Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Pitre: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary

December 12, 2019

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary
Brant Pitre
(Image, 2018)
240 p.

Mary, Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Theotokos, Our Lady, Queen of Heaven — she has, in Catholic and Orthodox theology and devotion, an honoured and prominent place. Protestants, on the other hand, generally pay her little attention, and, when they do, tend to regard the Marian doctrines and Marian piety as pseudo-pagan survivals or medieval corruptions of Bible-based, New Testament Christianity. Brant Pitre’s fascinating book throws a spanner in those works by making the case for the Catholic and Orthodox view solely on the basis of Biblical texts.

The key to his approach is reliance on Biblical typology: the ancient practice, embedded in the New Testament itself and common among the Church Fathers, of reading the New Testament in light of the Old. Jesus, for instance, is presented in the New Testament as a “new Adam” or a “new Moses”, and those connections are meant to help us understand him. In a similar way, Pitre argues that the New Testament authors — and he draws principally on the Gospels and the Book of Revelation — present Mary in a way that intentionally connects her to a variety of Old Testament figures and motifs, and that the Marian doctrines (Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Mother of God, etc) are rooted in these same Old Testament types. Essentially he asks us to read the New Testament as it would have have been read by a first century Jew, who would have known the Old Testament well and would have noticed the allusions and resonances that we often miss, and then to hear in those resonances the distant but unmistakeable sounds of Marian piety as it would eventually unfold.

And so, for example, he argues that just as Jesus is presented as the “new Adam” so Mary is presented, especially in St John’s Gospel and in Revelation, as the “new Eve”, a woman who contradicts and undoes the damage wrought by Eve, and then he proceeds to argue that her status as the “new Eve” is the seed of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Or he argues that Mary is associated (in St Luke and in Revelation) with the Ark of the Covenant, for she bears within herself the Word of God, just as the Ark contained the words of God on stone tablets. Mary’s special role in the Church as universal intercessor (“pray for us, now and at the hour of our death”) is rooted in her role as Queen Mother of the Church; the New Testament connects her with the Queen in the Davidic kingdom (who was indeed the mother of the king, not his wife). He makes a very interesting case that the New Testament also presents Mary as a “new Rachel”, who was, in the first century, seen as a mother figure for all the children of Israel, just as Mary is honoured as mother of all Christians.

The strengths of Pitre’s close reading of the New Testament texts are most evident in a chapter on Mary’s perpetual virginity. Protestants deny this doctrine in part because the New Testament makes a reference to “the brothers of Jesus”. The usual Catholic response to this objection is that “brothers” did not, for the Gospel writers, necessarily mean siblings, but could mean cousins or other relations. Pitre puts meat on this answer, however, by showing that the same men who are called Jesus’ “brothers” are, in other Gospels, said to be the sons of “the other Mary” who, we learn from yet another Gospel, was “the wife of Clopas”. An early Christian source tells us that Clopas was the brother of Joseph, which would explain why, in another place in the Gospels, “the other Mary” is called “the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus” — they were sisters-in-law, in which case the “brothers” were actually cousins. QED. I’d never seen those dots connected before.

There is a lot of Biblical scholarship in the book — copious footnotes, many of them, I noted with interest, from Protestant scholars — but the main arguments are presented accessibly. It is a book meant for wide readership. The nature of the argument it is making — that the New Testament contains allusions to the Old Testament — is necessarily a bit slippery, but he bolsters his case by showing how his understanding of these texts and their significance was part of early Christian theology.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the book is that, if his arguments are correct, the New Testament authors already saw Mary, in nascent form, very much as Catholic and Orthodox Christians see her today, and that the long tradition of Marian doctrine and piety in the Church is in strong continuity with the New Testament. It’s a stimulating read.

Sancta et immaculata

December 10, 2019

O holy and immaculate virginity,
I know not by what praises I may extol thee:
for thou hast born in thy womb,
whom the heavens could not contain.

First Sunday of Advent, 2019

December 1, 2019

Unto thee, O Lord, will I lift up my soul;
my God, I have put my trust in thee:
O let me not be confounded,
neither let mine enemies triumph over me.
For all they that hope in thee shall not be ashamed.

O magnum mysterium

November 13, 2019

I can’t quite decide if I like Ola Gjeilo’s setting of the Christmas antiphon O magnum mysterium, but it is definitely tempting me to like it. It is beautifully sung here by The Jasmina’s Choir, from Latvia. (Yes indeed, the International Baltic Choir Competition is upon us once more!)

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

The canonical setting of this text is, of course, the one by Victoria:

Solemnity of All Saints, 2019

November 1, 2019

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and first earth had passed away,
and there was no more sea.
And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem
coming down from God out of heaven,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband;
and I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying:
‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men,
and he will dwell with them and they shall be his people;
and God himself shall be with them and be their God;
and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying,
neither shall there be any more pain,
for the former things are passed away.’

(Edgar Bainton, ‘And I saw a new heaven’)

 

 

 

St John Henry Newman

October 13, 2019

Today in Rome Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman. After his conversion Newman became an Oratorian priest, so this morning we made the journey down to our local Oratory to join the celebration. There was a first-class relic (a lock of hair), an excellent homily, and beautiful music. It was a joy to be there.

Had we returned tonight for Vespers we could have heard Arvo Pärt’s Littlemore Tractus, the text of which is by St John Henry Newman:

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen,
and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over, and our work is done!
Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging,
and holy rest, and peace at the last.

*

Some resources: Bishop Barron has put his one hour documentary about St John Henry Newman up on YouTube for a limited time; I’ve seen part of it, and it is very well done. Here is a warm appreciation of his literary legacy, here is a collection of some of his aphorisms, and here is a substantial reflection by Gerhard Cardinal Müller. I’ve read a number of Newman’s books — his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was an important book for me — but the only one I’ve written about in this space is his novel Loss and Gain.

St John Henry Newman, pray for us!

Gleanings: MacMillan, Wittgenstein, and more!

September 30, 2019
  • At Image Journal, I’ve discovered an essay by Michael Capps which gives an appreciative overview of the music of the fine Scottish composer James MacMillan. I learned quite a lot from it. MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony recently premiered in Edinburgh.
  • Also at Image Journal, the editor, Gregory Wolfe, in a neat inversion of the usual formula, confesses to being “religious, but not spiritual”. I don’t know that I’d put it quite so emphatically myself, but I’m sympathetic.
  • The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped in the last week or so, and, once again, I failed to attend any screenings, but I did take note of this positive reaction to Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. I wonder when I’ll get a chance to see it…
  • Standpoint has been running a series on persons and things they judge “overrated”. It’s hard to argue with some of their targets (Harry Potter, Ayn Rand, Voltaire, Richard Dawkins); I confess I’ve never heard of some others, which makes me wonder how overrated they can be. But the most recent entry, on Wittgenstein, is a gem.
  • Deal Hudson has assembled what he thinks the 100 best Catholic movies. Inclusion criteria seem to have been fairly loose: we expect to find “A Man for All Seasons”, but “First Reformed” isn’t specifically Catholic. “Movies of interest to Catholics” is probably closer to what was intended. I’ve seen 8 of his top 10, but only 30-odd of the titles on the full list. Plenty of fodder there for future movie nights. Did you know there was a film version of “Kristin Lavransdatter”?

For an envoi, let’s hear a piece that ravished me this week: the “Agnus Dei” from Johannes Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine, performed by Le Miroir de Musique.

Lux aeterna

September 29, 2019

O’Neill: The Fisherman’s Tomb

August 13, 2019

The Fisherman’s Tomb
The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search
John O’Neill
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2018)
256 p.

One of the best — in fact, maybe the very best — of the archaeological sites in Rome is the Scavi, an excavated fourth-century Roman necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. One steps through the climate-control doors into the past: there is a spacious road lined by small buildings, each with a main doorway giving onto the road; they are family tombs, in an amazing state of preservation — apart from the sawed off roofs on some. The road leads westward, past tomb after tomb, and terminates at a humble looking little monument. Could one look up, through the ceiling, when standing before it, one would be looking up through the main altar of the basilica, up through Bernini’s great baldacchino, and up to the apex of Michelangelo’s dome. It is the focal point of the basilica’s floor plan. The small monument is the tombstone of the fisherman from Galilee, St Peter.

John O’Neill’s book tells the story of how this amazing excavation came about, and of how the tomb, which tradition had always said was there, was re-discovered in the twentieth century after being hidden for about 1600 years. He introduces us to the main people involved, the conduct of the work, and the internal politics that for decades roiled around the interpretation of the excavation’s findings.

**

The excavation was an initiative of Pope Pius XII and was begun, in great secrecy, during the early days of World War II. While the war raged, and as the Nazis occupied Rome, the slow work under the Vatican continued for years. It was all financed, we learn from O’Neill, by an American oilman named George Strake, who did not learn until decades later what his money was being used for. The work, during those war-time years, was led by one Antonio Ferrua and was, unfortunately, done too hastily and to poor archaeological standards. The initial findings were confused — Ferrua fell for a ruse that had apparently been set up to prevent the relics of the saint from being vandalized, and concluded that the bones of St Peter were not there.

It was not until after the war that a young academic, Margherita Guarducci, caught wind of the project, and, after berating Ferrua and his methods in a meeting with the Pope, was herself placed in charge of the site. She established proper procedures for the excavation and spent years studying and untangling a complicated network of scratched inscriptions found on and around the monument, especially those on a nearby wall fragment. This wall had been something of a mystery at the initial uncovering of the site: when the first St Peter’s Basilica had been built by Constantine in 337 his men had planned the church so that, as in the present church, the altar would be directly over the small monument — a decision not taken lightly, as it had necessitated building out the eastern side of Vatican hill and filling the Roman tombs with dirt in order to make a flat foundation for the church — and they had covered the monument in a marble box, but this box had been built asymmetrically so as to also enclose the wall fragment covered with graffiti. It had clearly been done intentionally, but the reason why was not clear until Guarducci came along.

She discovered on the wall fragment numerous inscriptions making reference to Peter, including one which read “Peter is within”. Beneath a corner of the wall was found a cavity with bones. On forensic analysis they were found to be of a man, aged 60-70, of stocky build. It was not a complete skeleton, but enough bones, and from one individual, that the reasonable inference was made that these were the mortal remains of the Apostle.

The historical timeline that was pieced together was something like this:

  • c.65: Peter was executed by the Romans, on Vatican hill, and was buried quietly nearby
  • c.150: the small wall near the burial place was built (the bricks have been dated to the reign of Marcus Aurelius). Graffiti inscriptions began to be made on the wall, naming Peter.
  • c.250: the small monument was built over the burial site
  • c.250-337: at some point, bones originally beneath the monument were moved to beneath the wall. At this time they were wrapped in a cloth, fragments of which survive.
  • c.337: Constantine builds the first St Peter’s church over the site, encasing both monument and wall in marble, an enclosure that was not breached until the twentieth century

This was Guarducci’s theory, but an entertaining academic feud was about to break out. Ferrua, her predecessor, whose methods she had criticized, refused to accept her account, and waged a decades-long war against it. According to him, his original conclusions were sound: the small monument was to mark Peter’s resting place, but the bones themselves were gone, and the nearby graffiti wall, with all its inscriptions, was irrelevant.

Guarducci prevailed, says O’Neill, until the late 1970s, when John Paul II was elected and Ferrua was promoted to head of the Vatican’s archaeological office, at which point he erased her name and work from Vatican publicity materials, and reasserted his own interpretation. The Vatican therefore found itself in a topsy-turvy situation where a secular (at least at first) layperson was arguing for the authenticity of Church tradition and a senior clergyman was arguing for its in-authenticity. It was not, says O’Neill, until Ferrua died in 2003 that his self-aggrandizing theory lost its influence. Pope Benedict commissioned a thorough review of all evidence in the late 2000s, and in 2013 Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the bones found beneath the graffiti wall as being those of St Peter. (This was before he decided to give a bunch of them away.)

**

So, at least, says O’Neill, but here’s an odd thing: I have visited the Scavi twice, first in 2001 and again in 2005, so straddling the year, 2003, in which Ferrua died. But I detected no change in the story between the first visit and the second; the story in both cases was Guarducci’s. So perhaps O’Neill draws sharper lines in the sand than existed in reality.

In any case, the story O’Neill tells is a riveting one, full of the wonder of discovery. Its import for the historical origins of Catholicism is obvious, and I would recommend the book to Catholics for sure, but also to other Christians, those interested in archaeology or war-time history, or just those with a taste for cut-throat academic in-fighting.

Boyagoda: Original Prin

July 14, 2019

Original-Prin.jpgOriginal Prin
Randy Boyagoda
(Biblioasis, 2018)
224 p.

Prin is an academic at a small university in Toronto which, by a series of mischances, has come to be called the University of the Family Universal, or UFU. (One can imagine the mixed-message banner hung in a prominent place: “Welcome to UFU!”) Even in this small pond Prin is a small fish, for his particular expertise — on the symbolism of marine life, and especially seahorses, in Canadian fiction — lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

His professional fortunes, however, are far from being Prin’s main concern as the novel opens, for Prin has cancer, and is looking, with a generous measure of hesitation and indecision, for a way to tell his beautiful young daughters about his condition.

Yet his professional fortunes won’t let him be after all, for he learns that his school faces bankruptcy, and he unemployment (and, one surmises, unemployability) unless something is done, and quickly. Thus is Prin recruited by his academic dean to travel to the Middle East to deliver a lecture (on Kafka, male genitalia as symbols of seahorses, and The English Patient, naturally) as part of a complicated scheme to save the university. The catch: he must travel with a former girlfriend from his graduate school days, a beauty for whom he harbours, against his will, a smouldering charcoal briquette that he fears might erupt into flame if provoked.

Thus far we have a setup for a promising comic send-up of academic life, and I laughed heartily as the pieces fell into place, but Boyagoda is still more ambitious, for in addition to contending against serious illness, the end of his academic career, and his own deceitful heart, Prin is also beset by a religious crisis. He is a Catholic, basically a happy and contented Catholic, who prays his rosary, goes to Mass and confession, and teaches his children to do the same. Yet, for nearly the first time in his life, Prin believes God has spoken directly to him, telling him to do something specific — something he’d much rather not do, and thinks is imprudent or worse — and he can’t understand why.

Now, comic Catholic novels are not thick on the ground — not as thick as they ought to be, if Chesterton’s claim be true that the test of a good religion is whether you can laugh at it. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a single other: Waugh wrote both comic and Catholic, but not generally in the same book, and while Miss Flannery’s stories have in some cases a comic thread, it is usually a dark thread, whereas Boyagoda’s tone is closer to winking and grinning satire. It’s a fascinating experiment.

The novel makes an audacious swerve in its final act into tense dramatic territory — almost thriller territory, as unlikely as that sounds. I’m not quite convinced that this works, but the book leaves enough questions hanging in the air — it is, apparently, just the first volume in a planned trilogy — that I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.

In the meantime, I recommend this book to Catholic readers, to readers who enjoy a good laugh, to connoisseurs of opening sentences, and (of course) to those with a special interest in seahorses in Canadian fiction.