Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Patron Saint of Charities

In many cities and towns across North America people from all walks of life shop in stores bearing the name of St. Vincent de Paul, but how many of them know anything of the man in whose name these shops are maintained? Let me tell you a little about him.

Born of a peasant family at Pouy, Gascony, France, in 1580, Vincent was drawn to the religious early in life and found himself studying at both Dax with the Cordeliers, and Toulouse where he graduated in theology. Ordained in 1600 he remained at Toulouse serving as tutor while continuing his own studies. He spent a brief time at Marseilles and was returning from there in 1605 when Turkish pirates captured him and took him to Tunis in Africa. Vincent de Paul's Muslim captors hustled him ashore where, along with a number of other Christian-born captives, he was marched through the streets for all to see, then they were brought back to the wharf and auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The hand of God must have been with Vincent as he was purchased into the household of a kindly Muslim. Impressed with the French priest, the elderly man offered to make Vincent his heir, if Vincent would only convert to Islam. Vincent refused. When the old man died the steadfast priest was sold to a Muslim who was a convert from Christianity. Vincent's life and songs so impressed one of this man's wives that she rebuked her husband for abandoning his faith. Once again it would seem God’s hand was with Vincent as the man returned to the beliefs of his childhood, and subsequently fleeing Africa, took Vincent with him. He was forced to leave his three wives behind, including the one who had sparked his return to faith.

Back in France, Vincent impressed the Countess of Joigny, whose husband was general of the prison galleys of France. Before being convoyed aboard the galleys, or when illness compelled them to disembark, the condemned convicts were crowded with leg chains into damp dungeons, their only food being black bread and water; all the while,they were covered with vermin and ulcers.

Remembering his own experience as a slave Vincent determined in his heart to reach out to these unfortunates. Assisted by a priest, he began visiting the galley convicts of Paris, speaking kind words to them, doing them every manner of service however repulsive. He thus won their hearts, and converted many of them. A house was purchased where Vincent established a hospital. Soon after this, in 1625, he was appointed by Louis XIII as royal almoner (an officer responsible for distributing alms to the poor) and because of this title gained access to the galleys of Marseilles and Bordeaux, where he met with similar success.

At the same time this was happening St.Vincent found himself frequently at the residence of the aforementioned Countess of Joigny, where she persuaded Vincent to preach to her tenants. The result was that so many people came seeking repentance, Vincent had to enlist other priests to assist him in hearing their confessions. This pattern repeated itself a number of times in various locations. In Chatillon-les-Dombes he repaired a ruined church and led another revival among the local aristocrats.

With sizable sums of money from these various aristocratic families, who found themselves inspired to good works, various groups and charities sprang up all over France. Vincent himself, founded the Lazarists, a group of priests dedicated to teaching the catechism, peacemaking, charitable works and preaching, especially in France’s rural regions.

The Daughters of Charity was established in 1629, when Vincent thought it a good idea to enlist the aid of good young women in the service of the poor. Not long after, the Ladies of Charity, a similar group, was founded, comprised largely of women of nobility. Through Vincent’s teachings and examples, they found themselves working side by side with their own servants in aiding those who were farthest removed from their own positions in French society.

A man of seemingly endless energy, Vincent soon found himself in favour in every court in the land, including those of Richelieu and Louis XIII. In fact, on his deathbed Louis would allow no one else to hear his confession and declared to Vincent, “Oh, Monsieur Vincent, if I am restored to health I shall appoint no bishops unless they have spent three years with you.”

Still, Vincent refused to allow himself to be puffed up by his fame and favour. He continued to dress humbly, though appropriately, when attending to the Royal Court. He used his influence among France’s nobility only to improve the condition of prisoners and the poor, establishing hospices, hospitals, kitchens, and refuges wherever he perceived a need. His experience in Tunis never far from his consciousness, he even raised sufficient funds to ransom 1,200 Christians who lived as slaves in North Africa.

Less than one hundred years after his death Pope Clement XII named Vincent de Paul a saint. In 1885, 225 years after his passing, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him the patron saint of all charitable societies. This is why you see charity thrift shops named for him throughout Canada and the United States.

This master of charity passed away peacefully, sitting in his chair, September 27,1660 - 347 years ago this week.

1. "St. Vincent de Paul", The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV. Published 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15434c.htm>
2. "Vincent De Paul, Saint." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 25 Sept. 2007 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9075411>.
3. Various other internet articles derived by searching "Vincent de Paul"
Photo credit: From and e-card distributed by www.catholicgreetings.com
Other Events that Happened this Week:

September 22, 1692: The last 8 of 19 condemned witches are hanged by Puritan magistrates in Salem, Massachusetts. The trails began in May of the same year when three young women, their imaginations stimulated by voodoo tales told them by a slave, claimed to have been possessed by the devil at the behest of other women in the village. By the time these last executions were carried out, public opinion on the trails had begun to reverse, and in October authorities would annul the witch trials' convictions and grant indemnities to the families of those who had been executed.

September 23, 1857: Layman-turned-evangelist Jeremiah C. Lanphier holds a lunchtime prayer meeting for businessmen on Fulton Street in New York City. At first, no one shows up, but by the program's third week, the 40 participants requested daily meetings. The meeting continued to grow in size until several locations in New York were required to hold everyone. Other cities began similar programs, and a revival—sometimes called "The Third Great Awakening"—catches fire across America.

September 24, 1794:
Russian Orthodox priest-monk Father Juvenaly, his brother Stephen, and eight other monks after several months trekking 8,000 miles across Russia, Siberia, and the Pacific Ocean arrive at Kodiak Island, Alaska. After two years of ministry, the team had led 12,000 Alaskans to embrace the gospel. Juvenaly then extended his mission to the mainland, where he was martyred in 1796, making him the Orthodox Church's protomartyr (first martyr) of the Americas.

September 25, 1534: Pope Clement VII dies. During his tenure Clement was unable to halt Luther's reformation movement or even to implement his own reforms in the Catholic church. When Henry VIII asked Clement VII to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, he refused (albeit rightly in the light of church doctrine) leading to England's break from Catholicism. For these reasons, and others,
he is regarded by some as something of a failure as pope, responsible for the destruction of the Catholic (universal) church.

September 26, 1861:
In the midst of the American Civil War, in accordance with a proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln earlier that year, the Northern states observe a day of public humiliation, prayer and fasting "to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnities. ... It is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy... "

September 28, 929: King Wenceslas, ruler and patron saint of Czechoslovakia is assassinated by his brother and his followers while attending mass. During his brief reign as king Wenceslas sought peace with surrounding nations, reformed the judicial system, and showed particular concern for his country's poor. His example of charity and concern for the less fortunate is heralded in the popular Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas."


Monday, September 17, 2007

The Most Remarkable Woman of the 12th Century

Throughout the 20 centuries since Jesus Life on this earth, there have been many practices within the church that today seem not only strange but downright bizarre. One of the more unusual ways in which an individual demonstrated their devotion to the holy life is the life of the anchor.

The life of an anchor (or anchoress in the case of women, which make up the vast majority of the these religious) was an ascetic life, shut off from the world inside a small room, usually built onto a church so that they could follow the services. Most often there was only a small window acting as their link to the outside world, through which food would be passed in and refuse taken out. Most of the anchor's life would be spent in prayer, contemplation, or solitary handworking activities, like stitching and embroidering, or the copying of manuscripts. As a symbol of the fact they considered themselves dead to the world, they would actually be given the last rites from the bishop before their confinement in the anchorage. This was done in a complete burial ceremony with the anchor laid out on a bier.

One of the most famous of these, was a 12th century anchoress named Jutta, attached to the church of a Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg in Germany. Jutta's fame was such that she was often consulted by many people, religious and non-religious alike, because of her wisdom and understanding. For this reason too, local nobles would send their children to her for religious instruction. One such child was Hildegard.

Born in 1098, the 10th child of a noble family, Hildegard was tithed to the Lord according to the custom of the day, and dedicated by her parents to the religious life. Her education under Jutta, starting at the age of 8, would have been very rudimentary. She would have learned to read Latin so that she would be able to read the scriptures and her daily prayers, but not to write it. There would have been no math, no science and only the history of the saints would have been deemed necessary for the life she was destined to live. Her proximity to the church as astudent of the anchoress, would also have given her exposure to the musical aspects of the worship services held there, but it is unlikely she received any formal training.

When she reached the age of maturity, likely 14 or 15, she formally became a nun and entered into the religious life for herself. Hildegard applied herself to her duties diligently, and for all outward appearances was no different from any other nun in convent. But she was not like all the other nuns, for Hildegard had a secret.

From the age of three Hildegard had been seeing visions. Visions of Jesus, and of heaven, and of things she would have no names for until she was much older. She learned quickly that others did not see the things she saw, and fearing this difference in her, she kept them a secret; from everyone except Jutta. Jutta thought the bishop should know of Hildegard's gift, but kept young nun's secret until her death in 1136. By this time Hildegard was approaching her 40s and had been appointed Superior of the Benedictine convent to which she had been assigned. It was also at this time that the inner voice that accompanied her visions told her to reveal what she had seen to the world. After resisting for some time, (until the headaches that resulted from resistance became too much to bear) she eventually told all to her spiritual director, the abbot of the monastery.

Immediately an investigation was launched into the alleged visions; but after extensive interviews with representatives of the bishop, her visions were declared to be genuine, and a monk was instructed to aid Hildegard in the publishing of her revelations. The result was three books, containing visions of heaven and the future, along with admonitions to the church and the world for straying from the path of righteousness.

Hildegard was always plagued by feelings of inadequacy and sought time and time again permission from her superiors to continue her work, fearing that one day the decision would be made that her visions were, in fact, invalid. Finally, when she wrote to Saint Bernard seeking permission once again, he brought the matter to the attention of Pope Eugenius, who exhorted Hildegard to complete the recording of her visions, that all the world might benefit. With papal imprimatur (a scared imperative, not to be denied) in hand, Hildegard finished her visionary work called Scivias ("Know the Ways of the Lord") and her fame began to spread throughout Germany and beyond.

Pictured at right is an illustration of Hildegard from a work honoring her after her death. The lines above her head represent rays of light that Hildegard credited as the source of her visions, which she described as, "a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch." It has been suggested that this description also resembles those given by sufferers of migraines.

Once the gates were open, there was no stopping this remarkable woman. In addition to the books of her visions she also wrote major works of theology, natural history and the curative powers of natural objects for healing, focusing on the medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She also composed sacred music for vespers and the feasts of the saints; the first composer in the history of the world for which a biography is known. It was not long before she was being consulted by and advising bishops, popes, and kings. (It is regarded by some to be a mixed blessing that her musical works experienced something of a revival in the 1990s when the New Age movement, especially the Mother Earth movement, latched onto her works as an example of the power of the feminine spirit in the natural world. )

It was in the last year of her life that Hildegard faced what some consider to be her greatest trial. The local ecclesiastical authorities demanded that she have the body of a young man, who had once been under excommunication, removed from the cemetery attached to her convent. She argued that since the man had received the last sacraments and was therefore reconciled to the church, she was under no obligation to obey. So great was the respect for this woman that, after some correspondence, her decision was supported and the interdict against her convent was removed.

Later that year she died peacefully and was buried in the church of Rupertsberg.

Though never formally canonized, Hildegard of Bingen, is universally referred to as St. Hildegard and is celebrated throughout Europe. She died at the age of 82, in the convent she founded, on September 17th, 1179 - 828 years ago this week.

1: "Saint Hildegard", New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07351a.htm>.
2. "Hildegard, Saint." Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9040445>.
3: various other internet articles.

Photo Credit: The image is in the public domain.


Other events this week in Church History:

September 15, 1648: - The Larger and the Shorter Catechisms of Westminster, now used by Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist congregations to define the basic tenants of the Christian faith, are approved by the British Parliament.

September 16, 1498: - Tomas de Torquemada, a converted Jew who becomes the dominant force behind the Spanish Inquisition and its first Inquisitor General, dies at the age of 78. During his tenure he burned over 2,000 victims and tortured thousands more. It is reported that as many as 40 percent of those accused had no idea what they we being accused of or why. Many confessed to crimes of which they had no knowledge, just to end the torture.
September 18, 1924: - James Moffatt, a Scottish Presbyterian issued A New Translation of the Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments which he had produced on his own. It was to be the first of many translations that would be made for general readers in the twentieth century; however, by today's standard's it would be regarded more as a paraphrase edition due to many passages that Moffat 'interpreted' based on his own understanding of Christian doctrine.

September 19, 1955: - Mission Aviation pilot Nate Saint spots the Auca villages in the Amazon jungle. The Auca would later massacre him and his companions on January 6, 1956.

September 20, 1224: - On or about this date, on Italy's secluded Mount Alvernia, Francis of Assisi is reported to have prayed, "O Lord, I beg of you two graces before I die—to experience in myself in all possible fullness the pains of your cruel passion, and to feel for you the same love that made you sacrifice yourself for us." St. Francis recounted that not long thereafter his "heart was filled with both joy and pity", and wounds appeared on his hands, feet, and side (called stigmata) which witnesses testified he carried until his death in 1226.

September 21, 1522: - The first edition of Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament is published. It would be on this same that date, 36 years later, in 1558 that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who called the Diet of Worms which condemned Martin Luther, would die.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Parliament of Religions

As Ontario finds itself on the final stretch towards electing a new provincial parliament, I thought I'd tell you about a parliament of another kind.

The World's Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World. Unlike previous "World's Fair" it was a good deal more than just an international trade show. There were the usual displays of new inventions as well as industrial and agricultural displays, even a few displays promoting what we today would call the tourism trade. But in addition to this there was a conference held, the like of which, had never been seen before.

Charles C. Bonney (pictured) was a lawyer and a follower of Swedish theologian Emmanual Swedenborg. He felt the Chicago exhibition was a perfect opportunity to bring the world's religions together in an effort to generate a greater understanding of each other. His goal was to see a reduction in religious persecution around the world. His cause was taken up by the renowned liberal clergyman John Henry Barrows, who enthusiastically promoted the event. Barrows however, was not quite the liberal many thought him to be. He later admitted that his primary reason for promoting the event was his conviction that other religious leaders would leave convinced of Christianity's superiority over other theologies.

Many evangelical leaders, such as Dwight L. Moody flatly refused to participate. Their reasons generally fell into one of two categories. On one hand there was a general feeling that the event would quickly degenerate into an attack on Christian missionaries and Christian evangelical practices in general. On the other hand, for many to even hold such a conference required the supposition that all religions were of equal value, which for evangelicals was a fundamentally false assumption.

Despite these objections however, a few Catholics and a smattering of liberal Protestant churches did send representatives. In addition representatives of other religions included a dozen Buddhists, eight Hindus, two Shintoists, a Jain, a Taoist, a couple Muslims, some Confucians, and Zoroastrians.

As the Parliament continued it soon became clear that the evangelicals fears were well founded. The majority of the speeches made by the non-Christian delegates focused on their opposition to Christian missions. Their biggest complaint being the decidedly unchristian manner in which all too many Christian missionaries behaved. Some even pointed out that their own religions had a better track record of living out Christian values day-to-day than did many day-to-day Christians.

One thing happened however that the evangelicals did not predict. Many of the delegates to the conference, notably the Hindus and the Buddhists decided that since they were in America for a time anyway, they may as well stay a while and tour the country. Realizing that there was a great spiritual hunger in America that mainstream Christianity was not meeting, both religions decided to set up shop and soon both a Buddhist Society and a Hindu society were formed. As a result many people began to view Christianity as just one option among many. They also began to seriously look at the other options and made the switch.

Seeing that the fields of North America were "ripe for harvest" many other disciplines began sending teams to the U.S. as well. Famed Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, soon set up America's first Zen monasteries. Americans warmed quickly to the appeal of religious pluralism and leaders such as John Henry Barrows were appalled by the fact the conference had exactly the opposite effect than the one they had been hoping for.

The great 'Parliament of Religions', at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, regarded by many as the birth of religious pluralism in North America, began on September 11th, 1893 - 114 years ago this week.

1. With Absolute Respect: The Swedenborgian Theology of Charles Carrol Bonney, Rev. Dr. George F. Dole, link
2. Swedenborg Foundation - link
3. Articles provided by the Christian History Institute - link
4. Photo Credit: www.payer.de - link

Other events this week in Church History:

September 8, 1636 - Only six years after arriving from England, Massachusetts Puritans found Harvard College, America's first higher learning institution. The college was founded to train future ministers.

September 9, 1087 - William I, Norman "Conqueror" of England in 1066 and the founder of several monasteries, dies.

September 10, 422 - Elevation of Celestine to the office of pope. Among other things Pope St. Celestine I is known for sending St. Patrick to Ireland and for defending the church against the Nestorian "heresy" at the Council of Ephesus.

September 12, 1922 - The American Episcopal church decides to remove the words "to obey" from its wedding service marriage vows.

September 13, 1541 - Three years after city authorities banish him, John Calvin returns to Geneva. While there he spent the rest of his life trying to establish a theocratic society at the request of those same authorities.

September 14, 258 - Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, is beheaded during the persecution under Roman Emperor Valerian.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

That was the Week That Wasn't !

Absolutely nothing happened this week in church history!

Well, not exactly... actually nothing happened this week in 1752. In fact, in 1752 this week didn't happen. If you're a computer geek using Unix or Mac OS X go into terminal and at the prompt type either "cal 9 1752" or "cal 1752" to confirm this phenomenon. If you're either not a geek or don't have access to one of these systems, click here for a screen shot of the results. What happened to the missing 11 days? I'll explain, but we have to go back a ways.

As with most things in Europe the calendar has its roots in ancient Rome. The first formal Roman calendar consisted of a 304 day year divided into ten months starting with March. The first six were named after various gods, while the last four they simply called Month 7 (September), Month 8 (October), Month 9 (November), and Month 10 (December). January and February were added later. The calendar worked, but required frequent adjustments when the day of the year strayed too far away from the seasons with which they were associated.

In an effort to correct things, Julius Caesar, following the advice of an Alexandrian astronomer, added an additional 67 days to the calendar for a total of 445 days. This one time adjustment (known as the Year of Confusion) moved the first day of the year from March to January. The next year was 365 days long with 12 months and leap year. It became known as the Julian calendar.

As good as it was, there were however, some small inaccuracies and by 1545 astronomers had determined that a few minor adjustments were needed to sort out things like the date of Easter, which was calculated based on the spring equinox. So after some debate and a committee or two, a new calendar was developed that had 365 days to the year, and a leap year every fourth year, unless it was a century year (1700, 1800 etc) in which case it would only be a leap year if it were evenly divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc.). Pope Gregory XIII issued a Papal Bull (decree) that Thursday, October 4th, 1582 would be the last day of the Julian Calendar. The next day would be October 15th and the Gregorian Calendar was born.

Well, except in Protestant countries. The Protestants, being Protestants, did what Protestants do - they protested! They refused to adopt the calendar proposed by the Pope for the plain and simple reason that it was proposed by the Pope! And as every good Protestant knows the Pope was the anti-Christ and was trying to steal 11 days from the people's lives!! Well, in some Protestant minds anyway.

Eventually the Protestant governments began to realize they needed to be in line with their trading partners. Germany and the Netherlands came around in 1698, but it would be another 54 years before the British Parliament declared that Sept 3rd, 1752 would become Sept 14th. There was much protesting, and even rioting in the streets with the people accusing the government of trying to steal 11 days of their lives. Sound familiar?

Some countries made a valiant attempt at using both systems and continued to do so right up until the 20th century. The accompanying picture is an example of the Old Style/New Style (OS/NS) system in use. The date of the certificate (circled) reads "November/December 23/6 1907." In this system you were free to celebrate your anniversary on whichever of the two days you chose, depending on your viewpoint.

Russia did not fully adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1919, and China waited until 1949. Even today Greek and Orthodox churches continue to use the Julian Calendar to determine the dates for Holy Days such as Easter And Christmas.

The week that wasn't started on Sept 3rd, 1752 - 255 years ago this week... or not!

1. "calendar." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 4 Sept. 2007 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-59347.
2. "Sept. 1752 - The Month that Wasn't" - Internet article - http://uneasysilence.com/archive/2007/08/12008/
3. "Absolutely nothing happened between 3 and 13 September 1752" - Internet article, http://didyouknow.org/calendar.htm
4. Various other internet articles derived from searching "sept 1752"

Other Events that happened this week (in years other than 1752):

September 1, 256: North African bishops decide that Christians who had recanted their faith under persecution must be re-baptized upon reentering the church. Stephen, bishop of Rome, disagreed with the vote and engaged in a heated debate with Cyprian, spokesman for the bishops. Eventually Cyprian yielded adding to the arguments for the Roman bishop's supremacy in the early church.

September 2, 1192: The Third Crusade ends with the signing of a treaty. The purpose of this crusade was to take back Jerusalem which had fallen to Saladin (a renowned Muslim general) in 1187. Though they failed in taking back the Holy City, Richard I (who would later be crowned king of England) negotiated access to the city for Christian pilgrims.

September 4, 1842: After a taking a 284-year hiatus (they started building it in 1248), construction of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany was resumed. Now a World Heritage Site, the cathedral was not completed until 1880. And you thought highway construction seemed to take forever!

September 5, 1997: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Missionaries of Charity dies. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia this simple woman's work has been recognised and acclaimed throughout the world, and she has been an inspiration to millions.

September 6, 1620: With 102 Puritan colonists (including three pregnant women) and approx. 30 crew members aboard, the Mayflower sails from Plymouth, England bound for the New World. After numerous hardships both at sea and upon their arrival in North America, the settlers would become known as The Pilgrims.

September 7, 1823: Samuel Marsden, a missionary-pastor in Australia, is shipwrecked during one of seven voyages to New Zealand to share the Gospel with the Maori people.