by George M Barton is now available as an illustrated e-book in formats for most computers, e-readers and smart phones. This is a very little known element of the American Civil War, Catholic nuns working on both sides of the battlefield, concerned only with the relief of human misery and strengthening the faith of the wounded.
Do Roman Catholics believe in the mercy of God?
Yes. We believe most firmly all that Scripture tells us about God’s kindness towards man in his sorrows and afflictions and especially towards repentant sinners. With the Jews we pray to god as “merciful and gracious, patient and of much compassion, and true.” (Exodus 34:6) We believe that God’s mercy is immeasurably great (Psalm 50:3), all-embracing (Psalm 144:9); inexhaustible (Psalm 29:6); free given (Exodus 33:19) and endless. One of the outstanding features of the life of Christ, who was God, was His mercy. Towards repentant sinners, mourners, the sick, the suffering and the needy He was unfailingly kind, sympathetic and compassionate.
Yet do you not believe that this merciful God condemns sinners to an endless hell?
That is not strictly speaking correct. What we do believe is that those who die in a state of mortal sin of which they have not repented are separated from God forever in hell.
What do you mean by mortal sin?
All sin is the breaking of the moral law. For a sin to be mortal certain conditions must be fulfilled. They are that the transgression must be
- in a serious matter
- committed with the knowledge that what we do is seriously wrong
- with full deliberation and consent on the part of the will
If one of more of these three conditions is missing there is no mortal sin. You cannot commit mortal sin by accident; therefore, you cannot go to hell by accident.
Does God give every man enough help to save his soul?
Yes. “God our Saviour….will have all men to be saved.” (1st Timothy 2:4) “The Lord….dealeth patiently for your sake, not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance.” (2nd Peter 3:9) He does not entirely withdraw his grace even from blinded and hardened sinners. The Bible is full of admonitions to sinners to repent; these pre-suppose that repentance is always possible with the help of God’s grace: “I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)
What does “hell” mean?
The place and state in which the devils and such human beings as die in enmity with God suffer torment for ever.
Is hell a place?
Yes; that has always been taken for granted by the Church though it has never been defined as of faith. It is the most natural inference from the texts of Scripture.
Where is hell?
We do not know; God has never revealed that to us.
Is a Catholic bound to believe in hell?
The Athanasian Creed (5th or 6th century) professes that “it is necessary for salvation to believe that those who have done evil will go into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic faith. Everyone must believe it, firmly and steadfastly; otherwise, he cannot be saved.”
The fourth Lateran Council, 1215, states: “Christ will reward all according to their works….the wicked will receive a perpetual punishment with the devil.”
Pope Innocent IV stated in 1254: “If anyone dies unrepentant in the state of mortal sin he will undoubtedly be tormented for ever in the fires of an everlasting hell.”
From the second Council of Lyons in 1274 we have: “The souls of those who die in mortal sin go down to hell.”
Pope Benedict XII declared in 1336: “According to God’s general ordnance , the souls of those who die in personal grievous sin descend immediately into hell, where they will be tormented by the pains of hell.”
Pope Innocent III had written to the Archbishop of Arles in 1301: “The punishment for original sin is the loss of the vision of God; but the punishment for actual sin is the torment of an everlasting hell.”
Did Jesus Christ say we must believe in hell?
Yes, clearly and many times:
“Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
“Depart from me all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you shall see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets, in the Kingdom of God; and you yourselves thrust out.” (Luke 13:27-28)
“It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into ever-lasting fire.” (Matthew 18:8)
“Fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
Many other texts could be quoted.
Is is not strange that Saint Paul never mentions hell?
He does. He says the fate of the unredeemed is to be “death”. (Romans 6:21-23) The encounter with God’s wrath will bring “tribulation and anguish”. (Romans 2:5, 9) “Who shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction”. (2nd Thessalonians 1:9) “The un-just shall not possess the Kingdom of God.” (1st Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:19-21)
Will hell last for ever?
Yes; read again the texts already quoted. Jesus Christ says also, “The worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished.” (Mark 9:47) Saint Jude refers to, “Those to whom the storm of darkness is reserved for ever.” (Jude 13) Saint John says, “The smoke of their torments shall ascend up for ever and ever.” (Apocalypse 14:11)
May not the word translated as “eternal”, “everlasting” and “forever” have other meanings, for example, “age long”?
Yes, but Jesus Christ contrasts eternal punishment with eternal life. Nobody doubts that heaven is going to be eternal; when then doubt it about hell? Christ says the fire will never be extinguished; the worm will never die. He said it would have been better if Judas has not been born. Nothing He said suggests that we should qualify His references to eternal fire.
Did not Saint Peter say (Acts 3:21) that all things would be restored?
Yes; but before the Judgment and not after it. He was referring to what would happen on earth, not to hell.
Does not the word translated as “hell” mean simply the grave?
Sometimes yes, but not in the texts we have quoted to prove the existence of hell.
Does not Saint John’s Gospel contradict the others about hell?
No. Saint John always pictured men’s future destiny in terms of eternal life or eternal loss. (John 3:3, 15; 6:40, 55, 59; 12:25, 48, 50; and 20:31)
Did not early Christian writers believe that hell would end?
Yes, a few did following Origen. (185-255) But Origen was condemned at a Synod of Constantinople in 553. Apart from these few the Fathers unanimously believed that the eternity of hell is clearly taught in the New Testament.
What are the pains of hell like?
They are two-fold, the pain of loss and the pain of sense.
What is the pain of loss?
It means being deprived of the direct vision of God. It is the most bitter torment of hell.
Is not the pain of loss a merely negative thing; what one has not enjoyed one will not miss?
That is not so. The pain of loss is very positive. Anguish is caused by the frustration and emptiness of souls that were created to enjoy the direct vision of God, by their knowing that the God on whom they depend is an enemy for ever, by their remorse at having themselves forfeited the greatest blessings, by their inability to satisfy nature’s innate craving for happiness, by their consciousness that God is infinitely happy and that they are powerless against Him.
What is the pain of sense?
It includes all the other torments of hell except of loss.
Until the final resurrection only souls are in hell; but souls have no sense; so how can they suffer the pain of sense?
The term “pain of sense” does not mean merely punishment inflicted on the bodily sense; it is certain that the souls in hell suffer from real, created, physical fire.
Did not some of the Fathers of the Church regard this fire as only figurative?
Yes. Only a few, among them Origen and Saint Ambrose, but tradition is overwhelmingly against them. The New Testament describes the punishment of hell as fire no less than thirty times. Saint Peter and Saint Jude compare it with the fire of Sodom, which was very real. No Catholic could deny that the fire of hell without sinning seriously against faith; it would not however be formal heresy because it is not a defined dogma.
What is the main difference between the pain of loss and the pain of sense?
The former is the absence of something, the latter the presence of something.
You say the fire in hell is real, created and physical. Please explain this further.
Christ, God Himself, used the word ‘fire’ to describe the torment of hell. Fire, then, must be that element best known to us which produces results most like the fire of hell. There are obvious differences. The fire we know depends on combustion; the fire of hell does not depend on being constantly fed with fuel. It depends solely on God’s will. God showed Moses a bush which, although it was in flames, was not consumed. Hell fire does not give light, for hell is described as darkness. It is capable of afflicting spirits, wherever they are and tormenting the damned unequally according to their sins.
Is it possible to explain fully the nature of hell fire?
No, because we have to use the ideas and words with which we are familiar here to describe a world of which we have no experience. Christ used the word ‘fire’; therefore we know it is the nearest analogy. Sentimentality has pushed modern discussion of hell fire to such lengths of aversion as to make it almost non-existent. But so ancient and so universal is the teaching of the theologians that it would be extremely temerarious to deny its reality. There is real fire in hell by which the devils and souls of the damned are punished until men’s bodies finally rise. Thenn the bodies of the damned also suffer punishment by fire. This fire works supernaturally. As an instrument of God’s justice its effects are entirely beyond the natural powers of fire. We just do not know how fire punishes them. Saint Thomas Aquinas conjectured that the action of hell fire was mainly one of hemming in and limiting the activities of the proudest creatures of the universe.
Is not the word “fire” just a metaphor for the pain of loss?
No; it is a pain inflicted by an external agent by God’s will.
Did God create this fire specially for hell?
We do not know. It is not necessary that He should have done so.
If God exists He is love; hell spells hatred: are not these two contradictory?
Yes, God is love. He loves all men. In His love He gave us freedom to reject Him. If we do that what can we expect but the opposite of love? God damns only those who deliberately choose hatred and evil instead of love and goodness.
Yet this loving God could prevent our choosing hatred and evil; if He is all-powerful as well as all-living should He not do that?
Yes, God is all-powerful; He is all-wise, too. He chose to make us free. He could have done otherwise. Our freedom does not limit Him in any way. God is not beaten by the man who rejects Him. It is not for the creature to say that the Creator should have done this or should have done that.
How can an infinitely good God insist on keeping His creatures imprisoned in an abyss of fire forever? Is He never satisfied? Would it not be better to annihilate them?
It would not. If you demand the annihilation of sinners you demand that God reverse His plans; you want Him to stultify His own work and admit that He is powerless.
God is merciful; why does He not forgive the devils and the damned?
Because they do not want mercy; they want hell because they have decided they do not want God. There is no alternative. When God offered them mercy they rejected it and chose evil instead.
Surely after the experience of hell sinners would repent and want God?
They would not; they have chosen evil deliberately. What you suggest is hardly true repentance, which is a loving choice of God, not something which is forced one by the experience of pain.
Does not the Bible say (Hebrew 2:14) that the devil will be destroyed?
The Bible says no such thing. Your text teaches that the Redeemer will destroy Satan’s power over the redeemed, not Satan himself.
Is not all this talk about hell quite unreasonable?
It is not. Reasonable men accept what God tells them. There are few things He has told them as clearly as the existence and eternity of hell.
How could a parent be happy knowing his child is in hell?
Love that is natural during life becomes supernatural after death. Supernatural love of god is incompatible with love of evil. The child in hell has freely chosen evil. The parent sees him now in the light of the justice of God.
What about all the good that the damned must have done in their lives along with the evil?
They themselves deliberately cancelled it out; they turned against it. That is what mortal sin is – the free, deliberate choice of grave evil in preference to God.
If God’s love for men is so great that He died for them, surely it is great enough to forgive always?
Precisely; God’s love has no limits. It is Himself. But He cannot forgive those who will not be forgiven. A grave sinner is one who rejects God’s forgiveness. His love of goodness is without limit; his Hatred of evil is therefore in due proportion. Sin is evil; God only sends men to hell when they choose to go there by freely rejecting His love.
Is it just a momentary sin should be punished timelessly?
Quite just; the time it takes to do grave wrong is beside the point. What matters is the wrong done, that it is gravely evil and done freely.
Surely there comes a time when enough satisfaction has been paid?
No; not if the sin is mortal. It is a complete rejection of infinite good. If a sinner knew that after a time God was bound to remove him from torment he would be in a position to threaten God, saying, as it were, “God, do your worst; I may go to hell for a million years but you are bound to have me in the end for a timeless eternity.” To think of hell in relation to time is quite wrong. There is no time in hell.
Surely infinite mercy cannot allow such an unmerciful thing as hell?
On the contrary, hell is most merciful. Even though it exists God need not have revealed it to us. Knowledge of hell has prevented very many sins and their dreadful consequences for individuals and human society.
How can Christ be so cruel as to damn souls for ever? He was always so gentle to sinners.
Precisely; He was gentle to repentant sinners. He still is. Yet this same gentle Christ said such strong things about hell. We should take all the more notice of them therefore. Justice and reasonable punishment are not cruelty. Hell is just and reasonable. God has made serious laws for our well-being; he has told us the penalty for breaking them. He helps us by His grace at every moment to keep them. Who is to blame if we disobey?
What percentage of men goes to hell?
We do not know; God has never told us.
Is Judas in hell?
It seems that he is because Christ said of him: “Better for him that he had never been born”; but we do not know for certain.
Is Adam in hell?
It seems not; almost certainly he is in heaven. Scripture says, “God brought him out of his sin.” (Wisdom 10:2) The Greek Church keeps Adam’s feast.
God is everywhere; if hell exists God must be in hell: but that is impossible. So tell me, do you still believe in hell?
I do; God is present in hell as He is present everywhere else by His being, His knowledge and His power.
If god is in hell, it ceases to be hell; His presence must alleviate the pains of the damned; therefore is not all you have been saying so far contradicted?
No; God’s presence in hell is merely physical. The fact that two people are in the same room does not mean that they have anything in common.
Do you believe that a good and loving father wishes to torment his children for ever?
I do not. If god wanted to do that He would not have become man to save us from hell. A child can turn against its father; the damned in hell have turned against God. They have refused His mercy.
Is not that mercy without limit? Could not God have prevented souls refusing it? Why does He not do so?
Yes, God’s mercy is without limit. Absolutely speaking, God could force His creatures to accept His mercy. But in order to do that He would have to take away their free will. That would mean, at the behest of evil, repudiating His own plan for mankind. He would be subjecting Himself to evil. Willful sinners would triumph in the end. It is not mercy to allow men to think that evil will not have due retribution.
Does not the doctrine of hell make God like the man who sends a shipload of people out to see knowing that some of them will certainly be lost?
No; your comparison is faulty. You should add that the owner of the ship saw that it was seaworthy, made the first journey himself, put on board a captain who could not make a mistake, gave everybody strict instructions as to what to do and promised to be with them at all times to help them do it, and kept his promise.
You will admit that God is not bound to create certain souls; if He knew that would be damned why does He create them?
We have already proved that hell is a fact. It is part of the plan of an infinitely wise, good and powerful God. Therefore it must be the best for His purposes. Who are we to dictate to Him? If we find it hard to reconcile certain facts we must blame our limited knowledge not God’s infinite wisdom. God saw the whole plan. He permits evil only for the sake of good.
But how can there be good in creating somebody who is going to be damned?
The very fact of his damnation means that he is a terrible witness of the justice of god. Suppose God refrained from creating those He knew would reject all He has done to help them save their souls, He would be subjecting Himself to evil. Moreover, He would also be preventing the existence of their descendants, amongst whom might be great saints. Are we to presume that all the ancestors of all the saints saved their souls? You are asking God to regulate His plans according to what He soresees would be Satan’s success. That is surely unreasonable.
Do all mortal sins deserve hell?
Yes; they are essentially the complete turning away from goodness and the acceptance of evil. Anything less than that is not mortal sin.
Is it just that a man who dies without repenting after committing his first mortal sin should go to hell for ever whereas another person escapes hell by a death-bed repentance after a life of serious sin?
It is just. God is justice. He cannot be unjust. Remember that nobody goes to hell unless he deliberately and knowingly chooses grave evil in preference to God; he thereby rejects infinite love. Both the persons in your question were offered enough grace to save their souls; one rejected it, the other accepted it. Nobody but the sinner is to blame if he dies in mortal sin. God has surely given us enough warnings.
Do you not find it hard to believe that just one mortal sin means damnation for ever?
No: because I am taught it by an infallible Church. Apart from that, I can see that this life is our time of trial. We come to the end of it having chosen deliberately good or evil. It seems perfectly reasonable that if we have made such a choice we should abide by it. If a man rejects God he chooses separation from God, and that is the essence of hell.
Must there always be freedom, deliberation and enough knowledge to commit the kind of sin for which one can go to hell?
Yes – full deliberation and sufficient knowledge. If, for example, an insane man kills another, he would not go to hell for it.
Do you deny that the Roman Catholic religion is based largely on fear?
Yes, I do. It is based on faith, hope and charity; nevertheless the Bible insists that “The fear of God is all wisdom.” (Ecclesiasticus 19:18) The fear of God is the fear of sons; it is a dread of offending the God who is worthy of all love, a fear of being separated from Him by sin.
Are not Roman Catholic churches filled many times every Sunday because the priests are careful to “keep the hell-fires burning”?
I hope not. I hope our people attend Mass because they love the Mass. We have an old saying: “It is the Mass that matters.” At least they go from a sense of duty. But I would not blame unduly those who go to church because of a wholesome fear of hell. It is better to go for that motive than not to go at all. It ill becomes those who never go to church to blame those who do.
Would not Roman Catholic priests be wiser to follow the example of Christ and lead men by love rather than force them by the fear of hell?
Every priest is urged to follow Christ’s example. Every priest indeed believes that in virtue of his mission and his orders he is another Christ. But in the Sermon on the Mount Christ mentioned hell half a dozen times. What Christ taught about hell the Church teaches about hell and only that. The Church does not add to the teaching of Christ nor take away from it. It is my experience that sermons on hell are quite rare in our churches, perhaps too infrequent.
Would not the Roman Catholic Church be more popular and make more converts by teaching the love of God more than the fear of hell?
To say yes or no to that would be pointless. For twenty centuries the Roman Catholic Church has taught just what her Founder Christ taught. She does not court popularity in any way opposed to Christ’s teaching. She teaches what He taught about love – “It is the first and the greatest Commandment” – and about hell. Christ, the greatest of loves, emphasized the fact of hell firmly and frequently. Do you suggest that His Church ought to do less? The Catholic Church tries to love good and hate evil as God does. His love of good is infinite; so is His hatred of evil. They must be. God loves all men with infinite love: He wills all men to be saved. But some men return His love unwanted. It is only through His love that they exist at all. God is love and goodness; He care infinitely for all Hhis creatures, longing for each one to achieve its purpose and hating proportionately all that opposes that purpose. The due reward of good is heaven; the due reward of evil is hell. God’s infinite love of good postulates infinite hatred of evil. Heaven is the counterpart in eternity of good in time; hell is the counterpart in eternity of evil in time.
Could not the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on hell be due to wrong translation of the Bible?
No. The word hell is not a faulty translation. Modern usage restricts it to the meaning we have given it in these pages.
Is not death sufficient punishment for sin as the Bible says “the wages of sin is death”?
Christ did not think so. He revealed many things about the lot of the damned. “Death”, in your quotation, is better understood as referring to spiritual death.
Do all the damned suffer equally?
No. “God will render to every man according to his works.” (Matthew 16:27)
May I be a Catholic if I believe in hell but a hell that will not last for ever?
No, you may not. The Church has defined, as we have seen, the hell is eternal. We can never understand the eternity of hell but we accept it humbly on God’s authority. There can be no conflict between hell, its nature or its eternity and the infinite attributes of God.
Would it not be more sensible to believe that instead of insisting on eternity of punishment for sinners God is satisfied with a token satisfaction?
You are mixed up. Only those souls go to hell who die unrepentant, having rejected the grace of repentance. God has given them sufficient grace to save their souls; maybe it was the grace of repentance; always it was the grace to overcome temptation to sin: “God is faithful and will not suffer you to be tempted beyond that which you are able but will with temptation to make issue that you may be able to bear it.” (1st Corinthian 10:13) Through adequate contrition and confession the sinner’s soul is washed in Christ’s Precious Blood. On the other hand the unrepentant sinner has insisted on rebelling in a grave matter against the order God has willed for His creation. His will thwarts God’s will: if God’s order for creation is to be restored the sinner’s will must be thwarted in the same measure as he has contravened the order established by God. That contravening of the sinner’s will is punishment. It must follow sin as a shadow. It is sin’s counterpoise; intrinsic necessity demands it to restore the balance of righteousness. Just retribution is simply the maintenance of order. It is also the vindication fo the glory of the God who has been wronged by sin, and a manifestation of His holiness.
Do you maintain that sin hurts God and that He has, so to speak, to “get His own back”?
No; God cannot be hurt. He can be offended and deprived of the honour due to Him. God has only one motive in punishing and that is His own infinite holiness.
Are there devils in hell with pitchforks and other nasty instruments of cruelty?
There are certainly devils in hell, but the use of such instruments is the result of letting the imagination run riot. Nevertheless, the devils can afflict the damned. Their very nearness is one of the horrors of hell. They, being fallen angels, are mightier than the damned humans. The latter by yielding to the devils’ temptations have chosen them as master in place of God for ever. They are doomed to everlasting submission to the masters they have chosen.
Are there time and change in hell?
No. “Time shall be no longer.” (Apocalypse 10:6) The damned, like the saved, have come to their final state of changelessness.
May we pray that the damned will suffer a mitigation of their torment?
No. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote: “The damned in hell are outside the bond of charity, by which the works of the living extend to the dead; they have actually come to the terminus of their life, receiving the ultimate requital for what they deserve, even as the saints, who are in their final home.”
It seems that in creating hell and damning souls, God has done what is eternally useless. Do you not agree that, according to the Roman Catholic Church, He is keeping in being an eternal evil and admitting His own failure?
No. Hell is not useless. Many people have been deterred from sin because God has told us about it. The saints in heaven must rejoice because they have been saved from hell. It is surely not evil that everyone should be rewarded according to his works. It is surely not evil that men should have free will and decide their own eternal destiny. Hell is not evil in itself. God remains infinite though some men reject Him. Hell is the logical outcome of God’s plan. It His plan were frustrated and thwarted, if He had been forced to change it, He would have failed. We must believe that His plan is the best for the purpose He had in view. God would be defeated if souls could go to heaven even though they did not love Him perfectly, if He were forced after a time to release them from hell. Those damned in hell glorify God in His justice which simply withholds His favour from those who refuse to acknowledge it.
Is hell a mystery?
Yes. It is concerned with infinite realities and a finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite. But please do not think of hell and damnation without thinking of all that God has done to save the souls of men whom He has created. “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
From the Patriarch Jacob to Cardinal Vaughan, from Saint Basil to Pius X, all great men, all great saints, are practically unanimous in proclaiming the prominent part played by their mothers in the molding of their characters and the shaping of their lives; many a time it has been the pleasant duty of the biographer to record such a declaration as this found in the correspondence of his hero: “To my mother I owe what is best in me.”
In the case of the saints, the mother has been usually the docile instrument of supernatural favors, the living channel of grace, and one would be almost tempted to say, the necessary complement of God, His visible shadow, His faithful substitute. Most of the saints, no doubt, could repeat and apply to themselves the words of Saint Gregory the Great, still written on the walls of the Mount Coelius Convent: “It is Sylvia, my saintly mother, who gave me the Church.”
Unfortunately, in the annals of Christian motherhood there are many blank pages; and too often, to his deep regret, the historian finds nothing to satisfy his eager curiosity, except the mere mention of a name accompanied with some commonplace eulogy of the vaguest character. And yet, from the heroic mother of the Maccabees to the peasant mother of the Cure of Ars, what a gallery of unique pictures, what a glorious procession of brave women, come from every walk of life!
The first three centuries of Church history are the heroic age of Christian motherhood. For practically three hundred years, with intervals of unequal duration, the Christian home is under the fire of persecution; every member of the family is a candidate for martyrdom, and the mother is educating her children not for life, but for death. Their little ones breathed freely the heroic atmosphere in which Christian fortitude grew and blossomed naturally. Such fortitude had not failed in the Confessors and Virgins, and it did not fail in the Christian mothers whom we find not more faithful than other witnesses of Christ, but undoubtedly more sublime: for besides delivering themselves to the executioners, they were called upon to deliver their children as well. A sentence, borrowed from the Acta Martyrum, throws a flood of heavenly light upon this, the heroic age of Christian motherhood. The Roman magistrate said to the mother: “Sacrifice to the gods or else not only you, but your seven children will be put to the rack.” And the Christian mother answered: “Is it possible that I may have the happiness of being eight times a martyr?”
The mother to whom we owe this typical answer was Saint Symphorosa, wife of the noble and charitable Getulius. Heroism was a tradition in the family, for the husband had cheerfully given up his life for his divine Master, and his worthy spouse had buried him with her own hands in the arenarium of their country house, in the land of the Sabines.
The slave mother in those days proved herself the equal of the patrician woman: so true it is that Christianity had lowered all social barriers and raised the hearts of the lowly from the dark pits of misery and vice to the luminous height of Christian perfection, where they felt as much at home as their aristocratic masters. Zeo, a Phrygian female slave, is ordered to sacrifice to the goddess Fortune; her answer is an energetic refusal. “I will have thy children tortured,” shouts her master, completely taken back by the resistance of a slave, ” and we shall see whether Christ, Whom thou callest thy God, will be able to save them from my hands.” The children are seized, their tender bodies are torn to pieces with iron hooks: “Be of good cheer, my children,” says the sublime mother. “fight like men, and be not afraid of torments.” Their reply’ is worthy of her exhortation: “What are these torments, mother. Tell the tyrant to increase our sufferings, that we may obtain a more beautiful crown.” The infuriated man casts them together into a roaring furnace. But from the midst of the flames songs burst forth, and with a last prayer on their lips: “O Jesus, receive our souls,” the mother and the children united in faith, united in death, fall asleep in the Lord. A few years later, Saint Felicitas and her children recall and imitate the courage of Symphorosa.
Symphorian, who lived at Autun in the time of Marcus Aurelius the Wise, was an accomplished type of the educated Gallo-Roman youth. Having refused to worship Cybela the goddess mother, he was sent to his death. Passing by the city walls, a sudden apparition startles him – his own mother come to bid him a supreme adieu, like Mary meeting her divine Son on the way to Calvary. “My son, Symphorian my son,” she cried, “my son, think of the living God! Keep your heart on high, look towards Him Who reigns in heaven! They are not going to take away your life; you are going to exchange it for a better one.”
From Gaul we pass to distant Palestine, and the same spectacle of supreme fortitude greets our eyes once more: a mother is carrying to the place of martyrdom a child who has thrown his little arms around her neck. The child is smiling, the mother is grave and silent. When they have reached it, the executioner demands his victim, and after a last kiss the mother quietly surrenders him. “Go, my son,” says she, “go where God is calling you; until now I have called you my son; hereafter I will call you my lord.” Then, spreading her veil on the ground, she receives reverently the precious blood of the little martyr.
With the fourth century a new era opens for the Church of Christ. The Edict of Milan grants her official recognition and protection. The age of martyrs is closed; souls have come down from the heights of Calvary, where they dwelt in an atmosphere of supernatural heroism, in perpetual expectation of martyrdom. Their piety lays aside these sublime features we have wondered at in Symphorosa, Zoe, and Felicitas, and assumes the more human character of a devotion nearer to the earth, yet keeping, of course, in constant touch with heaven. The Christian mothers of the fourth century were the great, extraordinary women to whom Libanius paid this well-known tribute of admiration: “What wonderful women among those Christians!” The mother who drew that eulogy from the lips of a pagan professor was Anthusa, mother of the great bishop with the golden tongue, Saint John Chrysostom.
God utilized the great affection of John Chrysostom’s mother to keep on the Catholic battlefield of the fourth century one of the most powerful leaders of the Church militant. For it was Anthusa’s tender and intense maternal love which prevented her son from retiring into the desert. The four years John spent in the mountainous region near Antioch, and the two years in a cave, in the practice of most austere asceticism, were after the death of her whose entreaties he had not dared disobey. She was the wife of Secundus, commander of all the cavalry forces of the Eastern Empire. A widow at the age of twenty, she refused to marry again, in order to devote her undivided attention to the education of her two children, a daughter, whose name is unknown, and John, who, she felt, needed all the care she could bestow.
In compliance with a deplorable custom, against which he inveighed when he became a bishop, John was not baptized until the twenty-fifth year of his age. There is nothing in his life to warrant the assumption that, like Saint Augustine, like the prodigal son of old, he wandered into a far away country, where he wasted his substance living riotously, and whence he had to be brought back by the burning tears of another Monica. But there is no doubt that Anthusa witnessed with some concern the brilliant achievements of her unbaptized son among the high pagan society of a city like Antioch. Time and again she asked herself whether her son, who was the favorite pupil of Libanius, would have the moral courage to break through the net skillfully woven around him by his well meaning pagan admirers. So, we may imagine her relief when, in the year 389, Bishop Meletius finally received him into the Church, and soon made him a lector.
But then from an unexpected quarter, another danger threatened the happiness of Anthusa. She suddenly became aware of her son’s project to leave the paternal home in order to emulate the austerities of the solitaries of the Thebaid. The sacrifice was above her strength; she had generously offered her son to the Lord, she was willing and even anxious to see him become a priest; but a monk, far away from her, perhaps lost to her forever, the mere thought of it drew tears of blood from her heart. And this is why we are called upon to witness one of the most intensely human episodes in the lives of the saints, one that lays bare before us, in all their admirable sincerity, two great hearts worthy of each other and worthy of God. Let Chrysostom tell us himself.
Our project [he says, speaking of the little plot he had secretly devised with his friend Basil], our project was about to succeed, when the entreaties of my mother set it at naught for the present. Having suspected our plan she took me one day by the hand, led me into her own apartment, and bidding me sit down near the bed where she brought me into this world, she began to cry bitterly. And then with heavy sobs, she said to me things still more touching than her tears: “My son, I enjoyed only for a short time the help I received from your dear father, his premature death left me a widow and you an orphan. My only consolation in the midst of my many sorrows was to have you constantly by my side, and to behold in you the unforgotten features of your father. O my son, would you have the heart to leave me a widow for the second time? The only favor I now beg from you is not to revive my grief: wait at least for my death, perhaps, it is not far distant.”
John yielded to her tears, and we thank and bless him for it. For, perhaps it is because of his filial obedience that we may admire and love, not only John the monk, but John the unique preacher of Antioch, and John the indomitable Patriarch of Constantinople.
In Saint Monica we greet not only the best known of the saintly figures we are sketching, but also the most accomplished type of womanhood that ever graced a home. The wife of a man who for years was brutal and unfaithful, she won him over by her unalterable patience and smiling condescension. The mother of a son who, to use his own words, “was held tight by the chains of lustful desires, buried in the depth of shame, foul, crooked and defiled,” she brought him back to health of heart and soul by fourteen years of a struggle without parallel in the annals of Christian motherhood.
Monica’s fight began after the death of Patricius her husband. In his eighteenth year Augustine, still unbaptized, had allowed himself to be bound by those chains that were to hold him for so many years, and make him an easy prey to that incredulity of the mind which so readily follows in the wake of the passions of the flesh. At first Monica’s grief was so violent that her life was in danger. Her tears flowed day and night, in public as well as in the secret of her oratory, on her garments, on the bread she ate, on the pavement of the churches where she knelt: blessed and immortal tears which drew from a holy bishop the memorable answer: “Go, my daughter, leave him alone, and simply pray for him; it is impossible that the son of so many tears should perish.”
Fully resolved to do violence to heaven and not to give up the fight until she was rewarded by a complete victory, Monica added to her uninterrupted prayers the practice of Christian works. She buried the dead with her own feeble hands, and while paying them the last honors she begged them to obtain from God the resurrection of her own Augustine. She lavished care and tenderness upon little motherless children, receiving them in her own house, feeding them at her own table; she taught their young lips to stammer out the sweet name of Jesus, endeavoring to give new children to God, that God might bring back her lost child to her. In a word she breathed, prayed, worked for one sole object: the salvation of that dearest of all souls.
Yet when occasion demanded she knew how to silence the voice of flesh and blood, to rebuke the wayward son with the sublime anger of outraged faith. Having learned that the unfortunate youth had publicly denied his religion, and was dragging into the eternal abyss the young friends who yielded without resistance to the ascendency of his genius, she refused to tolerate any longer the presence of an apostate in her house. With all the majesty of a mother, insulted in her Catholic belief, which she held dearer than her own son, she drove him out, and forbade him ever to appear before her. Without a word of protest, the culprit bowed down his head and retired to the house of a friend. Hardly had he passed the threshold when nature, overpowered for a moment, reasserted its rights, and Monica felt her heart literally breaking asunder within her breast. She would have died, but for a dream that the Lord sent her the following night, and in which she received the assurance that her prayers and tears would win the day. But ten long years were still to pass before she could greet the dawn of returning faith in that soul darkened by heresy and sin; ten years of the most thrilling moral struggle the world ever saw; ten years during which she regained ground step by step, wrestling as it were by inches the heart of Augustine from the slavery of his vile passions, and his intelligence from the clutches of the darkest of all heresies. But the various episodes of that conversion, the most eventful, perhaps after that of Saint Paul, are too well known to bear detailed repetition.
The joy of his return was too much for Monica; she had lived for fifteen years under the crushing strain of an unsurpassed sorrow; but she was unable to bear for more than a year the superhuman happiness which filled to overflowing the frail vessel of her maternal heart.
With deep regret we must content ourselves with a passing but admiring glance at such attractive figures as Saint Berswinda, mother of the sweet and deservedly popular Saint Odila, patroness of Alsace; the Countess Heilvige, mother of Pope Saint Leo IX, who so inspired her son with a veritable passion for purity, as to make his soul “as white as a budding lily.” Some historians say it was to honor the memory of his perfect mother that Leo IX instituted the Golden Rose, which the Holy Father still blesses on the third Sunday of Lent, and sends to some Catholic woman as a token of particular esteem. We must offer, at least, a passing tribute of praise and admiration to Ermemberga, mother of Saint Anselm, who saved the mind of her child from that terrible hypochondria which, for a while, threatened with insanity the man destined to be the glorious precursor of Saint Thomas of Aquin.
We are now approaching the close of the eleventh century, where one gigantic figure towers above all the rest. The incomparable Bernard of Clairvaux, as might be expected, owes the precious gift of his soul, after God, to an uncommon mother. Elizabeth or Alix – the early biographers do not seem to agree on her name – is one of the most striking types of womanhood during the iron period of the feudal system. She is not, as Charles d’Hericault says, like Saint Leo’s mother, a lady of the borderland, always on the alert like a soldier under arms; she has not, like Saint Louis’ mother, a kingdom to govern and to defend; she is not condemned, like Saint Francis de Sales’ mother, to hear the roaring waves of heresy breaking against the very walls of her castle; she is the feudal matron, the mulier fortis, quiet and dignified, the revered queen of the miniature world that moves within the ramparts of her husband’s manor.
Eleven centuries of Christianity have cast the human soul in a new mould, and, to use Saint Paul’s words, “The goodness and kindness of our Saviour” have softened the native rudeness of these much-abused characters of the Middle Ages. The ideal which the Christian mother of that period sets before the eyes of her children is not only stainless honor and a chivalrous spirit, ready to do battle against all miscreants, one against four, four against ten; it is an ideal that dwells in a still higher region, in a region where human feelings are permeated and transformed by the light of eternity, in a region where piety and purity reign supreme. Not only does she prefer to see her son dead rather than dishonored, but she goes so far as to say – and she means it – she would prefer to see him fall dead under her own eyes rather than be defiled by mortal sin. Such was Saint Bernard’s mother. She bore to Tescelin, who, according to tradition, was a lion in battle and a lamb before women, old men, and children, six sons and one daughter. The historians of Saint Bernard usually record with emphasis that she herself nursed all her children; that her instructions and commands were never given in language ungracious or exaggerated, and that she raised her children as though they were destined some day to share the laborious life of the working classes. “She accustomed them so well,” says an old chronicler, “to real hard work that they seemed to begin, under her direction, the apprenticeship of the austerities which they practiced in after life.”
The result of her lessons may be summed up in a sentence that speaks volumes for the irresistible power of her domestic example: her brother, her husband, her six sons, and last of all her daughter, all embraced the religious state; not, however, without a protracted struggle which, for Bernard himself, nearly ended in defeat. Who saved him from “the bewitching of vanity” to which his brilliant natural qualities would have made him an easy prey? His mother, who appeared to him with a look of sadness that pierced the heart of Bernard and put an end to his hesitations. Her own brother Gaudry was the next to succumb to that supernatural influence that came from beyond the grave; five sons followed in rapid succession; and the last conquest of that strange, invisible apostolate was her only daughter Humbelina, who finally completed the resplendent crown of seven stars which the happy mother wears now in the kingdom of heaven.
Theodora, mother of Saint Thomas of Aquinas, is the type of those exacting mothers who, for a while at least, stand resolutely, like an armed fortress, between God and the vocation of their children. She was undoubtedly a pious and virtuous woman, but the thought that her son, a descendant of the companions of Charlemagne, a grandson of a counselor of Frederick Barbarossa and of a princess of the House of Suabia, could become a plain monk, wear a coarse scapular, and bury the glory of his name in the obscurity of a convent, such a thought was unbearable to her aristocratic pride.
No sooner had she been informed that Thomas had taken the Dominican habit than she rushed towards Naples, fully resolved to snatch the boy away and to bring him forcibly back to the paternal castle. He outwitted and outran her, however, and took refuge in Saint Sabina Convent in Rome. The relentless mother was close upon the heels of the fugitive, so close, indeed, that this time he had no chance to escape, and was compelled to keep in hiding within the walls of the monastery. Theodora laid siege before the door, and the good Fathers, fearing her influence, finally dispatched their novice to Paris. But the news of his secret departure leaked out, and in the neighborhood of Acquapendente, Thomas and his companions were suddenly surrounded by a troop of armed men, commanded by his own brother Raynald. In vain did the youthful friar indignantly protest. The young monk was imprisoned in the castle of Aquin, where the triumphant Theodora quickly joined him; and falling upon his neck, opened the floodgates of tears that had filled her heart to overflowing during these months of bitter struggle. Thomas was unshaken in his resolution: “Mother,” he used to repeat meekly but firmly, “would I love you less for loving God more and more?” For ten years this mother, blinded by a misguided love, endeavored to kill in the soul of her son a vocation which she would most likely have admired and favored in another. Of course there could be no doubt as to the issue of that unequal combat, and the proud Theodora finally laid down her arms and admitted defeat; but, through fear of displeasing her two oldest sons to whom their brother’s vocation was far more distasteful than to herself, she dared not open the doors of Thomas’ prison, but contented herself with secretly favoring his flight.
God, no doubt, wanted her to atone, even upon earth, for her long and stubborn opposition to His will. Frederick, angered at the devotedness of the Aquin family to the cause of the Papacy, stormed and razed their castle. Theodora accepted the lesson, bowed her head in humble submission, and ended her life in a spirit of penance in singular contrast with the haughtiness of former years.
To quote Charles d’Hericault again: the thirteenth century was great because it was holy, and God was, so to speak, reflected in Saint Louis more than in any other king. To prepare that century and that king, continues the same writer, God made use of His Church and of a woman. On the tomb of that woman, in the monastery of Montbuisson, the following epitaph has been engraved: “Madame La Royne Blanche, mere de Monsieur Saint Louis.” Of all the eulogies bestowed upon her by the admiration and gratitude of centuries, this is the most simple, yet the most complete and the most sublime.
By birth Blanche belongs to Spain, and after Saint Teresa there are few women, if any, of whom Catholic Spain has a right to be more proud. Contemporary chroniclers are at a loss to find expressions sufficiently strong to convey adequately their admiration of her: “She was,” they proclaim with touching unison, “all beautiful, all good, all sincere, all wise; truly beloved by God and man; the most prudent woman of her age; one of the greatest gifts that France ever received from heaven.” Capable of bringing to a successful close the most difficult undertakings, she held sway over the supreme council of kings, and her persuasive eloquence knew the secret of overcoming all opposition; her husband unreservedly submitted to her will; which, another historian maliciously remarks, would have been going too far, were love not such a good and plausible excuse. Grace, energy, courage, these three words give us a complete portrait of Blanche’s character. Her greatest title to the admiration of posterity is, of course, that she gave to the world Saint Louis, the perfect type of a Christian king.
Blanche was an educator without a peer; development of the body, culture of the mind, preservation of the soul – every phase of this threefold education was under her personal supervision – nothing was neglected that could help make a man and a Christian of him who was destined to rule a great kingdom. Monks and knights were his teachers; at the school of the former he learned to read and chant the canonical office, and to pore over the pages of the Bible and of the Fathers; from the latter, with equal ardor and undiminished vigor (for this pious youth felt the good red blood of France and Spain tingling in his veins), he learned to mount a horse; to hunt and fish in the royal forests; to jump ditches; to scale high walls, and to brave the inclemency of the weather. And at every stage of this sane and virile formation, the influence of the mother made itself deeply felt; “she accustomed him to hard work and did not even hesitate to inflict upon him the punishments then in use.”
But, of course, the preservation of Louis’ soul from all impure contact was uppermost in Blanche’s preoccupations, in her cares, in her prayers: “Fair son,” she said to him more than once, “I would fain see you dead rather than defiled by a mortal sin.”
With such an education to tide them over the manifold dangers of their exalted position, it is not difficult to understand how two of Blanche’s children, namely, Louis and his sister Isabelle, found their way to the honors of canonization. But here a question naturally arises to our lips: how is it that such a model mother did not precede or follow her children to this honor? Alas, that we must put our finger upon a flaw, in that magnanimous heart; to complete this sketch, brief though it be, we must speak of Queen Blanche’s relations with her daughter-in-law, Marguerite of Provence.
On the day of their marriage, the young king slipped on his wife’s finger a golden ring representing lilies and daisies (“Marguerites” in French), delicately entwined, with this significant motto engraved on the edge: “Dieu, France et Marguerite: hors cet anel poing n’ey d’amour – God, France, and Marguerite: beyond this ring I have no love.” Did Blanche imagine she was thereby exeluded from her son’s heart? At any rate from that day the young couple knew from bitter experience how far and how fast a jealous mother can travel along the lines of indiscretion, unreasonable complaint, petty annoyance, and undignified anger.
In spite of this one strange weakness, Louis’ respect and love for his mother remained unaltered to the end. To judge of their true sentiments, we must read the touching scene of their last parting, when the king was about to embark for Egypt: “Dearest son,” cried out the disconsolate mother, “how could my heart endure such a separation; it would be harder than a stone if it were not even now rent asunder, for you are the most loving son a mother ever had!” She nearly fainted away, and leaning upon the king who was himself bathed in tears, she sobbed aloud: “Fair son, never shall I see you again; my heart tells me so, never shall I see you again.” Her presentment did not deceive her; she died before he returned. When the news of her blessed death reached him, the saintly king gave full vent to his grief, and kneeling down poured out his heart in this beautiful prayer: “Lord God, I give you thanks for ‘lending me’ my dear mother so long. It is true, O sweet Father of Jesus Christ, that I loved my mother above any creature in this perishable world, and indeed she deserved it; but, since it was your Holy Will that she should die, blessed be your Holy Name!”
Who has said that the saints, if they wish to be consistent, must stifle in their heart all tender feelings, trample human affections under foot, and let the love of God absorb and utterly destroy all other sentiments? Those who still profess to believe that absurd and stubborn calumny have probably never heard of Saint John Chrysostom nor of Saint Louis, and perhaps they have still to be taught the names of Saint Vincent de Paul and of Saint Francis de Sales. At any rate they are not aware that no less than three volumes have been written under the alluring title: “The natural affections of the saints.”
In bringing to a close this very incomplete and very imperfect review of saintly portraits, the writer cannot resist the pleasure of quoting once more the admirable historian and gifted orator to whom he owes so much, Father L. Raimbault: “There is nothing more beautiful than a mother, because there is nothing that resembles God so closely: ‘Mater Deus,’ Saint Augustine says, ‘quia fovet, quia sustinet, etiam quia calcat.’” Mothers are the queens of life, being raised to the dignity of coworkers with the Author of Life.
They are the queens of education; soldiers protect the national flag, bankers guard the public wealth, but mothers have been intrusted with the most precious treasure of this world, after the Blessed Eucharist: the souls of the children. They are the queens of sacrifice; the Bible, the history of the Church militant, are replete with records of how their tears were copiously shed, how their blood was generously given. Everywhere in the history of souls and in the history of nations, they assume the suppliant attitude of victims, and more than once they appear, in the light of supernatural glory, in the triumphant attitude of saviours.
One of the most common historical questions deposited in the Question Box during our missions to non-Catholics is the following: Was there not in the ninth century a female Pope? Time and time again has this fable been refuted, but like all fables calculated to discredit the Holy See, it is still part of the stock-in-trade of the unscholarly and unscrupulous anti-Catholic lecturer and writer. We propose in the present article to give a brief summary of a most detailed and thorough account of the origin, development, and falsity of this legend, which the Abbe Felix Vernet of the University of Lyons has lately written for the .
It is now generally admitted by critical historians that the earliest authentic document referring to Pope Joan dates from the thirteenth century. The earlier texts such as the (ninth century), Marianus Scotus (+1086), Sigeburt of Gembloux (+1112), Otto of Friesingen (+1158), Richard of Poitiers (c.1174), Godfrey of Viterbo (+1191), and Gervaise of Tillbury (c.1211) have all been proved interpolations of later centuries. The first four authentic references are John de Mailley’s (c.1250), the of Stephen de Bourbon (c.1261), the of a Franciscan of Erfurt (1261), and the of Martin of Troppau (Polonus, 1279). The Abbe Vernet divides these eleven texts into two groups, the first dependent on the chronicle of Metz, and the second on the chronicle of Martin of Troppau. Each group gives a different version of the legend.
Group I – The chronicle of Metz puts the story tentatively as follows: “Query. With regard to a certain Pope, or Popess, because she was a woman who pretended to be a man. On account of his ability, he became in turn notary of the Curia, Cardinal, and Pope. One day while he was riding, he gave birth to a child. According to the Roman law, his feet were tied together, and he was dragged at a horse’s tail for half a league, while the people stoned him. He was buried on the spot where he died, and this inscription set up:
Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Par turn.
(“Peter, Father of Fathers, reveal the childbirth of the Popess.”)
During his pontificate the fast of the Ember Days, called the Popess’ fast, was instituted.” This account is recorded after the Pontificate of Victor III, who died in 1087.
Stephen of Bourbon adds but two details, viz., that she came to Rome from some other city, and that she became Cardinal and Pope by the devil’s aid. His inscription puts Parce in place of Petre, and Prodere in place of Prodito. He dates the event in 1100. The Franciscan of Erfurt briefly recites the same story, adding that the Popess was a beautiful woman, and that the devil himself revealed the fact that she was with child. He places the event in 915.
Group II – The popular medireval chronicle of Martin of Troppau (Polonus) is the origin of all the interpolated accounts of the female Pope in the , Marianus Scotus, Sigeburt of Gembloux, Otto of Friesingen, Godfrey of Viterbo, and Gervaise of Tillbury.
According to Martin, Pope Joan succeeded Leo IV, who died in 855. His account runs as follows:
After the aforesaid Leo, John, an Englishman by descent, who came from Mainz, held the see two years, five months and four days, and the pontificate was vacant one month. He died at Rome. He, it is asserted, was a woman while Pope she became pregnant. But not knowing the time of her delivery, while going from Saint Peter’s to the Lateran, being taken in labor, she brought forth a child between the Coliseum and Saint Clement’s Church. And afterwards dying she was, it is said, buried in that place. And because the Lord Pope always turns aside from that way, there are some who are fully persuaded that it is done in detestation of the fact.
The interpolator of the gives her reign as two years, one month and four days, while the author of the account in Marianus Scotus agrees with Martin of Troppau. The chronicle of Otto of Friesingen makes Pope John VII the female Pope, thus assigning the date 705. Perhaps he realized the impossibility of putting in Pope Joan between Leo IV and Benedict III.
How did the legend originate? At least ten different theories have been put forward since the seventeenth century to account for this legend, but the majority of them are most arbitrary and improbable.
- Leo Allatius believed that the people made a Pope out of a pseudo-prophetess, Thiota, condemned by the Synod of Mainz in 847
- Leibnitz held that a woman had been bishop once of some see outside of Rome
- Blasco considered the legend an allegorical satire on the False Decretals
- Suares, Bishop of Vaison, traced the legend to the wife of the anti-Pope, Pierre de Corbiere (1328)
- Baronius thought the weakness of John VIII in dealing with Photius led the people to call him in mockery the woman Pope, and that the legend arose from a later chronicler taking the term literally
- Wouters held a similar theory with regard to John VII and his dealings with the Council in Trullo (692)
- Secchi considered the legend a mere fabrication of the Greeks at the time of the Photian schism
All these hypotheses are ruled out of court by the Abbe Vernet, who proposes three probable explanations.
- Bellarmine in his treatise on the Pope mentions the letter of Pope Leo IX to Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, which protested against the consecration of eunuchs to the episcopate, and alluded to a rumor which had reached him that a woman had once been Patriarch. This letter proves conclusively that in 1054 the legend of the female Pope had not as yet arisen, otherwise the Greeks could easily have retorted by a tu quoque. The Abbe Lapotre and E. Bernheim both call attention to the tenth century , which relates this story of the woman patriarch of Constantinople, and both see in it the germ of the legend of Pope Joan.
- In the tenth century Rome was practically ruled by Theodora, wife of Theophylact, and her two daughters Marozia and Theodora. The four Popes named John, John X (+929), John XI (+936), John XII (+964), John XIII (+972), who reigned at this time were so dominated by them that it is easy to imagine the people saying: “We have women for Popes.” The Abbe Lapotre quotes a chronicle of Benedict of Saint Andrew, used by Martin of Troppau, which says that under John XI, Rome ” fell into the power of a woman (Marozia), and was governed by her.” Such a document, he adds, might easily account for the origin of the legend that a woman had really occupied the Holy See. He believes that his hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that the name Johanna is the feminine of John, and that Joan became Pope between a Leo and a Benedict. We know that Pope John XII was deposed by a Council held at Saint Peter’s under the patronage of the Emperor Otho, and was replaced by Leo VIII. Once Otho departed from Rome, John XII returned, and in a Council at the Lateran. he condemned Leo VIII and his adherents. At his death, 14 May 964, the Romans, passing over Leo VIII, chose Benedict V Pope.
- It is certain that as late as the fifteenth century, there was a statue of a pagan goddess with a child in a narrow Roman street near Saint Clement’s Church on the way to the Lateran. This statue was removed to the Quirinal by Sixtus V, probably on account of the legends centring about it. This statue bore an inscription consisting of five letters, P. P. P. P. P. Lelievre, in the Revue des Questions Historiques interprets it as follows:
Pater Patrum (a priest of Mithra)
Propria Pecunia Posuit (erected this monument at his own expense).
The populace, having a vague notion of a female Pope, deduced either from the woman Patriarch of Constantinople or the dominance of Marozia in the Rome of the tenth century, were not satisfied with this simple explanation, but interpreted these letters in the way we find recorded in the chronicle of Metz, viz.:
Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum.
When the Popes went in solemn procession from Saint Peter’s to the Lateran, they avoided passing along the street which leads from the Coliseum to Saint Clement’s. Some concluded that they did so out of very shame, because the statue of Pope Joan stood there, whereas the real reason was the extreme narrowness of the street.
It is interesting to note the variations of the legend in the course of history. While the main source of the two particular stories may be readily traced in every case, each writer seems to feel perfectly free to make additions and changes at will. In 1260 a Franciscan tells us in his that the Popess was called John of England, although as a matter of fact she came from Mainz. We see at once the chronicler’s evident desire to reconcile the two contradictory accounts of Joan’s birth. In the main, he follows the text of Martin of Troppau, though he differs from him in a few details.
Boccaccio, in his (+1375), makes the Popess a German named Gilberta. She studied in England, and succeeded, by the devil’s power, in becoming Pope.
Another variation of the legend by an unknown author relates that Joan was deposed, became a religious, and lived until her son became Bishop of Ostia. She wanted to be buried in the street, the Vicus Papissa, where her child had been born, but this was refused, and she was buried at Ostia.
Doellinger published a manuscript of the fourteenth century which declared that the Popess was named Glancia, and came from Thessaly. She became Pope under the name of Jutta and not John.
John Huss called the Popess Agnes, as we read in his fourteenth proposition, “The Church has been deceived in the person of (Popess) Agnes.” No one objected to this thesis at the time, for the fable of Pope Joan was generally admitted.
The legend in its various forms was very commonly believed for the three hundred years preceding the Reformation. Lenfant cites one hundred and fifty writers who mention it, and he does not enumerate them all. It was exploited by John Huss and William Occam, and by Gerson and his Gallican followers.
Martin of Troppau, the source from whom so many drew their versions of the legend, was the penitentiarius of five Popes. The Augustinian, Amaury d’Augier, chaplain of Urban V, made Joan the one hundred and tenth Pope, and Platina, the librarian of the Holy See under Sixtus IV, put her after Leo IV as the one hundred and sixth Pope. When the portraits of the Popes were placed in the Cathedral of Siena in 1400, the portrait of Pope Joan figured among them, despite the fact that Pius II, Pius III, and Marcellus II had been Archbishops of Siena. Her portrait was finally removed by the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the instance of Clement VIII, who substituted Pope Zachary (+752).
John de Torquemada and Adrian of Utrecht, afterwards Pope Adrian VI, admitted the legend without question, and Saint Antoninus of Florence, while doubting it himself, dared not come out openly against it. In fact, there is not a chronicle of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, published in Italy under the eyes of the Popes, which does not mention the existence of Pope Joan.
Since the Reformation, Protestant controversialists have often spoken of “the Popess Joan as the eternal shame of the Papacy.” The Centuriators of Magdebourg record it three times. We find it mentioned by a court preacher, Polycarp Leiser, Luke Osiander (1583), Samuel Huner (1596), Aretius of Berne (1574), Spanheim (1691), Lenfant (1736), etc. Lenfant’s Histoire de la Papesse Jeanne, published at Cologne in 1694, gives the legend in all its details.
Before the Reformation we find few Catholics questioning the fable of Pope Joan. The only ones that spoke in a hesitating manner were James de Maerlant (1300), the anonymous author of a life of Urban V, published by Baluze, Aeneas Piccolomini afterwards Pius II, Saint Antoninus of Florence, and Plantina in his . They had so small a following that the Franciscan Rioche declared that their denials went counter to the general opinion of Christendom.
One of the first to deny it emphatically was John Thurmayer, (Aventinus) in his Annales Boiorum (1554). He was not much of a Catholic, for Bayle calls him “a good Lutheran in disguise,” and his book was put on the of 1564. In 1568, Onofrio Panvinio devoted three pages of his edition of Platina’s to refute the legend, which, de Laval (1611) says, were sufficient to convince Protestants like Casaubon and de Thou. Bellarmine made use of the proofs of Panvinio in his . The most complete refutation of the fable came from the pen of Florimond de Remond, a member of the French Parliament from Bordeaux. His book, The Anti-Christ and the Anti-Pope, although declamatory and full of digressions, showed clearly the inherent contradictions of the legend and its utter improbability. Baronius inserted a summary of it in his Annals.
Bayle in his tells us that in the seventeenth century a number of Protestants began to deny this legend. Among them were Chamier, Dumonlin, Bochart, and particularly David Blondel (+1655). Two pamphlets by the last-named writer caused quite a stir among Protestant polemists, some of whom, like Spanheim and Lenfant, made a most strenuous effort to exploit the legend in the interests of Protestantism. The famous Leibnitz wrote against Spanheim, and Bayle in his Dictionary gave the story its quietus forever in the world of scholars. The eighteenth century rationalists took their cue from Bayle, as we may read in Voltaire. Among scholars to-day the legend is unanimously rejected.
The one argument conclusive against the fable of Pope Joan is the chronological argument. All the dates given for her pontificate are not only mutually contradictory, but are assigned to some other well-known Pope. The most commonly given date in the legend is 855, between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III. We know that Leo IV died 17 July 855, and that Benedict III was elected Pope a few days afterwards. On September 21st he was expelled from Rome by an anti-Pope, but returned soon after, took possession of his see, and was consecrated in the presence of the Emperor’s legates on September 29th. He was Pope until April, 858, as Garampi has shown in his dissertation, On the Silver Coin of Benedict III (Rome, 1749). Pope Nicholas I was consecrated on 24 April 858, so that we have only ten weeks unaccounted for in the interval between Leo IV and Nicholas I. It is impossible to locate in this century the so-called two years pontificate of Pope Joan. The other dates assigned – 915, 1087, and 1100 – are likewise historically impossible.
The teaching of the Catholic Church concerning the Holy Eucharist is that by the words of consecration the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is thereafter “truly, really, and substantially” present under these appearances.
The Body and Blood of Christ are present trulyreally present; it is not that we partake of mere food, however loaded with blessings from on high, and in the partaking apprehend Christ, in some sort, by Faith. They are substantially present, that is to say, it is not merely the power of virtue of Christ that is present in these material things; there is no substance of bread and wine at all; in its place, under the appearances of bread and wine, are present the very Body and Blood of Our Lord.
These three adverbs, therefore, used by the Council of Trent, deny three mistaken explanations advanced by heretics about the Real Presence.
The Catholic doctrine falls under three heads -
(1) The Body and Blood of Christ are truly present in the Holy Eucharist.
(2) After the consecration there remains no substance of bread or wine.
(3) The way in which this comes about is by the change of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood. This change is called Transubstantiation.
The plan of this document is first to prove the fact of the Real Presence, taking together the first two heads of doctrine, since they are complementary; and secondly, to establish the way in which the Real Presence is brought about.
A – The Fact
Scripture tells us three things about the Holy Eucharist: the promise of it, the fulfillment of the promise in its institution, and the belief concerning it of the Apostolic Church.
I – The Promise (John 6:26ff)
(It should be noted that the Church has never defined that the discourse of Our Lord in John 6 concerns the Holy Eucharist. Nevertheless, this is the unanimous opinions of theologians and beyond reasonable doubt.)
At the opening of his sixth chapter, Saint John describes the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish (6:1-15), and the walking of Christ upon the waters by night (6:16-22). The rest of the chapter gives His discourse in the synagogue at Capharnaum on the Bread of Life. This discourse falls into two parts, the division occurring at 6:48, or, according to other scholars, at 6:51. About the meaning of the first part Catholic scholars are not agreed. Some hold that it refers to the Holy Eucharist, others that Our Lord is speaking only of Faith in Himself as the means to obtain this heavenly food. All agree that at least from 6:51 onwards, He is speaking of the Holy Eucharist.
John 6:51-59 – Looking then at this second portion, we find that Our Lord’s words are,
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world… Amen, amen, I say unto you: except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed; and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. This the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna and are dead. He that eateth this bread shall live for ever.”
Reality or Metaphor?
In seven verses Our Lord repeats seven times that He Himself, His Flesh and His Blood, are to be eaten and drunk. Did He mean this literally, or was He speaking metaphor?
From the tone of His speech we should certainly gather that he meant His words to be taken literally. He uses the formula of solemn assertion, “Amen” signifying “in very truth.” He repeats His statement many times, not negatively, now positively. He declares that His Flesh is “meat indeed and His Blood drink indeed.” He appeals to His own union with His Father,
As the living Father hath sent me and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me.
Further, His hearers understood Him literary. They asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And Our Lord, so far from undeceiving them, insists on the truth of what He has said. Many even of His disciples found it “a hard saying” and “walked no more with Him.” Yet, rather than abate in the least the force of His words, He let them go. Is this the conduct we should expect of Christ, even from the merely human point of view, if He had been speaking only in parables? Certainly it is inconsistent with His practice as recorded elsewhere in the Gospels.
We find repeatedly that whenever His symbolical phrases were understood literally, He was at pains to correct the mistake. Thus, when Nicodemus understood literally His saying that “unless a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,” He took care to explain that the new birth was to be “of water and the Holy Ghost” (John 3:3ff). On the other hand, when His words were intended literally, and by mistake were taken metaphorically, He insisted, as in the passage before us, on His original statement. An example may be found in Matthew 9:2ff where the Pharisees charged Him with blasphemy for saying to the paralytic,
“Thy sins are forgiven thee.”
“Whether is easier to say, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’, or to say ‘Take up thy bed and walk’? But that you may know that Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then said he to the man sick of the palsy): Arise, take up thy bed and go into thy house.” (John 4:32, 8:32, 11:11; Matthew 16:6)
This point is confirmed by the fact that even in this discourse (according to one, at least probably, interpretation of a difficult passage) He tries to correct a misapprehension of His hearers. They took Him so literally that they seem to have thought He meant some kind of revolting, cannibalistic eating. It is against this interpretation that, whilst still maintain the truth of His assertion, He says, “Doth this scandalize you? If then you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? If is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing. The worlds that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:62-64). He appeals, in fact, to His divine power over material things which He has so recently used before some of them, and which He can use again to overcome what revolts them.
Metaphor Impossible in the Context
There can be no doubt, therefore, that the audience at Caphernaum did, in fact, understand His words literally, and that He meant them so to be understood. Indeed, He must have done so. Not that the phrase “to eat the flesh and drink the blood” of another is incapable, in the language used by Our Lord, of bearing a metaphorical meaning. One, and only one, such meaning it can bear. But that one meaning makes nonsense of the whole discourse. For metaphorically the phrase means to pursue with the utmost hatred, or to inflict upon another a grievous injury, e.g.,
Whilst the wicked draw near against me, to eat my flesh - Psalms 26:2
Why do you persecute me as god, and glut yourselves with my flesh - Job 19:22
And I will feed thy enemies with their own flesh, and they shall be made drunk with their own blood, as with new wine. - Isaias 49: 26
From this we may judge the value of the common objection that Our Lord was an Eastern speaking to Easterns, and therefore, apparently, in a language charged with vagueness and poetical imagery. The only image conveyed to an Eastern by this phrase would be one of horror, and one which, as has been said, makes nonsense of the entire passage.
He Cannot Have Meant Faith
This, too, is another refutation of the common Protestant view that Our Lord is here speaking only of Faith in Himself. The phrase could convey no such meaning.
But does not Our Lord Himself say that “the flesh profits nothing,” and that “it is the spirit that quickens?” Can He then have meant His previous words to be taken literally? Is He not rather offering here a figurative explanation? Undoubtedly the two verses, 63 and 64, are in many ways difficult. But this is certain, that they are not a figurative explanation of what has gone before. Hitherto Our Lord has always spoken of “My Flesh” and “My Blood.” Here He speaks of “the flesh,” and contrasts it with “the spirit.” Now this metaphorical contrast is common in Hebrew, as in other tongues, to distinguish a natural element from one that is supernatural. One instance from Scripture will occur instantly to the mind, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Again, we have the words to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6). It is request also in the Epistles of Saint Paul. But, further if we are to refer the words to the preceding passage, it works havoc with the theory that by His Flesh Our Lord meant Faith. For He is thus made to say that Faith profits nothing.
II – The Fulfillment
We have four accounts of the Institutions of the Holy Eucharist, given respectively by Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint Paul. Compare -
Matthew 26:26-28 – And whilst they were at supper Jesus took bread and blessed and broke and gave to His disciples and said, Take ye and eat. This is my body. And taking the chalice he gave thanks and agave to them, saying, Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto the remission of sins.
Mark 14:22-24 – And whilst they were eating Jesus took bread, and blessing, broke and gave to them and said, Take ye. This is my body. And having taken the chalice, giving thanks, he gave it to them and they all drank of it. And he said to them, This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many.
Luke 22:19-20 – And taking bread, He gave thanks and brake and gave to them saying, This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me. In like manner the chalice also after he had supped saying, This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you.
1st Corinthians 11:23-25 – The Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks, broke and said, Take ye and eat. This is my body, which shall be delivered to for you. This do for the commemoration of me. In like manner, also the chalice after he had supped, saying, This chalice is the new testament in my blood. This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.
It is at once clear that the accounts fall into two pairs. Matthew and Mark closely resemble each other, as also do Luke and Paul. It is equally clear that in substance the account by all four writers is the same. As regards the bread, the words of institution are identical in all the narratives. As regards the chalice, the indirect form used by Luke and Paul does not differ in meaning from the direct form used by Matthew and Mark. Luke, in fact, adds that the chalice (in the Greek the nominative case of the participle makes it plain that the shedding is connected with the chalice) shall be shed. But a chalice cannot be shed; only its contents can be shed; and certainly wine was not shed for us. Therefore, in speaking of “the chalice, the new testament in my blood,” the writer must have meant the blood in the chalice. The metaphor, technically called metonymy, is an obvious and old-established one.
Our task, then, is to inquire into the meaning of the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood of the new testament,” or, equivalently, “This chalice is the new testament in my blood.”
The very clearness of the words is, in some degree, a difficulty in the way of inquiry. One does not inquire into the obvious. Yet, assuredly, if a man wished to state the doctrine of the Real Presence, he could not use language plainer than this. If, on the other hand, he wished to state a doctrine about symbolical or figurative presence, words such as these would be singularly misleading. There are, doubtless, many things which are acknowledged to be capable of a symbolical meaning, either from their own nature or from the idiom of a language, or from the context in which they occur. Thus a picture is of its nature a symbol; in ordinary language we speak of a brave man as a “lion”; and thirdly, though a fond mother may pardonably call her child her “angel,” no one who knows the child is in danger of being mistaken about the fact.
These are metaphors and types familiar to all, and there is no fear of error in their use. But bread and wine are not found among these types as symbols of the human body and blood, nor did they convey that meaning to the people of Palestine in the time of Our Lord.
No True Metaphorical Parallels from Scripture
It is commonly said, indeed, that parallel phrases, metaphorical in meaning, are to be met with frequently in Scripture. We are referred to Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream, “The seven lean kine are seven lean years,” etc., and to Our Lord’s own words about Himself, “I am the door;” “I am the vine.” But on examination they prove to be no true parallels. Form and context sufficiently show that. Joseph is expressly interpreting a dream picture. Our Lord does not say, “This door,” or, “This vine is my body,” or, “my blood.” But, even apart from this, the very object of a metaphor is to explain by means of a picture. Now, if we take the words, “This is my body” as a metaphor, they explain nothing. There is no conventional picture according to which bread and wine stand for union with another person by Faith. So far from explaining, metaphorically considered they make more difficulties.
Looking now more closely at the words, their emphasis is all in favour of a literal interpretation. Fully rendered in English they are as follows – “This is my body, the (body) given for you; my blood, the (blood) of the new testament, the (blood) shed for many.” Literal interpretation gives an exact correspondence with the prediction in John 6:52, “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
A True Scriptural Parallel
Moreover, to the literal interpretation there is a true and most apposite parallel passage in Exodus 24:8 where Moses sprinkles the blood of the sacrifice on the people saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you.” Saint Paul quotes this as, “This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you” (Hebrews 9:20), pointing to it as a figure of the shedding of Christ’s Blood on Calvary. But the most striking point for the present argument is this, that in both the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament, the phrase where translated “This is,” should be rendered literally “Behold.” “This is the blood” = “Behold the blood.” So Moses, and Our Lord, fulfilling, according to Saint Paul, the figure, says, “This is my body; this is my blood.”
The words, then, are themselves so far from conveying a metaphor that, had Christ meant them to be understood figuratively, He must in fairness have given clear tokens of His intention. The need for this becomes more evident when we recall the state of mind of His hearers. For three years the Apostles had witnessed His miraculous power over disease, the forces of nature, and even the evil spirits. They had been privileged to share that power. “The devils also,” they said, “are subject to us in Thy name.” They had come to set implicit faith upon His word, and He had encouraged them and even insisted on their doing so. At the time of the promise of the Eucharist they had clung in faith to Christ’s word when many of His disciples fell away by reason of the “hard saying.” How could He expect them to receive His words in any but their most literal sense unless He warned them against it? Yet He said never a word of warning. Is it credible that He, to whose sublime character even the unbeliever bears witness, traded upon the simplicity of His followers, and, through them, of the faithful for twelve hundred years in regard of the solemn seal which He declared Himself to be setting on this His last will and testament, the New Dispensation of God to man?
Two or three common objections remain to be considered. First, Christ admittedly used a metaphor in speaking of the chalice of His Blood. But if one metaphor be admitted, how can it be said that He must have meant His words to be taken literally? For the sufficient reason that the metaphor of the chalice is unmistakable, whereas, if the whole passage is figurative, it was apt to produce, and did in fact produce, a most grievous mistake.
Secondly, it is objected that even after the consecration the Holy Eucharist is called bread and “the fruit of the vine.” But the fact that the appearances of bread and wine remain is enough to account for this.
Thirdly, it is urged that “is” must here by equivalent to “represents,” as in passages of the Old Testament. To this the reply is that, even where “represents” might be substituted for “is,” the passages are never true parallels. A further point in the objection is the claim that the Syro-Chaldaic dialect, probably spoken by Our Lord, contains no word corresponding to the English “represent.” Poverty of language, therefore, compelled Him to use “is.” There are two answers, one, that in fact there are forty words meaning to “represent”; the other, that the early writers of the Syrian Church adopt the literal meaning. “Christ did not call it [His Body] a type of figure,” writes Saint Maruthas of Tangrita (c.350), “but said, ‘This is my body and this is my blood.’”
III – The Witness of Saint Paul
For the faith of of the Apostolic Church we have the evidence of Saint Paul. Immediately after his account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, he proceeds to draw from it conclusions which exclude all doubt of his belief in the Real Presence. These are his words -
For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until he come. Therefore, whosoever shall eat this bread and drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself; and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the chalice. For he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgement to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. - 1st Corinthians 11:26-29
Note, first, that the bread and chalice here spoken of are those which Christ has just declared to be His Body and His Blood, and that Saint Paul marks them off as special terms by calling them “this bread” and “the chalice of the Lord.”
Next, this eating and drinking is evidently something solemn, since a man is to “prove himself,” to examine if he be worthy, before partaking, and the solemnity is due to the nature of the food eaten.
Thirdly, the unworthy partaker commits a special crime. He is “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Only the doctrine of the Real Presence can justify this language. On any symbolical theory it is sheer abuse of words. A friend, let us suppose, invites me to dine with him. That is a sign of union. If while I break bread with him, as the phrase goes, and eat his salt, I am privately plotting his ruin, I am, indeed, a black traitor; but no one can accuse me of being guilty of his body and blood. When we remember, further, the plain words of institution, which immediately precede this solemn warning, it is evident that one doctrine alone fits the facts, the doctrine of the Real Presence.
All this is immediately confirmed by the sentence of damnation pronounced against the unworthy man. He “eats and drinks judgement to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord”; in other words, because he presumed to treat as common bread what was in fact the Body of Christ.
Equally explicit is the statement in the previous chapter,
Judge ye yourselves what I say. The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, one body: all that partake of one bread.” 1st Corinthians 10:15-17)
The plain doctrine Saint Paul evidently expects to pass unquestioned. But, moreover, that must be a special bread which unites all that partake of it in one body, and, taken in connection with the teaching of Saint Paul on the Mystical Body of Christ, according to which every Christian, in virtue of his union with Christ, is a member of His Body, it is natural to see in this special bread the visible sign of union. But what explanation so well fits this doctrine as that the bread is no longer mere bread but the Body of the Lord?
IV – The Early Christian Church
Space forbids quotation in detail from the Fathers of the Church, and, indeed, the evidence is so abundant that quotation on any but a large scale could only prove unsatisfactory. It must suffice to state in general that the Fathers, Eastern and Western, are practically unanimous in teaching the Real Presence. Their language is at times loose and untechnical, and could not be used today, when, largely under the stress of heresy, the doctrine has come to be stated with scientific precision, but of their true mind on the subject there can be no reasonable doubt. The exceptions are so few and unimportant as to be negligible in a chain of evidence extending over seven centuries.
Besides the Fathers, and guiding us in interpreting them, we have the recorded practice of the Christian Church. From very early times it was the custom to receive Holy Communion fasting. In administering the Host the celebrant said, “The Body of the Lord,” and the communicant answered, “Amen.” He then received the Host into his hands and put It into his mouth. The deacon presented the chalice, saying, “The Blood of the Lord,” and the communicant drank from it after again replying, “Amen.” The greatest care was enjoined upon communicants to let none of the sacred species fall to the ground, because it was the Body of the Lord. Under the species of bread the Holy Eucharist was regularly carried to the sick and to prisoners by deacons or, if persecution made that course too dangerous, even by children. It was thus that saint Tarcisius met martyrdom. “He preferred to yield his soul in death,” says the epitaph inscribed by Pope Saint Damasus on his tomb, “than to betray the heavenly members [of Christ] to raving dogs.” In time of persecution, too, the faithful took the Holy Eucharist to their homes that they might communicate in case of need. Hermits, living alone in the desert, regularly reserved It. All this points to a belief in a real and permanent Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
Discipline of the Secret
Something may also be gathered from the “Discipline of the Secret,” that is, the practice of not mentioning the sacred mysteries of Christianity in public sermons and writings, but of veiling them under some general phrase which the initiated understood, but which would convey nothing to the outsider. Why this secrecy should have been observed if the Holy Eucharist was no more than a symbol, it is hard to see. On the other hand, the fact that Christians were commonly accused of holding a cannibal feast and eating the bodies of children is sufficient to account for the Discipline of the Secret, and is moreover itself best explained as a perversion of the doctrine of the Real Presence.
B – Transubstantiation
The Church not only defines the fact of the Real Presence; she defines also the way in which that Presence is brought about.
“Since Christ our Redeemer,” says the Council of Trent, “said that what He offered under the appearance of bread was truly His Body, therefore it has always been held in the Church of God, and this Holy Synod now declares it anew, that by the consecration of bread and wine there takes place a change of the entire substance of bread into the substance of the Body of Christ our Lord, and of the entire substance of wine into the substance of His Blood. This change is by the Holy Catholic Church aptly and accurately termed Transubstantiation.” (Session 13, Chapter 4)
There is a common misapprehension among non-Catholics that transubstantiation is a doctrine devised in the Middle Ages and thrust upon a credulous body of subjects by a tyrannical Church. In actual fact, from the first the Church has taught, in accordance with the plain meaning of Our Lord’s words, that the bread and wine are changed by the words of consecration into the Body and Blood of Christ. For He did not say, “Here is My Body” or “This contains My Body,” but “This is My Body,” and “This is My Blood.”
Thus Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr in 107 writes that heretics “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess the eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins.” (Ad. Smyrn. 7)
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (died in 386) concludes his instruction on the Holy Eucharist with these words – “Filled with the faith that what appears bread is not bread, even though it seems so to the taste, but the Body of Christ; and what appears wine it not wine, even though taste would have it so, but the Blood of Christ” (Cathech. Myst. 4:9)
Saint Ambrose (died in 397) says, “Of the works of the whole world thou has read: He spoke and they were made. Cannot, then, the word of Christ which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, change the things which are into that which they were not?”
The Notion of “Change” Universal in the Fathers
In general, the Fathers employ every possible word for “change” to express the effect of consecration. They say that the bread and wine “are made,” “become,” “are changed into,” “pass into,” “are trans-elemented into” the Body and Blood of Christ. If language means anything, these terms mean that what was bread is, after consecration, no longer bread but Christ’s Body. For, had the Fathers wished to say that the Body of Christ was united with, or contained in, the bread, what could have been easier? Yet they persistently apply the notion of change, a notionwhich involves the transition of one thing into another.
But why, it may be asked, introduce this new term Transubstantiation and discountenance all other? There are two reasons.
First, this change is unique. It has no parallel. It is not like a change of colour, as when dark hair turns gray; nor is it like the change observable in age, when a full body shrinks and grows bent. In neither case does the substance change. Nor even is it like the miraculous change of water into wine at Cana. For in the Holy Eucharist a non-living substance is changed into a living one, an ordinary piece of bread into a substance which is totally different yet is not now newly produced but already existing, i.e., Christ’s own Body. A unique event demands a special name. Transubstantiation is the appropriate name, since it means literally the crossing or changing of substances, just as to transport means to bear across, and to transmit means to send across.
Secondly, the term is a test of orthodoxy. Were a variety of terms allowed, expressions might be used about the Holy Eucharist which, without explicitly denying the true doctrine, would be open to heretical interpretation. The Anglican school of Modern Churchmen afford an example of how far men will go in reading their private views into dogmatic formulae. Transubstantiation is a decisive test of true belief about the Real Presence. This, too, is the history of its introduction. It was adopted under the necessity of pinning down Berengarius, Wickliff, and Huss to a precise statement of their meaning. This was in the twelfth century.
Not A New Term
But there are traces of its use in the eleventh century, so that even when first officially employed by the Church, some seven hundred years ago, it could hardly be called new, whilst the acquiescence with which it was received shows that the truth it expressed was the established belief of the faithful.
Such is the doctrine of transubstantiation, accepted without question for twelve hundred years, accepted still by the greater part of Christendom. It is an act beyond created power to perform, and beyond created mind to comprehend. But it is one thing to say that we cannot understand how it is done, and quite another to conclude that, therefore, it is impossible. We can say that it is an exception to all human experience, but we cannot show that it is contrary to reason. Appearances naturally imply a substance to which they belong; but there is no proof that supernaturally they cannot be kept in being apart from substance.
Nor can it be said that if so our senses deceive us. Our senses report the form, colour, taste, smell which we have learned to associate with the presence of bread and wine, and their report is true. All these qualities are there. It is from another source, namely, the authority of Jesus Christ, that we learn that in this case the appearance are connected not with bread and wine, but with His Body and Blood. Again, naturally we are acquainted with substances only as “extended,” i.e., as consisting of parts united in a whole, as possessing a certain size and shape. We cannot imagine how a human body can be present in even the smallest particle of bread or in a drop of wine. But we must remember that we do not know what substance is in itself. The most we can say is that we have never had experience of it except as extended. That a body should exist in a manner comparable to the manner of our soul’s existence in our body, conscious in every part of the body, yet not thereby divided, does not fall within natural experience; but we cannot there dismiss it as inconceivable. The words of Cardinal Newman remain true – “What do I know of substance or matter? Just as much as the greatest philosophers; and that is nothing at all.” (Apologia) Ignorance, and consequent readiness to accept the assurance of a higher authority, is the only reasonable attitude. And we have for Catholic truth the highest of all authority,
What God’s own Son hath spoken is my creed;
No truer word than His, who is the Truth indeed.
When I was a small boy I was given a booklet about Antichrist. It purported to interpret Saint John’s Apocalypse, and decided that the Seer had prophesied the career of Prince Jerome Napoleon, whose name it succeeded in adding up into 666, the Number of the Beast. On the back of this booklet were gory representations of a guillotine set up in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France. It was surrounded by Catholic priests while vast crowds of people, stamped on their foreheads with the sinister number, were watching a select few, presumably all Huguenots, being led to execution. This book so frightened me that it became impossible to even go down the hall into which the door of room where it was kept opened, and I adopted all sorts of circuitous routes and a most inappropriate staircase to avoid it. The imaginations of thousands of children must, in past generations, have been similarly tortured, and though that is not likely to happen now, so has the grim old Protestantism disappeared from among us, it may be interesting to try to ascertain what really the Scriptures and Catholic tradition teach on the subject of Antichrist.
We cannot refer Catholic reads to any first-rate book directly on the point, but for those who can read French, Father F. Prat’s fine work, Theologie de St. Paul, and Father Allo’s quite admirable one on the Apocalypse place the whole matter in a proper light and illustrate it with an erudition that none could wish to better. We make no apology for not repeating in this booklet all the fantastic legends that have from time to time haunted the feverish imaginations of students or writers concerning Antichrist; it seems far better to state what is positive and right than to mention all sorts of views, entertaining though they might be, merely to deny them.
The earliest writing in which the name Antichrist appears is the First Epistle of Saint John, and it recurs in his Second Epistle. Saint John says,
“Little children, it is the last hour, and even as you have heard that ‘Antichrist is coming,’ why even now many Antichrists have come into being. Whence we know that it is the last hour. They went out from among us, yet they were not from among us; for had they been from among us, they would have remained with us… I have not written to you because you do not know the truth. Who is the Liar if not he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the Antichrist – he who denies the Father and the Son. Everyone who denies the Son hath not the Father either. He who acknowledges the Son hath the Father, too.” - 1st John 2:18-23
“Beloved, do not trust every spirit, but test the spirits (to see) if they are from God, because many false prophets have come forth into the world. By this do you recognize the Spirit of God. Every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come-in-the-flesh [incarnate] is from God; and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus [or, divides Jesus] is not from God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, of whom you have heard that he is coming, and [in fact] he is already in the world.” - 1st John 4:1-3
“Now, many Deceivers have come forth into the world who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ come in the flesh. This is the Deceiver and the Antichrist.” - 2nd John 7
Saint John does not say here that what the Christians have heard about Antichrist is a Christian doctrine about Antichrist; he does say that they are familiar with a doctrine on the subject, or at least a tradition. Nor does he say that there will ever be an Antichrist. But he affirms that the collectivity of those who deny the Incarnation, and the spirit that animates them, are Antichrist, and that this is already active in the world, and is a sign that we are even now in “the last days.” Such “Anti-Christians” are in general those who deny the Incarnation, and in particular are heretics – men who once professed themselves Christians and have apostatized. If the reading “divide Christ” be the true one, he is alluding to those contemporary heretics who taught that our Lord was not truly one Person, God and Man, but (perhaps) a man on whom the Spirit of God had descended, e.g. at the Baptism, or, true God indeed, but merely surrounded with a sort of phantom body. There may be more Christian doctrine than this, concerning Antichrist; but Saint John does not state it here, but rather obviously, to our mind, refrains from sanctioning explicitly any current belief about the coming of an Antichrist.
Saint John’s epistles, which may have been written about AD 90 or 95, recall at once a passage in Saint Paul’s 2nd Epistle to the Thessalonians, written in AD 51:
“We beg you, brethren, for the sake of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ and of our gathering together unto Him, not to be swiftly tossed out of your wits nor to be scared, whether by means of a spirit [in the concrete, prophecy], or preaching, or by a letter quoted as coming from me [this may mean, by a forged letter, purporting to come from me; or, by means of a letter, i.e. my own first one to you, so that as it were through me myself you had been scared], to the effect that the Day of the Lord is imminent. Let no one deceive you in any way; for unless the Apostasy have come first, and the Man of Lawlessness be unveiled, the Son of Destruction, the Antagonist, he who exalts himself over all that can be called God or Worshipful, so as to set himself down in the Temple of God, exhibiting himself as being God – (the End shall not come). Do you not remember that while I was still with you I told you this? And you know, too, That which is holding [him] in, so that he shall be revealed [only] at his proper time. For the Mystery of Lawlessness is already at work – let but him who holds [it] in so far, be removed out of the way. Ah! then shall be unveiled the Lawless One, whom the Lord Jesus shall destroy with the breath of His mouth, and shall bring to naught by the manifestation of His Advent – even him whose [own] ‘advent’ is according to the activity of Satan with all [sorts of] power and signs and lying miracles, and with all sorts of wicked deceit unto those who are destined to destruction, because they have not accepted the love of the truth unto their salvation. And that is why God sends them an activity of deception [practically, a tendency or bias towards being deceived] so that they should believe the Lie.” - 2nd Thessalonians 2:1-12)
It is certain that Saint Paul here is not even meaning to speak very clearly. He had told something to the Thessalonians to which he alludes in veiled language, because it may be dangerous for him or for them to write about it in so many words. So we shall be wise not to try to decipher him – to de-code him, so to say – with the help only of such clues as his letter taken by itself provides, but to see if similar language is used elsewhere in a clearer way. Somethwat similar ideas will be expressed, no doubt, by Saint John in his Apocalypse, written about half-way between saint Paul’s letter and Saint John’s own first epistle; but the Apocalypse is itself obscure, and Saint Paul, by quoting Daniel (11:36 in verse 4 of this chapter) shows that he is using a traditional language that our Lord Himself made use of when speaking of the “last days.” What Saint Paul does say is that the End of the World is not due till much has happened first – there is be an Apostasy; and the Advent of Christ will be prefaced by a pseudo-advent, accompanied with deceptive miracles, and that he, or “that” which thus “comes” is here and active already – or would be so, were he, or it, not held in check. When he, or “that,” which now acts as check, is removed, then will be the manifestation of the Antagonist. This is where Paul goes nearest to the word Antichrist. His word, anti-keimenos means, practically, He who establishes himself against – a kind of (evil) counterpart, like convex to concave, though the “evilness” is not contained in the word itself, but is implied by the fact that this Power acts lyingly and in opposition to Christ by whom it will ultimately be destroyed. Add that this is not the Devil, though it works for him. We must wait to see what more than this is implied in Saint Paul’s words.
But our Lord Himself had quote Daniel:
“When therefore you shall see the Abomination of Desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the [a] holy place (let him that readeth understand) – then let him that is in Judea flee into the mountains, etc. There shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, so as to lead stray, if possible, even the elect.” - Matthew 24:15)
It is clear that our Lord, too, alludes to the words of Daniel, though Saint Paul makes them a little more explicit, and He exhorts readers to apply their intelligence and discern their true meaning, which He does not make obvious any more than Saint Paul does. But He goes on to say that this will be the preface to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, and after that, of the End of the World and the Last Coming of the Messiah, though He definitely asserts that no man knows the date of this – only it shall be sudden, which is exactly what Paul teaches.
Our Lord then refers us back to Daniel. In chapter 7 we read of four wild beasts (who are four successive empires), and from the fourth rises a king who shall speak “great – i.e. insolent – things,” shall speak “words” against the Most High, and “wear out” the Saints of the Most High. This persecution lasts “a time, times, and half a time,” that is, three and a half years. After his death and defeat comes the triumph of God and of the holy People. In chapter 8 another vision shows a king who waxes great “even to the prince of the host,” who takes away the daily sacrifice and gives sanctuary and people alike to be trampled under foot for the space of 1150 days. This even is alluded to in verse 13 as “the abomination of desolation” – possibly, the Abomination that Desolates. Again in Daniel, in chapter 9, a vision further shows the daily sacrifice taken away from Jerusalem for “half a week” – in Daniel’s language here, this means three and a half years – and of that period a phrase is used that seems best translated, “and on the pinnacle of abomination (shall stand) one that maketh desolate.” After this, the conqueror is in his turn defeated. In chapter 11 the wicked kind shall “profane the sanctuary, and shall take away the continual burnt offering, and they shall set up the abomination that maketh desolate.” This king, moreover, shall magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvelous things against (i.e., blaspheme) the God of gods. But he comes to a sudden and disastrous end; the Judgement and the Resurrection follow, and God and His People triumph.
In Isaiah 11:4 God is described as “slaying the wicked” as the last Day “with the breath of His lips” (quoted by Saint Paul above); and in chapter 14 it is definitely the King of Babylon who exalts his throne above the stars of God, saying, ” I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like unto the Most High” – and in Ezekiel 28 it is the King of Tyre who, God says, has “lifted up his heart,” and has said, “I am a god, I sit in the seat of God…yet thou art man, and not god”; and similarly, in Daniel the wicked blasphemous king who, for a while, conquers the Holy City and replaces the divine sacrifice with an abomination, is throughout, we hold, Antiochus Ephiphanes. This king after being, for fourteen years, a hostage at Rome succeeded to the throne of Syria in 175 BC. In 172 he marched against Jerusalem, took it, and stripped the Temple of its treasures, though hitherto he had been on good terms with the High Priest who had been ready to co-operate with Antiochus’s scheme of introducing Greek culture into Palestine. However, hearing a suspicion of treachery, he attacked it as we have said. In 168 BC the city was even worse devastated, the men were killed, the women and children sold into slavery, and the city burned and its walls pulled down. Antiochus then decreed that “all should be one people,” even in religion. Observance of the Sabbath and circumcision were forbidden on pain of death; on 15 December 168, a small altar was built upon the altar of burnt sacrifice and sacrifice was offered on it to Olympic Zeus. In the first book of the Maccabees this altar is called by Daniel’s expression, The Abomination of Desolation. Now the first of these words is, no doubt, constantly used in the Old Testament of idolatrous practices, etc., but taken together the words make, in Hebrew, a very good “pun” or assonance with the words meaning Ball of Heaven, which is the Hebrew equivalent for Zeus Olympios, Antiochus’s patron deity, whose image, no doubt, was placed on the altar, and was also, no doubt, identified more or less closely with Antiochus himself. This desecration lasted till 25 December 164.
Antiochus put, then, an image of himself, as incarnating his Empire, fashioned in the likeness of Zeus Olympios, in the Temple itself, and this was treated with divine honours. The Jews never forgot this desecration of the Temple, invitation to Idolatry, and to apostasy from the Vocation to be God’s unique and chosen People.
Clearly we have no space to go into more details than this. But it is certain that Daniel’s phrases became part of a recognized style, which was used by writers who may be called Apocalyptists, and must now be explained.
Any careful reader of Daniel will see at once that he does not intend to refer only to Antiochus Ephiphanes. He sees, behind the invading pagan king, the forces of right and wrong, of God and His enemies. You may say that a writer like Daniel will have four planes, so to call them, in his vision – he will see something quite concrete; like this or that king, this or that invasion or persecution, and this may be called the historical level; or, he may see the conflict of right and wrong, and this is the ethical or moral level or plane; or, he may see all this at its consummation, at the End of the world, and this is called the eschatological (science of the last or science of the end) plane; finally, he may see the history o the world, or of the soul, as it were universally, and no more than typified or symbolized by any particular conflict, and the triumph of God in the whole series of creation. This might, perhaps, be called the universal or cosmic place. Such a writer will find his gaze focusing and refocusing itself very rapidly, sometimes nearer, sometimes at a more distant point, or rather, now on the more concrete, and now on the more spiritualized place. Isaisas, then, and Ezekiel saw not only the impious triumph and ultimate defeat of the kings of Babylon and of Tyre, but god’s triumph and that of His People and of righteousness; Daniel saw beyond Antiochus, though his gaze was primarily fixed on him; our Lord, we dare reverently to say, was using this same traditional way of speaking, with its accustomed formulae, which Jews of His time perfectly well understood, when in the concrete and immediate future He saw and spoke of the sack of Jerusalem by the Roman armies, but, also, the ultimate fate of the world and the last great contest of good and evil, and the triumph of the former and of His Church.
Does the Old Testament, then, so far teach, or even lead us to expect, an individual person who, at the end of time shall act as an evil counterpart to the Messiah, or even as the professed supreme enemy of God? No. The inspired writers proclaim the world-enduring struggle of good and evil, and the ultimate triumph of good, and they sometimes express this in terms of warfare, and in particular under the symbolism of, or as working itself out in, a contest actual or in the more or less remote future – thus serving the double purpose of instructing the Chosen People in what might pedantically be called the spiritual interpretation of the universe, and of encouraging them in view of a crisis in their national history sooner or later to be experience by them. For the imaginative standpoint, or that of dramatic appropriateness, it will be clear how naturally the great Protagonist, God, could be represented as ultimately confronting an individual for; but the canonical writers do not do this; the drama, thus set forth, developed outside them.
All prophets foretold, at times, the future, and also exhorted the people, and variously “forthtold” God’s word. But those who by preference “unveiled” the underlying spiritual truth of things, particularly with reference to the End of the Word, and often in the hour of the Chosen People’s disasters when it needed special encouragement, and, finally, as a rule, in a very special symbolical “dialect,” have come to be called “Apocalyptists,” owing to Saint John’s great writing, which was the first document of the sort, I think, to bear the name of Apocalypse. Almost all prophets contain apocalyptic passages: but, during the century and a half both preceding and following the Christian era, there were many entire books which were Apocalypses. Those which Saint John, and perhaps Saint Paul, may have known, since they were written before their date, were , , the , the , and the , and parts also of the . Roughly contemporary with Saint John are the , other parts of the , the , etc. Later are the , the , , etc.; and others much later, like the . In many of these there are Christian elements, and it is in these classes of literature that the motif of the Antichrist is developed.
One element in it is the advent of a pagan chieftain; the kings of Babylon, Tyre and Syria were followed by Herod the Great, Pompey or some Roman emperor (like Gaius (Catigula), and with quite extraordinary consequences as we shall see after the sensational reign of Nero); and this facilitated the idea that the Enemy of God should manifest himself in Jerusalem itself, since these personages either took and dismantled it, or were expected to do so. There was also a tradition that this enemy should be an apostate Jew, perhaps from the tribe of Dan. There was a different idea, which seems to have been felt as more than a mere metaphor, that the enemy should be Satan himself, either incarnate, or at least acting through a definite lieutenant. Thus, in the and the , it is Belial, or Satan or the Devil who is overthrown or bound by God or the Messiah; whereas, in the Psalms of Solomon, Pompey is described as the Dragon. In the last case, we can see how the two motifs are intertwining; Satan and his instrument are not clearly distinguished. We may interpolate here that non-Catholic writers are fond at this point of assigning pagan origins to this idea, and to the imagery in which it is clothed. Thus the whole idea of a fight between God and the principle of Evil is supposed to be Persians, and all dragon-imagery, etc., is supposed to be borrowed from Babylonian myth. Enough to say that at this date the Jews not only had no need to borrow any such metaphors at all, for they had long possessed them, but the metaphors themselves were very natural ones to be developed precisely when the Jews were continually being attacked and defeated; and, that they were almost as unlikely as actual Christians to borrow religious ideas from others just when the sense of their peculiar privileges and vocation was felt more and more intensely by them; while not only had this imagery long been traditional in substance, but meant no more to a Jew that the word “Titan” did to Milton when he so described the archangels Gabriel and Abdiel; not would we ourselves be committed to any kind of belief in the storming of Olympus by the Giants if we spoke of the gigantic struggle of right with wrong.
We are now, I think, in a much better position for understanding Saint Paul whose letters to the Thessalonians come next in chronological order. Saint Paul’s language is certainly both “eschatological” and in part “apocalyptic.” We may, then, almost assert that they are certainly wrong who try to make him allude either to a contemporary concrete fact alone, or to the ending of the world alone. It is extremely probable that he will be alluding, indeed, to the consummation of all things (as, indeed, he obviously does), and to some present or imminent hostile influence or person. (This view will be immensely corroborated when we speak of Saint John’s Apocalypse.) suppose Paul were alluding only to a contemporary person, he would not only be expecting the consummation of the world to be destined to occur within the life-time of that person (for all that was necessary for his “manifestation” and full persecuting activity was the removal of a certain mysterious “check”), but asserting that it would so occur whereas the whole point of the letter is that no one has any idea when it will occur, and he is warning the Thessalonians not to act as if it were known to be imminent. Moreover, though this is not the place to argue this matter out, I hold that Saint Paul did not think that the End was to come immediately, or even soon, and, in fact, that while he continued to fix no dates, he thought it was very far off indeed, as we reckon “far.” For from the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans he seems to say definitely that the conversion of the Jews is to take place before the end (and even then he does not say, or hint, that it is to take place just before), and that before this conversion, the Gentiles, that is, the world at large, are to have been converted. But it is certain that he did not expect to convert the world in his own life-time, or anything like. To my mind, then, Paul is very likely considering some actual persecuting agency, held for the time being in check, but likely soon to break out, and, the enduring series or collectivity of such agencies, continually checked until for a brief space the restraining power is withdrawn, and, finally the consummation of the world-long struggle between god and all that is anti-God, and the divine triumph.
What, then, on this hypothesis, does Saint Paul regard as the contemporary evil influence which is “from now on,” “already,” energizing, but held in check for the while? And that is it that holds it in check? I think he almost certainly saw that within the Roman Empre was a tendency, already operative, which very soon revealed itself, to set itself up, as it were, incarnate in its Emperor, as absolute and supreme even in the realm of conscience. To refuse to worship the Emperor meant that one made one’s life, in army, in commerce, in society, in the rapidly developing bureaucracy, unlivable, and at frequent crises, involved oneself in actual martyrdom. What was at the moment restraining this influence? Perhaps the personality of the contemporary Emperor himself, Claudius, who did not like Emperor-worship, and reacted against the policy of his mad predecessor Gaius; or, the spirit of the governing class of officials, who had not yet yielded, as they did later, to the insane orgy of flattery with the Emperor became surrounded. But since Saint Paul uses the vague neuter both for the “mystery of Lawlessness,” and for “That which acts as check,” as well as the masculine, and since the Old testament models are at least as much a collectivity of enemies as any one man, thought they may be led by, summed up in, or typified in, one man, and since it will be seen that Saint John uses his personal symbols to stand for such a collectivity quite as much as, and more than, for an individual, we take it that saint Paul also alludes here to that enduring Opposition to the Triumph of God. This is ever appearing to come to a head, is ever defeated, or at least checked in part and for a while, primarily by the Christian preaching and supernatural influence, and is destined to be utterly overwhelmed by the Truth as revealed by the Son of God Incarnate, the Messias, the Word made Flesh. I will add that it is quite possible that saint Paul’s mind, moving thus in a real of apocalyptic thought, may have had in it, as Father Prat holds, the very special apocalyptic symbolism connected with the archangel Michael. This would make another link with the Apocalypse. The floating thought of the Jews not only set God, or the Messias Himself, in opposition to the Anti-Messias, or to Satan, but also Saint Michael. Not only in the extra-canonical apocalypses does Michael play a great role, but in the book of Daniel itself Michael is the leader of God’s armies and takes the Chosen People in charge (chapters 10 and 12). Paul certainly had him in mind when he describes the Last day, and “at the voice of an archangel, at the sound of a trumpet,” the dead rise. Not only was Michael regularly conceived as the great protector of the Chosen People in battle, especially the last Battle, but in pre- and post-Christian apocalypses he is seen as a Recording Angel, setting down the works of nations and their presiding angels, and is held to have been the medium through whom God gave the law to Moses, and the constant intercessor on behalf of humanity, the mediator between God and the race on behalf of the peace of Israel; while in the letter of saint Jude he is seen fighting with Satan for the body of Moses, and in Saint John’s apocalypse it is he who carries on the great mystical war with Satan. So Paul, on yet another plane of thought, may here well be seeing the World-Struggle in terms of a fight between Satan and the Archangel, and Michael will then be the “check.”
Not long after these letters of Saint Paul were written, the career of the Emperor Nero startled the world. Genius, artist, actor, evidently a man of fascinating charm, under the frantic adulation of his court, the omnipotence of money and absolutism, he quite lost his balance, and became a hideous assassin and a god. In 67, he committed suicide. None could believe him dead. The idea of Nero had penetrated right below the sheaths of the Empire’s soul. Tactitus and Suetonius show that he was held, for long, to be still alive. More than one pretender was able, in the east, to maintain his claim to be Nero. Such a one was actually supported for some time by a Parthian general, Artaban. The fact that Nero was, after all, obviously dead made not the slightest difference. He would rise again, or at least the devil himself would take the form of Nero and appear among men. This last suggestion comes, of course, from the Jews, whose apocalypses become full of the idea. On the whole, it was held that he would come from the East, from beyond the Euphrates, and I may add at once that at least a connection between Antichrist and Nero was frequently and early admitted even by Christian writers.
It is now easier to approach the next great Christian document, Saint John’s Apocalypse.
In chapter 4 we are told that persecution has already raged and produced its martyrs, but they are to wait for a little longer till their number be made full. In chapter 9 we have the double symbolic vision of an army of evil spirits coming from the abyss, having for chief “the angel of the abyss, whose name in Hebrew was Abaddon, in Greek, Apulluon,” the Destroyer, and of the invading army of cavalry from beyond the Euphrates, whom we have reason to regard at least on the immediate and historic place as the Parthians, of whose onslaught the Empire stood in continual dread. Then, in chapter 11, John sees the sack by the “Beast of the Abyss” of the Holy City, Jerusalem, all but its innermost shrine; even during the worst hours, Two Witnesses to God and His Truth come forth and preach, but after a while they too are killed and the enemies of God congratulate one another and thing they have triumphed. But the Witnesses are restored to life, and their foes are discomfited. Their death had lasted for 3 ½ days as compared to the 3 ½ years of the total persecution. (Throughout the Apocalypse, John uses 3 ½ years, 42 months, or 1260 days, as identical in meaning and as symbolizing “persecution-time,” on the model set by the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes.) In the second part of the Apocalypse, which begins in chapter 12, is seen the Great War between Michael and Satan, and the replica of this on earth, that between Satan’s representatives and the Church. The War is actually waged there by a Wild Beast who combines in his one self all the characteristics of the various wild beasts, portraying successive empires, mentioned by Daniel. He holds an authority delegated to him by the Dragon, who is Satan, and just as the name of Michael means Who is like to God?, so the Beast’s war-cry is Who is like to the Beast? His power over the Saints of God last 3 ½ years; his mouth speaks “great things and blasphemies”; one of his seven heads is seen “slain unto death,” but this death-stroke had been healed. And the world went gaping after him. This Beast had, he too, a lieutenant, a Beast that came not “from the sea,” but from the mainland, and was partly like a lamb. His business was to induce the world at large to worship the first Beast, of whom he made an animated Image that spoke, and he worked all sorts of miracles in the name of the first Beast, and on the forehead and right hand of all who worshipped the image he caused to be stamped the number of the Beast, 666, and those who had it not could neither but nor sell, and they who would not worship were killed. John then sees the triumph of the elect, and the Judgement. Again, in chapter 15 he sees the way opened for the kings from beyond Euphrates, and the dragon, the Beast, and the second Beast, here called the False Prophet, gathered together with their troops from all sides to a final battle, and the ruin of the Great City, Babylon. Again, chapter 17, he is shown the doom of that city now under the sumbol of the World-Wanton, seated on a beast with seven heads and covered with blasphemous names. The Beast, parodying the Eternal God who “Was, and Is, and Shall Come,” “was, and is not, but shall come (again).” As for the heads, they are, says John, the Seven Hills of that city where the woman has her throne; but also, seven kings, of whom five have been, one is (now), another is not yet come, but shall rule for a short space, and – the Beast is himself an Eighth, though he is also one of the Seven. Then John sees the ruin of the harlot city; the Beast survives her, only himself ultimately to perish along with this false prophet, and last of all Satan himself is destroyed.
There is today, we think, no danger of anyone supposing that the visions of the Apocalypse are meant to represent a series of historical events succeeding one another chronologically. John relates the same thing again and again under different symbols, rather as at least once he uses the same symbol (the Beast’s heads) for different things – hills and kings. It is true that in re-relating under a new symbol what he had already told, he has usually altered the focus of his gaze somewhat, and is contemplating truth on a different place. Thus, in the first part of the Apocalypse he may be said to remain on all but the most general place of all, and to contemplate great principles rather than historical events, save quite in passing, as when he declares the number of the martyrs to be not yet full, and has, I think, an eye briefly turned towards the group of martyrs slain under Nero, and not yet followed by those to be slain by Domitian. In the double vision of the Angel of the Abyss, and of the Parthians, he certainly has the City and Empire of Rome in his mind, as representative of evil, but goes into no great detail. Under the image of the siege of the Holy City, he tells certainly that for a while the forces of evil seem to defeat Christ’s Church, though they do not quite succeed in annihilating it; true, they get rid of the continual witness that infuriates them, but even then the success is only apparent and brief, for the remnant of the Church has new life given to it, and the triumph of evil is neither complete nor lasting. Here the detail of “persecution-period” is introduced.
Each vision, it may be noticed, offers a new detail which fits it in, from a literary point of view, to the next ones, and each becomes more focused on to actual life than the preceding one was. But hitherto, nothing like an “Antichrist,” save in the most vague and general sense, has been mentioned. This is what the second part of the book supplies. We are shown first in a most general symbol the attack of the Dragon upon the Messiah, and the war on His behalf captained by Saint Michael. Then the scene is shifted to the earth, and the Dragon’s Viceroy, the Beast from the Sea, and that Beast’s own delegate, the Beast from the land, are seen persecuting the Church. There is no doubt about the first Beast. It is the persecuting Roman Empire. And to my mind there is no doubt, or very little, about the second Beast. It is, immediately, proconsular power in Asia that “played up” to the Emperor, saw to the exhibiting everywhere of his images, and worked, quite possibly, imitation miracles and even ventriloquial effects in connection with them. Unless a man did acts of divine homage to the Emperor in the person, so to say, of his image, he was boycotted and cast out of social life, and in course of time persecuted to death.
Does John fix his eye, here, on any particular Emperor? He seems to do so when he says that the Beast has a “number,” which is “that of a man,” namely, 666. In Hebrew and in Greek, numbers were represented by letters – 1 by a, and so forth. Into whatever number the letters of a man’s name added up, that was his number. This game, for so it almost was, occurs very often in the Sibylline Oracles among apocalyptic books, but also in quite ordinary life it was common. In Or. Sib. 1:324-331, the name of Jesus is given as 888; and it is thought at least possible that the number of Antichrist was 666. Anyhow, the words Nero Caesar in Hebrew give the total 666, and in Greek, 616, which is a variant reading of 666, as Saint Irenaeus testifies, in the Apocalypse. Now by the further “game” called isopsephia, or “equal reckoning,” if the number of a man’s name could be shown as identical with that of a word expressing a quality, etc., that man would be said to have that quality. So if the name Nero Caesar added up into 666, and also the number of Antichrist was 666, it would follow that Nero was Antichrist, and, indeed, as such he was often to be exhibited to the reprobation of future generations.
There are difficulties that beset every single explanation of this subject; but the above seems at present far the most probable, and is reinforced by what Saint John says when he describes the Harlot. There the Beast is represented as the Empire, or at least the Imperial Force or spirit supporting the City of Rome: it had parodied the Lamb, the Son of God, who had been slain and risen again, by itself suffering apparent defeat and returning to life, as indeed the Empire may be said to have done after the collapse which seemed total after the death of Nero, and the revival that followed in the persons of the Flavian Emperors. But in particular John tells of the seven heads of the Beast as being seven kings, of whom five had already ruled; a sixth was actually on the throne, a seventh was still to come, but should have but a brief reign; and then the Beast himself should be, says John, an eighth, and yet be one of the seven. Those who have the patience to look up the book Princes of His People II, which I have several times mentioned, will find reasons that allow of our safely saying that the kings, calculating from the Emperor Augustus, bring us to Domitian for the eighth in their series: now Domitian was everywhere nicknamed the Resurrected Nero, and was really thought to be, by some, a reincarnation of that Emperor, so savage was his policy. In him, the whole spirit, then, of the Empire, seemed once more to be that of Nero, so that in myth and in fact he was, or acted as, not only “the eighth,” but as one of the seven, i.e. Nero. All the same, it is noticeable that John cannot shut up his thought into the person of one Emperor or even period, or of one Empire; for the Beast survives the city Rome and is not conquered till the end of time. John does no more than see Nero (who certainly is in his mind) and Domitian (who perhaps is) as types of a policy – examples of persecution proper to pagan Rome. His eye is on this plane far more occupied with the whole series of Emperors and the whole persecuting work of Rome, than with any particular man.
See then the levels in John’s thought – the Christ-persecuting Emperors of Rome, as represented by Nero in particular of their type; the “Romes,” or persecuting powers of all ages, be they cities, systems of thought, principles, ideals, or what you will; and floating above them all, the tremendous figures of the archangel Michael and of Satan. Constantly, the Church appears to be on the verge of annihilation; even while there is a “check” upon that total defeat, be this “check” symbolized as Michael, or the Two Witnesses, or seen in a particular man or policy or some existing political or philosophical system – the evil influence is still at work; a moment of great weakening on the part of the Christians suffices for the full “revelation,” as Saint Paul calls it, of that evil influence; it seems to score a triumph of the completest sort, but is then itself defeated – absolutely, at the last day, when Satan, whose representatives all these earthly persecuting man, influences, legislations are, shall be bound for ever along with his wicked servants. Thus, to start with, the harmony of Saint Paul and of Saint John is seen to be complete. Satan is engaged I his enduring war against God; that anti-God influence is throughout history felt upon the earth; it has at all times its particular representative. The battle sways to and fro; sometimes the Beast seems stricken to death; but it revives; sometimes, the Christian Witness and the sources of Grace, that inhibit the full triumph of evil, are for a space apparently destroyed – there is Apostasy, and the anti-Christian foe is fully revealed; but at the last the Word of God, Eternal Truth, will make an end of these lying doctrines that set the world astray.
Have either John or Paul prophesied the Advent of a definite individual Antichrist at the end of time? No. There is certainly nothing to prevent our surmising that the enemies of God may be led or represented by an individual, at the end of human history just as at any other time; indeed, since the “End of the World,” and the events surrounding it, must necessarily occur as historical events, it seems equally necessary that they must express themselves in something concrete, either a man, or a group, or a political or systematic unit of some sort; but the Old Testament, Saint Paul, and Saint John use their image of a definite one person precisely when their gaze is fixed rather on their own time, which is, in a sense, the least “real,” most transitory, plane of all those that they contemplate. Babylon, Tyre, Antiochus, Rome – and all the persecutors of all history for ever, are but the crude material examples of a much deeper and abiding truth, just as the Two Witnesses stand as symbol of that residue of the Faithful who never cease their promulgation of God’s truth even in the worst of persecution, and, “though they be dead, yet shall they live,” as Our Lord promised; and just as we ought not to try to tie them down to definite personalities, like Moses and Elias, Elias and Enoch, Peter and Paul, so neither should we seek to assign a definite individual as the captain of the enemy host that forever bears hard upon them.
These conclusions would have to be modified were there a consistent patristic or ecclesiastical tradition concerning the Antichrist, and different in scope. But here is not. To being with, the Apocalypse so startled the imagination of Christians that any speculations about Antichrist were based almost wholly on that book. But its obscurity served it, so to say, a bad turn. For many people gave it up, as we are apt to, in despair, and other found in it justification for unjustified ideas of their own. For example, those who had imbibed from other sources the belief that Christ was to reign 1000 years upon the earth before the End, had certain sentences in the Apocalypse which they could quote in their support. This, we think, is largely why the Apocalypse took so long to make good its claim to be included in the canon. Having suffered, then, this sort of eclipse, it became the prey of every kind of guesswork. The earliest writers, who do not seem to have sought for any general method of interpreting the book, also seem to mingle a due recognition that the Beast is the Roman Empire, with the idea that the Antichrist will be a personage appearing at the End, and acting as the Beasts in the Apocalypse and in Daniel do. But these writers are accessible to us only in fragments or quotations, or at least do not treat ex professo of the Apocalypse. Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau, wrote two commentaries on the Apocalypse, but he belongs already to the third century; he still believes in the millennium, though Saint Jerome, who edited his shorter commentary, corrects this and holds that the Beast is Nero who will be resuscitated by God as Antichrist and king of the Jews. But this writer is of enormous importance as being the first we possess who makes it clear that Saint John’s visions do not display historical events in chronological order, but the same events or ideas under different, more complete forms.
Tyconius, an African schismatic, about 380 wrote a commentary which orthodox Fathers esteemed most highly, having but to purge it of the passages that related to the Donatist schism in particular. He regards the “Witnesses” as the Church with her two testaments; the Beast with its seven heads is the totality of the powers that oppose Christ, which shall be concentrated in some sense in the last King of Satan’s city. He makes it most clear that John takes up the same subject again and again. Saint Jerome at least makes it clear that he held no method of explanation or particular interpretation to be traditional. Saint Augustine holds that there will be a personal Antichrist, but this is due rather to Saint Paul than to Saint John, especially as he reads “apostate” instead of “apostasy” in the Epistle to the Thessalonians. The Beast is, for him, the totality of Satan’s city, including bad Christians. In short, the Apocalypse is, for him, the world-long contest of the two cities. The only criticism we might, with Father Allo, make is that Augustine is still too near the Roman Empire for it to have sunk, as it should, into its due place as but an incident in the enormous struggle.
Enough really has been said to show at least a negative – that no system of interpretation was official in the Church, nor was any tradition in the technical sense established. Nor did the subsequent centuries, in the Greek or the Latin world, succeed in doing so, though let us make it quite clear that nearly all Catholic writers have expected a personal “Antichrist,” and not one of them has excluded the idea of a personal Antichrist; nor, indeed, can we see how they could possibly, or (as we have said) appropriately do so. Certainly we do not.
The really new start was made in the twelfth century when the Abbot Joachim of Flora, among must that was good, fell into the fatal innovation of supposed that the Apocalypse describes successive ages of Church history. The fourth period, for example, is that of the Ascetics (Apocalypse 11:19-14) who are attracted by Mohammed, or Islam generally, whose wound, inflicted by the Crusades, was cured when Saladin re-took Jerusalem. The sixth period is that in which Joachim himself is living, and is to contain the destruction of the Germanic empire by Asiatic chiefs, to whom a way was opened (the Euphrates died up) by the defeat of the army of Frederick Barbarossa in the third Crusade. His successors became even more fantastic, and it was they who started to see Antichrist in the person of certain Popes. This idea was taken up by the precursors of Protestantism, like Wyclif and Hus, and from now on the poor book becomes the prey of what is almost like insanity. In 1522 Luther himself did not admit the Apocalypse to be a genuine prophecy; but he began to do so in proportion as he found in it weapons against the Papacy. English and Scotch writers went even further along this line, Brightman (1616) reserving the Last Plagues for the benefit of the Jesuits, and of Bellarmine in particular. The real renaissance of scientific study of the book took place in Spain in the sixteenth century, and the Jesuits themselves were largely responsible for it, especially Alcazar, 1614 and 1619, and Mariana, about the same time. Modern criticism has been either historical and sane, or quite fantastic in its dismemberment of the book and its assigning of the fragments to different authors; but none of it bears directly on our subject. It is, however, very clear to our thinking that there is no Catholic tradition necessitating our adopting any particular view of the Antichrist, and that the periods which have shown the strongest inclination to fasten his identity on to this or that person, have been precisely the ones when scientific criticism flourished least. Moreover, we recognize that there is every temptation to seek for such identifications, in so far as they are always more exciting and picturesque than more profound and spiritual considerations.
To sum up. Outside the sacred text there is nothing that can be of any real value to us in our study of this subject. The Book of Daniel represents under the image of four wild beasts, four successive empires which, because they were the enemies of God’s people were foes no less of god. The last of these produces a king who triumphs over the people to such an extent that he can set up an idolatrous image in the Temple itself. This image represents himself under the features of the supreme pagan god. The persecution period lasts three and a half years, after which God triumphs, and the End of the World is described as the consummation of His triumph. We considered Daniel, no less than Isaiah and Ezekiel, to see bind these concrete personages a wider view – that of the world-long struggle of good and evil, ending in the Victory of God. Towards the Christian era, “apocalypses” began to be written, in which this theme was developed, the enemy of God, or of His Christ, being regarded as a pagan prince, or as Satan incarnate. After the Christian era, all these lines of speculation poured together, for a space, into the personality of Nero risen. Christian writers, outside the New Testament, lent themselves more or less to these speculations without really basing themselves on, or constructing, a “tradition.” Within the New Testament the clearest references are our Lord’s own words – when He says that there shall be many false Christs before the End, and also sees and describes the End through, so to say, the disaster of the taking of Jerusalem by Rome; and, the words of Saint John in his epistles where alone the word “Antichrist” is used. Here he definitely says that whatever the Christians may have heard about Antichrist, Antichrist is already present – in the person of all those who deny Christ, especially apostates. Saint Paul, while insisting that the date of the End is and must be unknown, also says that it cannot come till much has happened first. Elsewhere he includes in these happenings the conversion of the Jews, itself preceded by that of the Gentiles. He says that the Spirit of Revolt is already active but checked for the present; that when there is an “apostasy” then its full force shall be able to reveal itself, and that this will happen when the “check” is in some way removed. We saw reason to think that Saint Paul might possibly have his eye upon some contemporary situation – the tendency of the Empire to substitute itself in the person of the Emperor, for God; at present, this had not fully happened. But Saint Paul also sees the matter in far more general terms, his persons become abstractions, operating throughout history, and the ultimate forces are even spiritual altogether – Satan and his great enemy, Michael.
Saint John, in many symbols throughout the Apocalypse, teaches the self-same thing. Ever is there an anti-God – ever a struggle – it may be this Emperor or that who demands of the Christians of his age that they should worship him; it may be a collectivity of such Emperors, making up the whole history of the Roman Empire; it may be successive Empires or other such dominant forces throughout Christian history. Ever Michael is fighting with the Dragon; ever the Witnesses are being seemingly destroyed and then reviving by the breath of God; ever the Beast is being wounded to death, but the wound of his death is healed. Whether, when the world’s history has gathered to its climax, the Antagonist is to be represented by one man, or one system of government or of thought, matters very little, and we cannot assert. But precisely as John generalizes his vision to take in more than the Empire of his day, the less does he assign anything that we can legitimately tie down to no human or diabolic personality.
The upshot of this is not to make us careless. We have to obey the reiterated command – to Watch. More subtle influences surround us and sap out loyalty than any mere visible persecutor, whether open and ravaging undisguisedly, or veiled in some likeness of reason or philanthropy – that “angel of light,” as whom we are told Satan can disguise himself. The fierce materialistic atheism of a generation ago has been succeeded by a vague semi-mystical, quasi-spiritual tendency that does not refuse to use the names that Religion has always used; this spurious Universalism that speaks so fair is perhaps today the most dangerous of the Beasts that attack and hate us. The Parody of the Church! The false internationalism that masquerades as the truer Catholicism; the disregard of all fixed beliefs and codes that engineers a lying Unity; the ethical enthusiasm that seeks to replace supernatural holiness; the theosophical continuity that is fain to join hands which ancient errors and cults, and to reduce historic Christianity to being but a phase, a momentary expression of the mind of man when it muses upon God.
We have not to tremble at the thought of some future horrible revelation that may never come in our day; nor yet have we to lap ourselves in false security precisely because it has not yet come. Already the “Mystery of Revolt” is active. Already there are many “Antichrists.” Let us watch lest unawares we be caught up into our own Apostasy.
The Village Tradesman
The day of salvation was near at hand; and the world, without knowing it, was preparing itself to the coming of its Saviour. Soldiers and statesmen, intent on empire-building, were raising the frame-work of the Kingdom of God. The empire of Alexander had already passed, leaving to the world the language of the Gospel. Now, Rome was breaking down the barriers that separated the nations and laying the roads which would serve to carry the message of salvation to the ends of the earth. And in the little village of Nazareth, hidden away in a corner of Rome’s vast empire, a man called Joseph was preparing himself for his part in the great scheme of salvation.
Joseph bar-Jacob – to give him the name by which his neighbours knew him – had an ancestry of which he might have been justly proud. Descended from the royal house of David, he could have claimed a place amongst the first in the land. Actually, he was just a village tradesman, well satisfied with his humble condition, and probably very glad of the obscurity it afforded. In the Palestine of Herod the Great, royal blood was a dangerous heritage, and the lineal descendants of Israel’s royal family would naturally have been at pains to escape the notice of the usurper who sat so uneasily on his blood-drenched throne. It may well have been their anxiety to forestall Herod’s murderous intentions that tempted Joseph family to abandon their ancestral home in Bethlehem for the safety of a secluded village of distant Galilee. However that may be, when the fullness of time had come, Joseph was living with his family in Nazareth, earning his livelihood as a tradesman.
In our translations of the Gospels, Joseph is described as a carpenter, but the original texts speak of him simply as a tradesman without specifying his trade. From what can be know of the Palestine of that period, there does not seem to have been, at least in rural parts, any specialized trade that would correspond to our trade of carpentry. Such simple wood-work as was necessary was done by a tradesman, who was something in the nature of a handy-man, and was expected to be able to turn his hand to anything for which skill in the use of tools was required. Tradition does, in fact, attribute to Joseph great versatility in craftsmanship. In the writings of the early Fathers and in the apocryphal Gospels, he is presented in a variety of occupations – building houses, fashioning agriculture implements and household furniture, and even forging metals. In all probability Joseph was just what tradition represents him to have been – a village tradesman who was at the same time carpenter, smith, mason and handy-man in general. In the plans of God every circumstance has its purpose, and it is not too much to suppose that god so arranged the circumstances of Joseph’s life that everything in it, and particularly such an important element as his work, should have its part in preparing and fitting him for his future. The mission that awaited him called for physical strength and endurance as well as an indomitable spirit and a resourceful mind. All these and much more Joseph could easily acquire in the strenuous and exacting life of a village tradesman.
It would be interesting to know something of Joseph’s home-life and of those intimate social contacts which must have played such a large part in shaping his character and preparing him for his mission. Unfortunately, the Gospels do not provide any information concerning these matters, but there is reason to suppose that his life at Nazareth was lonely and even unpleasant. Later Christ would have to complain that He was without honour in His own home and amongst His own brethren, and it is not unlikely that Joseph in his time was likewise slighted and misunderstood, and for the same reasons. The people of Nazareth and in particular his own immediate relatives, as we know them from the Gospel, were not only gross and worldly in their outlook, but overbearing in their treatment of those who did not share their opinions. With such people, this man of God could have had very little in common. Indeed, in all matters which affect social intercourse, he and his kinsfolk must have been as poles apart and, considering the temper of these people, it is not improbable that his attitude in religious and political affairs may have isolated him socially and even marked him out for that petty, peevish persecution, so prevalent in village life. Such circumstances would account, at least in part, for what appears to be the distinctive trait of Joseph’s character – his patient silence. The few glimpses of him which the Gospels give show him to have been an utterly selfless man, reticent in manner and sparing in words. In those episodes of the Gospel in which he had a part, his presence is felt rather than noticed. No spoken word of his is recorded. In times of distress and doubt, as well as on occasions which provoke from others words of rapturous admiration, Joseph remains silent, keeping his own counsel and speaking only to God to prayer. By his silence he kept his soul, as he was afterwards to keep profane publicity the tremendous secrets with which God would entrust him.
This hard and lonely life was Joseph’s preparation for the mission that awaited him. Every circumstance of it had its part in shaping and molding his character, and in schooling him in those virtues which the exercise of his high office would require. The grace of God had, of course, its own part in this process of formation. Catholic theology has always insisted that, with the exception of Mary, no other creature received so many and such choice graces. But grace is never coercive, and Joseph, like others, had to do his part in his own sanctification. His virtues had to be acquired by unremitting effort and the prayer of desire. When at last God called him to his appointed task, he was, in the words of the Evangelist, “a just man,” which title, as Saint John Chrysostom asserts, implies “the possession of all virtues in a perfect degree.” In other words, Joseph was a saint. It could not have been otherwise. The man to whom God would entrust His most sacred treasures must first have found great favor in His sight. God found in this village tradesman “a man after His own heart,” says Saint Bernard, “to whom He could commit His heart’s closest and most sacred secret.”
The Husband of Mary
In the village of Nazareth there was another home where Joseph must have been a frequent and welcome visitor. The old couple who lived there – Joachim and Anna – were not only his blood relations, but perhaps of all the people of Nazareth the only ones with whom he had anything in common. Like him, they belonged to “the faithful remnant of Israel” – the very few whose spiritual outlook and aspirations had not been distorted by the prevailing corruption of Israel’s ancient faith. But there was another reason why this old couple should have taken this lonely young man to their hearts, and why Joseph, on his part, should have felt himself drawn to them by a bond of sympathy. They too were lonely and had known the bitterness of social disapprobation. For a long time their home had been childless, and consequently shunned by neighbours who, in common with the Jewish people generally, regarded sterility as a manifestation of God’s anger. At last, it pleased God to take away their reproach and to give them a daughter whom they called Mary. Like her namesake of old, Anna thanked God by giving her child back to Him. According to tradition, when Mary was yet a child, her parents presented her to God to serve Him in the Temple, and then returned to their childless home. Would it be too much to suppose that this lonely couple should have looked to their young kinsman for comfort in their old age, and when their end came, committed their orphaned daughter to his care?
This, of course, is mere conjecture, but easier to accept than the ridiculous stories which the apocryphal writers have created to account for the espousals of Joseph and Mary. Giving free rein to their fancy, they make of it a most elaborate affair, calling for lengthy deliberations and proclamations, and entailing many extravagant miracles. But the Providence of God, to which must be attributed the arrangement of this blessed union, has no need of miracles to accomplish its designs. Without any apparent interference in human affairs, God can use the ordinary circumstances of daily life to give effect to His decrees, and in all probability Joseph and Mary were brought together by what may have seemed to be the coincidence of circumstances.
Being an orphan and the sole successor to the family property, Mary would have been constrained by the Law to marry, and to marry within her family, “lest the possession of the children of Israel be mingled from tribe to tribe.” Only some such necessity could have driven her to entertain the thought of marriage at all, since she had vowed her virginity to God. As she would afterwards make clear, this vow was dearer to her than lie, and the thought of abandoning it must have caused her great distress. In her perplexity what more natural than that her thoughts should have turned to Joseph? He was of the same family, as the Law required, but more than that – and this to Mary was of supreme importance – he was of kindred spirit, “walking not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit.” to him Mary could trust her life and her virginity. Her choice would, of course, have had to receive the consent of her guardians, but God, in His inscrutable way, could influence the minds of all concerned to bring together this holy couple whom He had predestined for one another from all eternity.
Nevertheless, theirs was not a loveless marriage of convenience. They had known one another for a long time, had shared the secrets of their souls, and loved one another in God. Never before had there been such a union as theirs – a union of pure and God-like love, untainted by any human passion or material consideration.
“Such a holy and perfect union goes far beyond earthly thought; the idea of it could only come from heaven; and, if every marriage reminds us in some degree of the reciprocal love of Christ and His Church, none ever symbolized as theirs that fruitful and virgin union.” (De la Broise, “The Blessed Virgin Mary”. London. 1917)
In accordance with the marriage customs of the Jews the engagement would have been solemnized in due time by a ceremonial betrothal which took the form of a contract as binding as our marriage vows. When the young couple had, in the presence of witnesses, exchanged gifts as tokens of fidelity, they became legally husband and wife. Custom prescribed, however, that they should continue to live apart in their respective homes for a period set forth in the contract of betrothal. Thus Joseph and Mary, after their betrothals had been solemnized, would have returned to their homes, Mary to the humble dwelling where God’s angel would find her, and Joseph to his workshop to prepare a home for his loved one.
It was, perhaps, while busy about this work, lavishing upon it all the skill of his hand and all the love of his heart, that he was suddenly confronted by a situation which would test to the uttermost his faith in God and his trust in Mary. His betrothed had been visiting her aged kinswoman, Elizabeth, who lived in Judea. On her return, Joseph could not but notice in her the first signs of motherhood. The Evangelist treats the matter briefly and with great delicacy.
“When his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost. Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man and not willing to expose her, was minded to put her away privately.”
Joseph’s conduct in this painful and perplexing situation manifests the greatness of the man, and deserves careful consideration. The Law required that an unfaithful wife should be publicly exposed and handed over to a criminal court for trial and punishment. The death sentence, prescribed for marital infidelity, was no longer enforced; but even death by stoning would have been a kindness compared with the lifelong shame of public exposure. Had Joseph believed Mary to be unfaithful, he would have had no option but to let the Law take its course. But, however damning the facts might appear, not for one moment did he doubt her fidelity. Trusting her completely, he did not even ask for an explanation, but at once set about finding a way to observe the prescriptions of the Law without doing harm to her good name. He could have written her a bill of divorce, but such a procedure, besides entailing a certain amount of publicity, would have been a reflection on Mary’s honour, since it would presuppose that “she did not find favor in his sight for some uncleanness.” Consequently he was minded to put her away privately. How this could have done, the Evangelist does not indicate; but it has been suggested that, to protect Mary against the stigma of shame, Joseph was prepared to sacrifice his happiness and his own good name.
“There was but one way of parting with Mary without ruining her…and this was to banish himself, to go and die far off in the land of exile, and to take upon his own head all the odium of such a desertion…. To reconcile together his duty and his humanity, he resolved to tear off with his own hand the crown of his good name to cast it before the feet of that young woman, whose mysterious and inexplicable position filled his heart with sadness, and his life with bitterness.” (Orsini. “Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Dublin, Ireland. 1886.)
That Joseph would have been capable of such sacrifice, did God require it, cannot be doubted; but, being a man of prayer, he would first have placed himself in the hands of God and awaited in confidence for some indication of His Holy Will. God could have spared him this agony; but since He permitted it, it was for a purpose. It was Joseph’s hour of testing when like Abraham he was called to ascend the mount of sacrifice to prove his faith and love. In that testing, this great-souled man proved himself worthy to be the guardian of God’s secrets. Even as he put forth his hand to take the sword of sacrifice, God’s angel intervened to make known the Divine Will.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to him in sleep, saying: Joseph, Son of David, fear not take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived of her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins.”
With such haste as the situation required, Joseph made arrangements for the solemn celebration of their nuptials. On the appointed evening he went, accompanied by ‘the friends of the bridegroom,’ to escort Mary to her new home where the marriage feast was prepared. Nothing was omitted that custom and convention prescribed; nonetheless he must have been glad when the last guest had gone and he was left alone to contemplate the Mystery which his little home now enshrined.
The Way to Bethlehem
As the months passed and the time approached to which this holy couple looked forward with mingled hope and dread, the mind of Joseph must have been troubled by a new and distracting problem. It was common knowledge that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Joseph must have known this prophecy and have been at a loss to understand how in the circumstances it could be fulfilled. Another might have taken it upon himself to ensure its fulfillment, but Joseph was too humble to anticipate the counsels of God. Knowing that what was written would come to pass, he was content to wait and to pray that God’s Will might be done in His own way and in His own good time.
In due time and in a strange manner, God did make known His Will. One day in the early winter when the first rains had fallen and the people were busy in the fields, an imperial edict was posted in all the villages and towns of Galilee, announcing a census of the population and of household property, and summoning all who were living outside their tribal territory to return to their ancestral homes for purposes of registration. Joseph’s doubt was solved and his mind set at ease. He was of the house of David, and Bethlehem was David’s city. To Bethlehem, therefore, he must go to comply with Caesar’s edict, and that the word of God might be fulfilled.
With his usual promptitude, Joseph made his preparations for a journey which he could not have contemplated without much anxiety because of Mary’s delicate condition. With travelling conditions at their best the journey would expose her to many hardships; but with the winter already set in, and the roads, after the heavy rains, little better than the tracks of mountain streams, it was a journey that would try the endurance of the hardiest traveller. More than a hundred miles of sodden, wind-swept roads, four days of hard travelling in the face of biting winds, and as many nights in cold, comfortless inns with their noisy, rough-spoken crowds – all these lay between Mary and Bethlehem. But when the Will of God was clear, Joseph did not hesitate. Unmindful of himself, and entrusting this dear one to God, he made the best plans he could, leaving nothing undone that could make the journey a little easier for his precious charge. God’s loving care would go before them and His angels accompany them, but for all that the winds would be no less cold, nor the roads one whit smoother. No miraculous intervention would lighten the load of care and responsibility which he must carry every step of the way; nor did he expect it. God had directed him and then left him to his own resources. Every difficulty that lay before them, he himself must contend with, and every comfort that Mary will have along the way Joseph must supply.
Tradition has it that Joseph contrived to lessen the hardships of the journey for his young wife by providing her with a donkey; and, indeed, some such mode of conveyance would have been indispensable in the circumstances. But he himself would have to walk all the weary way, watching the while with anxious eye lest the coming of night or a sudden storm might find them far from shelter. After four, perhaps five, such days upon the road, he must have been glad when he breasted the last hill and saw over against him the little town of Bethlehem, set like a gem on the fringe of the wilderness, beckoning them with a welcome that was to prove so false.
Like every town of its size, Bethlehem had its inn which consisted of a courtyard, surrounded by a high wall along which were erected shelters where travellers might spread their rugs and sleep. For the convenience of those who required privacy as well as shelter and were willing to pay for it, there were generally a few closed compartments at the disposal of the inn-keeper. Now that Mary’s time was near at hand, and it was necessary to shield her from profane eyes, Joseph no doubt intended to hire one of these compartments; but the census had brought many travellers to Bethlehem, and when he arrived he found that the inn was crowded and all the private apartments already occupied. They would no doubt have received a welcome and a shelter in any of the homes of Bethlehem; but these would have been already overcrowded and in any case could not have provided the privacy which Joseph would have desired for the Sacred Mystery about to be accomplished. Being no stranger to Bethlehem, his thoughts would have turned at once to the caves which were to be found in abundance in the hill-sides near the town. Generally they were used by the shepherds of the district to shelter their flocks, but not infrequently they did duty as temporary dwellings. To one of these Joseph brought his young wife in the gathering dusk of a December evening. According to tradition, it was a stable, and the Holy One that was born there that blessed night was cradled in its straw-lined manger.
Joseph’s name has no place in the Gospel’s chastely beautiful narrative of the Nativity. He was there, hiding humbly in the shadows o the cave, then as always silent. Even in that great moment when he looked for the first time on His Incarnate God, he uttered no word, adoring in silence the Word made Flesh. Later that night the shepherds came, sent by the angels to adore the new-born Saviour. Did Joseph take their coming as a sign from heaven, approving his choice of a shepherd’s shelter as the birth-place of the Lamb of God?
The Way to Jerusalem
Reading between the lines of the Gospel narratives, it may be gathered that Joseph intended to leaven Nazareth and settle down in his ancestral home. Now there was still another reason to set his heat on making his home at Bethlehem. It had become for him a sanctuary, consecrated by a Sacred Mystery. Probably he had property there, and it would not have taken him long to build and furnish such a simple home as he required. But meantime there were other matters of importance to claim his attention.
The Law required that every Jewish man-child, on the eighth day after birth, should be incorporated in the religious society of Israel by the ceremony of circumcision. In this instance, such a ceremony might have been deemed unnecessary and even irreverent; but Joseph, directed no doubt by the Holy Ghost, decided that the Divine Infant should be submitted to the yoke of the Law. It was on this occasion that Mary’s husband, exercising for the first time his authority as a father, gave to the Holy One of God the name by which He should be known to men. “Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Even as he uttered that sweet Name for the first time, Joseph saw its meaning traced in the Saviour’s blood.
Before another month had passed, Joseph had again occasion to exercise his paternal rights. The Law prescribed that the first-born male child of every mother should be offered to God in the Temple and redeemed by the payment of a ransom to the Temple treasury, and that at the same time the mother should be purified from the defilement symbolically attaching to child-birth. Mary had no need of such purification, and her Divine Child was above the Law; but Joseph, again interpreting correctly the mind of God, decided that in this as in all things they must submit to the Law, not out of necessity but for obedience sake.
On the appointed day they were early on the road to Jerusalem, and the watchman was still standing on the pinnacle of the Temple waiting to signal the first light of day, when they passed into the city through the Jaffa Gate and up through the still deserted streets to the Temple Mount. With a few others they stood and waited until the triple blast of the silver trumpets announced the coming of another day, and the massive Temple Gates swung slowly on their hinges to admit ‘the worshippers of the morning.’ In the Temple Courts, white-robed priests hurried here and there, busy with the preparations for the morning sacrifice. No one heeded Mary as she made her way to the Court of the Women and took her place by the Nicanor Gate on the highest of the fifteen steps which led to the Court of Israel. There, with other young mothers, she stood in prayer while the morning sacrifice was offered and the incense kindled on the golden altar in the Holy Place. Then, with the others, she made her offering – a pair of pigeons, the offering of the poor – and followed with reverent attention the sacrificial ritual. Meantime, Joseph, carrying the Divine Infant, had entered the Court of Israel and there presented Him to God. It must have been a great moment for this simple tradesman when with five pieces of silver, earned by the labour of his hands, he ransomed the Life which God had appointed as the ransom of the world.
Such ceremonies were part of the daily routine of the Temple, calling for little notice; but God would not allow this occasion to pass without indicating the significance of the offering which Joseph had made. Leaving the Temple, they were saluted and addressed by an old man whose lined and shrivelled face shone with the light of another world. Long had this man, Simeon, waited for this day, which God had promised that he should see. Now that it has come and he holds in his trembling arms the Desired of the Ages, his heart overflows in a prayer of thanksgiving, while his spirit soars aloft on the wings of prophecy to the eternal hills, there to watch the light of salvation break across the world. His canticle finished, the old man pauses and looks at Mary. Being a man, he would have gladly finished; but he is a prophet and must speak all that he has been given to see. He must tell this young mother of the sufferings that await her Child, and of the sword of sorrows that will pierce her own soul. With the old man’s words resting heavily on their hearts, they left the Temple and returned to their home.
The Way of Egypt
It was not long until the sword of sorrow began to pierce their hearts. Soon their Child would become ‘a sign of contradiction,’ drawing up on them Herod’s murderous hate. Late one evening, when the first stars had appeared and the people of Bethlehem were already gathered in their homes, a strange caravan came up the road from Jerusalem, their camels moving swiftly through the star-lit night. Though they appeared to have come great distances, and wore the dress of far-off lands, the men of the caravan showed none of the hesitancy of strangers. Without any inquiry, they went at once to the home of Joseph and Mary. “And entering, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.” The visit of the Magi, it may be presumed, did not end with these formal ceremonies. Before they took their leave, they would have spoken of their long journey and their guiding star, of their interview with Herod and his anxiety to discover the newly-born King of the Jews. They could hardly have realized how this news would alarm Joseph. Only too well did Joseph know that when Herod came it would be to destroy, not to adore. But whatever his suspicions may have been he kept them to himself. It was his way to cast his care upon the Lord; and this was a danger which only the Lord could foresee and avert. The Wise Men went, and Joseph, having placed himself in the hands of God, slept. He knew how to make of his sleep a prayer of trust, and now, as always, it was in his sleep that he received God’s directions. “And after they were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying, ‘Arise, take the child and his mother and fly into Egypt, and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will sick the child to destroy him.’”
It must have been with a heavy heart that Joseph rose up in the night to obey this command. Once more he must take to the road – this time as a hunted man – to seek a new home in a distant and unfriendly land. But the urgency of the situation left little time for thought. Hastily packing the few provisions that were at hand, the fugitives left Bethlehem under cover of the night, and before day break were well on the way to Egypt.
The easiest, if not the shortest way to Egypt would have been the great coast road, which was a busy caravan route with inns at every stage where food and shelter could be obtained. The fugitives, however, would naturally avoid a highway to much frequented and doubtless kept under close observation by Herod’s spies. Most probably, they would have taken the Way of the Wilderness which has been in every period of Jewish history the way of fugitives seeking sanctuary in Egypt. Travelling mostly by night, and making high detours to avoid villages, it would have taken them the best part of a week to reach the River of Egypt which marked the limits of Herod’s jurisdiction. From this point, the journey would have been more leisurely but still trying, for they had many weary miles of trackless desert yet to cross before reaching a place where they could make a home.
Where in Egypt Joseph made his home, or how long he remained there, cannot be decided with certainty. Some time after the visit of the Magi, Herod sickened for his lingering and horrible death; and Joseph could not have been much more than two years in exile when an angel came to tell him that the tyrant was no more. It was welcome news for the lonely exiles, not less welcome the angel’s command that he should “take the child and his mother and go into the land of Israel.”
This time, the man of many journeys can take the road with a light heart and easy mind. But as he approached Palestine and heard from fellow-travellers how matters stood in Judea, his ease of mind gave place to new anxiety. The universal relief at Herod’s death was short-lived. Archelaus, his son and successor, had contrived to out-Herod Herod. The province of Judea was seething with discontent, and already one rebellion had ended in wholesale massacre. The angel gave no definite directions, and Joseph, it would seem, had intended to return to Bethlehem; but now he must have had his misgivings. Past experience had given him reason to hope for a divine direction; nor was he disappointed. While sleeping trustfully in the Lord, his angel came to him, directing him to Nazareth. “And being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the district of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in the town called Nazareth.”
The Way of Authority
With their return to Nazareth, the Holy Family withdrew into a world of mystery which as provoked and baffled many attempts to discover its secrets. It seems as if it were God’s wish that men should respect the privacy of that holy home, and be content with the little which He has been pleased to reveal. Only one episode of these hidden years has been recorded in the Gospel; but it is sufficient to give us an understanding of the relations which existed between the Persons of this earthly Trinity.
On the occasion of a Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Boy Jesus remained behind in the city when the caravan set out on its homeward journey. Only at the end of the first day did his parents discover their loss. As soon as it was possible, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him along the way and through the city. On the third day they found Him in the Temple in deep discussion with the Doctors of the Law. When they discovered Him, Joseph was as usual silent, but Mary takes it upon herself to request an explanation: “Son, why hast thou done so to us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.”
The whole incident is very revealing. It will be noticed that Mary gives Joseph the first place, and calls him the ‘father’ of Jesus. An over-scrupulous regard for theological exactitude has denied this title to Joseph; but no such scruple prevailed in the holy home at Nazareth. There he was given not only the title, but all the reverence and submission due to him as head of the family. It is all deep mystery how this humble man could have brought himself to exercise authority over the Holy One of God; but since such was God’s will, he would have done so without hesitation, and with a dignity befitting his exalted position. God committed His Divine Son unreservedly to his care, intervening only in circumstances which were beyond human control, but even then respecting Joseph’s paternal rights. To him the angel would carry all God’s instructions for the safe keeping of the Divine Child. In other matters of importance, Joseph, it may be presumed, was directed by the Holy Ghost, but in such a way as not to interfere with the free exercise of his authority. In the holy home, as in every home, there had to be a regulated system, and it was Joseph who regulated, appointed tasks and times, made decisions and issued orders.
In a soul so well disposed as was that of Joseph, those years at Nazareth must have wrought wonders of holiness. What a privilege was his! To have always before his eyes “the mystery of Godliness, manifested in the flesh.” From the incident of the Three Days’ Loss it may be gathered that the Divine Child submitted to all the limitations of human nature, even to those peculiar to childhood. This consideration is here important in as much as it enables us to visualize the world of wonders in which Joseph was privileged to dwell. Watching the Divine Infant make His first stumbling efforts to walk, hearing Him trying to lisp His first words, seeing His first attempt to use the tools of His trade; these must have been for Joseph moments that raised his soul to the heights of contemplation. But for him, as for all, the swift years passed, and the time came when this journey-man of God must prepare for his last journey.
The Way of All Flesh
Joseph was far from being an old man when death came for him. According to the apocryphal writers, he had been many years a centenarian, but that is altogether improbable. Everything considered, it must be supposed that he was still a young man at the time of his marriage to that he could not have been sixty at the time of his death which, it would seem, preceded Christ’s public ministry by a number of years. Hardship and anxiety doubtless took their toll of his years, but in all probability his departure from this life was hastened to facilitate the designs of God.
Although there is no information concerning the manner of his passing, Christian tradition has always looked to the death-bed of Joseph as the pattern of the truly happy death. To die in the very arms of Jesus, under the eyes of Mary – such a death could have no terrors. Yet, for him as for all, death was a penalty, and Joseph’s death had its own peculiar pain. He could not, as did Saint Paul, count death as gain, hoping to meet Jesus beyond. Death took him from the arms of Jesus from Mary’s side to place him among the exiled souls who waited in the other world for the coming of the Saviour. Not for long would he have to wait, but every day of those years of exile would be for him as a thousand years. It had never been his way to consider himself. He had lived to serve, and in dying he continued to serve. It was expedient that he should be no more when Christ manifested Himself to the world. That Christ might increase, he must decrease; and now, as always, he is prepared and glad to do the Will of God, receiving even in death a foretaste of that joy of the Lord which is the reward of the Good and Faithful Servant.
The Protector of the Church
Bossuet, who spoke so well and tenderly of Saint Joseph, was of the opinion that he had a part, passive but none the less real, in the accomplishment of the Mystery of the Incarnation. He wrote
“It is the virginity of Mary that brought Jesus down from heaven…and if it was her purity that made her fruitful, I do not hesitate to affirm that Joseph had his part in this great miracle. This Angelic purity was Mary’s possession, but it was given in trust to the just man, Joseph.”
Having due regard to the fitness of things, theologians conclude that God has given Joseph his part in bringing that mystery to its final fruition; that part is nothing else than the continuation and completion of the mission which he performed so perfectly while on earth. As long ago in Bethlehem and Nazareth he kept careful watch over the Infant Saviour and ministered so faithfully to His needs, he now watches over and protects with all a father’s loving care Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.
It was always characteristic of Joseph to keep himself in the background. Only when needed did he come forward, then went back to his place in the shadows to await the next call from God. This same trait has characterized his part in the life of the Church. For many centuries his heavenly mission remained unnoticed except by a few chosen souls whose intimacy with Jesus and Mary discovered to them the silent but watchful protector of Christ’s brethren and Mary’s children. It has been suggested that this long and strange eclipse of Joseph’s glory was an arrangement of Providence to prevent possible misunderstanding of Mary’s Divine Maternity. That may be, but it is also possible that his mission, being essentially protective, was not recognized until needed. It was not until the dark days which followed Luther’s attempt to separate Jesus and Mary that the faithful generally turned to Joseph; and it was in another time of distress, when the Church was beset by dangers, that Saint Joseph was officially proclaimed by Pope Pius IX to be Patron and Protector of the Universal Church.
The Glory of Family Life
The Eternal Father could have provided the Infant Saviour with more than twelve legions of angels for His protection; instead He was content to entrust His helplessness to the shelter of a poor man’s home. This divine arrangement had its prophetic significance. The regeneration of humanity, which was begun in the Holy Home at Nazareth, would be continued and completed in other homes where Christ would continue to live His life of love and holiness. Every truly Christian home is another Nazareth where Jesus mystically lives and grows in the souls of those who are gathered there in His Name; and those who keep those homes share with Saint Joseph the privilege of fostering and guarding Christ’s Mystical Life. It is a grand privilege but carries with it great responsibilities. In those days, when there are so many Herods, seeking “the child to destroy him,” Catholic parents must look for example, inspiration and help to this great Saint whom the Church invokes as “the Pillar of Families” and “the Glory of Family Life.”
We assume in this essay that the Gospels are genuine and authentic records of a person who really lived, of facts which actually happened, of words which were uttered. We assume further that God exists as a Trinity of Persons; that the Second Person, or the Word, when the fullness of time had some, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born into the world. We take for granted the fact of the Incarnation because it is clearly revealed in the Gospels. We do not intend to prove that Jesus Christ is truly God; the demonstration of that fact is worked out elsewhere. We shall endeavor to explain in accordance with Catholic teaching, the nature of the Incarnation, what it means, what it involves, its motives and its object.
In discussing this subject, we must never for a moment forget that we are handling a mystery, the deepest mystery, perhaps, of our faith. The Incarnation, the union of the divine with a human nature, is a thing so remote from any human experience, so beyond the compass of our intellects that we are unable to grasp the manner of its accomplishment, even after it has been revealed. We know it is so, we cannot explain how. We must rely on what we are told in the inspired writing of the Evangelists and Apostles, and by the infallible Church. All our reasoning on this mystery must be conditioned, qualified, and corrected by the Gospel store and by the dogmas of the Church. If we do not see clearly how the Incarnation was brought about, even if it seems, at first sight, to run counter to rational principles, we are not, therefore, to conclude that it could not have taken place. We accept the fact on incontestable authority; and our philosophic tenets, which may appear to contradict of deny its possibility, must then be modified to fit the act. Our human intellects are not the measure of all truth; our human powers are not the only criterion of what is possible or impossible with God. We must recognize that limitations of human reasoning, else we are forced to deny the existence of mysteries. If we could explain the Incarnation it would no longer be a mystery, and Saint Paul could not describe it, and he does in the Epistle to the Colossians (1:26), as the “mystery which has been hidden from ages and generations.”
The fact is, our philosophical principles, true, maybe, as far as they go, do not cover the whole ground. They are, at best, more or less accurate summaries of experience; but a Trinity of Persons, in one identical nature (which is essentially involved in the Incarnation), is a thing completely outside and beyond all human experience. The supernatural is necessarily above the range and capacity, the comprehension and exigence of all created nature. The union of a human nature with a divine personality is a supernatural fact. We have no right to expect it; we cannot, by our unaided reason, see clearly that it is possible; and even after it has been revealed we canot understand how it was brought about.
The Incarnation Is Befitting to God and Man
Once we are sure, from a careful study of the inspired Gospels, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, we can see easily enough how thoroughly the Incarnation is in accord with all we know or think of God, how useful it is to man, and how it fills out and completes the divine economy of the universe. God is infinitely good; and it is a quality characteristic of goodness to diffuse itself, to share happiness and possessions with others in as intimate and generous a way as possible. God diffuses Himself, as it were, through creation in a variety of ways He gives life, which is a faint though accurate imitation of the boundless, self-existent life of God Himself. In the supernatural order He gives grace, which, though it is a created finite thing, makes us His adopted sons and heirs to His kingdom. By the Incarnation, God communicates Himself, for the infinite Person fo the Word is united to a human nature, and by the union the man Christ is brought into being. It is difficult to see how even God could have done more.
The incarnation seems to be the ultimate exercise of the divine power. Components infinitely removed from each other, the divine and human, are joined together in a single person. Nothing short of infinite wisdom and intelligence could have discovered the possibility of bringing together elements so disparate; nothing short of divine omnipotence could have carried the idea into action.
The Incarnation, too, is the greatest glory of the human race. It puts God’s seal upon the dignity of man. Human nature itself, the whole race of men, is, in a sense, deified by God’s graceful condescension. It we are wise, we judge of a type by its highest and not by its lowest manifestation. The greatest man whom the world has seen is the measure of the dignity to which man can attain; and by this standard should we estimate our fellows. Our view of man’s work and destiny can never be what it might have been if the Word had not become incarnate. For a man now is the head and lord of the universe.
Besides, we have now a teacher instructing us in all those things which must deeply concern us, not by precept along, but by example. We have heard God speaking of the things of God with human lips; we have heard Him, speaking out of His vast knowledge, correcting out philosophies and estimating the value of our lives. Man is not too great for his destiny, as so many modern writers bewail; for there are awaiting him things which the eye hath not seen or the heart dreamed of. We have now a clue to the most baffling and disturbing of natural experiences, the mystery of pain, for we have seen Him, who is the uncreated Wisdom of the Godhead, appraising our sufferings and enduring our pains. We are, too, drawn sweetly on to hope, for her, as nowhere else, God’s saving will is manifest even to the incredulous; for one motive of the Incarnation was our redemption. But above all, we are roused to love; and to love deeply the proper objects is to have mastered the art of living. Love begets love; love of god is the noblest exercise of charity. The Incarnation is the most conclusive proof of God’s love for us; and by the depth of that condescension, the divine love for man must be computed. So sincerely did God love man that He became man.
God became man freely. He was not compelled to become incarnate. This act of His was not compelled to become incarnate. This act of His has always been regarded as His greatest grace to man. If a grace, then it was not merited by us, we had no claim to it, we could have no expectation of it. God did not owe it to Himself to redeem us from sin, and certainly not in this extraordinary manner. God could have left men unredeemed as He left the fallen angels, or He could have repaired the evil otherwise than by the Incarnation, or condoned it gratuitously. Only on one hypothesis was He bound to become man, namely, on the supposition that He exacted from man himself condign and complete satisfaction for sin.
Satisfaction and Redemption
To satisfy is to compensate voluntarily the offended person by rendering to him an equivalent for the injury inflicted upon him. Sin is an injury to God, but the injury is of the nature of an offense. When we sin we outrage God by refusing Him the obedience due to Him; and satisfaction would mean the performance, in God’s honor, of some act which would please more than, or at least as much as, the offense displeased Him. Such satisfaction would be what theologians call “condign,” if that service were the exact equivalent of the offense, that is, if it had in itself the same power to please as the sin had to displease. It would be “congruous” merely if it did not possess this strict equivalence, but was accepted by God as sufficient. Thus, a thief makes condign satisfaction when he pays back the whole sum which he has stolen; congruous when he does not restore the whole amount, but only some part of it, which the owner, out of generosity, regards as sufficient compensation.
An offense, by which we mean the refusal to give anther the honor and deference due to him, is not to be measured as we measure injury in material goods. If £5 is taken illicitly, condign satisfaction is made when £5 is repaid. If we offend another by treating him outrageously, we do not always make condign satisfaction by tendering an apology. Other circumstances must be taken into account – the station and dignity of the person offended, the standing of the person who offends. Further, the considerations which deepen the malice of the offense lessen the value of the satisfaction. Thus, if a highly-placed nobleman strikes a king, the offense might be comparatively trivial, and satisfaction an easy acknowledgement of fault or an attestation of loyalty. Why? Because the high station of the offender, a consideration which diminishes his offense, increases at the same time the merit of his compensating service. But if a groom were to strike a king, much more would be exacted from him before he could be considered to have satisfied for his act. The low station of the offender, in this instance, at one and the same time increases the offense and diminishes the value of the amends he may with to make.
Sin, even though its malice may not be infinite, is an offense against a being by nature and diginity infinitely above the offender. Sin is in an order of things to which the satisfactions of a mere man can never attain. Offense is given to a divine person. If God, then, determines to exact from man condign satisfaction for sin, He must decree that God should become man, for thus only can the infinite distance be bridged between offender and offended. No being less than God could make condign satisfaction for sin, for to be other than God is to be infinitely less than God. The Incarnation, on this hypothesis, becomes an imperative necessity. The Fathers of the Church dedice the divinity of Christ from the fact that He did make such satisfaction, which He could not have done were He not God. “If He were not God,” says Saint Leo, “He could have provided no remedy.”
Redemption from sin by way of making condign satisfaction for the offense, was one sufficient motive for the Incarnation. But it was not the only, nor, indeed, the principal motive. There were other reasons impelling God to decree this mystery, reasons so urgent that the Word would more probably have become incarnate even if Adam had not sinned. There was, first, the wonder and excellence of the mystery itself, in which, as we have shown, God’s wisdom, power, goodness, and love are so convincingly portrayed. The Incarnation was worth accomplishing for its own sake, because no other exercise of omnipotence can give such glory to God.
This view has support in Scripture. Saint Paul, in the Epistle to the Colossians (1:15), refers to Our Lord as “the firstborn of every creature.” The Fathers, as a general rule, interpreting this text, apply it to Christ as man. He was not, certainly, the first-born in time; the angels and many men existed before He was born into the world. He must, therefore, if He is to take precedence of every creature, have been first in God’s decree. God must have first decided that the Word should become incarnate, and, subsequent to this decision, have brought other things into being. Again, in the Epistle to the Ephesians (1:4) Saint Paul says that “God chose us in Him (Christ) before the constitution of the world.” He could not have chosen us in the Word not yet incarnate. Christ did not, in point of fact, exist before the constitution of the world. Therefore, He must have existed in a Divine decree; God, before He constituted the world, must have intended Christ to exist. Before Adam’s sin was taken into account before the world was founded, god had decreed that the Word should become flesh. If Adam had not fallen, Christ would not have been born in suffering flesh, because He would not then have had to work out our salvation in His pain; but He would have come in impassible flesh.
This view is all the more attractive if we take into account its implications. God first decreed the union of the Word with a created nature; then, in order to do honor to this Divine Person destined to become man, He called into existence the whole majestic universe, angels, men, the myriad forms of life, the beauty and order of the world. They were made to provide for Christ as man a kingdom over which He might rule. Everything they have, their being, their gifts of grace, are derived from God through Our Lord. They are, because His coming was foreseen. Through Christ, God drew, as it were, the inspiration to create. Later, but in the same decree, God, foreknowing Adam’s disobedience, ordained that the man Christ should redeem the fallen race by His suffering, and for this purpose He, the King, came in the guise of a servant; subject to hunger, weariness, and death. He would have come in any case, but because Adam sinned He came to die.
If the Redeemer was to make condign satisfaction for sin, He would have to be God. If He was to make satisfaction as one of the human race, He would have to be man. That Jesus Christ was God is not within our province to prove; we assume here that He was. We are more concerned with the truth that He was a real man, like to us in everything except sin.
Nowadays, all those who accept the Gospels at all as historical documents readily acknowledge the central figure in them to be a real man. He was at least that. But in the early days of Christianity this truth was questioned on various grounds. The Phantasiasts, unable to see how God could die, which would have happened if Our Lord had a mortal body, evaded the difficulty by asserting boldly that the Christ of the Gospels was merely a phantom or a shade. The Doketists, too, denied that Christ was a real man because, if He were, He would have a material body, a thing not to be allowed since according to the Doketists, all matter was created by the devil. Consequently, He bore mrely the semblance of a body. He only seemed to be a man. The Monothelites did not go so far as to deny the reality of the human nature, but they denied to Christ as man a human will. The Word, then, would have assumed not a perfect but a mutilated human nature; and, as we shall see later, the Redemption, which involves essentially the offering to God of the death and merits of Christ by an act of His human will, would, on Catholic principles, be impossible.
The theory of Phantasiasts and Docketists is, however, subversive of Christianity, for a real death and resurrection are, as Tertullian points out, rejected by it. The wonder of the Incarnation is dissolved into a trick, the Gospels are a story of deceit, and our faith is vain. Christ was not what He appeared to be, and the grounds on which we build our trust in Him are rendered nugatory.
The Councils condemn this doctrine as heretical and state against it the Catholic teaching. A profession of faith, compiled substantially in apostolic times, but amplified later in accordance with the canons o the Council of Nicaea in 325, and known now as the Symbol of Epiphanius, was proposed to the catechumens in the East before Baptism. One passage of it runs as follows,
“We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, begotten of God the Father, who for us men and for our salvation descended from heaven and was made incarnate, that is, begotten truly by the Holy Ghost from Mary ever Virgin, was made man, that is, assumed a complete human nature, soul and body and intellect and everything which is a man, except sin.”
In 449, Saint Leo I, writing in a dogmatic letter to the Council of Chalcedon against Eutyches, who had denied two natures in Christ, asserted that “true God was born in the complete and perfect nature of a true man, complete in his own, complete in ours.” The Fathers assembled at Chalcedon applauded this doctrine, and adopted it as the final expression of Catholic belief.
Jesus Christ, then, is a true man having a human body and a human soul, human senses and sinsibilities. As such He is represented to us in the Gospels, the Apostolic epistles, the Conciliar definitions, and the writings of the Fathers. All who assert the contrary have ever been regarded as heretics and expelled from the Christian communion. For to deny this is to run directly counter to inspired testimony and the whole torrent of tradtion.
The Blessed Virgin consequently, is the mother of Christ, in the same sense as other women are the mothers of the children they bear. In the Gospels Our Lord is called “the Son of David born of Mary.” In the Epistle to the Galatians Saint Paul says that “God sent His own son born, born of a woman.” If Our Lord did not derive His body from His mother, if He was not, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, “born in time from the substance of His mother,” He could not be styled her son in any real sense of the word.
The Hypostatic Union
The Second Person of the Trinity, then, assumed a human body and a human sould, the essential elements of a human nature. The Word did not, as some heretics have maintained, take the place and fulfill the functions of the human soul, but He drew to Himself a nature which is really distinct and complete, with all its proper perfections and attributes, and stands apart from the Person of the Word. We do not mean that the body and soul of Christ was first created, and then, after a lapse of time, assumed hypostatically; there was no interval between the infusion of the soul into the body and the assumption of both by the Word. At the very instant when the soul and body were joined together so as to constitute a human nature, at that moment the Word assumed the nature and the Man-God came into being. Nothing was lacking to the human nature of Christ; the human person never existed, its place being taken by the Person of the Word.
Therefore, there must be a real distinction between nature and personality, however much this conclusion may seem to be at variance with facts as we observe them in the natural order. In Christ there is a human nature lacking no essential characteristic; in Christ there is no human personality. Therefore, nature and personality are not the same, because we can have one apart from the other. Personality does not enter into the constitution of nature. If things are allowed to take their natural course, if no divine interposition occurs, the union of a body with a rational soul results in a person. That is to say, each individual rational nature is a person. There exists now not merely something but some one, a definite personality utterly distinct from the whole universe, an agent responsible for its acts and possessing its own rights. But an individual rational nature is not a person in every order of being. The divine nature which is individual, complete, single, is communicated to Three Persons. Christ’s individual, complete human nature is not a human person, for if it were there would be two persons in Christ, whereas, in point of fact, there is only one, and that one the divine Person of the Word. If we were to ask, pointing at Christ, “Who is this man?” we should be compelled to answer, “This man is the Second Person of the Trinity.” Personality gives to an individual nature its identity, making it, as the philosophers say, not communicable. The Divine nature is not a person because it is communicated to three persons; the human nature of Christ is not a person because it is communicated to the Person of the Word.
Nestorius and Eutyches, relying on philosophical principles drawn from the observation of natural phenomena, affirmed that every complete rational nature was a person. Nestorious, therefore, argued quite logically that there were in Christ two natures and two personalities, the human and the divine. Between these two distinct personalities there is nothing more than a moral union, such, for instance, as exists between two persons who love each other deeply. Jesus Christ, consequently, considered as man is not God, but a human person united to God by a close moral union. In our own times the Modernists have revived this heresy. Eutyches, arguing from the same premises as Nestorius, arrived at a different conclusion. He maintained that as there was only one personality in Christ, there was only one nature, because, as the result of the union, the human and divine natures were fused into one.
The Catholic Church, keeping close to revealed truth, teaches authoritatively that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word, assumed and united to Itself an integral human nature; and that this union is something more than the moral union begotten of a mutual love, or by voluntary agreement of wills, or by an indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the souls of the just, or by a communication of gifts such as obtains among friends, or by a sharing of dignity and title. The union is substantial, not accidental, as Nestorius held, and the result is that one divine person has two natures, that the Word while remaining God is also truly man. This is known as the hypostatic union, because the word hypostasis was used by the Council of Nicaea and the subsequent Councils to mean person. The human and divine natures were united in the hypostatis or person of the Word. The Person of the Word has two natures. The operations of the human nature, its acts of will and intellect, its fear, its pain, its pleasure, are human operations, but they are attributed to a divine person.
In the Creeds we recite, Our Blessed Lord is called the Son of God, and He is said to be born of the Virgin Mary. He who is God and before time is the same who is born into time. The Councils of the Church do not explain how this is accomplished. They merely assert the fact; and the fact is, precisely, the mystery of the Incarnation. The Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Canons of Ephesus and Chalcedon reiterate this truth in various forms.
Though He is God and man, nevertheless there are not two but only one Christ…one not by the blending of substance but because of the unity of person. - Athanasian Creed
If anyone refuses to confess that the Word of God the Father is united to flesh through the personality, and that there is one Christ with His own flesh, the same but God and man, let him be anathema. - Council of Ephesus
We may, consequently, predicate of the Second Person of the Trinity whatever is true of the man Christ. We may say that God died, because Christi died, that God thirsted because Christ thirsted. We may not, however, predicate of the divine nature what is true only of the human nature. We may not say that the humanity of Christ is immortal, or that the divinity was tortured with agony in the Garden, because the abstract terms “humanity” and “divinity” connote the human and the divine nature alone to the exclusion of each other. But since two natures coalesce in one person, we may predicate of this person whatever is true of either nature in the concrete. An example will make the point clear. Sugar is white and sweet. We cannot, therefore, say that whiteness, in the abstract, is sweetness, btu we may say that this thing, in the concrete, is sweet. The two qualities, sweetness and whiteness, are found in the same substance; two natures, human and divine, subsist in the same personality. Therefore, in accordance with the principles just stated, though we may not say the divinity of Christ is the humanity, we may say that Christ is God and Christ is man. Because Christ died, we may say that God died. We may assert of Christ whatever is true of either nature, provided we do not exclude the person, and are careful that the predication is concrete. Thus, Saint Paul declares that if the Jews had known they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. Christ was crucified as man; He suffered in His human, not in His divine nature; and yet Saint Paul does not hesitate to affirm that the Jews in killing Christ put to death the Lord of Glory.
Christ’s Human Will
It follows that if there are two complete natures in Christ, there are two distinct intellects and two separate wills. Our Lord asserted His own identity, He said “I” with a twofold intellectual act; he was conscious of who He was through His divine intellect and through His human. Similarly, His human will had its proper functions and operated, as a distinct faculty, in its own sphere.
Against the Monothelites, who asserted that there was only one will in Christ, the Council of Lateran defined two wills and two operations. Operation or activity is a function of nature. Personality is not the efficient cause of action, though action is attributed to the person. So, if there are two natures, there are two operations peculiar and proper to each nature; and in the case of Christ, the one person gets, as it were, the credit of two sets of actions, emanating from two natures. The divine will elicits its own acts; the human will its own, different from the divine. When Christ loved with His human will, He elicited a human, not a divine act, though, on account of the unity of person, this human act was the act of God.
In fact, to one who reads the gospels, there appears to be not merely two wills in Christ, but, at first sight, two conflicting wills. For instance, in the Garden He rises from the struggle triumphant, exclaiming, “Not My Will but Thine be done,” implying, as it seems, that the terror, the prostration of the agony and the sweat of blood, had been caused by the reluctance of the human will to carry out the wishes of the divine. In reality, it was not so, for, as we shall see later, there was in Christ no shadow of sin, no tendency even, to put His will and inclination against the will of the Father. Christ in the Garden prayed that the chalice should pass from Him on condition that such was the Father’s will. His absolute efficacious will was to submit to God’s ordinance, to bow His head and endure even unto the death of the Cross. But His human will shrank from the ignominy and pain. His human courage faltered at the catastrophe, and a cry broke from His tormented heart. So a soldier ordered to lead an attack against a heavily fortified position might wish, when he thought of his home and family, that things had been arranged otherwise, but, nevertheless, at the appointed time acts bravely on his orders. So Christ’s will was firmly set in the mandate He had received from God.
Christ’s Human Intellect
Christ’s human intellect, too, though it enjoyed the Beatific Vision, even though when Our Lord was a wayfarer on earth, it saw and knew God as He is, as the blessed see Him in heaven, still His human intellect was limited in range and capacity. It had in the highest degree all that knowledge of which a created intelligence is capable, but not the depth and breadth of divine omniscience. It did not comprehend God, nor exhaust utterly the knowledge which God has of Himself.
If Our Lord, even while He was a pilgrim among men, enjoyed the Beatific Vision, the difficulty at once arises: How could He suffer, as His is related to have done? Does not the vision of God flood the soul with delight, ravish it with beauty, and expel all sadness? Is it possible for the soul to contain at one and the same time, such joy as Christ must have had in the Beatific Vision, and such sorrow as He certainly had in the Garden and on the Cross? Would not the joy overmaster and banish the grief, or would not the grief, if it were allowed to arise, lessen the joy?
The faithful believe, and doubtless with good reason, that there will be no sadness in heaven, that God will there wipe away the tear from every eye. But this happy state is not so founded in the nature of things that it could not be otherwise. In itself, it is quite possible, say, for a mother while enjoying the Beatific Vision and being gladdened by it beyond measure, to grieve for the misfortunes of children whom she has left behind. It is matter of common experience that we can entertain both grief and joy at the same time, and at a pitch of high intensity. The objects round which these contrary emotions circle are the same; the motives are different. Thus, a Catholic mother, bereft of her child, might feel the loss deeply, and, at the same time, be just as deeply glad that the little one was safe, beyond the power of the world to harm it, its brief probation happily ended. So, too, Our Lord could have sorrowed and rejoiced in the same experience, but on different grounds. And even though His joy was founded in the Vision of god, which naturally excludes all shadow of sadness God could, for certain high ends which He had in view, interfere with His usual providence, and, without withdrawing the Vision, allow sorrow to play upon the soul of Christ. It was, it is true, due to Our Lord, to His dignity and office, that He should be granted the Vision of God and the full measure of its joy; it was, on the other hand, good for us to see the Saviour suffer; and so God gave the one and left the capacity for the other.
In addition to the knowledge drawn from the Beatific Vision and another kind, known as inspired knowledge, by which Our Lord knew the essences of things and the secrets of hearts, and the history of the future, there was in Christ an entirely natural human knowledge which He acquired gradually by His own industry and observation, and which was limited to the objects which fell directly under His senses and the inferences which flowed naturally from them. This knowledge was exactly similar in kind to ours. Christ, we are told, grew in wisdom. He advanced in knowledge, as we do, from day to day, because, like other men, He went through the usual stages of growth. His powers increased, His experience widened, His human perception and sympathies deepened. Even as man, He was not ignorant of anything, it we take all His sources of knowledge into consideration, and if we define ignorance as the privation of such knowledge as one ought to possess, for His judgments were always corrected and restrained from error. But if we take in account merely His acquired or experimental knowledge, He could not be expected to know much more than the most gifted Galilean peasant of His times.
How these three kinds of knowledge, the Beatific, the infused, the acquired, ran side by side in Christ without overlapping or absorbing each other, is part of the mystery of the Incarnation. We feel certain that it was so, though we cannot say how. We assent to the facts, even though we cannot harmonize them. It we deny to Christ Beatific and infused knowledge we do an injury to His majesty; if we deny Him acquired or experimental knowledge, we do an injury to His humanity, for it is characteristic of human knowledge that it grows slowly, little by little, and mellows with the passage of years. Our Lord was a man, like us in everything, except sin; therefore like us in this.
Christ’s human nature was, further, subject to those passions and defects which are common to man. For the body to be mortal, to be capable of fatigue, etc., are defects, because they are the negation of a higher perfection. They are limitations of human nature. And when we say that the Word assumed the passions, common to human nature, we mean that the Word assumed , in the human body of Christ, those feelings which operate through the organs of sense. When Christ, for instance, was angry with the money changers in the temple, He felt the physical excitement of anger just as other men do. We do not, however, mean to imply that the Word assumed any passion which suggests moral evil, nor any movement of the soul which could be an incitement to sin.
Sinlessness and Sanctity of Christ
Our Blessed Lord could not sin. The Beatific Vision, which excludes everything contrary to the love of God, excludes, in consequence, all sin. Nay, further, even if Our Lord had not the Beatific Vision, had not sanctifying grace, still because of the dignity of His Person, because of the hypostatic union between His human nature and the Word, He could not sin. Our Lord, because of the hypostatic union was, even as man, the natural Son of God. We through sanctifying grace, which is a created supernatural gift inheriting in our souls, are made the adopted sons of god, His friends, the objects of His love, the heirs to his kingdom. God loves His adopted sons because they are sharers of His nature through a supernatural quality; God loves Christ’s human nature because it is the possession of a divine Being. The hypostatic union produced in Christ’s human nature all those effects which sanctifying grace produces in us, and as grace and sin are incompatible so the hypostatic union and sin are incompatible. And as the union, once brought about, is indissoluble, Christ’s human nature must be perpetually holy and pleasing to God.
In Our Lord’s human nature is sanctified because of the hypostatic union with the Person of the Word, it is evidence that the sole measure of its holiness is the capacity of the nature itself. The Word is infinitely holy and can, therefore, communicate its sanctity infinitely. The human nature is finite, and as such is not capable of infinite perfection. It may, however, partake of a perfection in the highest degree possible to a creature. If it were capable of sinning it would not participate in the divine sanctity in the highest degree possible to a creature, for it is within the capacity of a creature not merely to avoid actual sin, but to be so holy as to be incapable of sinning at all.
Not only could there have been no actual rebellion of Christ’s human will against God’s, there could not even have been an incipient stirring in that direction. “What is pleasing to the Father,” says Christ, “I do always.” There was in Christ no inclination to transgress. His sensitive appetite never rosé, in the slightest degree, against the dictate of reason, nor could it. There was no stain or taint in His nature. Sin held no seduction for Him, no attractiveness. How, then, could he have been tempted, as we are told He was, by the devil, after His fast in the wilderness?
To tempt is to propose maliciously to one who can be swayed by passion, some object which can stir him to sadness or fear or some other passion. God, consequently, never tempts because he never proposes an object to us in a malicious spirit. Temptation, therefore, differs from sin, just as a goal differs from the road that leads to it. Satan, in tempting Our Lord, put before Him certain objects which he thought might move the will. From this point of view, such action was temptation, external temptation, if we wish. But strictly speaking, it was not a temptation to Christ, because temptation always implies an effort at resistance, a combat between duty and seduction to illicit pleasure. The objects presented by the devil fell, in the case of Christ, upon a will, ever prompt to obey the dictate of reason. His appetites were never rebellious; they were even docile to control.
Jesus Christ, A Priest
Jesus Christ, as man, performed certain functions or offices to which He had been appointed by God. He was, for instance, a priest. Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews (5:1) describes in some detail the essential marks and functions of a priest, and says that these are fulfilled in Our Lord.
For every high-priest taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that they may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins.
A priest, then, is one who has been legitimately appointed to offer sacrifice and to mediate between God and man. It is clear that God does not offer sacrifice in honor of Himself; therefore, Christ as God is not a priest, but only Christ as man. Christ as man and through His human will exercised priestly functions. His oblation of the victim was a human act, though it was dignified infinitely by the Person of the Word to whom the human will was hypostatically united and to whom its action was attributed. Consequently, since the sacrifice was the act of God it was infinitely meritorious and pleasing to God. But Christ’s oblation on the Cross was an act of His human, not of His divine, will, because He redeemed us in the human and not in His divine nature, which could not suffer.
In the sacrifice on the Cross Our Lord was at one and the same time Victim and Priest. This does not mean that He slew Himself, for it is not essential to sacrifice that the priest should slay the victim. It is necessary for sacrifice that a creature should be destroyed or made to suffer some change in recognition of God’s supreme dominion over the world which He has made; and it is sufficient if this slaying is done by any agency, whether the priest’s or another’s. Thus, in the Temple services among the Jews, the Levite slew the victims, and the priests offered them on the altar. So, in the instances of Christ, the slaying was done by the executioners. The Victim on the cross was a divine person having human nature, slain by the Jews, but offered as sacrifice to God in expiation of sin by the high-priest, Jesus Christ Himself.
Further, Christ exercised the officer of Redeemer. He satisfied for our sins, abundantly and entirely. If sin is conceived as an offense against God, then to offer satisfaction for sin is to perform an act, to do such homage to God, that He is more pleased by this action than He was displeased by the offense. The human body and the human soul of the Lord were violently separated on the Cross, and He died. Death was worked out in the human nature; but as there was only a divine person in Christ, the act of dying was the act of the second Person of the Trinity, and, as such, infinitely pleasing to God. Thus abundant satisfaction was made for the offense of sin.
Jesus Christ The Redeemer
In what relation did Our Blessed Lord stand to God and to us when He was working out our redemption? Rationalists and some Protestants affirm that His actions have no satisfying quality in themselves, that they did not on their own merits redeem us from the slavery of sin. Christ, according to them, saved us by His example by holding up to us an ideal of conduct, by leading the way along the path of virtue. Moreover, he represented God to us as a Father, as a Bring who loved us and was concerned for our welfare. Thus, by doctrine, by example, by precept, Christ stirred us to love the things that are above, the God, the Father, from whose knowledge and allegiance men had strayed. He redeemed us by preaching to us. The work of Redemption was altogether in the moral order, it did not transcend the moral sphere. When Christ had aroused in us the dormant and forgotten love of God, His work on earth was complete. The Modernists concur more or less with this view.
We, on the other hand, maintain that the Redemption is altogether distinct from the teaching ministry of the Saviour. Even if He had never spoken in parables, or instructed us in the principles of the kingdom, he would have redeemed us. Christ could have redeemed us, but any one action, for each of His actions had this value in itself. Everything He did pleased God far more than sin displeased. The works of Christ were more than an equivalent for the malice of sin.
Among those who defend this view of the Redemption there is, however, a divergence of opinion with regard to the relation in which Christ stood to an offended God. How did the Father regard the human life, labor, and suffering of His Son?
Many Protestants and a few Catholics (Cardinal Bellarmine, for instance, replying on the well-known Chapter 53 of Isaias, in which the Messias is described as really bearing or bruises, as wounded for our iniquities, as taking on Himself our sins, contend that Our Lord redeemed us by standing in our place, by taking upon Himself the guilt and the punishment of our sins, though He was Himself sinless. So a rich man might take upon himself a friend’s debts, make himself so responsible for them as to render himself liable to penalties if he omitted payment. Morally, but this act, he becomes the debtor; he takes over in a legal and formal way his friend’s liabilities.
But there are grave difficulties against this view of the Redemption. The passage quoted from Isaias is couched in very figurative language, and does not force us to accept the Protestant theory of substitution. It can be explained in quite another and equally probable sense. And, further, the theory of substitution offends our sense of propriety and justice. It is at least unedifying to regard Christ as a sinner; and there is something repellent in representing the Father as so regarding the Son. If Christ really stood in the place of the sinner, then the Father would be compelled to be hostile to Him, as He is to other sinners. Now, this cannot be, for Christ was holy with an uncreated holiness, and as such loved by God. He could not be loved and abhorred at the same time. Then, too, it runs counter to our conception of justice to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. But such would be the conduct of God if He punished Christ for the sins of the recalcitrant human race. If he were follow this theory to its logical conclusion, we should have to contend that if Christ really stood before god as a sinner He would have to undergo the pains and penalties of sin. He could not adopt our sin without at the same time adopting the status of a sinner. He would, therefore, be deprived of grave, of the heritage of heaven; He would incur the debt of eternal punishment until such time as He performed some redeeming act. But from this harsh conclusion even the Protestants shrink.
The common Catholic theory is that Christ redeemed us, not by standing in our place, not by substituting Himself for us, but by offering to God a work which pleased Him far more than sin displeased Him. Thus, one friend may pay the debt of another without in any way incurring the debt himself. It is not essential to the idea of satisfaction that the Redeemer should bear the pains and penalties, or shoulder the difficulties of those for whom He makes satisfaction. Furthermore, by holding this view we escape the inconvenience of the other. The Son is not estranged from the Father; the innocent one is not punished for the sins of the guilty. Piety and justice are not outraged, and the Redemption is sufficiently explained.
No human being was excluded from the scope of the Redemption. We do not mean merely that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for the liberation of the whole human race, if it were applied for that purpose, but that, in point of fact, it was so applied. Calvinists and Jansenists maintain that Christ died only for the predestined, that the rest were shut out from His mercy. Catholics teach that Our Blessed Lord died for all, that as the Incarnation is a work of love, so the Redemption was meant for all, even for those who would be lost eternally. We are dealing now not with the actual but with the ideal extent of Christ’s satisfaction. We do not here defend that all are saved, but we do say that Christ sincerely wishes the salvation of all, that He lived and died for the benefit of all. The Council of Trent puts the Catholic doctrine clearly when it states that “God sent His Son in order that all should receive the adoption of sons.” If a soul is lost, the calamity is not due to any economy on the part of our Redeemer, but solely to a will which refuses to use the graces merited by Christ. He died even for those who reject His teaching and bring to naught His passion.