Category Archives: Saint Stories

The Deal with St. Francis Borgia

Finally I got some good gen on St. Francis Borgia, the good guy of the Borgia family. He’s an interesting figure, but a lot of Catholic books don’t really tell you much about him.

First thing: He was from the Borgia family (Borja in Spanish), and he was a great-grandson of Bad Pope Alexander VI. But frankly, the rest of his family on the Spanish side was no great shakes, either — illegitimate sons of kings getting appointed to be bishops of Zaragoza, getting quietly allowed to have pseudo-wives and tons of illegitimate kids in exchange for not messing with Spain and Portugal’s ridiculously tangled successions, and then having to get stuck into royal power as regents for legitimate heirs. (Yes, yes, they were in a big war against Muslims, but that’s no excuse.)

But Francis was a good kid, and the kings of Spain had finally decided it was more appropriate to give his family a dukedom than all these bishoprics. (His dad and mom may have come from bad homes, but they made a good one and set a good example.) So all he had to do was have a good career at court, marry a good woman, succeed to his father’s duchy of Gandia, and enjoy his nice Valencian town and his totally legitimate kids.

Step One worked out fine. He was well-regarded at the Spanish court. The empress regent, Isabella of Portugal, set him up in 1529 with her close friend and chief lady-in-waiting, Leonor de Castro Mello y Menezes, the daughter of the Portuguese King Manuel I’s captain-general of Africa. (He was nineteen, she was seventeen. She was known for being unpretentious, pious, and humble, despite her high birth; and like St. Catherine of Siena, she made it her practice to get her prayers done mentally during her work.)

The marriage was suggested by the queen, agreed to by Francis and Leonor, and then proposed by way of a letter from the king to the Duke of Gandia. But then it almost collapsed, because the Duke said he was looking for a Spanish princess for his boy, and he had reason. So the Duke got a lot of royal concessions, the barony of Llombay became a marquisate, the Spanish succession got a little less tangled, and young love ensued.

They had eight kids, and everything was great. Francis was made Chief Equerry to the Empress, and he got to use his famous horse knowledge and riding skills for his work.

He was also a pretty darned good amateur musician and composer, btw. In fact, he was so good that he could have been a professional; and he wrote a lot of sacred music that was well-regarded. Many of his motets, hymn tunes, and sequences are still around. He was also famed for falconry. (He found hunting to be a very philosophical and edifying pursuit, and he thought you could learn a lot about life from dogs and falcons.) Unlike most of the court, he sensibly refused to gamble, saying that he feared to lose four things: time, money, piety, and peace of mind.

He was strict but kind to his family and his servants and knights. He paid attention and gave praise when his kids did well. He took his marriage seriously, and his valet later testified that even before marriage, he wore a hairshirt any time that he thought he might be tempted at a party or other social occasion. (And boy, isn’t that a reflection on the Spanish court.)

He didn’t let anything slide in his household, and required daily prayer and Mass; and he always stopped to inspect the male servant quarters before going to bed, to make sure nobody was up to no good. (There’s another reflection on the Spanish court.) But he also paid well, minded his manners even to servants, and gave lots of bonuses for good service. People either left his service quickly or stayed for years. His wife and he both delighted in finding talented, trustworthy people without patrons, and getting them good posts; and in tactfully helping people in need, including those who had run into trouble through casual sex. He gave away a purse of alms every day. But he also found time to study higher math and military science, and to serve his lords in political matters. He displayed personal courage in war, as well as quick, correct, and decisive judgment.

Also, he was darned good-looking, rich, smart, popular, kindly, and had a happy marriage. What more could a man want from life?

During service in Africa when he was lent out to one of the princes of Portugal, Francis caught malaria and almost died. He used his many months of convalescence in the country to study the Bible and the saints. He went back to war in 1536 when Charles V invaded Provence, and again distinguished himself. But he also suffered the death of one of his best friends, the poet Garcilaso de la Vega, who died of concussion after leading an assault by siege ladder.

Not long after, Francis’ paternal grandmother died. She had joined the Poor Clares not long after Francis’ birth, where she lived unassumingly but did tons of penances and became a mystic, though her sisters mostly didn’t know this. She died in great sanctity after suffering a horrible fever, coming out of it with a perfectly clear mind, and giving true prophecies about her friends and family. Both the nuns and many of their visitors at the funeral heard angels singing from time to time, for days afterward.

(One of her daughters, Frances, was also a Poor Clare, and her granddaughter Dorotea (one of St. Francis’ kids) soon joined the order.)

On May 1, 1539, Isabella of Portugal died in Toledo at the age of 36. Francis Borgia organized and ran the procession that escorted her coffin to the royal tomb in Granada. Isabella was considered one of Europe’s most beautiful women (in an extended family that included some really unattractive and even deformed people). She was the grandchild of Ferdinand and Isabella, and niece to Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England, and Isabel of Asturias, Queen of Portugal (also her dad’s first wife – not kidding about that royal family).

According to Francis, the death of his wife’s friend (and his friend and benefactor at court) made a big change in him. He felt that her death was the occasion of his deepest conversion of heart, and he remembered and prayed for her every year in his diary “for what the Lord worked in me by her death.” He was saddened by seeing her face so decomposed at her burial that he could not really swear it was her beautiful self, and he told his diary that he could never again serve any lord who could die. (There are some famous historical paintings of this moment.)

But then Francis succeeded to the dukedom of Gandia while trying to negotiate a marriage between the Spanish and Portuguese courts, to unify the countries. Negotiations collapsed and he was blamed. He left court, occupied himself with his lands and family, and started to study religion more seriously on the side. He and his wife helped support the big Hieronymite monastery of San Jeroni de Cotalba near Gandia. They also took an interest in the Jesuits. He was a good duke to his subjects, and interested in developing his towns. He even put things in train to found a college in Gandia for his Jesuit friends.

And this is where things went slightly pearshaped.

In 1546, Leonor died while trying to rest and recover at Cotalba. Francis was heartbroken. He found new meaning in his love of God, and decided that it was time to turn his back on worldly things and start working harder for God. With royal permission, he gave his duchy to his sixteen-year-old son, and joined the Jesuits.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was still alive. He apparently knew or knew about Borgia, and he ended up meeting with him. Like the commander of any early modern army, he was delighted to grab a general- or colonel-level recruit for his company, already trained and ready to go. So obviously the thing to do was to process his paperwork and put him in charge of something.

Unfortunately this was not obvious to a lot of Jesuits. He was not trained by lots of boot camp time with us! How can he understand the spirit of the order if we don’t make him go through seven zillion years of training? Isn’t this favoritism? When the local university in Gandia granted their duke a doctorate of theology in three months, the whining increased. (Even though Borgia was known to be very learned, and had been studying for years on the side, as well as founding the college.)

Of course, he was an older man with a closer expiration date, and so it only made sense to Loyola to put him to work right away. As it was, he only gave the Jesuits 26 more years. And Loyola himself was very aware of having started out the Jesuits as the old guy, playing catch up. Why would he make life harder for someone in the same position?

There was more trouble. Various popes thought Borgia would make a great bishop or cardinal, as well as drawing the Jesuits into a traditional pattern of religious orders providing bishops. Loyola wanted to avoid that, and keep the Jesuits mobile. There was also a heretical book that came out in Spain under the duke’s now-trendy name, but which actually was by an unknown author who had grabbed a short essay by the duke and put a bunch of crazy stuff on top of it.

So for a while, Loyola had Borgia hiding out in a small Jesuit group in his own Basque stomping grounds. Borgia got a little bit hazed by doing scut work, and by being told to apologize for his clumsiness in playing waiter at the refectory. But Borgia put up with it cheerfully, and had probably had worse as a royal page or a young knight.

And then, just to make things crazier, Loyola appointed Borgia to be some kind of roaming troubleshooter, with authority separate from various Jesuit superiors. He didn’t tell the Jesuit superiors about this. So of course people were all whiny about him being disobedient or uppity, and about him having been assigned a separate staff full of other Jesuits.

In 1554, Borgia was made commissary-general in Spain for the Jesuits, and founded a dozen colleges to deal with Jesuit educational needs. In 1556, he was put in charge of the Jesuit missions in the East and West Indies, in his copious spare time.

Things eventually settled down a bit, and then he was elected the third superior general of the whole Society of Jesus in 1565, for the last seven years of his life. And he changed things, like giving people a general idea of how Jesuits should dress instead of having no particular habit. He didn’t actually impose a habit, mind you, but it still didn’t go over well. He also had Jesuits living in houses start saying the Office in the morning, but only if it didn’t interfere with other assignments. Since St. Ignatius de Loyola had deliberately not imposed the Office on his people, this caused bad feeling, even though it wasn’t mandatory and was in response to a papal request.

The other factor was that there was a big stink in the 1920’s when a German Jesuit wrote a hostile-ish biography of Borgia. His idea was that Borgia didn’t understand Loyola and the Society, and so that everything he had done was not really Jesuit, and that he had helped ruin everything. The bio came out at the same time that the Jesuits had a really strict superior general, and a big stink ensued which ended in the biographer leaving the Jesuits. He came back on his deathbed in 1976. This was also part of why some Jesuits were all about “Pedro Arrupe becoming superior general saved the order!” So this also damped some of the devotional enthusiasm to him that you would otherwise expect.

Nowadays, the way Loyola had Borgia avoid becoming a cardinal or bishop is bound to be a litte tad bit inconvenient… when we have a Jesuit bishop and cardinal who has become a Jesuit pope…. So yeah, there’s that too. But religious orders are allowed to change if they want; it’s not like Loyola was God Himself. The Franciscans and Dominicans got their members grabbed for bishops, too, and within the first couple “generations” of members. St. Albert the Great, for example.

(And if you really want to support a religious order that never has let its members become bishops or popes… well, that’s every female religious order, heh heh.)

St. Francis Borgia died at midnight on Sept. 30, 1572, and his feastday was originally on Sept. 30. But after Vatican II it was moved to October 10 — today!

So happy St. Borgia Day!

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St. Marmaduke?

Obviously I am still in turmoil about the revelations on the last post, so I’m going to write about something funny that came up.

One of the more puzzling English names is “Marmaduke.” It starts showing up in Northumberland in the 1400’s, and then we get several at once. It didn’t die out during the Protestant Reformation (although one Royalist family, with Marmadukes already in it, changed it to the baptismal name of “Duke,” as part of the fashion trend of naming Royalist kids things like Squire and Admiral). It sounds like it could be German, but it’s not German. Nope.

Give up? It’s Welsh. Specifically, it’s Mawr Madog, aka Big Madoc. There are a whole bunch of similar Welsh names (Cadoc, Gorbadoc, etc.), and the last syllable gets all different vowels at different times and places. So it’s not surprising that the English mangled it to their liking! “Madoc” means something like “lucky” or “having good fortune and being charitable.” (I don’t have good sources on this.)

St. Madoc was a son of the combative King Sawyl Penuchel (aka Samuel the Arrogant, who lost his kingdom to the Saxons, and who got his warband drowned in a marsh after attacking St. Cadoc’s monastery). He’s called Madog Ailither, meaning Madoc the Pilgrim, because he traveled to Ireland to visit all the famous monasteries, came back to Wales, and was eventually buried in Ireland.

St. Madoc’s brother was St. Santan, who also founded lots of churches and monasteries, and who wound up a bishop in Ireland.

The most famous Madoc is Prince Madoc, son of King Owain Gwynedd, who allegedly ran off to America with a bunch of settlers. There’s also the legendary Madoc ap Uthyr, brother of King Arthur, whose son Eliwlod could turn into an eagle and was one of the Three Goldentongued Knights of Britain.

But it’s possible that all these Northern English kids were being named for a specific historical Madog Mawr — Madog of Cilsant, who married Sioned/Jonet verch Gruffyd. (Cilsant/St. Clears doesn’t seem to have had a lot of Northumberland connections, though.) I also notice that a lot of early Marmadukes have Percy connections, and they had Welsh connections in their family.

But the earliest Marmaduke seems to be Marmaduke Darell of Sessay, Thirsk, whose son and grandson were named Marmaduke too. His wife’s name was Aseria, which could be some Welsh name, and her dad could have been the Madoc in question.

The surname Maddox, Maddocks, Maddock means something like “descended from Madoc.” You see a lot of Welsh surnames using this format: Evans, Reynolds, Jones, Philips, etc.

So Marmaduke the Great Dane is actually showing his allegiance to a Welsh saint.

If you like this name, you could always name your boy Madoc and then call him Marmaduke as a nickname. “Badi” was also a medieval nickname for Madoc.

Early Breton and Welsh names are similar, since a lot of Celtic Britons fled the island and settled in Brittany, “Little Britain.” So Madoc is a Breton boy’s name, and there’s also a Breton girl’s name, Madouc.

There’s also an Irish/Scottish group of names that sound similar. St. Aodh/Aedan/Aidan of Ferns was one of the many Irish saints who picked up possessives and diminutives from their friends, teachers, or devotees. So he could have been Mo-Aodh or Mo-Aidan, Maidan/Moidan, but they went further and spun out his name with -og (young, or just a noun diminutive). So he’s St. Maedog or Maedoc, which (depending on Gaelic dialect) is pronounced “Mogue.”

And a lot of the time, the functional equivalent name for Sassenach or baptismal fonts was Moses. So if you see a Moses in Ireland, he’s probably a Maedoc/Maedog. (But not a Madoc/Madog/Marmaduke.)

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St. Blythe?

Yes!! Yes, it’s a real saint’s name! Hahahahahah! I am really delighted to find this out!

St. Blitha of Martham (also known as St. Blyth, Blythe, or Blida) was a laywoman in East Anglia. She was a kinswoman of the illfated King of the English, Aethelred the Unready, and of his son, King Edmund Ironside. She was married to a wealthy nobleman named Benedict. He had at least one son, St. Walstan, who moved to Taverham at the age of twelve and became an ordinary farm laborer, albeit a pious one.

Benedict and Blitha seem to have lived in either Blythburgh, Suffolk (which may have been her property, or may have changed its name in her honor) or in Bawburgh, Norfolk. But at the time of her death, after Benedict died, she was living in Martham, which is a lot further inland and somewhat closer to Taverham. A chapel was built in her honor in Martham.

The Old English word “blithe” or “blythe” meant friendly, agreeable, cheerful, kind, merciful, pleasing, gentle, pretty — basically, a lot of pleasant qualities. Its ultimate root means something like “shining.” It’s a great name — and now we know it’s a saint’s name! Great stuff!

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Forgotten Titles: Mary of the Pregnant Women, and Mary of the Slapped Face

I was browsing around some webpages about Old St. Peter’s in Rome, and found out that there used to be a big side altar, right next to the nave’s entrance doors, which was dedicated to S. Maria Praegnantium. (Handy if you were really big and needed to pray.)

The altar included an old picture of the Virgin Mary holding Barely Toddler Jesus. Mary has one arm curled protectively around her Son, Who is standing up and blessing the onlookers. With the other hand, she holds a gauze veil across His privates, while highlighting His bellybutton to prove that He was born of her. Otherwise, He’s a totally naked little boy, showing that He is true man as well as true God.

Today, there’s a whole chapel dedicated to her, under the name of the Madonna delle Partorienti (My Lady of the Women Giving Birth), and it’s in a place of honor. But here’s the catch: it’s downstairs in the crypt, under St. Peter’s. So maybe there’s an elevator now, but there didn’t use to be. For a shrine for pregnant women. (Facepalm. Men. Usually that’s not the problem, but here, it pretty clearly is.)

There’s also a chapel for another old medieval icon of Mary, which was also moved from Old St. Peter’s. S. Maria della Bocciata, or the Madonna della Bocciata (of the Slap, or of the Rejection) , was a wall fresco of Mary holding Baby Jesus, which was in the portico between the Ravenna Door and the Door of the Dead. Jesus is turned away from His mother and is blessing the onlooker below. But Mary has an odd-looking face, which some see as swollen, and her cheek has a dark spot that looks like a big bruise.

It’s a miraculous picture, because apparently it used to look normal, and it was painted in the 1200’s. It used to be called “S. Maria in columna,” Mary on the pillar. (Probably a picture of the Spanish apparition of Mary, “Our Lady of the Pillar,” which has Baby Jesus sit-standing against Mary’s shoulder. Her feast day is October 12, which is also Columbus Day from Columbus’ first landing in the Americas. Columba, Columna. Horrible pun.)

But one day in 1440, a drunken soldier, who had just lost a game of bowls, had a tantrum and threw one of the little balls or rocks that they were using for the game, and hit Mary’s picture right in the face. Drops of blood fell from her painted cheek and stained the floor; and ever since then, the picture has borne the bruise damage as a rebuke to those who disrespect the Blessed Mother. (And I’m sure we remember the similar thing that happened to the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa.)

So of course the picture was removed from the wall before the old basilica was demolished, and now it also has its own home, down in the crypt. The two bloodstained paving stones sit behind grates on either side of the picture, and you’re meant to reach through the grates and touch them.

Unfortunately, this is another shrine that used to be a lot easier to visit, back when it was in the portico! But in this case, people actually got more attached to “the Rejected Madonna” after it was moved several times during all the building and renovation. So you never know.

Here’s a PDF from the Knights of Columbus, who funded the restoration of various crypt chapels, including these two. There are nice photos of the two pictures.

Many fragments and reproductions of Old St. Peter’s stuff live in the crypts. On the right hand wall of the Rejected Madonna’s chapel is an old inscription from the “sacellum” or “oratory” of the saints, which was created by Pope St. Gregory III, and dedicated at the opening of an anti-iconoclast synod in Rome on November 1, 731. To make his point stronger, the pope changed the Roman date of All Saints’ Day from May 13th to November 1, thus creating Halloween.

So the first Halloween decoration ever is sitting under St. Peter’s, in the Chapel of the Madonna della Bocciata!! Being all holy and historical and stuff!*

A webpage for the Chapel of the Madonna della Bocciata. Includes some nice big pictures. The remains of Cardinal Peran are back in his country now.

A webpage for the Chapel of the Madonna delle Partorienti.

Today is Mary’s birthday (September 8, feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary). The eve of the feast was associated by St. Brigid of Sweden with a devotion to St. Anne and the Virgin Mary, praying for pregnant women by starting a simple novena of nine Hail Marys a day, or even nine Hail Marys per month of pregnancy (which she received in an vision from Mary). St. Anna Maria Emmerich received a similar vision, where Mary asked pregnant women to say nine Hail Marys at noon on September 8, and then to continue saying nine at noon for nine days.

(But any time during the day is fine – it’s noon somewhere. Noon was associated with saying the Angelus and hearing the Angelus bells ring, so Mary was trying to make it easy.)

*There are two known inscriptions. One is all about the guys who witnessed the synod and the pope being happy to praise the Lord (which is the one in the chapel), and the other is all “anathema” and “interdict” to violators of the synod’s teaching. Which would be Emperor Leo III.

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St. Regis?

I’ve wondered about this name before, and why such a Catholic Catholic as Regis Philbin would have some weird name like that. But since he passed away this week, I finally got around to looking it up.

If you look at it, it looks like it would be from “regis,” the genitive case of Latin “rex,” king. So this would be a kid who belongs to Christ the King.

But no! Regis was named by his dad for Regis High School, a free-tuition Catholic boys high school in Manhattan, run by Jesuits and founded on the big honking money of one Julia M. Grant, the widow of Mayor Hugh J. Grant. His dad was accepted into the school in the 1920’s, but was expelled in his sophomore year for fighting. With a teacher. All the same, Regis’ dad got a good education there, and was grateful and sorry afterward. Hence the name.

But who was the high school named for? (Yes, we will now expose my lack of Jesuit knowledge.)

St. Jean-Francois Regis, a Jesuit priest, worked as a missionary/revival preacher in France in the 1600’s. Before he joined the Jesuits, he was a shy kid of a merchant turned minor nobility, deathly afraid of displeasing his parents and teachers. He learned voraciously and kept his head in his books. But as a Jesuit, his fervent love of Jesus led him to start preaching to everybody, everywhere, in a simple way that came straight from the heart.

He was made a priest early, and immediately began to serve in areas stricken by bubonic plague. Then the next year he was assigned to spread the Gospel, first by working with his community in Montpellier, and then by being sent out on his own.

He walked from town to town, preached ex tempore, heard Confession in the morning, visited hospitals and prisons in the afternoon, and relied on the hospitality of locals on his missionary journeys. He often lived off apples and black bread. He spent much of his time preaching to Protestants, but he also was out to help Catholics be saved.

Along the way, he provided help for the desperate people he met, mostly by helping them get job training and learn entrepreneurship (such as in the lucrative lacemaking industry). He found safe housing for orphans and poor women, including ex-prostitutes. But since he didn’t have a parish or funding, he had to persuade members of each community to do this stuff on their own, and to leave them the job of running it. (So in other words, he was a _real_ community organizer, unlike most people with that name.)

If you joined one of his confraternities for Eucharistic adoration and you had money, he would often send you a note asking for help for a specific person, right down to the number of sous, or send you the person to feed, as his special gift to you! But it worked.

As he helped prostitutes get out of their bad situations, he was often threatened by armed pimps and angry exes. By showing no fear, and by speaking clearly about their own situation, he got them to drop their weapons and leave him (and the women) alone.

All that made him sad was opposition from supposedly good people, and the fact that his superiors refused to let him go to Canada and work for Jesus there.

He seemed tireless. But like many pre-modern priests, he died of exhaustion and a lung sickness that wouldn’t go away, at the age of 43. He literally died on the job in the confessional in the tiny mountain town of La Louvesc, asking Jesus to receive his soul, on December 31, 1640.

After his death, the French formed many “Regis Societies” in his honor, dedicated to helping the poor and the unemployed, as well as educating people in rural areas. He was canonized in 1737, and is often called “St. Regis” for short. St. Jean Vianney gave all the credit for the success of his own parish mission to the intercession of St. Jean-Francois Regis. There is a miraculous spring in La Louvesc near the site of his death, where many people find healing. And the order of the Cenacle Sisters was originally founded in his honor.

So yes! It’s a very Catholic name!

There’s also a St. Jean-Francois-Regis Clet, who was a Vincentian nicknamed “the walking library.” After working as a professor and seminary director, he saw all his work destroyed in the French Revolution, and his community disbanded.

So he went to China to serve as a missionary, at the age of 43. He worked in China for 28 years, but never mastered any of the languages to the point where he felt fluent. Still, he persevered in a mission territory that stretched over 270,000 square miles. In 1811, the Vincentians were falsely accused of inciting rebellion, and they had to live on the run. But he managed, until he was betrayed to the authorities on June 16, 1819, and executed as a traitor on Chinese New Year — Feb. 17, 1820 — at the age of 72. (Two hundred years ago, this year.)

He was tied onto a cross, and then strangled slowly… in Wuchang (then Frankified as Vu-tsheng-fu or Ou-tchang-fou)… which is now merged with Hankou and Hanyang, and called Wuhan, China.

(“Hopei Province” is now spelled “Hubei.” He also worked in Hunan.)

He was buried on Red Mountain in China; but eventually had his remains translated to the Vincentian motherhouse in France, and then to St. Lazare’s in Paris. He was canonized on October 1, 2000. His day is February 18; and he is is one of the Martyr Saints of China.

St. Jean-Francois-Regis Clet, pray for us! And please pray for Wuhan!

These are really great models of the Christian life, and awesome patron saints for anyone bearing their name.

(Btw, many other Christians were executed in Wuchang in various persecutions, including another Vincentian priest, St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, on Sept. 11, 1840. He was big on spreading the Miraculous Medal, and was apparently the actual guy who prayed “May my hands be the hands of Jesus,” as part of a prayer for Christian tranformation to become more Christ-like. I’m going to look that up and report back.)

(Oh, and it was the Vincentians and many convert friends who were saved during the Boxer Rebellion, in the small village of Donglu, by an apparition of Our Lady in the sky. The Boxers shot at her, but obviously that didn’t work. Then a “fiery horseman” appeared in the sky on a heavenly horse, charged the Boxers, and drove them off. This was the first big apparition of Our Lady of China. The second big one was on May 23, 1995, also in Donglu, on the eve of the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, when she appeared with Baby Jesus in the sky, for 20 minutes, to tens of thousands of people. The church was banned the next day, and destroyed within the year by the Chinese government. To this day, thousands of soldiers are sent to Donglu in May every year to stop “illegal” pilgrimages, and yet the pilgrims sneak in and out.)

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St. Anastasia the “Deliverer from Potions,” Widow, Martyr

If you’re Latin/Roman Catholic, you probably know that Eucharistic Canon I, the traditional Roman Canon, includes prayers for the intercession of a ton of apostles and saints. If you go to a parish that mostly does the modern post-Vatican II Canons II or IV, you might not realize that some of these Eucharistic saints in the second part of the prayer are female.

In fact, they correspond exactly to the names of ancient Roman martyrs in prominent Roman churches. Most of the female saints are still popular today: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, and Cecilia. But who is Anastasia?

She is kinda shadowy. Apparently she was the daughter of a Roman senator and vir illustris named Praetextatus, who moved his family to Sirmium in Pannonia. (Today it’s called Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia.) Sirmium was named one of the four capitols of the Empire under Diocletian’s tetrarchy system, and they were the lucky winner of Emperor Galerius.

(Boo! Hiss! Boo!)

So imagine how delightful it was to be a prominent senatorial Christian woman in Galerius’ homebase. (Her mom Fausta was a Christian, but died young. She also seems to have gotten some religious education from St. Chrysogonus of Aquileia, also big in the Canon.)

Anastasia was wealthy, young… and her dad was pagan and a politician. Yeah, she didn’t get the chance to become a vowed virgin, though maybe that wasn’t her vocation. She got married off to another patrician guy, Publius Patricius, who unfortunately seems to have been abusive, and who unusually would not let her leave the house.

Publius was named an ambassador to Persia and drowned in a shipwreck on the way, leaving behind no children. Anastasia decided to become a vowed widow, which wasn’t easy work as a young widow whom your dad could marry off legally. (But maybe Dad felt guilty about his first pick.) She devoted herself to charity, visiting the poor and those in prison. She knew first aid and simple nursing, but accounts differ as to her medical knowledge. They agree that she would clean and bind wounds with her own hands and pray for the sick.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Anastasia became known for her wonderworking, because when she prayed for someone who had taken pharmakoia, that person would get better. This continued even after her death, so she is still known today as the Pharmakolytria or Deliverer from Potions.

Pharmakoia is often translated as “harmful drugs” or “potions.” But what we are talking about in Greek is abortifacient chemicals.

So yeah, this is the lady who intercedes particularly for women who have accidentally poisoned themselves from their desperation to abort, or who have changed their minds and want to save their babies, as well as for victims of other kinds of poisonings and overdoses.

(Her prayers also freed people suffering from evil spirits and magic, according to accounts from Milan and Palermo; and she often cured the mentally ill at her shrines, although ouch, don’t be mentally ill in Constantinople.)

Anastasia’s miracleworking brought her to the attention of the Imperial government. After arrest, torture, and refusal to convert, she was burned to death in AD 290 or AD 304, depending on the source. She may have been killed on Christmas, on purpose, because that day seems to have started to be celebrated by Christians around that time. (Epiphany had been a great Christian feast from almost the beginning, as it has ties to some Jewish festivals that tie into Jesus’ sanctification of baptismal waters, and to the adoration of him by the Magi.

In better times, her relics were brought to Constantinople (at Christmas!) and installed at a new church. Relics were also brought to Rome and installed at their Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis – “standing up again, rising again”). Both churches became known as dedicated to St. Anastasia, and attracted healing pilgrimages. The relics of her head and one of her hands were removed from Constantinople and currently reside in Halidiki, Greece, near Mt. Athos, at a monastery named for her. She also has relics on the island of Palmaria, near Aquileia.

On the Western side of things, her feast is December 25 (because of the translation of her relics to Constantinople for sure, and maybe because of her martyrdom date), and it’s December 22 on the Byzantine side (January 4 on the Gregorian calendar). Icons usually show her carrying a medicine jug.

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St. Hermione the Unmercenary Physician

I got into a search engine/linkfest today… And it turns out that Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen, and wife of both Neoptolemus and Orestes (doom, doom, doom-doom), was not the only famous Hermione of the ancient world.

As we all know, St. Philip the Deacon had four daughters who were all prophetesses in the Church. But on the Eastern side of things, a lot of folks who get mentioned in passing in the Gospels or Acts do have traditional names attributed to them.

So the daughters of St. Philip the Deacon are remembered to have had the Greek names of Hermione, Eutychia or Euchidia, Irais, and Chariline or Mariamne. They all seem to have taken vows to live as virgins.

St. Hermione seems to have been the eldest. After Philip moved his family to Herod’s port town of Caesarea Maritima, in order to spread Christianity, Hermione studied Jewish and Greek medicine and became a female physician. As mentioned in Acts 21, St. Paul and various of his companions (including St. Luke) stayed at Philip’s house.

Tradition says that after Paul went up to Jerusalem to get arrested, as prophesied by Agabus, the Christians of Caesarea Maritima got driven out.

(The Christians soon came back. According to Eusebius, who was from around there and would know, the first bishop was St. Zacchaeus himself! He was succeeded by Cornelius (maybe that Cornelius) and then by Theophilus (maybe that Theophilus.)

Philip ended up moving to Hierapolis in Asia Minor, a hot springs town still known for its amazing natural rock formations (the Pamukkale). His tomb is there.

At some point, St. Hermione moved to Ephesus along with Eutychia. They were planning to get spiritual guidance from John, but he died shortly before they got there. So they helped out the new bishop by starting a free medical clinic, along with the first known xenodochium, a house of hospitality for visiting Christians that would become common in most large parishes.

Dr. Hermione ran afoul of the authorities during the co-reign of Trajan and Hadrian. Accounts of her life say that she was subjected to various tortures, but just didn’t die. Finally the governor ordered two men to execute her, but at this point they were doubtful that it would work, and sure that the governor would execute them for failure. So they set their problem before the prophetess, and begged her to pray God to take her to heaven. So she took pity on them, and did so, and just died all of a sudden.

Assuming this story is historical, she’d be a confessor, not a martyr. But she’s always been counted as a martyr. Either way, her feast day is September 4.

As for St. Philip’s other daughters, Eutychia/Euchidia seems to have left Ephesus before all this happened, and died somewhere in a way that no story has come down to us. But Irais and Chariline lived out their lives in Hierapolis, and were visited by many Christians who wanted to hear their eyewitness stories. Papias (the bishop of Hierapolis and a historian) took down their accounts extensively, in his lost book, as Eusebius tells us in his own history.

BTW, the people who are counted as the very first early Christian unmercenary physicians are Ss. Zenaida and Philonella, two cousins of St. Paul who set up a free clinic in Thessaly. They were baptized into the faith by their brother Jason, who was then bishop of Tarsus.

(Zenaida, Philonella, and Jason would all be their Greek use names, not their Jewish names. Zenaida means “of Zeus” or “of God.” Philonella is a female form of Philo/Philon, “friendly love.”)

They decided to enter the local philosophical academy and study Greek medicine, and then moved to the area of Thessaly around Mt. Pelion near Demetriada, and near the famous Asclepius temple of healing. Priests and physicians in the area were known sometimes to charge exorbitant prices or demand big donations, and obviously healing included pagan worship and magical amulets and potions.

So they found a mineral spring, set up a Christian chapel and little huts for themselves, and offered treatment for free.

Legend says that St. Philonella was an experimental physician, willing to try to treat people with unknown diseases, and trying to create better treatments through totally natural, non-magical means. St. Zenaida was particularly interested in treating children who were sick, as well as psychiatric disorders. Both of them lived a life of prayer when not treating patients. Later on, a monastery for men was founded nearby, by their students Pateras, Philocyrus, and Papias. (Which is probably how Papias ended up becoming bishop.)

Legends differ as to whether they were stoned to death as martyrs, or whether they lived out their lives in peace. But their feast is October 11.

Other saints classified as “anargyroi” (literally, “no-silvers”) include Ss. Cosmas and Damian the surgeons, St. Pantaleon, St. Tryphon, St. Thaleleus of Anazarbus, Ss. Cyrus and John, St. Samson the Hospitable. But there’s a ton, and of course many religious orders still provide free medical treatment today.

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Muggle is Middle English

It turns out that “muggle” is a Middle English word for “mullet tail, or person with a fish tail,” and it seems to have been used both ways. There was also “mugling,” which was a descendant of such a tailed person.

It’s in freakin’ Layamon’s Brut, for goodness’ sake.

Here’s the link.

Other spellings included “moggles.” The tail itself is also spelled “mughel.” Other spellings of the fish name include “mugil” (that’s the mullet fish), and “migal/migale” (also the mullet fish).

The Fordun Scotichronicon tells the story of the town of Muglington as being a place where everyone was born with tails, and that therefore people in Kent were called Longtails. It was the result of a visit by St. Augustine of Canterbury, when the pagan Saxon people refused to listen to his preaching. Even worse, they twisted what he said, and then mocked him by sewing fish tails onto his clothing. So God cursed them and their posterity with a tail on their posteriors.

The author says that the village of Thanewyth in Mercia also supposedly mocked St. Augustine and got the same punishment. And that St. Thomas a Becket got mocked in the Middle Ages by having his horse’s tail docked, but then the people of that town got tail-cursed also.

There is a fun little article about this which enumerates all the mocking and repeating and references to these stories that people from Kent got, in an 1896 issue of the Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society.

Obviously this was not in Rowling’s mind, but it probably was part of why the name was so insulting, in her universe. Non-wizards are not just mudbloods; they are beasts, not even warmbloods, cursed with fishes’ tails.

Anyway, here’s a few more uses of the word “muggle” before Rowling.

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St. Luna?

Short answer: No. But it’s an okay name.

According to a list of the top twenty baby names from the UK baby name site Nameberry, “Luna” is the #1 baby name for girls in 2020, so far. In the US, the Social Security Administration says that in 2018, Luna was up to #23 for girls.

Of course we know why. It’s the character Luna Lovegood, from the Harry Potter books. (And possibly, just a little influence from Luna the cat in Sailor Moon.) Two popular UK celebrities apparently named their daughter Luna last year, and this pushed it over the top in the UK.

So let’s look on the bright side. It’s a real name, with history and everything, and it sounds pretty and feminine. But it’s also a name of the Roman goddess of the Moon. Is it a suitable baptismal name?

Weeeell, lots of early Christian saints and martyrs were converted pagans with pagan names. Their conversion made their names Christian. So there is precedent.

The funny thing is that, at the time of big Roman conversions, most of the Gentiles turned martyrs were either Roman women bearing Roman clan names, or slaves bearing fashionable Greek names. You do get some ethnic names (St. Monica’s name was Punic, ie, Phoenician/Carthaginian), but you don’t usually get “given names” like we have, until later Christian times. Also, the moon goddesses were pretty popular, so people may have avoided giving moon-related names.

But nowadays, there’s no real reason not to name your kid Luna, if you feel like it. Lu- names like Lucy and Louise are getting popular. Probably more of a middle name, though.

Lunicia is a name today, although an uncommon one. There’s a saint named that in North Africa, on June 7. Lunicie is another spelling. (And yeah, avoid your kid being called Lunacy.)

That said, there’s also a St. Luna Mista listed on April 6 in some old martyrologies, but she’s also listed as “Summista.” Either way, nobody knows more about her (or him) than that.

The more common name is Diana, or in France, Diane. Diana is an Italian name and just means “goddess.” She was originally a rural goddess of the hunt, but got tacked onto all the Greek stuff with Artemis, Selene, and Hecate.

Diana was not popular with early Christians for the same Roman reasons; but it came back big as a Christian name in the high Middle Ages.

Blessed Diana d’Andalo was a real character. She came from a rich family in Bologna, but wanted to join the Dominican order of nuns and build a convent. So she first made a private vow of virginity, witnessed by St. Dominic and other Dominicans. Then she took a field trip with friends to a Benedictine convent of nuns, who had agreed beforehand to keep her until the Dominicans could get a convent going, and help her learn the nun business.

But as with St. Clare, her family showed up. They kidnapped her away from the nuns. When she got away, she joined some Augustinian nuns with their prior permission (you have to admire this girl’s letterwriting and plotting skills), and got kidnapped again. The family broke her rib and she was confined to her bed, but she managed to write St. Dominic while he was on his deathbed. She escaped again to the Augustinians. Finally, Blessed Jordan of Saxony (and his 24 charisma points) visited her family, and persuaded them to build a Dominican convent close to their home, so that the family could just visit, like normal people. This worked out, and the convent also produced Bl. Cecilia and Bl. Amata of Bologna. She died on Jan. 9, 1236. Her day is June 10, or June 8, or June 9 (depending on the calendar).

There’s also Bl. Diana, the first prioress of Sobrives in Provence. She was the aunt of St. Rosseline de Villeneuve, the patron saint of the Carthusians and the Order of Malta.

On the Greek name side, of course there is Phoebe from the Bible. Phoebe, “shining” or “bright one,” was one of the titles of Artemis. (And there’s a Phoebe in Harry Potter, too.)

There doesn’t appear to be any saint named Selene. There are several saints named Artemia, after Artemis. There’s the martyrs Ss. Artemia and Attica, on February 18, and the abbess of Cuteclara in Spain, St. Artemia.

The widow and abbess St. Artemia was not a martyr of Cordoba, but she taught one, St. Maria, in her convent. Maria was deeply impressed by St. Artemia’s description of how her sons were martyred by the Muslims, which was why she sought the religious life; and that’s part of St. Maria she went to Cordoba with St. Flora and formally denounced Islam in front of a qadi. They were executed on Nov. 24, 851.

(Another Cuteclara martyr nun was St. Aurea or Aura, who was born and raised Muslim but converted, and who stayed a nun for twenty years after being widowed. Her convert brothers, Ss. Adolphus and John, died martyrs on Sept. 27, 822. During the Cordoba persecutions, her relatives found her and dragged her out of the convent to face an Islamic judge. She renounced Christianity under duress and was stuck back in her relatives’ household. Secretly, she went back to practicing Christianity, but eventually the relatives found out. She refused to go back to Islam and was executed for apostasy on July 19, 856.)

(A few years later, another widow, St. Laura, was the abbess of Cuteclara, when she was martyred on October 19, 864 by being plunged into a cauldron of boiling pitch.)

The most famous St. Artemia was a misnomer for the Emperor Diocletian’s daughter, who was harried during his lifetime for being a Christian or Christian-friendly, and then was killed by a mob in Thessaloniki. (Her name was actually Valeria, after her dad’s clan name, and her married name was Galeria Valeria.) It’s not entirely clear whether she was technically killed as a martyr, or because she refused to marry, or because she was a convenient target. Either way, she went through plenty of hell on earth. Her bones are supposedly in Rome, in the Church of St. Sylvester, and her feast is August 8 or August 16. (Similarly, her Christian mother Prisca is sometimes miscalled Serena or Alexandra.)

There’s a town in Brittany named “Saint-Lunaire,” for St. Lunarius or Leonor, a male Breton saint who worked and was buried there.

There is a Castillo de Luna in Rota, Spain, and “Santa Luna” is a placename that occasionally comes up. De Luna was the name of a powerful Spanish family that conquered the town of Luna in Zaragoza. There’s also an Italian town named Luni, which was called Luna in Etruscan and Roman times. So in classical times, Carrara marble was called Luna marble. The town was once a notable port, but it got sacked by both Vikings and Muslims, until the port silted up. So the town was eventually abandoned, but has been excavated now.

The Moon gets mentioned in the Bible, of course, but Middle Eastern folks thought of the Moon as male, not female. The god of Ur of the Chaldaeans was Sin the moon god, and later the Babylonians worshipped him as Nebo or Nebu. Funnily enough, King Nectanebo, who was probably the Bible’s Nebuchadnezzar, was a commoner from Ur; and he notoriously put his god Nebo ahead of Babylon’s god Marduk. (Sometimes the Sun was thought of as female, but usually Shamash was pictured as also a guy.) So when you see the Beloved in the Song of Songs compared to the Sun, the Moon, and an army, it’s all masculine images. (Yeah, not very intuitive to us, but the Moon is also masculine in Japan.)

There was once a part of the Divine Office called the “Luna,” just like Lauds and Matins and Vespers. It came after Prime, and it was basically some readings from the martyrology. The little round window in a monstrance is also called a “luna.”

Lovegood or Love-God, btw, were Puritan names for girls. Love-Well was a boy’s name.

During Puritan times, it was pretty common for Royalists or Catholics to give their kids classical Roman or Greek names, as a sort of protest. So there were lots of guys named Hercules, Paris, Neptune, etc., and a fair number of women named Venus, Cassandra, Diana….

Oh, and the surname Moon is usually the Norman surname De Mohun, which comes from the town of Moyon or Moion in Normandy.

UPDATE: Delia is Greek for “Delian, person from Delos.” Artemis and Apollo were twins and both born on Delos, so Delia and Delios are also their titles. “Phoebus” is one of Apollo’s titles, too.

I also forgot Cynthia (“person from Mount Kynthos”), which is a title of both Artemis and Aphrodite. Again, nobody thinks of it as a pagan name anymore.

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St. Asher?

The UK baby name website Nameberry just put out a list of the top twenty baby names from 2020 (so far). Obviously this is totally non-official, being a list of the most popular names used for babies of their website patrons! But it’s interesting, so let’s check it out.

The number 1 Nameberry boy’s name is Asher.

Asher is a traditional Jewish name. He was one of Jacob’s sons, his eighthborn. His mom was Leah’s handmaid Zilpah (or Zilpha, in Greek-influenced versions). He grew up to be the ancestor of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Bible tells us Leah named him “Asher” because she was happy to beat out Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah’s son count, so the name means “happy.” But the actual Hebrew also means “blessed.” (Much as the Greek “makarios” means both “happy” and “blessed.”)

So let’s look at what is actually said in Genesis 30:13 —

And Leah said:

“Be ‘asseri ki ‘isseruni banowt.”
(“I am happy, because the daughters” (ie, the women) “will call me blessed.”)

So she called his name ‘Asher.

Interesting, huh? Who else do we know who was called “blessed among women” (Lk. 1:42) by Elizabeth, and who then replied that “Henceforth, all the generations will call me blessed”? The same woman who also called herself a “handmaid” in that poem. Yup, Mary says that she sees herself in both Zilpah and Leah, although there are also Biblical typologies of Mary with Rachel and Bilhah. (And pretty much every other Biblical matriarch, for that matter.)

Asher’s older full brother, Gad, had a name that means “lucky,” because Leah says she was feeling lucky to beat Rachel and Bilhah’s son count (Gen. 30:11).

In Jewish tradition, Asher is portrayed as having been a good guy and a peacemaker between his brothers. The people of Asher were prosperous and wise, and they had the most sons. The women of the tribe were remembered as exceptionally beautiful, and much courted by Jewish leaders and priests.

One of their ancestresses, Asher’s daughter or stepdaughter Serah (also spelled Serach), is noted by name twice in the Bible. There are interesting traditions about her kindly nature and good relationship with her dad Asher and her grandfather Jacob. On Jacob’s deathbed, he is said to have blessed her along with his sons and with his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. The traditional wording of this blessing was “May you live forever and never die,” and so she is supposed to have been taken up to Heaven like Elijah and Enoch. Serach is also supposed to have remained on earth until the time of Moses, and have been the only one who remembered where to find Joseph’s tomb with his bones. After being taken into Heaven, Serach occasionally returned to earth to help rabbis with their studies. When one later rabbi wondered about the crossing of the Red Sea, she poked her head in the window and told him about her memories of the event.

(But shyeah, Catholics are totally nutso and pagan in their ideas about Mary. Yup.)

The tribe of Asher ultimately were taken into captivity and not returned, and became of the “lost” Ten Tribes. However, some members of each tribe did remain in Judah. For example, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, the prophetess in Luke 2:36, is identified by Luke as a member of the tribe of Asher.

In Gen. 49:20, Jacob prophetically blesses Asher among the rest of his sons on his deathbed, saying, “From Asher shall be rich bread, and he shall yield royal delicacies.”

In Deut. 33:24, Moses blesses this tribe, saying, “Asher, most blessed of sons: let him be favored by his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil.” The Jewish interpretation is sometimes rendered as “most blessed with sons,” ie, with descendants. “Foot dipped in oil” refers to the tribe’s lands assigned to them in Israel, which would be good for olive orchards and olive oil.

The controversial part is that the Asher and Gad tribes had their land in the areas that would become Phoenician and Gentile territory (in Galilee), and they might have been related to pagan groups too. There’s a Phoenician god of luck named Gad, and the god of the city of Assur was named Assur, which is really close to Asher. (Assyria is really “Assur.”) And the Egyptians mentioned people called “Asaru.” So people kinda wonder what that tribe was doing.

(The name of the Phoenician goddess Asherah or Athirah, btw, is from a different word stem — the word “to walk, to stride.”)

As a patriarch of one of the Twelve Tribes, Asher is a saint. So it’s totally normal and appropriate to name a baby after him. You will find his name spelled “Aser” in Greek and Latin sources.

In the Latin/Roman Rite, the traditional feast day of St. Asher is February 5. This is also the feast of Ss. Abraham and Sarah, St. Melchizadek, St. Lot, Ss. Isaac and Rebecca, St. Jacob, Ss. Leah and Rachel, and all the other patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes.

On the Eastern side of things, the second Sunday before Christmas is called “the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ,” when all the patriarchs and matriarchs get celebrated. But they also have various saints’ days for individual Old Testament saints.

In the US, Asher has always been a Jewish name, but it seems to have been growing in popularity as a Christian name over the last five years. (In 2018, it was #47 in boys’ names.) In this unhappy time, one can see why people would want a name that means “happy” or “blessed.” It also sounds a lot like other popular names, such as Ash, Ashley, and Aislinn.

(But bear in mind the obvious mispronunciation of all Ash- names.)

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St. Chad?

St. Chad of Mercia. Yup. Totally legit bishop and missionary in Anglo-Saxon England. His Latin name was Ceadda.

His famous brother was St. Cedd (pronounced Keth, with a soft/voiceless “th” like in “width”) or Cedda (the same, with an “ah”). They were both educated at Lindisfarne, and became abbots of the monks of Lastingham. The other brothers were Cynibil and Caelin. (Bede tells us about all this.)

Chad stepped into history after the Synod of Whitby (AD 664). Shortly after the synod ended, many prominent bishops and churchmen who had been in attendance came down with the Yellow Plague (probably the same as Justinian’s Plague, but possibly a kind of yellow fever) and died. Chad’s brother Cedd, King Oswiu of Northumbria’s chaplain, was one of the dead, as was Bishop Tuda of Northumbria, and Archbishop Deusdedit of Canterbury.

King Oswiu of Northumbria decided that he needed a bishop of Northumbria. The bishop of Canterbury was dead, and no successor had been named in three years, so every king and abbey felt like they could and should do their own thing.

King Oswiu and his under-king, Alfrid of Deira, originally picked a guy named Wilfrid (St. Wilfritha, in fact) and sent him off to France for consecration (bishops being rather thin on the ground after the Yellow Plague/Synod), but Wilfrid didn’t come back. So Oswiu named Chad the bishop of Northumbria.

Chad protested his unworthiness, and then set out for Wessex to be consecrated by one Saxon and two British bishops. Then he traveled barefoot to visit all the parishes in his diocese, preaching the Gospel and giving the Sacraments.

Meanwhile, without knowing all this, Wilfrid was over in France, gathering support along with his mentor Agilbert. Agilbert and several other French bishops consecrated him a bishop for Northumbria, but Wilfrid did not go home right away. When he did, he was named bishop of York, and gathered allies but did not fight Chad’s bishoping. Much like Northumbria and Deira, they seem to have acted as allied bishops that shared territory.

At this point, stuff was happening in Rome. In 667, King Ecgberht of Kent decided he needed an archbishop of Canterbury. Local discussion among priests and the king seem to have hit on Wighard, a member of Archbishop Deusdedit’s household. So they sent him off to Rome. He seems to have gotten consecrated with papal approval, and then kicked the bucket. So Pope Vitalian picked one of the Greek refugees from the Muslim conquests of the East, a monk named Theodore of Tarsus. He was learned, experienced, holy, and from St. Paul’s hometown. What more could you want?

When St. Theodore arrived in Britain in 669, he was shocked to learn about Chad’s political appointment unapproved by Canterbury and hence felt it was a false consecration as bishop. Chad expressed all readiness to step down and hand the job to Theodore’s candidate. But when Theodore learned of all Chad’s hard work and holiness, Theodore decided he also wanted Chad to be bishop, and eventually named him bishop of Mercia!

(St. Theodore had almost twenty years of conflict with St. Wilfrid about the division of Northumbria into more bishoprics. But it worked out, and they’re all saints together.)

Chad died in 672, after receiving a message from an angel that he would die in seven days. Chad warned his brother monks about his death, and referred to Death as “that friendly guest who often visits the brethren.” He died on March 2, and one man had a vision of angels and saints coming to fetch him, including Chad’s brother Cedd.

Of course, Chad is often used today in the US as a descriptive name for men who are strong and not too bright, although also for men who are strong and mean. This is not fair to its most famous bearer.

Funnily enough, the UK seems to have missed the Seventies and Eighties popularity of the name Chad. But it’s as UK a name as you can get. Chad was a Saxon, but his name is Welsh and means “battle.”

His brothers’ names mix Saxon and Welsh, much like Northumbria’s population did. You don’t find this situation often in world history, outside of the US!

Ss. Chad and Cedd, pray for us!

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The Real Reason Halloween is on October 31

Muslims, of course. And iconoclast emperors.

Okay, let’s recap the status of All Saints’ feasts.

Back in the day, the celebration of all the martyrs not otherwise celebrated, or all the saints not otherwise celebrated, usually took place in the spring. In Edessa, it was on May 13, from AD 320 on. In Lebanon and Syria, you have celebrations in Lent, or on the first Thursday after Easter from 411 on, a celebration of all martyrs. In Antioch (from the days of Ss. Ephrem and John Chrysostom) and in Wurzburg, All Saints (ton Hagion Panton) was the first Sunday after Pentecost. In the West, it was on April 20.

When the Pantheon in Rome was turned into the Church of Sancta Maria ad Martyres in 609, the building was dedicated on May 13, and Rome began celebrating All Saints’ Day on May 13. There was some spread of the new date, but it was all voluntary changes. Rome did not push it on other areas. Ireland, for one, still celebrated on April 20. But it was a big feast, and Pope Sergius I wrote a long litany in Greek for it in AD 690.

And then, in 731 in Rome, the date changed again.

It was a sad time in Church history. Emperor Leo III, Leo the Isaurian, was a skilled general and governor from Syria, who had overthrown Theodosius III with the help of other military officials. His strong governance had brought peace to the Empire and driven back the Bulgars and Muslims. But he had also brought in forcible Baptism of Jews and Montanists, and then decided that he could smoothe things over with the Muslims by scrubbing Christianity of images and saints. He declared icons illegal in a series of laws that came out from 726-729. Much of the aristocracy supported him, but most theologians, monks, and normal laypeople hated it.

Over in the West, people just ignored Emperor Leo’s dumb edicts. In the East, people who defied the new laws got punished — or they got the heck out, moving to places like Rome with less economy and more freedom. Ironically, one of the strongest voices against Emperor Leo was St. John of Damascus — who lived in Damascus and other places in the Muslim caliphate, and thus could not get silenced by Emperor Leo.

Emperor Leo III also had a feud going with Pope Gregory II. In 722 (the year of the forcible baptisms), the Emperor demanded more tax money and tax food from Rome and the papal estates, because there were war expenses. But Rome was having trouble feeding its own people, and had no surplus money or food to send. The imperial governor got insistent, and the Roman populace threw the rascal out. (And the Pope didn’t object or anything.) Since imperial forces in Ravenna were busy holding off the Lombards/Longobards, and since Emperor Leo was too busy to send troops from elsewhere, the Romans got away with it.

In 725, Emperor Leo sent a new guy, Marinus, to be Dux of his Roman lands. Things might have smoothed over, but Marinus made a serious attempt to put a hit on the Pope. He got recalled, another guy was made Exarch of Ravenna, and the plot continued. It got discovered, the plotters talked, and nobody in Rome loved Constantinople.

Then the iconoclasm laws came along. The East says that Gregory II excommunicated the Emperor. The West says that he sent some strongly worded letters telling the Emperor to butt out of religious matters, and that iconoclasm was evil and stupid. Emperor Leo sent a new Exarch, who started a new plot to kill the Pope and the major notables of Rome. This plot got discovered, too. The Exarch then made a deal with the Lombards to attack Rome as a joint force, but the Pope managed to get the Lombards to change their minds. Gregory stayed openly courteous to Exarch Eutychius, and helped him fight off a non-religious revolt. Eutychius was grateful, and things were looking up. Then Gregory II died on February 11, 731. He was later declared a saint; his feastday is on February 13.

Since he was such a saintly guy and had led the fight against iconoclasm, a lot of people showed up for Gregory II’s funeral. One of them was a Syrian priest, Gregory son of John. He seems to have been something of a scholar and a holy type of guy, but he must have really made an impression.

Because on February 22, 731, this visitor to Rome got elected Pope. By acclamation of the people of Rome.

He was so flabbergasted that he followed an old custom, and asked permission from the Exarch of Ravenna. (Because he was from the East, where bishop was more of a government bureaucratic position.) It was granted, and he was consecrated bishop and Pope on March 18. (No telling what his old bishop thought about it.) He was the last pope until Pope Francis to have origins outside of Europe.

Pope Gregory III started things off with a bang, by sending nice letters to the exiled/deposed Patriarch of Constantinople, and nastygrams about iconoclasm to Emperor Leo III. The emperor put the pope’s messenger in prison.

Pope Gregory III doubled down. He put up a full ikonostasis at the base of the two-story main altar structure of the old St. Peter’s Basilica. He called a synod against iconoclasm and for devotion to Mary and the saints, to be held in November 731. And he also ordered a new oratory to be built in the main nave, all the way down front, and just to the left of the doors going to the main altar. The oratory featured two altars (one honoring Mary, the other St. Gabinius) with a big arch covering them, and a consolidation of saints’ bodies and relics, buried all around the floor and under the altars. And with images and statues, of course!

On November 1, 731, just before the start of the synod against iconoclasm, the new oratory was dedicated. Pope Gregory III announced that from now on, the feast of All Saints in Rome would be celebrated on November 1. (Which of course made the eve of the feast a time for fasting, prayer vigils, and whatever stuff you do to stay awake during fasting and prayer vigils.)

Emperor Leo III sent a fleet to punish Rome, but it was wrecked.

The new date of the feast was still promulgated by free choice; but a lot of kings and missionaries were interested in it because it was a blow against iconoclasm. (And overbearing Byzantine emperors.) Ireland doesn’t seem to have picked up the new date for a long time.

Pope Gregory III reigned until his death on November 28, 741. (He and Emperor Leo III died in the same year.) He was buried in his oratory of Mary and the saints. Unlike Leo, Pope Gregory III was later declared a saint, and his day is December 10.

So there’s no Celtic pagan holiday. The reason we have Halloween is an emperor who was soft on Muslims and hard on icons, and a Pope who fought back.

Everything else is just decorations and candy.

* Other achievements by Pope St. Gregory III — Appointed St. Boniface the archbishop of Germany, and a papal legate, in order to support missionary work among German pagans and lapsed Christians. Founded and perpetually funded a hospital for the poor, dedicated to the Eastern Ss. Sergius and Bacchus. Founded a monastery in Rome named St. Chrysogonus. Restored Rome’s walls. Built, restored, re-roofed, and decorated many churches in Rome. Put a lead roof back on the Pantheon. Helped recapture Ravenna from the Lombards.

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Ever-Everything….

After Christmas Eve Mass, when all the young kids and parents had gone home, and only middle-aged people and college students were left chatting in the vestibule, it emerged that one young woman had never learned what it meant that our Blessed Mother is called “Ever-Virgin.”

Kiddies, this is your cue to click somewhere else on the Internet….

Ever-Virgin (“Aeiparthenos” in Greek) is an ancient title, and it means what it says. The Church has always believed, and always taught, that Mary was a virgin, physically and every other way, throughout her pregnancy, childbirth, and entire life. As a special sign from God, her hymen remained physically intact at all times. Most virgins have their hymens wither away in middle age or break by accident, at some point, if they do not break it by sex. This did not apply to Mary’s physical integrity. Since she was resurrected and carried off to Heaven bodily, she is still a physical virgin up in Heaven; and she will remain a physical virgin forever.

This is not a sign that God is obsessed with virginity, or hates women having sex. Obviously not… God invented sexual reproduction, and created humans to reproduce that way. If he wanted us to be totally asexual, we’d be budding things off or splitting in two like amoebas.

Mary is ever-virgin for several reasons. First, as a sign that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the son of a human woman, not a normal human being born to two normal human beings. He is true God and true man, and Mary’s continued virginity shows this strange and wonderful situation.

Second, we are told that in Heaven there is no marriage or giving in marriage. The same is true of eternal life after the general resurrection and Judgment. We will all be in a mystical union with God and each other, which will fulfill our emotional needs; and reproduction and sex will no longer be needed, because we will be immortal. Just as celibate priests and religious are supposed to live without sex as signs of this life to come, the same is true of Mary in her life.

There are other reasons and Biblical prophecies involved, but I won’t mention these right now. I’ll pass on towards what seems to be the crux of the problem with Mary, for a lot of modern women….

Mary is also the New Eve, the new mother of all the living, and the second person in the Bible with the honorable title “Woman.” She is not only an ever-virgin woman, but forever the “bride unwedded,” ever-Ark of the Covenant, ever-mother to Jesus and His mystical Body of believers. She has lived the life of a wife and a widow in a difficult time, and her hands were busy with weaving and work as the ever-Valiant Woman. But now she works in heaven as the ever-queen mother to the Son of David. All generations will call her blest.

But on the other side, remember that she was also the ever-insulted and ever-whispered about. Without having any of the fun, she must have suffered rumors and nastiness all her life. Even now, she gets to hear this crud; and it hurts and disappoints her, because she loves all of us. But she went through it all without sinning — somehow. With God’s help and grace.

Mary is the subject of some awfully strange ideas. Some people are threatened by the way God chose her to represent the troubles of all women: young and old, maidens and mommies, sinners and saints. We ladies have a tendency to try to keep up with the Mrs. Joneses, and we are unlikely to be able to keep up with Mary. She is the ultimate multitasker; and unlike Mary Poppins, she really is practically perfect in almost every way!

But everything Mary did, she did out of weakness and normalness. She was not a goddess. She was a human woman, although specially graced by not having to deal with original sin. But Eve had that. Mary only stayed sinless by trusting God, and asking Him for help when she was troubled. Since she was a human, that probably was all the time.

And yes, later on, God lived in her house and was her kid, but that would probably make it harder not to kick against God’s ways!

The other side is that other people think Mary was useless and not worth any notice, and should get no credit for anything she did. Clearly this is not so. Mary was not a doormat; she was a smart and independent woman. She thought and pondered; she made mistakes even without sinning. She was no puppet, or a mere container sitting on the shelf. When she thought she should do something, she moved fast.

So the moral of the story of Mary, especially for women, is that we need God every day, in every way, if we want to do all the things we need to do and be all the things we have to become.

But the other moral is that although we are weak and imperfect, God wants to give us graces and strengths. He wants to see us grow and become great ladies. He is on our side; and He will be our help always, if we let Him.

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Burying the Lead: Blessed Laura Vicuña

Laura Vicuña was a Peruvian-Argentinean girl who lived a saintly life and died in a heroically edifying way. The Salesian Brothers and Sisters in Argentina supported her cause for sainthood, and she was named a Venerable back in the early 1900’s, eventually being beatified by Pope John Paul II in the 1980’s.

Here’s the problem. Laura lived a difficult life because her desperately poor widowed mother became the live-in girlfriend of a ranch owner, who then started to go after Laura as she got older. (She died at the age of 13, though, and the guy had been going after her for over six years. So obviously he was a sick puppy, and it’s not clear if he went after her younger sister, Julia, also.)

The ranch owner was also a violent man, when he was drunk and when he wasn’t. He beat up the mother, and he beat up Laura when she refused him. Finally, Laura’s mom fled with her two kids to another town, but the abuser followed, demanding to rape Laura. Laura tried to draw him off or prevent her mom from letting him in, by leaving the place they were staying by another door. Instead she received a crazy beating from the man in the middle of the street, in the middle of town. He almost rode off with her unconscious body, but townspeople intervened before he could. He finished his work by throwing her down in the middle of the street. Laura recovered consciousness, but died of her injuries, after making her mom promise not to go back to him and then forgiving her killer.

All this was covered up in the normal outlines of her life. They said that she had tuberculosis (which she did), and that she had offered God her life to get her mom and sister out of the bad situation (which she did). But they said that it was the tuberculosis that killed her, as opposed to her internal bleeding and injuries. And they said that the bad situation was her mom living an immoral life, not the whole family being subject to a crazy abusive would-be rapist.

(It’s a little weird, because the normal story about St. Maria Goretti, from about the same time, is perfectly clear about the man having rape and murder as his intentions.)

A minor point is that the normal story still emphasizes that Laura was a friend to everybody in school, loved by the teachers, and a leader in sports. Apparently the real story is that Laura worked hard, was devout, helped everyone, was a favorite with the teachers for her good qualities — and was absolutely despised by every other girl in school, except for her one best friend. She was poor, she was stubborn, she had normal looks, and she was showing everybody else up.

Here’s another point. Laura’s mom, Mercedes Pino, was treated pretty poorly by life. Her husband Domenico Vicuña came from a rich family, while hers was poor or middle class. When they married against his family’s wishes and he was disowned by his family, her family also disowned her. She kept the family going for six years after her family died, living an honest life as a dressmaker and hatmaker. But in 1899, thieves broke into her store and cleared out the whole inventory, plus the store appliances. Seeking a new start, she took her girls into the frontier lands of Argentina, where there was supposed to be plenty of opportunity. She was willing to work hard as a maid and cook. So nobody knows why she agreed to become Manuel Mora’s mistress as well as his housekeeper.

Like Mercedes’ dead husband, Manuel Mora came from a good family. Unlike her husband, he had a long list of prior convictions, and wasn’t shy about shooting or stabbing people. Thanks to his family’s influence, he got a good grant of cattle land along the frontier. To give him credit, he was good at running estancias and raising cattle, and he dressed well. However, he was known to treat his hands like slaves, the local natives like worse than slaves, and was in the habit of whipping anyone who displeased him. He was then in need of a mistress, because he had branded his previous one like a cow and then driven her off the ranch.

Apparently he was very charming to Mercedes in the beginning, and implied that he was planning to marry her. But that was all just lies. He did initially pay the kids’ tuition for boarding school, but eventually he refused to pay more because he wanted easy access to Laura. (To their credit, the sisters then awarded Laura and Julia scholarships.)

One sad point is this: Laura didn’t understand what was going on with her mom and the abuser until she was ten, and one of the sisters taught about marriage as a Sacrament. The poor kid fainted dead away, right in the middle of class. (No doubt some of her classmates had been hinting stuff that she hadn’t understood.) It’s just as well, though, because the abuser made his first move on her after the end of that school year, in 1902.

That wasn’t the end of her troubles, either. She wanted to join an order, both for religious reasons and to get out of the bad home situation. (Which would also have lightened the financial load on her mom and sister, although obviously her sister would have been up next for unwanted attention from the abuser.) But she was refused admission to the order of Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, not just because of her age (the standard outline’s explanation), but because her mother was living an irregular life, and they feared giving scandal. Yes, crappy things happen to the holy.

Piecing together her story from different English sources is not only difficult, but pretty horrifying. Obviously you can’t teach everything to kids, but come on, people!

Blessed Laura Vicuña has been named a patron saint of abuse victims.

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