, God sends every person every grace he needs to purify his soul prior to death. However, because these graces take the form of sufferings, we reject them and thus must suffer the pains of Purgatory in order to properly purify our souls. In this way, are we prepared for death? Of course, the priority is insuring that our souls are in a state of grace, but provided that they are, have we taken the necessary steps to ensure that our souls are in a “more perfect” state so that we may behold our Bridegroom that much sooner?

Seek Wisdom

The virgins are prepared because they are wise. How does one become wise? By seeking wisdom. The First Reading personifies Wisdom as a woman, who is easily found when she is sought and does not spurn the attentions of those who love her. We need only seek Wisdom to know what we must do to be prepared for meeting Christ, either at the hour of our death or at His Second Coming, and thus share in His glorious Resurrection.

The Tragedy of Martin Luther

A tragic hero is defined as a dramatic character who starts out as noble, but possesses a certain tragic flaw. This flaw is usually a normally ennobling trait, but the hero carries it to excess, and that becomes his downfall. Sometimes, the tragic hero undergoes some form of redemption, but he is never restored to the fullness of his former position.

The mythical Oedipus the King is considered the archetypical tragic hero, while later playwrights have perfected the tragic hero. Most notable among these is William Shakespeare who has unforgettable tragic heroes in such characters as King Lear and Hamlet. There are poignant renditions of the tragic hero in more modern works of literature and drama, such as Boromir of Gondor and Anakin Skywalker.

Martin Luther=Tragic Hero?

1529MartinLutherNo Catholic should, and no properly formed Catholic would, consider Martin Luther to be a hero. However, as I have read and studied more about Luther, he does seem to be a bit of a tragic figure.

Luther became a priest despite the objections of his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer. The young Luther appeared zealous for his faith, to the point that he annoyed his fellow Augustinians who had grown more lax in their observance. Here, Luther’s tragic flaw takes center stage. He became overly scrupulous, to the point that he would confess the same sin, multiple times. No doubt his experience of a difficult earthly father, whom he also seemed to displease, made him view his Heavenly Father in the same way. Nothing he could do was good enough.

Road to Revolt

He thus became convinced that he was unworthy of being forgiven and that nothing he could due would keep him out of Hell. This would tragically lead to Luther twisting verses of Scripture, particularly from the Epistle to the Romans, to come up with a doctrine by which no one could merit salvation by his works but is saved solely by the unmerited grace of God. The doctrine of sola fide, taken to its logical conclusion, completely removes the need for an institutional Church.

Prior to his development of this novel doctrine, Luther went to Rome in 1505. While there, he saw all the depraved debauchery and corruption for which Renaissance era Rome was so notorious. He heard priests openly deny the doctrine of transubstantiation and saw them rush through Mass as a result. This deeply scandalized Luther.

Both of these issues came to a roaring head in 1517, when Johan Tetzel came to Wittenberg, where Luther was teaching in the University, to sell indulgences. Technically, the indulgence was attached to a donation for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, but to Luther that was a distinction without a difference. Having seen the corruption of Rome, Luther felt that there was no way that the bishop of that city was fit to erase the penalties due to sins in the often grandiose way that Tetzel preached he could via the indulgence. And Luther’s doctrine of sola fide made such a thing unnecessary anyway, because salvation was a free gift and could not be earned by any work, least of all by paying a fee. Thus, the twin tragic flaws of scandal at sins of the clergy and a scrupulous attentive to one’s salvation and acknowledgment of one’s sinfulness, led to Luther’s downfall.

Papal Authority

Leo X
Pope Leo X

But the posting of the Ninety-Theses on October 31, 1517 was not the end, but only the beginning, of Luther’s downfall. Almost a year after posting the Theses, Luther penned a letter to Pope Leo X in which he argued his case. In his letter, he remains respectful of papal authority, even writing toward the end “Perhaps I am shamelessly bold in seeming to teach so great a head, by whom all men ought to be taught.” It took the Pope almost two years to respond with the papal bull Exsurge Domine (“Arise, O Lord”) on June 15, 1520. In it, the Pope rightly condemned certain parts of Luther’s writings as heretical, but completely ignored all of the valid concerns that Luther had raised.

At this point, the quintessential tragic flaw of hubris cemented Luther’s downfall. Luther had fallen victim to pride, the root of all sins. In the two years between his letter to the Pope and the papal bull, Luther had engaged in numerous disputations with papal legates and other representatives of the Church and had only become more hardened and persistent in his heresy. On December 10, 1520; Luther demonstrated his repudiation of papal authority by burning a copy of the papal bull. This act, more than his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, marks his definitive break from Rome.

Had Luther humbly submitted to the authority of the Pope and recanted, then worked to reform the abuses in the Church rather than changing doctrine, we would be remembered very differently. He might have even been rightly considered a heroic reformer, and viewed in the same way that the Church views saints like Francis of Assisi. Instead, he is remembered, like Judas, as a traitor and heresiarch who rent Western Christendom asunder.

500 Years…and counting

Five full centuries later, the Church is once again scandalized by the sinful and indifferent behavior of many clerics, even at the highest of ecclesiastical echelons. Doctrine is repudiated, if not in actual words, then certainly by actions and omissions. The Pope refuses to listen to or respond to those with legitimate concerns and criticisms and instead asserts his authority in a draconian fashion. Nevertheless, we must not give into the temptation to follow Luther’s example. We must stay in communion with the Holy Father, because even if he is shockingly wrong on discipline, he cannot teach false doctrine and he remains the Vicar of Christ. The most tragic aspect of the whole tragedy of Martin Luther is how the sins and corruptions of clergy led to the pulling of so many souls out of the Barque of the Peter, outside of which there is no salvation.

It is truly ironic how much Pope Francis chooses to honor Luther, considering how closely the Holy Father’s actions match those of the Pope against him Luther rebelled

I must confess that I find it hard to imagine Martin Luther enjoying the Beatific Vision. I have little doubt that upon his passing from this life, Our Lord Jesus Christ called him to task for the revolt against His Church that Luther incited and more importantly for the deadly fruits of it, both temporal and, more importantly, spiritual. Yet, I have equally little doubt that the same can be said of Pope Leo X, Johan Tetzel and every other cleric whose sin scandalized Luther and caused so many to follow him down his path of rebellion. Still, one of the few things Luther got right was the infinite nature of God’s mercy. How ironic would it be for Martin Luther to be languishing in Purgatory, a doctrine he condemned, and see how many souls are freed from suffering thanks to the indulgences against which he railed.

One never knows. Perhaps, as we prepare on this All Hallows’ Eve for the Solemnity of All Saints, we might spare a prayer for the soul of Martin Luther, that he might one day be included in their number. At any rate, we should certainly pray for humility, for our Holy Father and for the Church, while echoing the Priestly Prayer of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “That all may be one.”

Pope John XXIV?

Fictional Popes John XXIV

Of the countless works of fiction written and published during the twenty-six year pontificate of John Paul II, two stand out. They are Pierced by a Sword by Bud McFarlane Jr. and The Last Fisherman by Randy England. Both these were books written by Catholic authors, primarily for a Catholic audience. They were certainly reflective of the general mood in the Church at the time, as Catholics all over the world prepared to enter the Third Millennium since the birth of Christ. Perhaps for this reason, they both deal with eschatology.

PbyaSAs its name would suggest, Pierced by the Sword is heavily influenced by the recent wave of alleged Marian apparitions, which seemed to reach fever pitch in the Nineties. All the events supposedly prophesied in these apparitions: the Warning, the Miracle, the Chastisement and Three Days of Darkness. The novel ends not with the Second Coming of Christ but with the Triumph of the Two Hearts and inauguration of the Age of Peace, also known as the Eucharistic Reign. In contrast, The Last Fisherman is really your standard Christian End Times fiction, with Catholic elements (banning of the Mass, Enoch and Elijah as Witnesses instead of Moses and Elijah) added in. The last line of the book describes the sound of the Trumpet as Christ returns in glory.

Both these works feature as a main character a Pope of Irish extraction who takes a decidedly Irish regnal name that has never been used before. In Pierced by the Sword, an Irish cardinal is elected as the successor to John Paul II and predictably takes the name Pope Patrick. The eponymous hero of The Last Fisherman is Bishop Brendan Shea (not only not a cardinal but an auxiliary bishop) who becomes the first pope since the short-lived Marcellus II in 1555 to retain his baptismal name as his regnal name.

last fishermanMost importantly, a key point of both these works is the Pope being forced to flee from Rome, and an antipope reigning in his place. In The Last Fisherman, (fictional) Pope Clement XV appoints eight cardinals to elect his successor. The elect Brendan, who was only present as an aide to the Cardinal-Archbishop for whom he is an auxiliary. The rest of the College of Cardinals revolts against this and elects an antipope to oppose him.  In Pierced by the Sword, Pope Patrick is the victim of an assassination attempt. (It is heavily implied that John Paul II, like his predecessor, is murdered with drugs to induce a heart attack.) Patrick barely survives, but the world believes him to be dead, and another cardinal is elected to succeed. This cardinal is part of a shadowy cabal called the Society of Builders (clearly meant to be Freemasons) who has “arranged” for him to be elected as the successor of John Paul II but is initially stymied by the election of Patrick. (Sound familiar?)

In both novels, this antipope quickly sets about repudiating doctrines of the Faith. Mass is outlawed, contraceptives are allowed, and women are ordained as priests. And in both novels, the antipope takes the name John XXIV.

 Tribulation_Force_PaperbackThis is not a phenomenon strictly relegated to works of Catholic apocalyptic fiction. The wildly successful, dispensationalist Protestant Left Behind series is anything but Catholic. It also features a John XXIV, although he is not an antipope and is presumably intended as the successor to John Paul II. (Tribulation Force, the book in which he is mentioned, was published in 1995, around the same as both Pierced by the Sword and The Last Fisherman.) In the novels, John XXIV is among those who vanish in the Rapture. When I first read this, I was happy. I thought that this was a Protestant nod to ecumenism that acknowledged that the leader of the Catholic Church could be among the blessed in heaven. As revealed later in the novel, it was actually a slap in the face to Catholics because the only reason that John XXIV was raptured was because he embraced the doctrine sola fidei justification that had been held by Martin Luther. Thus, rather than a compliment to Catholics, this detail was swipe at both the doctrines of papal infallibility and justification by faith and works. In short, John XXIV was a heretic.

Almost Pope John XXIV

Why is it so easy for Christian creative minds, both Protestant and Catholic, to imagine that a papal claimant who would repudiate Church doctrines and try to change both her teachings and practice would be named John? Perhaps it has something to do with the impression, both within and without the Church, that the Second Vatican Council, opened by John XXIII, was meant as a definitive change in the Church. Thus, if a Pope were to choose John as his regnal name, it would signal that he wished to carry on in that spirit, and perhaps institute even more radical change than what was foisted upon the Church at the Second Vatican Council.

For these reasons, it was rather startling to read that had he been elected Pope in the 2005 Conclave, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio would have taken the name John XXIV. He is reported to have told the late Francesco Cardinal Marchisano “John, I would have called myself John, like the Good Pope; I would have been completely inspired by him” Of course, he finished second in that conclave and would go on to succeed the man who beat him in that election when Benedict XVI abdicated in 2013. It was after his election in that conclave that Bergoglio, upon the admonition of Claudio Cardinal Hummes to not “forget the poor,” chose the never before used regnal name of Francis.

The late Claudio Cardinal Hummes, whose admonition to Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio convinced him to take the unprecedented regnal name of Francis over John XXIV

Despite his taking of the name Francis, it would appear that the Holy Father is more than “completely inspired” Pope John XXIII. A number of actions taken by Pope Francis indicate that he identifies with and seeks to carry on the work of John XXIII. Chief among these is, of course, his canonization of John XXIII, which occurred, along with that of John Paul II, on April 27, 2014. From the time that cries of “Santo Subito” rang out in St. Peter’s Square immediately following his death in 2005, the canonization of John Paul II, has been all but a foregone conclusion. What was far more surprising was the announcement that John XXIII would be canonized along with him.

Pope St. John Paul II
pio nono
Blessed Pope Pius IX, who was beatified along with John XXIII in 2000

John XXIII was beatified by the pope with whom he would be canonized on June 3, 2000. John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX on the same day. Even at the time, this was considered unusual. It was theorized that the beatification of Pius IX was a political move, “to balance out” the beatification of a pope who even at that time was seen as an icon of progressivism with that of a noted reactionary pontiff. Ironically, some of the ideas condemned in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors would enter the thinking of the Church following the Council that John XXIII convened.

Then, in 2014 it was announced that Pope Francis would canonize John XXIII on the same day as the pope who canonized him. There was already more than a little controversy over the canonization of John Paul II for, among others reasons, coming less than a decade after his death (although St. Francis of Assisi was canonized less than two years after his death, for example). John Paul II at least had the requisite miracles attributed to his intercession. John XXIII did not, yet Francis saw fit to raise him to the altars nevertheless. This is certainly within papal prerogative, but the entire current canonization process was instituted to prevent dubious canonizations (such as that of the emperor Charlemagne by antipope Paschal III 1165, which was annulled in 1179).

A poster in Rome advertising the joint canonization of Pope Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII by Pope Francis in 2014

A less reported, but nevertheless, crucial announcement that came within months of the election of Francis and gives some insight into why he chose to canonize John XXIII. On the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker in 2013, it was announced that Pope Francis had ordered that the name of St. Joseph be added to every Eucharistic Prayer. The explanation that was usually offered was that because his papal inauguration was on March 19, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Pope Francis had a special devotion to Saint Joseph and wished to ensure that he was probably honored.

The Legacy of John XXIII

However, St. Joseph has not always been commemorated in the Roman Canon. On November 13, 1962, Pope John XXIII added St. Joseph to the Roman Canon. At that time, of course, the Roman Canon was the only option for a “Eucharistic Prayer.” After Vatican II, three more Eucharistic Prayers were added, but none of them commemorated St. Joseph (or any other saint besides the Blessed Virgin Mary). Thus, in a way, the addition of the commemoration of St. Joseph to the other Eucharistic Prayers is emblematic of the desire of Pope Francis to visibly carry on in the tradition of John XXIII.

It is certainly nothing new for a Pope to honor and even glorify his predecessors, often in ways that help that advance that particular pontiff’s agenda. Pope St. Damasus I did just that with Popes Sixtus II, Cornelius, Eusebius, Marcellus I and possibly Marcus. However, the legacy of John XIII is troubled, at best. Moreover, the regnal name of John is associated with heterodoxy in the creative imaginations of Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. The actions of Pope Francis himself, appear to indicate that he is eager to change, if not doctrine, at least the discipline of the Church. All these factors make the close identification of Pope Francis both John XXIII and his legacy deeply disconcerting, to say the least.

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (Jerome)

Letter to the Pope

Jerome had written a letter to Damasus between 376 and 377, asking Damasus to intervene in a crisis that was currently embroiling Jerome’s home see of Antioch. In 330, a synod at Antioch, instigated by Eusebius of Nicomedia, deposed and subsequently exiled Eustathius on the grounds the he held to the doctrine of Sabellianism The see of Antioch was held by a succession of Arian and Semi-Arian bishops, culminating with Eudoxius in 358.299 Meanwhile, the Nicaean resistance in Antioch, led by a presbyter named Paulinus, continued to consider Eustathius to be the rightful bishop of Antioch until his death in 337. When Eudoxius became the bishop of Constantinople, Meletius was elected to succeed him. Socrates wrote that Meletius “at first avoided all doctrinal questions…but subsequently he expounded to his auditors the Nicene creed, and asserted the doctrine of the homoousion. The emperor being informed of this, ordered that he should be sent into exile and caused Euzoius, who had before been deposed together with Arius, to be installed bishop of Antioch in his stead.”
Despite this demonstration, at cost, of adherence to the doctrine of Nicaea, the followers of Eustathius still refused to recognize Meletius as rightful bishop due to his prior connections with the Arian party. In 361, Constantius died and was succeeded by Julian, who annulled all his predecessor’s decrees of expulsion in an effort to weaken the Christians with division. In this, he succeeded. Along with Meletius, returned the rigorist Lucifer of Cagliari. Soon to start a schism of his own, Lucifer exacerbated the one at Antioch by beating Meletius to the city and consecrating Paulinus as bishop.302 The adherents of Nicaea were thus divided and unable to present a united front against the Arians.
In his letter, Jerome explained that members of the Meletian party were harassing him in an effort to ascertain which candidate he supported and determine his orthodoxy.303 Eastern Christians tended the use of the formula of “three hypostases in one ousias” to describe the Trinity. In so doing, they hoped to avoid the charge of Sabellianism that the followers of Arius so often hurled at the adherents of Nicaea. For rigorists adherents of Nicaea, including the followers of Eustathius, this was a dangerous innovation on the Nicene Creed that bordered on Arianism. Although he claims to be neutral, Jerome shows himself to at least a sympathizer of Paulinus by referring to the three hypostases as an “unheard of formula” and calling the Meletians “Arians.”
In the letter, Jerome urges Damasus to use his position as bishop of Rome to do something about the schism. Ever the student of rhetoric, Jerome uses grandiose and hyperbolic language to describe his allegiance to the bishop of Rome. He goes as far as to state that he will abide by whatever ruling Damasus might give, even if it were to go against the doctrine established at Nicaea. Jerome indicates that he has such great trust in Damasus because as bishop of Rome, he is the successor of Peter. “My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church was built!”
Surprisingly, Damasus does not take this opportunity to assert the authority Jerome strongly believes him to possess. Less than a year later, Jerome once again wrote to Damasus to renew his plea. He opens the letter with allusions to a number of New Testament parables where a supplicant receives that for which he asks through unrelenting persistence. Jerome reiterates his submission to the authority of the pope by stating “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” His additional statement that all three claimants to the see of Antioch claim to do so as well, indicates the prestige that the see of Rome held at this time. There is no recorded response of Damasus to this letter.

Episcopal Confusion

The crisis came to a head at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Damasus supported Paulinus, but the Meletian party stubbornly elected Flavian to succeed Meletius when he died during the course of the council. Following the close of the Council of Constantinople, Jerome travelled to Rome with Paulinus. In Rome, Jerome met Damasus, who recognized the presbyter’s skills and employed him in a secretarial capacity. Jerome himself wrote of “helping Damasus bishop of Rome with his ecclesiastical correspondence, and writing his answers to the questions referred to him by the councils of east and west.” In his letter to Asella, Jerome writes that “Damasus, of blessed memory, spoke no words but mine.” This simple, albeit no doubt exaggerated, comment reflects the level of influence Jerome exerted, or thought he exerted, on the aging pontiff. In that way, it would fit well with Jerome’s earlier statement, in the same latter, that “almost everyone” judged him as a viable candidate to succeed Damasus as bishop of Rome.
Although Jerome did not enter the orbit of Damasus until the last five years of his pontificate, he played a substantial role in the elderly pope’s expansion of power. In his extensive study of the relationship between late antique Christianity and monetary wealth, Peter Brown argued that Damasus consciously presented himself as a patron of the finest arts. To this end, Damasus had scholars and other experts work on projects that he patronized. One such artist was Furius Dionysius Filocalus, who had designed and carved the script for the epigrams of Damasus.

Working for Damasus

Jerome was another scholar/expert whom Damasus patronized. Brown argued that Jerome saw an opportunity and played on the need of Damasus for scholars. “Jerome knew that Damasus needed experts. He was quick to present himself as indispensable as a translator and a critic of the texts.” Damasus had a great deal to gain from patronizing Jerome. In the preface to his translation of Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs, Jerome states that his work “would require almost boundless leisure and labor and money.”These were the very thing which an aristocrat possessed that allowed them to patronize artists and scholars. By patronizing the work of Jerome, Damasus was able to further the image of himself that he wished to project.
The basis of Jerome’s career had been the patronage of Damasus: therefore, the reputation of Jerome rested on that of his patron. As such, Jerome was eager to present a favorable image of Damasus. In De viris illustribus, Jerome writes that Damasus, “had a fine talent in making verses and published many works in heroic meter.” If Damasus had indeed been talented in composing poetry, then he could certainly be trusted as a connoisseur who would only patronize work of the highest quality. Modern critics have not been as kind as Jerome to Damasus. J.N.D. Kelly found the epigrams of Damasus to be “sonorous-sounding, if rather vacuous.” Even less kindly, Alan Cameron characterized Damasus as a “poor stylist” and described one particular epitaph as “typically frigid…a tissue of tags and clichés shakily strung together and barelysqueezed into the meter.”
Kelly argued that Jerome’s secretarial position was initially only supposed to last for the duration of the synod, but that Jerome proved his worth and stayed on in the same position after the synod. The document known as the Decretum Gelasianum takes its name from Pope Gelasius I (492-496) during whose pontificate the document likely took its final form. However, the beginning part of the Decretum is likely based on earlier documents dating from the synod convened by Damasus at Rome in 392, in which Jerome took part. In these earlier parts, the Decretum contains the canon or list of approved Scriptural texts. It is clear that in the closing years of his pontificate, Damasus began to take an interest in Scripture. To this end, it was at this time that Damasus commissioned Jerome to revise the Old Latin translations of the Gospels from the Greek. This was the beginning of the project for which Jerome is best known: the Latin Vulgate.
Jerome addressed the preface of his revised translation to Damasus. He wrote, “You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures…and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all.” Andrew Cain has argued that Jerome was fully aware that this new translation would generate significant controversy. For this reason, he carefully crafted the preface to “insulate himself pre-emptively from criticism” and emphasize “Damasus’ ultimate accountability for the project.” Jerome often defended himself and his work by appealing to the authority and, after his death, the memory of Damasus. In one instance, he pointed out that Damasus, whom he called an “excellent man—versed in Scriptures as he was,” found nothing objectionable in Jerome’s discourse on the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. Cain argued that Jerome intentionally circulated the correspondence between himself and Damasus in order to validate his exegetical expertise with the aura of papal approval and “to announce to Christians there that he was the personal Scriptural advisor to a renowned pope.” Cain also mentions a theme of Hebraica veritas running through the letters Jerome writes in response to Damasus. Jerome strongly advocates going back to the original Hebrew when there are conflicts between the Latin and Greek translations of the Scriptural texts. This idea will figure prominently in the work that Jerome will do on the translation of the Old Testament following the death of Damasus. In the last letter that Damasus wrote to Jerome, he presents five exegetical questions for Jerome to answer. Another exegete at Rome named Ambrosiaster had already posed and answered these questions. Damasus is apparently asking Jerome for a second opinion.

Translating the Vulgate

Annelise Volgers argued that Damasus was merely interested to know what Jerome thought on some exegetical matters he had heard being discussed recently.294 Jerome on the other hand, according to Cain, carefully crafted his response in order to subtly demonstrate the superiority of his own method of exegesis over that of Ambrosiaster. Cain offered the possibility that the criticism of Ambrosiaster was deliberately indirect because “Jerome knew or suspected that Damasus was partial to Ambrosiaster’s work or the man himself.”295 Brown identified Ambrosiaster as a member of the Roman clergy of Damasus.296 While this hardly indicates partiality, it does demonstrate that Damasus had a certain degree of familiarity with Ambrosiaster and familiarity can be leveraged into influence. Jerome certainly would have needed to walk a fine line between assuring that Ambrosiaster did not supplant him and offending Damasus by criticizing one of his presbyters too strongly. Ambrosiaster and Jerome would have agreed on one thing. Ambrosiaster had argued that a congregation praying in a language that it could not understand offered no gain for the people involved because they could not understand what they said. Thus it is likely that Ambrosiaster would have been in favor of changing the liturgical language to Latin, a process that began under Damasus. However, unlike Ambrosiaster, Jerome was someone who could actually assist in the implementation of the Latinizing initiative through his revision of the old translations of Scripture. Damasus understood that Jerome was someone with whom he could work in advancing his aims. Ambrosiaster was not. Thus, Jerome had little to fear while Damasus lived.
Ultimately, Ambrosiaster was a member of the Roman clergy, the “low-profile but tenacious body of men” who had “rallied behind” Damasus. The clergy had always seen the monastic Jerome as an outsider and interloper. After Damasus died on December 11, 384; the clergy elected the deacon Siricius to succeed him as pope. With Damasus gone to his eternal reward, Jerome no longer had anyone with either the ability or desire to support him in Rome. By August of the next year, Jerome had left Rome at the express orders of the new pope, never to return. He returned to the East, where he would spend the next twenty-two years of his life completing the great work his friend Damasus had given to him.