Bones Found in Pub May Be Catholic Martyr

This week’s history column at the National Catholic Register is called A Saint’s Bones Recovered, An Anti-Catholic Plot Remembered, and it’s about the Oates Plot and the possibly recovery of the relics of one of its victims. Here’s a bit:

St. John Plessington was executed in 1679 in England for the crime of being of a Catholic priest. Now, the Diocese of Shrewsbury, England is hoping to raise funds for a DNA test to prove that some bones found in a pub long ago are, in fact, those of the saint.

St. John was killed in a wave of anti-Catholic violence triggered by the Oates Plot: a largely forgotten corner of Catholic history. The incident, also known as the Popish Plot, takes its name from Titus Oates, a bizarre figure who skipped from one strange incident to the next, leaving chaos and death his wake. He was a prolific liar and fraud, and motivated not so much by ideology as by a desire to cause chaos.

Read the rest.


ISIS Desecrates Saint’s Remains, Bulldozes Monastery–Priest Still Missing

marelian0In 284 St. Elian, a physician, refused to renounce Christianity and was killed by his father. The site of his death in Homs, Syria soon became a locus of miracles and devotion, and a Church was was raised there in the late 5th century. A stone sarcophagus was built in side chapel to house his remains. A monastery grew at the location.

Some time this month, all of that history and devotion was ground into dust by barbarians. ISIS has released photos (and possibly a video, though I haven’t been able to find it) that show them destroying the site. They allegedly smashed their way into St. Elian’s tomb, then brought in heavy machinery to do the rest.

There are pictures circulating showing uncovered bones. Some are saying these are the bones of St. Elian, but I don’t think they are. It’s unclear at this moment what became of St. Elian’s remains, but from the reports I’m reading it appears that the entire site was bulldozed. That would include the tomb, the church, the remains, and the frescos uncovered during restorations:


Some videos online claim to show the destruction, but they appear to show a different site. Right now, it’s all very sketchy, with only a few pictures in ISIS Twitter accounts and scattered reports. The media is filling in the scant details with a lot of speculation, so I’ve tried to sift it all as well as possible.

Worse than the loss to history is the human loss: Father Jacques Mouraud was kidnapped in the area on May 21st and is still missing. Fr. Mourad was the abbot of St. Elian, and had been working since 1991 to rebuild and restore the site.

Revelation of the destruction follows news earlier this week of the torture and beheading of leading Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad. al-Asaad had worked excavating and preserving the site of Palmyra for 40 years, and some called him the Howard Carter of Syria. Reports vary as to whether the 82-year-old was killed for collaboration and idolatry (including appearances at archaeology conferences with infidels), or because he refused to disclose the location of treasure, which ISIS imagined he was hiding somewhere in the ruins.  al-Asaad had made important discoveries at the ancient site, and was an expert in Aramaic. Please pray for the repose of his soul.

Exorcising A Possessed Statue of The Virgin Mary and Child

Four scenes from the life of St. Peter of Verona (1206 – April 6, 1252), also known as Peter Martyr, are depicted in frescoes at the Portinari Chapel, at the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, Milan. One of these shows an incident from his life in which he exorcised a possessed statue of the infant Jesus and the Blessed Mother, complete with devil horns!

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As if the painting and incident are not strange enough, there’s this: the frescoes were the work of Renaissance master Vincenzo Foppa, yet were hidden under layers of plaster until 1952, when they were carefully recovered. The chapel also contains the tomb of Peter Martyr.

Creative Commons: Veduta della Cappella Portinari della chiesa di Sant'Eustorgio a Milano. Foto di Giovanni Dall'Orto, 1-3-2007

Creative Commons: Veduta della Cappella Portinari della chiesa di Sant’Eustorgio a Milano. Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto, 1-3-2007

Peter Martyr was an inquisitor who preached against heresey. On Palm Sunday 1252, he was assassinated by two hitmen hired by the Cathars of Milan. After they struck off a piece of his skull with an axe, he recited the opening words of the Apostles Creed and fell to the ground. Some stories say that he wrote  “Credo in Unum Deum” in blood as he lay dying. When his assassin, Carino of Balsamo, saw that the blow to head had not finished his victim, he stabbed him, which is why Peter often is show with both instruments of matrydom, as so:


Lorenzo Lotto: Madonna and Child with St. Peter Martyr

His assassin fled to a Dominican monastery, repented, did penance, and is venerated as Blessed Carino Pietro of Balsamo.

The Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel

At our parish, we take the seventh grade students to The Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel in Bensalem Pennsylvania, located on the grounds of the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. If you’re in the area (north of Philadelphia) you can visit her tomb there, and see her prie dieu, wheelchair, habit, and many other possessions. It’s a beautiful place.

She was an extraordinary woman: an heiress who entered religious life, founded an order, and devoted her fortune helping and educating black and native Americans.

On this feast of St. Katharine, I thought I’d just share a few of my photos from her shrine.

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The Most Important Book of the Year is Only $5 For a Limited Time

manual-spiritual-warfare-1043105Paul Thigpen’s Manual for Spiritual Warfare is a must-have. I hate the phrase “instant classic,” partly because it’s an oxymoron, and partly because time is fickle, but I can see this one being read and handed down and treasured a hundred years from now.

Thigpen’s book is a clear-headed and faith-filled look at the devil and his works, and the tools we have to fight him. My blogmother Julie D. has a review of it here. I hope to write a more considered appraisal of it in the future.

TAN books published it in a leather-bound prayer-book format meant to be carried around, but they blew through their initial print run so fast that people are having trouble getting a copy while TAN prints more.

Because of this, the’ve reduced the price of the Kindle edition to $5 for a limited time. At that price, just buy it. You will not regret it.

Evangelizing With Medals


Medals from the Medal Variety Pack offered by St. Paul Street Evangelization

The folks at St. Paul Street Evangelization (SPSE) know a thing or two about spreading the faith, so when I spotted their medal offers I grabbed 100 from their Medal Variety Pack for $22. I was not disappointed.

For less than a quarter each, these are very high-quality silver plated medals from Italy, not the little tin ones you find in some shops. You won’t mistake them for the more expensive medals, but they don’t feel cheap and the price is right.

Medals are a great tool for evangelization. Catholics do “stuff” well, and the tactility of our sacramentals is very appealing in a world where too much religion is in the head and not at the fingertips. Steve Dawson, National Director of SPSE, explains how he uses the Miraculous Medal:

The method I employed was simple. When I was at the grocery store, gas station, or any random place, I would pick a person and would casually ask if they would like a free Miraculous Medal. Most of the time they would say “No thank you”, and I would answer, “OK God bless” and walk away. Yet, sometimes they would accept. As I would give them the medal I would say, “Here you go. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Catherine in 1830 and promised that whoever wore this medal would receive great graces from God. So many miracles occurred because of it that it became commonly known as the Miraculous Medal”. That simple.

Here is what I found. Most of the time, the people that I gave the medal and told the story to smiled, said thank you, and that was it. But sometimes, that simple gesture would start further conversation that God was able to use to bear fruit.

I bought mine primarily for my students as a little something at Christmas, and to teach lesson about sacramentals, what they are, how they work, and why we use them. I explained that they provide a concrete connection to a particular saint or devotion; perhaps a name saint for yourself or a loved one, a patron, or simply a tangible sign of the faith. I had the medals blessed, printed up a sheet with some information on the saints, and asked them to choose one, but only if they thought they’d have some use for it.

A few kids passed, but most asked for extra medals for a parent or friend. None of the medals were more popular than any other. When asked for my preference, I suggested the St. Benedict Jubilee Medal, because I fear for these kids and think they can use all the protection they can get.

The adult volunteers were also delighted to be offered medals, and most took a few for family and friends. It opened up conversations I’d never had with most of them about saints and devotions, but also about problems they felt were addressed by someone like St. Jude (hopeless situations) or St. Benedict (arthritis).

This is how conversations can start: with a small gift. You’re not sidling up next to someone on a train and saying, “Have you found Jesus?” I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me. It makes Mr. Fist want to get all punchy.

But to say simply, “May I give you something? Yes? Okay, here’s what it means. God bless you and have a good day.” Even if it doesn’t open a deeper conversation, sacramentals are sacred signs that can prepare or dispose people to receive grace.

The Devil Tempts St. Benedict


This illumination showed up in my medievalist Twitter feed today and I tracked it back to the so-called Mettener Regel (1414), a manuscript of the rule of Saint Benedict as practiced at the Abbey of Metten. The manuscript is illustrated by moments in the life of St. Benedict.

At first, I thought this might be an illustration from the rule itself, with the devil depicted as a tempting woman with hideous talons:

Those garments of which he is divested shall be placed in the wardrobe, there to be kept, so that if, perchance, he should ever be persuaded by the devil to leave the monastery (which God forbid), he may be stripped of the monastic habit and cast forth.

That doesn’t fit, however, since the figure seems to be Benedict himself.

That’s when I recalled the grand collection of fascinating stuff that is the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Book 2 is Gregory’s Life of Benedict, which includes this passage.

One day, while the saint was alone, the Tempter came in the form of a little blackbird, which began to flutter in front of his face. It kept so close that he could easily have caught it in his hand. Instead, he made the sign of the cross and the bird flew away. The moment it left, he was seized with an unusually violent temptation. The evil spirit recalled to his mind a woman he had once seen, and before he realized it his emotions were carrying him away. Almost overcome in the struggle, he was on the point of abandoning the lonely wilderness, when suddenly with the help of God’s grace he came to himself.

He then noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside he flung himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body. Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin. So complete was his triumph that from then on, as he later told his disciples, he never experienced another temptation of this kind.

Soon after, many forsook the world to place themselves under his guidance, for now that he was free from these temptations he was ready to instruct others in the practice of virtue. That is why Moses commanded the Levites to begin their service when they were twenty-five years old or more and to become guardians of the sacred vessels only at the age of fifty.

Thus, the picture shows the devil as both the beautiful tempting women Benedict remembered, and as the blackbird, merged into a horrible chimera to reveal the evil lurking below the surface of even the most pleasing temptation.

The Feast of St. Edmund

Wolf with the head of St. Edmund

Wolf with the head of St. Edmund

I only discovered A Clerk of Oxford this month, but it’s quickly become one of my favorite blogs. The blogger is a medievalist who writes long, fascinating posts highlighted by her excellent translations from Old English.

Today, for the Feast of St. Edmund, she offers generous selections from Ælfric’s Life of Edmund (10th Century), both in the original, so you get the sense of its beautiful alliteration, and then in modern English.

Here’s just a taste to whet your appetite. It has all the elements that make medieval hagiography so utterly fascinating. In this excerpt, the Saint’s head is recovered in a miraculous fashion:

‘Then there was a great wonder, that a wolf was send by the guidance of God to protect the head against other wild beasts by day and night. They went seeking and constantly crying out, as is common for those going through the woods, “Where are you now, friend?” And the head answered them, “Here, here, here!” And so it repeatedly called, answering them as often as any of them cried out, until they all came to it because of its calling. There lay the grey wolf which had guarded the head, and it had the head clasped between its two feet – greedy and hungry, and yet for God’s sake it dared not eat the head, but protected it against wild beasts. They marvelled at the guardianship of the wolf and carried the holy head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all his marvels, but the wolf followed with the head until they reached the town, just as if he were tame, and then went back again to the woods. Then the people of that region laid the head with the holy body, and buried him as best they could in such haste, and soon built a church over him.’

Do read the whole thing, and add her to your RSS feeds. You won’t regret it.

St. Gregory the Great’s Bath-house Ghost

Okay, one more story from a Church Father before the weekend. This is one of the more famous tales, and it comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great’s marvelously entertaining grab bag of useful stuff, the Dialogues.

This is an example of the way the Church used ghost stories to prove the benefit of the mass and the reality of purgatory. Enjoy, and have a pleasant weekend free of spectres and spooks.

Bishop Felix…said that he had been told of such a case by a saintly priest who was still living two years ago in the diocese of Centum Cellae as pastor of the Church of St. John in Tauriana. This priest used to bathe in the hot springs of Tauriana whenever his health required. One day, as he entered the baths, he found a stranger there who showed himself most helpful in every way possible, by unlatching his shoes, taking care of his clothes, and furnishing him towels after the hot bath.

The Mass of St Gregory, by Robert Campin, 15th century

The Mass of St Gregory, by Robert Campin, 15th century

After several experiences of this kind, to priest said the himself: ‘It would not do for me to appear ungrateful to this man who is so devoted in his kind services to me. I must reward him in some way.’ So one day he took along two crown-shaped loaves of bread to give him.

When he arrived at the place, the man was already waiting for him and rendered the same services he had before. After the bath, when the priest was again fully dressed and ready to leave, he offered the man the present of bread, asking him kindly to accept it as a blessing, for it was offered a token of charity.

But the man sighed mournfully and said, ‘Why do you give it to me, Father? That bread is holy and I cannot eat it. I who stand before you was once the owner of this place. It is because of my sins that I was sent back here as a servant. If you wish to do something for me, then offer this bread to almighty God, and so make intercession for me, a sinner. When you come back and do not find me here, you will know that your prayers have been heard.’

With these words he disappeared, thus showing that he was a spirit disguised as a man. The priest spent the entire week in prayer and tearful supplications, offering Mass for him daily. When he returned to the bath, the man was no longer to be found. This incident points out the great benefits souls derive from the Sacrifice of the Mass. Because of these benefits the dead ask us, the living, to have Masses offered for them, and even show us by signs that it was through the Mass that they were pardoned.