Category Archives: May

May 25 – St Bede the Venerable, (673-735 AD), Doctor of the Church, Father of English History

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He was known as the most learned man of his day, and his writings started the idea of dating this era from the incarnation of Christ. The central theme of Bede’s “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People)” is of the Church using the power of its spiritual, doctrinal, and cultural unity to stamp out violence and barbarism. Our knowledge of England before the 8th century is mainly the result of Bede’s writing.

It was as a teacher that Bede was supreme. He had no interest in speculation and no desire to be original; his genius was that of one who, with infinite pains, educates himself and transmits not only what he has learned but a deep sense of the value of such knowledge. Of his oral teaching–to which he attached great importance–of course we cannot speak, but his books became standard works of reference in his own lifetime.

His carefulness and sobriety of approach, his pains to be accurate, his obvious orthodoxy, gave to them a unique authority. Bede’s works fall into three well-defined classes. His theological writings consist mainly of a teacher’s commentaries on the Bible, based very largely on the western Fathers and written for the most part in the allegorical manner of Christian tradition. Bede used his knowledge of Greek and displayed what we may think was an innocent vanity in making the most of such Hebrew as he had learned. Yet, despite the lack of originality in his approach, the commentaries of Bede remain even today one of the best means to arrive at the thought of the early Fathers.

His scientific writings consist partly of traditional explanations of natural phenomena, in which the poetic approach of St. Ambrose is sometimes reflected, and partly of treatises on the calendar and the calculation of Easter–a matter of moment, as the Paschal controversy between Saxons and Celts had by no means entirely died down. It was Bede’s popularization of the method of calculating calendar years from the supposed date of our Lord’s birth which more than anything else ensured its universal acceptance in western Christendom.

At the time Bede wrote the Historia Ecclesiastica, there were two common ways of referring to dates. One was to use indictions, which were 15-year cycles, counting from 312 AD. There were three different varieties of indiction, each starting on a different day of the year. The other approach was to use regnal years—the reigning Roman emperor, for example, or the ruler of whichever kingdom was under discussion. This meant that in discussing conflicts between kingdoms, the date would have to be given in the regnal years of all the kings involved. Bede used both these approaches on occasion, but adopted a third method as his main approach to dating: the anno domini method invented by Dionysius Exiguus. Although Bede did not invent this method, his adoption of it, and his promulgation of it in De Temporum Ratione, his work on chronology, is the main reason why it is now so widely used.

His death was as sober and undeterred as was his life. In the early summer of 735, when he was sixty-three, his health began to fail, and he suffered much from asthma. He was, however, at work until the very end. On the Tuesday before Ascension Day he summoned the priests of the monastery, made them little gifts of pepper and incense and begged their prayers. At intervals during the next forty-eight hours, propped up in bed, he dictated to the very last sentence an English rendering of the Gospel of St. John upon which he was engaged at the onset of his illness. Finally, asking to be laid on the floor, he sang the anthem ‘O King of Glory’ from the Office of Ascension Day and so died. It was May 27th, 735.

Prayer to St Bede:

“Careful Historian and Doctor of the Church, lover of God and of truth, you are a natural model for all readers of God’s inspired Word. Move lectors to prepare for public reading by prayerfully pondering the sacred texts and invoking the Holy Spirit. Help them to read in such a way that those who hear may attain learning and edification. Amen.”

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-“St Bede Dictates the Translation of the Gospel of John on his deathbed”, one of four scenes on triptych by David Hewson, 2003, St Bede Catholic Church, Williamsburg, VA

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-St Bede’s tomb, Durham Cathedral

The Last Chapter
-The Last Chapter, by J.D. Penrose, 1902

Love,
Matthew

May 12 – Sts Nereus, Achilleus, & Domitilla, (d. 98 AD), Martyrs

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-by Peter Paul Rubens, 1607

Christian devotion to Nereus & Achilleus goes back to the earliest years of the Church, though almost nothing is known of their lives. They were praetorian soldiers of the Roman army, possibly ordered to persecute Christians, they became Christians and were banished to the island of Terracina, where they were martyred by beheading in 98 AD by order of the Emperor Domitian.  Beheading was befitting Roman citizens, similar to St Paul, as opposed to crucifixion – a much longer suffering death reserved for non-Roman citizens. The bodies of Nereus & Achilleus were buried in a family vault, later known as the cemetery of Domitilla. Excavations by De Rossi in 1896 resulted in the discovery of their empty tomb in the underground church built by Pope Siricius in 390 AD.

Everyday, especially twenty-first century, Christians would first be introduced to Nereus by reading St Paul’s Letter to the Romans 16:15, “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the holy ones who are with them…”.  It is believed Nereus, Achilleus, and Domitilla, along with other early Christians in Rome were all baptized by St Peter before his crucifixion in ~64 AD.

Domitilla was a Roman noble woman. Grand-daughter of Emperor Vespasian; niece of Emperors Titus and Domitian. Married to Titus Flavius Clemens, a Roman consul, nephew of Emperor Vespasian, and first cousin of Emperors Titus and Domitian. Banished to the island of Pandataria in the Tyrrhenian Sea, her husband was martyred in 96 AD.

For Nereus, Achilleus, and Domitilla, they were all martyred together.  Their empty tombs were located and identified in the catacomb of Domitilla, part of her former estate near the Via Ardeatina.

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-by Andrea_di_Bonaiuto, “St._Agnes_and_St._Domitilla”,_1365, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy.

Two hundred years after their death, Pope Gregory the Great delivered his 28th homily on the occasion of their feast. “These saints, before whom we are assembled, despised the world and trampled it under their feet when peace, riches and health gave it charms.”

Pope Damasus wrote an epitaph for Nereus and Achilleus in the fourth century. The text is known from travelers who read it while the slab was still entire, but the broken fragments found by De Rossi are sufficient to identify it: “The martyrs Nereus and Achilleus had enrolled themselves in the army and exercised the cruel office of carrying out the orders of the tyrant, being ever ready, through the constraint of fear, to obey his will. O miracle of faith! Suddenly they cease from their fury, they become converted, they fly from the camp of their wicked leader; they throw away their shields, their armor and their blood-stained javelins. Confessing the faith of Christ, they rejoice to bear testimony to its triumph. Learn now from the words of Damasus what great things the glory of Christ can accomplish.”

Basilica of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, an underground altar where the Catacomb Pact was signed at a Mass on Nov. 16, 1965. Religion News Service photo by Grant Gallicho
Basilica of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, an underground altar 

-(please click on the image for greater detail), Basilica Catacombs of St Domitilla, part of her former estate, on the outskirts of Rome, the Eternal City.

The church marks the spot where tradition says Sts Nereus & Achilleus were executed for converting to Christianity. And beneath the altar, and extending through more than 10 miles of tunnels, were the tombs of more than 100,000 Christians from the earliest centuries of the church.

A view inside the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome. Religion News Service photo by Grant Gallicho
A view inside the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome. Religion News Service photo by Grant Gallicho

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-(please click on the image for greater detail) Santi Nereo e Achilleo is an ancient church dedicated to St Nereus and St Achilleus, 4th century soldier martyrs.

The present church is the result of a restoration by Cesare Cardinal Baronio – historian and titular priest of the church – in 1596-1597/8. The work was done carefully in order to preserve as much as possible of the ancient church and to restore ancient elements that had been lost. Some of the decorations that were added were taken from San Paolo fuori le mura. Sts Nereus and Achilleus are buried beneath the high altar, together with St Flavia Domitilla. Their remains were brought here from the Catacombi di Domitilla, where they had been placed in the underground basilica. The floor in the choir was raised by Baronio in the late 16th century, to create a proper confessio beneath the high altar. The baldachino is from the 16th century, and has columns of African marble.

Cardinal Baronio asked Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) to entrust the church to his order, the Oratorians. They still serve the church.

Love,
Matthew