Friday, January 24, 2014

Isidore of Seville : Patron Saint of the Internet? by Chris White

  Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636) grew up in a home known for its Christian love and, I say this tongue-in-cheek, its overachievers.  As it turns out, all three of Isidore’s siblings are also canonized saints and in their lifetimes were great leaders of the faith in a time of great turbulence.

     Little is known about Isidore’s early years.  He was born in Roman Iberia (modern day Spain) during the period where the Western Roman Empire was slowly collapsing under the weight of huge Indo-European migrations within its borders.  If you were Roman, these people were called ‘barbarians’ because their language and customs seemed so undeveloped.  In reality, these newcomers to Spain were a people known as the Visigoths.  And while some of their manners could use some improvement, they were largely a Christian people although their doctrines about Jesus differed greatly from those that have always been held by Catholics and Protestants.  In Isidore’s world, his people who had been there forever, were being increasingly crowded out by the Visigoths.  They lived in and shared the same homeland, but they were clearly two separate peoples.

     When Isidore was in his early teens he was sent to live with his older brother Leander who was given full charge of his education.  Leander was the bishop of Seville (a leader of all the churches in the area), and a highly disciplined and educated monk.  While Leander had the momentum of many years of living the monastic life, he apparently had little sympathy for his younger brother who was just starting out.  He pushed Isidore very hard expecting him to make great strides in his education (which apparently was at a university level by our standards today) and this would eventually press Isidore to his breaking point emotionally.

     According the Leonard Foley O.F.M.,  Isidore  ran away from his brother's house because he couldn't take the pressurized environment anymore. One day, while hiding out from his brother in the woods, he watched drops of water falling on a stone.  Even though each drop seemed small and inconsequential, the constant dripping of water had worn a hole into the hard rock.  It occurred to Isidore that he could do with his education what the little drops of water did.  If he remained persistent and tackled things little by little, he would eventually learn all his older brother wanted him to learn and thus wear a hole through the rock of his own ignorance (Saint of the Day, 4th edition,  p.70).

     Soon Isidore returned to his brother’s house and eventually mastered Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and a host of other subjects.  In fact, Isidore soon fell in love with learning and made his brother’s richly endowed library his new home.  As he grew in his learning, his older brother trained him to read not only Christian books, but also the classical and pagan literature of the Greco-Roman empire.  Isidore was learning the spiritual practice of reading with discernment, where non-Christian works are analyzed not only for their philosophical errors (as to refute them) but also their usefulness to human experience and understanding.  For all truth is God's truth, man merely discovers it.

     Eventually Isidore’s brother Leander died, and Isidore became the natural choice to replace him as the bishop of Seville.  In his role as bishop, Isidore was given great wisdom and opportunity not only to build up the church, but to unite and build up his nation.  First of all, Isidore had opportunity to speak with key leaders in the Visigothic nation and was able to bring several of them into the Roman Catholic church (remember, in Late Antiquity, this was the only true church around).  Second, but of equal importance, was that in every parish in Spain, Isidore established high quality schools for the young.  Some of these schools specialized in training people for ministry, while others focused on other specialties such as science, medicine, and law.  Not only did these schools educate multiple generations of people, they elevated the Roman-Visigothic society overall, creating a single and learned culture based on the rule of law and united in Christian belief.

     But how does this tie-in with Isidore being the patron saint of the internet?  That brings us to his greatest achievement which is called The Etymologies.  While Isidore was called to the active life of leading his community, there was that other side of him that developed in his brother’s library.  The quiet and contemplative life of research and learning was actually his true passion and the fruit of this passion was a 20 volume, 448 chapter encyclopedia of virtually every subject, writer, and piece of literature from the ancient world.  In addition to this, Isidore wrote books on prayer, Christian doctrine, and even a history of the Visigoths!

     The completion of The Etymologies earned Isidore of Seville the nickname: “Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages” by later historians because his work was read and used throughout Europe for nearly 1000 years.  It was not only the basis for learning, but sometimes was the only place a person could find out about an ancient philosopher or piece of literature.  This ancient encyclopedia would serve as a model for others in later generations who would seek to collect, systematize, and organize all forms of knowledge for the sake of posterity.

     While Isidore of Seville was canonized in 1722, in recent years the Vatican has suggested that he is the patron saint for the internet.  During a general papal audience in Rome (2008), Pope Benedict XIII spoke of Saint Isidore:  "...his nagging worry not to overlook anything that human experience had produced in the history of his homeland and of the whole world is admirable.  Isidore did not want to lose anything that man had acquired in the epochs of antiquity, regardless of whether they had been pagan, Jewish, or Christian.”

     I think if Isidore  were able visit the world of today, he would be impressed with Google and how fast it works, but he wouldn’t be shocked by it.  For in the 7th century, Isidore of Seville was essentially the embodiment of Google before the computer age.



Friday, January 10, 2014

The Adventurous Story of St. Mark: Christendom’s First Pope, Most Widely Traveled Apostle and Literary Inventor by Chris White

Bellini's "St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria"

 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.
                                                                                                                                            --1 Peter 5:13
 He was truly the first Pope.  He wasn’t St. Peter (although he was related to Peter’s wife) and although he did spend a few years in Rome, that was not his Holy See.  According to the ancient Coptic Synaxiron (an ancient history of Christian martyrs), John Mark, author of the Gospel that bears his name, was the first apostle, martyr, and papa (pope) of Africa.  The term “pope” begins being used in Rome and Africa around the same time, however the African version is never corrupted by temporal power and has always meant something akin to the spiritual father of the Christian family and as the patriarch, one who has the responsibility to nurture and level of respect to correct.  The church Mark founded was in Alexandria Egypt and his diocese extended from all of Egypt through Libya and Tunisia.  His influence was immense but I am getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning.

 Aristobolus and Mary had a son named John Mark.  They were a prosperous and devout Jewish family who lived in the land of Cyrenaica (known in the New Testament as Cyrene or modern-day Libya).  Cyrenaica was a popular Jewish enclave with an ideal growing climate which made farming prosperous but also a popular trading center for merchants.  Mark’s family regularly traveled to Jerusalem for the Holy festivals, but eventually moved there because of troubles in their homeland.  Mark’s father Aristobolus had a cousin who was the wife of Simon Peter, a prosperous fisherman from Galilee.  We know that Mary and John Mark were early adherents to Christianity and possibly Mary was among the wealthy women who supported Jesus from their means (Lk. 8:1-3).  John Mark’s family owned a large home in Jerusalem which had an upper room.  This home, whose site was preserved even by ancient Christians even after the destruction of Jerusalem, is believed to be the place that hosted Jesus and the disciples for the Last Supper, and where the earliest church gathered to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  No doubt the young John Mark met Jesus and the other apostles and many of the first Christians.  Barnabas of Cyprus was Mark’s uncle (his mother’s brother) and was also highly regarded in the early Christian movement.
 In Acts 12:12 we read of Peter being thrown into prison for preaching the gospel and while waiting for his execution is miraculously delivered from his chains by an angel.  When he is delivered from the Jerusalem prison he goes straight to Mark’s home to let the church know he is safe, but the scriptures say for safety he left the city and went for another place.  Author Thomas Oden suggests that Peter fled to Cairo Egypt which was a safe haven for Christians and Jews in the day, and who better to help him find his way than John Mark who would know the route well and would have been able to speak the local language.
 The book of Acts also places John Mark with Barnabas and Paul doing mission work. This was probably not his first attempt at it as two ancient authorities attest that John Mark was among the 70 disciples sent out among Israel to preach the gospel (Lk. 10).  His membership on the team breaks Paul and Barnabas apart as Paul was frustrated with Mark’s reticence and Barnabas took the side of his relative (Acts 15).  This is by no means a permanent breach as Paul mentions Mark several times in his letters putting him on assignment with the young churches in Asia and of course calling him with Timothy to Rome as he endures his final imprisonment (Col. 4:10, 2 Tim.4:11).
 But how was it that John Mark and Paul became so close during the latter’s Roman imprisonment? One ancient authority gives us a hint on this.  Clement of Rome was an early bishop late in the first century.  He writes: “Mark, Peter’s follower while Peter was preaching publicly the Gospel at Rome in the presence of Caesar’s equestrians (junior senators) and was putting forward many testimonies concerning Christ, being requested by them that they might be able to commit to memory the things that were being spoken, wrote from the things that were spoken by Peter the gospel that is called “according to Mark”.  Thus Mark could easily be with Paul because he had already been in Rome for some time helping Peter.
 It is interesting to note that the first verse of the Gospel of Mark reads “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God..”.  The longtime consensus view is that Mark’s gospel is the first written account of the Christ event and served as an exemplar for the later writings of Matthew, Luke, and John.  This represented a sea change for the meaning of the word “gospel”.  Prior to Mark, the gospel was a preached explanation of Messiah’s coming and redemption.  After Mark, the word came to mean an orderly presentation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ with the intention of engendering faith and hope in the reader.  The gospels are not works of history (although they contain historic events and reference) but are their own unique genre of literature.  They are eyewitness memoirs with a design to convince both Jew and Gentile that Jesus of Nazareth was no mere man, but God in human flesh.
 St. Peter and his wife were both killed along with many Christian in Rome during the Neronian persecution around 64-67 AD.  It is within this same window of time that St. Paul also sealed his testimony with his martyrdom there as well.  Not long after this, Mark and many other’s flee Rome for their own safety as the Lord taught us to do (Mt. 10:23).  Eusebius and Sawirus, both ancient Christian historians, report that Mark was moved by the spirit of God to begin his work in Egypt.  With a lifetime of preaching experience and a city filled with Jews and Greeks, Alexandria was a natural fit for Mark.  Not far from where he grew up in Cyrenaica, Mark knew the culture, the language, and the people and soon one of the most important Christian communities in the ancient world was birthed through his preaching.
 It was also in Alexandria that Mark sealed his apostolic testimony with martyrdom.  Attacked and taken hostage by pagan followers of the Egyptian god Serapis, Mark’s death was by torture and humiliation.  He was stripped and with ropes tied to his feet drug through the streets of Alexandria by a horse.  This torture did not kill him (although it severely injured him) and so he was thrown into a prison where he was taken by the Lord before he could be tortured anymore.  The pagan’s wanted to burn his body in front of an idol to the god Serapis, but when they tried, a miraculous rain storm burst upon the scene and extinguished the fire.  The church was able to retrieve his body untouched by fire and bury it in a corner of their building where they could remember Mark on the day of his martyrdom every year which is traditionally May 8th.  This however is not the end of Mark’s travels.
 There is a tradition among the people of Venice that long before their famous city was built that St. Mark passed through the area on one of his many missionary travels.  When he laid eyes on the bare lagoons he heard the voice of God tell him (in perfect Latin of course) that “someday this will be your final resting place.” Whether that really happened or not, two resourceful Venetian merchants named Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello said it did to the two monks who were the custodians of St. Mark’s church in Alexandria.  It was the year 823 AD and Alexandria Egypt was now under control of the Muslims.  The beautiful church there was under threat because local authorities wanted to tear it down and use some of its columns to build a mosque elsewhere. 

 Knowing this, Malamocco and Torcello, convinced the monks they could best protect the remains of their beloved saint by giving them the relics (his bones) for safekeeping in Venice.  Since merchant boats were all inspected by customs agents before leaving Alexandria, the two men hid Marks bones in a barrel beneath cured pork and cabbage.  Knowing that Muslims consider pork to be unclean, their natural aversion went into full play when they came to the barrel containing St. Mark and soon they were out to sea.
 The remains were stored in the Doge’s palace (a Doge is the elected ruler of Venice) for several years until the beautiful Basilica San Marco was ready for its patron saint.  And so the Venetians named their land “The Republic of St. Mark” and chose the symbol of the Lion (one of the four creatures before the throne of God in Ezekiel) for Mark because of his great courage and strength as an apostle of Christ, a value they wanted to emulate in their community. 
  If we take the New Testament and testimony of the church fathers into account, John Mark’s missionary work encompassed Israel and Syria (the Middle East), Asia Minor (Asia) Cypress and Rome (Greek and Latin Europe) and Alexandria (Africa).  Perhaps it was destiny that John Mark, the young man from remote Cyrenaica, would become the patron saint of the sea-faring Venetians, like them, he too was a great traveler, taking the message of Jesus to the four corners of the compass.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pope Gregory VII : A Bright Flame in a Dark Time by Chris White

Wax Burial Effigy of Gregory VII (Hildebrand)

High position tends to favor the well-positioned in this world and this has often been true of the papacy.  But even as Christ Jesus taught us, greatness in the kingdom of God is found in being the servant of all (Mk.10:43).  Such is the story of Pope Gregory VII (1015-1085) a man of very humble beginnings who became a monk in Rome but through his gifts, both spiritual and natural, rose to become the leader of Christendom, and arguably a man with few peers among those who have ever sat on the throne of St. Peter.

His birth name was Hildebrand (“a bright flame”) which was quite appropriate for the son of the town blacksmith and his wife.  Growing up in southern Tuscany, Hildebrand Bonizi lived as neither a peasant or a prince, but as an ordinary commoner of his day.  As a teenager, Hildebrand was able to go to Rome and study under the tutelage of his maternal uncle who was both a scholar and abbot of a Benedictine monastery.  In the Middle-Ages, monastic life was often considered a special opportunity for young men as in some places it was the only means to getting higher education and it provided a structure that was conducive to learning and innovation.  It is also not an exaggeration to say that those who were well-educated in the Medieval era were very often put in the service of the church.

Eventually Hildebrand’s uncle was elevated to the papacy and took the name Gregory VI.  His was a short papacy that was troubled with many false accusations and eventually ended with his abdication and replacement at a church council.  Hildebrand followed his uncle into exile but eventually returned to Rome and in 1053 was made a cardinal bishop.  Cardinal bishops were seen in this time as the new senate of Rome.  For the next 20 years Hildebrand served 5 popes in various capacities.  In many regards this is a very tumultuous period for the papacy with some popes engaging in or being taken down by great scandals.  One of the great sins of this period was the buying and selling of church offices.  This practice, called Simony after the sin of Simon Magus (Acts 8) who sought to buy spiritual power from the Apostles and was very publicly cursed by St. Peter, was growing more and more common.  In some regards there was a sociological context for this that makes this somewhat less evil than it sounds today, but that aside, it truly had the effect of the rich and powerful, especially in Rome, turning this spiritual office into a means of leveraging power.  This problem was met head on when Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII in 1073.

In taking the name Gregory VII, Hildebrand was signaling the legitimacy of his uncle’s reign that had ended poorly but also that he was going to follow in his footsteps as a reformer.  One of the biggest reforms that Hildebrand put into place was papal elections by the cardinals.  Although all the elaborate election procedures that we see today such as being locked in the Sistine Chapel and burning ballots to signal the people are later accretions, they are built upon Hildebrand’s reform which removed the politically powerful and well-placed from interfering, and made the election of the highest bishop the responsibility of the church’s highest leadership.  While not solving the problem of power grabbing or simony completely, this step at least set the stage for its eventual correction.  This is not without a bit of irony though.  While Hildebrand is the father of papal elections, he himself was never officially elected but rather simply acclaimed.  He had so much a part the papal court, when the position became vacant everyone was agreed: “Let Hildebrand be pope!”

Though the tradition of priestly celibacy has ancient roots, it was a tradition that was not uniformly practiced or enforced.  Gregory VII, himself a monastic, changed that and enforced celibacy as the norm for the Roman Catholic priesthood.  This has always been one of the questionable practices of the Catholic Church not because celibacy (singleness without sexual partners) is without any biblical warrant, but that Jesus taught that only some have that gift and one of the most notable figures in the church that didn’t have that gift was St. Peter himself believed by Catholics to be the first pope!  To uniformly enforce a practice that is contrary to the natural makeup of most humans is to invite sin and scandal in the first place, but also unneeded disgrace when a church could be well-served by a priest with a lawfully wedded wife and family.  Ill-advised as this policy is (from my perspective at least) it did have a context in Gregory’s day where bishops had secret wives and families and would often seek to hand down a diocese as an inheritance.  In eliminating heirs through the enforcement of celibacy throughout the church, Gregory VII was also consolidating the role of the papacy in appointing and approving bishops worldwide.

The most important reform of Gregory VII was standing against what is called “lay investiture”.  Even if these terms seem foreign to you, you’ll easily see their significance even in the modern world of today.  If the church is God’s communion and instrument on earth, should clergy and particularly church leadership be appointed by the secular government or the church itself?  Many kings in Europe held the idea that they were appointed by God to rule and therefore the churches in their realms were under their jurisdiction and that included their bishops.  Gregory VII took the opposite view and asserted that the pope alone is the Lord’s vice-ruler here on earth and as such not only has the right to bestow the offices of the church, but also has authority over secular kings with the right to depose them or absolve their subjects of their obligation to obey them.

In taking this stand it would be inaccurate to say Gregory VII won a certain and final victory.  He most famously engaged King Henry IV of Germany in this controversy and even excommunicated him for a time until he repented from appointing his own bishops.  But after three years, King Henry repented of his repenting and led a successful effort to depose Gregory VII as pope, electing his own pope in the person of Clement III.

While Gregory VII and a later successor Innocent III brought papal power to supremacy in Europe as they exerted their will over other secular rulers, their viewpoint was a continual source of controversy.  Sovereign rulers had a difficult time with the idea that they derived their authority to rule as a gracious grant from the papacy and popes likewise only with difficulty could accept they were co-equal to temporal rulers, ruling over the souls rather than bodies of men.  Indeed the role of the church and government in God’s economy is still an issue for which the lines can be quickly blurred even today.  But for Gregory VII this was something for which he had absolute clarity.  It was he who declared rulers shall kiss his feet but he will kiss no layman's feet and that the church has never erred or will err in the future in its judgments.

While some of this may seem like a man on a quest for the absolute power that corrupts absolutely, we should understand Gregory VII in the context of his own time.  His exertions of power were in great part a correction of structural sins within the church.  On balance, he also lived in a Europe where everyone from the smallest to the greatest, owed allegiance to someone higher up the ladder.  It was the time of knights, kings, lords, landed commoners and un-landed peasants.  He put this together theologically and aimed at a union where kings and subjects would be in submission to the church and truly live as part of Christendom.  Gregory VII lead the way at the high tide of the church’s influence in Europe, this would later be taken to absurd heights by others and eventually falter, but in the 11th century, the bright flame Hildebrand saw his path through the darkness around him and sought to take the church with him.

Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII was beatified in 1584 during another period of great Catholic reform following the Council of Trent.  In 1728 he was officially elevated to sainthood.