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Gregory the Great – Doctor of the Church, Saint and Pope

English: Gregory I became pope in 590 and effe...

Gregory I became pope in 590 and effected great changes in the Roman Catholic church. He used the office to govern and provide pastoral care to a large area during a time of little civil administration. He also reformed church liturgy, introducing Gregorian chant. Gregory’s writings about saints, including Saint Benedict, helped the growth of Benedictine monasteries in the Middle Ages. (Photo credit and text for this image: Wikipedia)

St. Gregory (540 – 604 CE) was a learned politician who became a monk, then Pope. He came from a wealthy patrician family, well connected to the Church in Rome. His father was a senator and Gregory became the Prefect of Rome at the young age of 30.

He reluctantly became Pope from 590 to 604, writing letters after his election indicating that he really didn’t want to do it, but would assume office out of divine duty.

An interesting anecdote tells us that Gregory so believed in the afterlife that he punished a dying man and even abused his dead body.

It seems to some that Gregory was not always forgiving, or pleasant for that matter, even in his monastic years. For example, a monk lying on his death bed confessed to stealing three gold pieces. Gregory forced the monk to die friendless and alone, then threw his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with a curse, “Take your money with you to perdition”. Gregory believed that punishment of sins can begin, even on one’s deathbed.[26] However, at the monk’s death Gregory offered 30 Masses in his remembrance to assist his soul before the final judgment

Today, most would see behaviour like this as indicative of a disturbed psyche, and definitely illegal.

Also interesting is that, although Gregory was learned, he came to dislike erudition in favor of what many would see as fanatical superstition.

Opinions of the writings of Gregory vary. “His character strikes us as an ambiguous and enigmatic one,” Cantor observed. “On the one hand he was an able and determined administrator, a skilled and clever diplomat, a leader of the greatest sophistication and vision; but on the other hand, he appears in his writings as a superstitious and credulous monk, hostile to learning, crudely limited as a theologian, and excessively devoted to saints, miracles, and relics“.²

Vintage colour engraving from 1864 showing Gregory and the English slaves at Rome. Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604), better known in English as Gregory the Great, was pope from 3 September 590 until his death. Gregory is well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope.

According to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Gregory was “the last good Pope.” And many see him as a bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds.³

I originally mentioned Gregory in this blog mostly because he’s the one whom the term “Gregorian Chant” is named after. But like many legends, Catholic or otherwise, attributing Gregorian Chants to Pope Gregory is probably not historically accurate.

Most scholars believe that the so-called Gregorian Chant came into existence during the 9th and 10th centuries due to a blend of social, political and musical forces that mostly did not exist when Gregory was alive.4

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Gregory_I

² Ibid.

³ Ibid.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_chant

 


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Saint Pacianus – A bishop with wife and child

Saint Pacianus in the façade of the bishop’s palace in Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain) – via Wikipedia

St. Pacianus (or St. Pacian) was the 4th-century Christian bishop of Barcelona. He is considered a “Father of the Church” and was canonized as a Catholic saint.

He apparently embodied chastity, education and eloquence.

In those days, a bishop could be married with children. Accordingly, St. Pacianus was married and had a son, to whom the famous (in Catholic and academic circles) scholar Saint Jerome dedicated his biographical De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men).

St. Pacianus is probably best remembered, however, for his pithy statement:

Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname.

It’s hard to know if anyone would say that today.


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The Scholastics

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym of Thomism. Picture by Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “scholastics” is what we call the leading churchmen-scholars in the Middle Ages.  These religious thinkers used the logical methods of their time to debate complex, often abstract theological issues, many of which were premised on faith. This is also known as Scholasticism.

The scholastics never asked “how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.” But this question is often cited to satirize their approach, which to critics seems arbitrary and metaphysically excessive.

The influential scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas adapted arguments from (the Greek pre-Christian) Aristotle into a Christian network of beliefs. Interestingly, Aristotle’s voluminous works were translated from the Greek into Latin by Arab scholars.

Duns-Scotus

Duns-Scotus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After some kind of direct encounter with God near the end of his life, Aquinas apparently said that his many writings were like a “house of straw.” In other words, worthless compared to direct experience. Nevertheless, his arguments, many of which seem to be couched in ancient and medieval ways of understanding, are often cited to illustrate and (apparently) legitimize Catholic teachings.

Perhaps the abstract intellectualism and intense quibbling of the scholastics lost sight of basic Christian teaching of loving God and one another. And for one person to believe he or she can definitively speak about God, no matter how cleverly, seems quite arrogant from a contemporary standpoint.

Some of the more noteworthy scholastics are St. Anselm, William of Ockham, Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus

Related » Idealism, Nominalism, Ontological Argument, Universalism

¹ Wikipedia lists several more whom I’ve encountered but not really had the time to study.


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Sister

Nuns at the beach, Cherai: Michael Foley

Michael Foley – Nuns at the beach, Cherai, Kerala, India

Sister is a word often associated with a Catholic nun, although Protestant women leading a life of institutionalized prayer are also called sisters. Wikpedia suggests that the term “nun” indicates a more contemplative path, while the term “sister” refers to a more active vocation. But this is debatable because, as Wikipedia also notes, the terms are often used interchangeably.¹

The word was commonly found in Hebrew (ahoth) and Greek (adelphe), where its meaning ranges from a family member, an extended relative or a wife, to a friendship or tribal tie.

Catholic nuns have existed from about 300 CE. The Catholic Church does not allow women to become priests, this apparently justified on the basis of the maleness of the twelve apostles.

English: Statue of the Virgin Mary Located in ...

Statue of the Virgin Mary Located in the grounds of the Roman Catholic Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This theological argument has been upheld as evidence of sexism within the ranks of the all-male Catholic hierarchy. This sexism is said to be reinforced and legitimized by cherry picking Bible verses that support a chauvinist stance while ignoring those which would refute it.

The Christian designation “brother is a rough parallel to “sister” for men. Two examples of “Mothers” (as linguistic but not organizational counterparts to priestly “Fathers”) are the late Mother Teresa and The Virgin Mary (called The Blessed Mother by Catholics).

Christian sisters are often (but not always) lampooned and unjustly stereotyped in the movies. One only has to wonder what would happen if a similar mockery of Hindu or Moslem religious women occurred in the media.² And why, we must ask, do Christians, for the most part, take it in stride? Could it be because Christians are the most secure in their faith? Or have many lost their faith and are just apathetic?

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nun

² For a list of other religious, professional and humanitarian uses of the word “sister,” see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sister_%28disambiguation%29

On the Web

 


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St. Teresa of Ávila

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) was a Spanish Carmelite Catholic mystic whose frank autobiography was criticized by the American psychologist and philosopher William James. However, this work along with The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection are widely regarded as literary and spiritual classics.

St. Teresa was a profound mystic and convent organizer. She spoke of degrees of purity, detachment from the world (to include one’s relatives) and various graces encountered by those seeking spiritual perfection and God.

For St. Teresa, God’s love was experienced as a kind of spiritual water for which she was ever thirsty.

In keeping with the general motif of the Dark Night of the Soul, in her autobiography she spoke of terrible “dry” periods where grace was lacking. During these moments she neither enjoyed this world nor a heavenly one, “as if crucified between heaven and earth, suffering and receiving no help from either.”

St. Teresa apparently levitated. This made her uncomfortable because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

ipis

Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, by Bernini

Perhaps her most enduring saying is “God alone suffices.”

In 1622, forty years after her death, she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV, and on 27 September 1970 was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI.¹

While St. Teresa’s autobiography is inspiring for contemporary readers, it doesn’t really address some of the problems that modern (and postmodern) mystics must face.

If I remember right, there’s no mention of systemic corruption in the Church. And there’s certainly no commentary on how we are to survive amidst ever growing technologies and their potential misuse by creaminals, creeps and scallywags. So although extremely worthwhile in my younger days, I had to take heed but respectfully move past hers and several other Christian classics to pave my own road to salvation.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_%C3%81vila

Related Posts »  St. John of the Cross, Numinous, Pollution


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Transubstantiation

O Sacrament Most Holy by Br Lawrence Lew, O.P.

O Sacrament Most Holy by Br Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr

Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic dogma that the substance of bread and wine transforms into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Eucharistic celebration of Holy Mass.

To make sense of the fact that the communion wafer doesn’t change in outward appearance, Catholic theologians rely on the Aristotelian distinction between a thing’s form and its substance.

According to this belief, the form (what we see) does not change but the substance (sometimes called the essence) does.

This opposes the popular view that the Eucharist is only a symbol of remembrance or, as some New Age believers say, a sign of human or cosmic unity. From a Catholic perspective, both of these views are inadequate.

3rd quarter of 16th century

3rd quarter of 16th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the sacrament of the Eucharist includes symbolic and unifying aspects, its heavenly mystical quality supersedes these shortsighted interpretations about its meaning and character.

In some New Age circles, there is a trend to equate the cosmic and/or astral realms with the heavenly. But for Catholics the cosmic (planets, stars, galaxies, energy), the astral (spirits, gods, goddesses), and the heavenly (sometimes revealed audio-visually but usually experienced as grace) are each different.

So for Catholics, any attempt to homogenize these realms falls short.

Related Posts » Agape, Aristotle, Consubstantiation, Grace, Quiddity

On the Web:

  • While Catholics believe that the Eucharist need not change in physical appearance to be an effective sacrament, claims are sometimes made as to its miraculous transformation


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Unction

"Extreme Unction", part of The Seven...

“Extreme Unction”, part of The Seven Sacraments, by Rogier Van der Weyden (1445). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unction is an oil ritually applied to sacred statues and the dead for magical and religious purposes.

The practice was common in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and among the Hittites. The Jews of the Old Testament and the first Christians also used oil for anointing.

Today the Catholic Church uses oil for Baptism, Confirmation, Coronation ceremonies and for conferring spiritual strength.

The Catholic sacrament of Holy Unction or anointing of the sick replaced Extreme Unction in 1972.

The old name: “Extreme Unction” means last anointing. “Extreme” was used to mean “last.” “Unction” means anointing. The sacrament has not changed, but the name “Sacrament of the Sick” or “Anointing of the Sick” better conveys that fact that it is a healing sacrament that is meant for the living as well as for those near death. It has always been meant for both. This is not new. The sacrament has not changed–just the name.

Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.¹

Extreme unction. Esperanto: Lasta sankt-oleado.

Extreme unction. Esperanto: Lasta sankt-oleado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sacrament also appears within the Eastern Orthodox Church. For Catholics, to participate in the sacrament one must

(a) be of the age or reason

(b) have recently received the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, formerly called Confession

In actual practice, however, there is no real way for a priest to definitively determine if a parishioner has recently received the sacrament of Reconciliation or not. And I suggest elsewhere, Catholic teaching compared to what parishioners actually believe and practice might not always be in accord. ²

¹ “What ever happened to Extreme Unction?” » http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=28380

² http://epages.wordpress.com/?s=+The+Dislike+of+Catholicism%3A+Understanding+the+Holy+in+the+Catholic+Tradition