Showing posts with label Rome. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rome. Show all posts

23 September 2014

Adventures In Catholicism


by David Dean

Pope Francis and a Few Friends
Don't be put off by the title of this piece, I'm not looking to convert anyone, or to proselytize. It's just that I had a very minor incident the other day which got me to thinking. Mostly, I avoid that function, as it tends to give me a headache, a bad stomach, and leads to drink. But let me explain: On Sundays, as part of my increasingly frantic efforts to avoid the punishments in the next life that I've undoubtedly earned in this one, I take communion to Catholics confined in the local hospital. It's something I've been doing since I retired a few years ago. Naturally, I've met a few nurses along the way. One, upon seeing me turn up like the proverbial bad penny for the hundredth time, raised an eyebrow and asked, "If Catholics are Christians, why do they call themselves Catholics?" Another woman who shared some counter space with her in the reception area, looked at me wearily, and croaked, "She's a Born-Again." I answered pithily, "Beats me," and kept walking. But it got me to thinking. There's one hell of a lot of misconceptions out there about Catholicism.

If you happen to write, you just might find yourself writing about a Catholic character someday. Or setting a story in a country that is predominately Catholic. It's predicted that within a few decades Hispanics will constitute the majority in this country, and most are Catholic. Or you might want a character to be a priest. Who knows? There's approximately 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. Yes, that's right, I said billion. I even put my pinkie to my puckered lips, but you couldn't see that. And contrary to popular opinion, we are not dwindling in numbers (except in the highly secularized Western nations) but growing by leaps and bounds. This is why we have so many priests here from India (like my fictional character, Father Gregory Savartha), Nigeria, the Philippines, etc...Not so many years ago, the very opposite was true, as we sent missionary priests and nuns from the U.S., Italy, Ireland, and Spain to all points of the globe. Now they come to minister to us in their turn for which we are grateful.

Of course, Catholics have never been a majority in this country, which may explain why there's so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Church and its people. Here, a Protestant Christianity has held sway, and many of their views of us have been formed by all the bad press we garnered back in jolly olde England during the day. From the moment King Henry VIII decided he wanted another divorce, we were in deep trouble. Proclaiming himself the head of the Catholic Church in England, Henry set himself on a collision course with Rome, as Britain embraced its own version of Christianity. From that point forward, English Catholics were suspect as traitors loyal to the pope rather than the king, and as anxious collaborators with any threatening European Catholic power or nation. Mass was outlawed, and priests forbidden to administer the Eucharist (communion) on pain of death. Naturally, in the way of self-fulfilling prophecies, various failed uprisings occurred over the next several centuries, including the famous (or infamous) Gunpowder Plot to blow up the king and parliament. The English still celebrate this foiled attempt each year on Guy Fawkes Day, burning effigies of the unlucky conspirator, as well as those of papist priests and bishops. There are fireworks and drinking and a good time had by all. These anxieties were brought to the colonies and festered. Mr. Poole, a neighbor in my youth, assured me one hot summer day, that President Kennedy was an agent of Rome, and that it was only a matter of time before the country would be run by the pope. How very wrong he turned out to be.

St. Thomas More
(English Martyr)
Just as in Britain, Catholics in this country were often suspected of divided loyalties, the average American having little knowledge of Catholicism or its practices and dogma. What they did know only deepened their mistrust: the use of Latin instead of plain English (since changed), celibate priest and religious, parochial (why not public?) schools, the role of the mysterious, and foreign pontiff, and how could he be infallible? Marian devotion, the veneration of saints, all those statues (idol worship to some), transubstantiation, and much, much more! In modern times issues would arise placing us at odds with the mainstream over birth control and abortion. There seems no end to our deviation from the norm. Still, it is not my mission to convince anyone of the truth of any of these practices, but simply to illuminate what the Church teaches in regard to them lest you err in your writings. As I've said about police procedurals--its perfectly fine to have your detective go rogue and break all the rules, only make sure he (and you) know what the rules are.

Back to the nurse's question: Why call ourselves Catholics, not Christians? We are Christians, of course, but in the early days of the Church there was no need to call ourselves that, as there were no others--the church was simply referred to as "The Church". Later, the name Catholic, meaning universal, was adopted to distinguish the original church from the various sects, schisms, etc...that had arisen. Additionally, Roman Catholic is not an official name; you will not find it in Vatican writings. Rome may be the seat, but the Church exists wherever it has adherents.

Why are priests and nuns expected to be celibate? This seems to bug a lot of people. This practice arose amongst the very earliest monks in the first centuries of the Church, and is not exclusive to Catholicism. The idea of practicing deprivation in order to purify oneself and thereby be more worthy and open to contemplating God, has a long history among several religions. The practice was at last institutionalized during the medieval age, when rapacious bishops and abbots began to pass both Church lands and religious offices to their own children by appointing them clergy, in a thinly-disguised attempt at dynasty-creation. It became necessary to return the priests to their more ecclesiastical roles by having them (quite literally) zip up.

Pope Honorius Pondering
Why a pope, and how can he be infallible? The pope, of course, is the leader of the Church world-wide, and is considered to be the spiritual descendant of St. Peter the Apostle, whom Christ called the rock upon which the church would be built. His bishops and priests are the heirs of the apostles themselves. As for infallible...well, he's not...except in the very narrow, if powerful, sphere of pronouncing dogmas of faith and morals. Dogma meaning that Catholics must believe in a particular pronouncement in order to be considered actual Catholics--it's no longer debatable. It's only been used a few times in the 2,000 year history of the Church, the most recent occasions concerning Mary, mother of Jesus. One declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the other the Assumption of Mary into heaven body and soul. Which brings us to Marian devotion and some other, perhaps, surprising revelations.

Do Catholics worship the Holy Mother and the saints? Negative, good buddy. We only worship God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--the Trinity. As for the Blessed Virgin, we practice a special devotion to the mother of Christ and the first Christian person. Her example of love and obedience to God in all things is our exemplar of a holy life. She was also the first person to act as an intercessor between her son and the world, insisting that a reluctant Jesus intervene at the wedding at Cana after the wine ran out. His first recorded miracle was to replenish the wine and save the wedding party. Minor, perhaps, but it demonstrated the power and compassion of Mary. Devotion to Mary became widespread in the first centuries of the Church; long before it was officially endorsed. Catholics pray for her intercession with God on many matters. Essentially, we have the same relationship with the saints, but Mary retains primacy amongst them. Saints, by the way, are persons who led lives of "heroic virtue" (I love that phrase) and often, but not always, have died as martyrs to the faith. They are believed to be in heaven. The Church names them as saints only after two miracles have been attributed to their intercession and been verified by papal investigators. The Church recognizes that there are certainly saints in heaven that it has never heard of--otherwise ordinary people from many walks of life, who nonetheless led holy lives--and these saints, while not receiving an individual day on the liturgical calendar, are acknowledged on All Saints Day, Nov. 1.

Virgin Mary
by Diego Velazquez
The Immaculate Conception: This is a big surprise to most people, even a lot of Catholics. This dogma does not refer to the birth of Christ, but to the birth of Mary! Yes, we believe that Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, but the doctrine establishes that Mary herself, while being fully human, was conceived without Original Sin in order to bear the Son of God. The Assumption states that upon her death, she was assumed, taken body and soul, into heaven in order that the body of the Mother of God not be exposed to the earthly corruption that the rest of us can expect.

Transubstantiation--what the heck is that? This is where Catholics part company with many other Christian churches--we believe that the communion wafer and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ when they are consumed during the Eucharistic liturgy of the Mass. It is one of the Mysteries. Yes, with a capital M. We have a few of those. This is where faith comes in. Most other denominations consider the act symbolic. Not us.

Faith and Good Works: This is another area where we differ with many of our brethren. Catholics believe that to attain heaven, both faith and good works are required. Many Christian denominations believe that faith alone is sufficient.

Confession: a true crowd pleaser, confessions appear in movies, novels, and even at your local Catholic Church. I once set an entire story in a confessional booth (sort of). The Sacrament of Reconciliation, as it is more properly known, is a requirement of Catholics at least once a year, and prior to the Easter Mass (Easter Mass is a requirement also--we have a number of obligatory days of worship). Otherwise you are forbidden to take communion (the Sacrament of the Eucharist). Confession, and the subsequent forgiveness of sins granted for an honest recounting and sincere desire to repent, originate from Matthew, Chapter 16, in which Jesus tells Simon (Peter), and the apostles, that whomsoever they loosed from their sins, would be loosed; those that they bound would be bound. Thus began the practice that has carried down to this day. Unlike a lot of people, I actually don't mind confession that much, and always feel better afterwards...not that I really need it, of course.

Birth Control and Abortion: I hesitate to even address these due to the great passion the subjects invoke. But, you would be ill-served by this article if I didn't at least touch on them and that's all I intend to do. Contrary to popular belief, Catholics have not been secretly instructed by the Vatican to take over the world through rampant reproduction. At least there's nothing in writing. The reasoning behind the prohibition against birth control, which surveys show is observed in the breach by most American and European Catholics, has to do with the issues of trust in God, and the sanctity of life. The same applies to abortion and euthanasia. We are not to make the decision over who shall be born and who shall die--therein lies the prerogative of God. Of course, it's never quite this simple in practice, and there are many shadings, but that's the idea in a nutshell.

Suicide: Many Catholics, and others, wrongly believe that all suicides are damned by their final act. The Church's view of suicide is a more forgiving one, however, granting that most people who commit suicide are generally so despondent, or impaired in some manner, that they were rendered incapable of making a reasoning choice in the matter. Those very few that quite clearly, consciously, and with careful forethought and planning, unimpaired by excessive emotion, substance abuse, or coercion, take their own lives, are another matter. The reason for this being that their choice becomes a conscious rejection of the possibility of God's mercy, while the act itself makes final reconciliation impossible. That being said, the Church also acknowledges that there is very much that we do not know, and the possibility of God's mercy being available after such a death cannot be entirely ruled out, since all things are possible for God.

Why no female priests? Another issue that breeds passionate debate. Simply put, the apostles were all male, hence their descendant priests are too. The Church's position is that female celebrants are not part of the Sacred Scriptures. Still, we believe that the Holy Mother counseled those same apostles, so I'm not sure why that can't serve as the necessary precedent for female ordination. But, I'm not the boss and don't make the rules. Obedience is required of Catholics.

I once had a captain who (though Protestant) could not reconcile himself to the second collection that often occurs at Catholic Mass. He waxed indignant over the greediness of Rome though he was not subject to its demands. There's no doubt that the Church amasses a lot of dough. But, for the sake of clarity, second collections are voluntary and are for specific causes and charities such as food banks, convalescent homes, etc... The Catholic Church is one of the largest charitable organizations in the world. Here's an example that I think illustrates the point well--Only two percent of the population of India is Catholic, yet twenty-two percent of the medical care provided is through Catholic facilities. That takes big bucks, and that's just one country.

As for those statues of Jesus, Our Lady, and the saints: Most of us carry photos of our families and loved ones in our wallets or, more likely today, in our iPhones. We know that these are not actually the persons they represent, but facilitate our memory of them and our times together. Ditto for Catholic art. The paintings, and those worrisome (to some) statues, are simply aids in prayer and contemplation; nothing more.

Well, that's enough for now class. I hope you've enjoyed your primer in all things Catholic. Any mistakes, or misrepresentations contained herein, are entirely my own, and entirely unintentional. If I have erred, and you know it, please gently correct me, unlike what's happening below. Until then, remember these words from St. Augustine's "Confessions" that serve as my credo, "Lord, make me good… but just not yet."

Goya's "Procession of Flagellants on Good Friday"

06 March 2014

Elagabalus and His Big Stone God


by Brian Thornton

(This week's entry continues delving into the long form articles I did while researching and writing The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media, 2011). A shorter version of this bit about one of Rome's more "original" rulers (and the pack of relatives who descended on Rome along with him) appeared in that book.)



I will not describe the barbaric chants which [Elagabalus], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to [Elagabal], or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites.

— Dio Cassius

If you’re going to catalogue historical bastardry throughout the ages, you’d better plan to touch on that colorful period in the historical record known as “Imperial Rome.”  As with the Papacy, the sheer number of men who wore the emperor’s purple robes over the empire’s five-plus centuries lends itself to the likelihood that the throne would occasionally be occupied by someone so “eccentric” that he stood out in a crowded field of “personalities” like Michael Jordan playing basketball with a bunch of kindergarteners.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Varius Avitus Bassianus, a young, Syrian-born aristocrat who ruled the empire under the very Roman-sounding name of “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” from 218 to 222 A.D., but was better known by the nick-name “Elagabalus.”

What "El Gabal" probably looked like pre-deification
Elagabalus was so much more than an emperor.  He was also the hereditary high priest of a Syrian sun god cult that worshipped a craggy, two-ton phallic-shaped meteorite as the actual physical incarnation of his god (“Elagabal,” or “El-Gabal,” from which he derived his nick-name).  He was also a transsexual cross-dresser who wore more make-up than most strippers, and allegedly worked as a hooker out of his rooms in the imperial palace.

Funny, he looks so....normal... here....

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or, if you prefer, the meteorite).

Elagabalus was a shirt-tail relation of the great (and ruthless) emperor Septimius Severus.  His grandmother was Severus’ sister-in-law.  When Severus’ direct line died out (and the story of how that all played out is grist for a future blog post), Elagabalus’ grandmother (Julia Maesa) and mother (Julia Soaemias) schemed along with a eunuch named Gannys to put the boy forward as a plausible claimant to the imperial throne.

An ancient "Mommie Dearest," Julia Soeamias
The kid was all of fourteen.  But, a couple of battles, an army proclamation declaring him emperor and an execution of the unpopular if effective Gannys later, and Elagabalus (along with his mother and grandmother) was on his way to Rome.
When he got there he made quite a splash, not least because he brought his god with him.

Literally.

This massive “sky stone” was ensconced in a new temple complex built expressly for it, right next to the old Flavian Amphitheatre (what we know today as the “Colosseum”) on Rome’s Palatine Hill, and named the “Elagaballium.”


During Rome’s annual Midsummer Day festival, the ancient writer Herodian reports:

[Elagabalus] placed the sun god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs.  A six-horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments.  No one held the reins, and no one rode with the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer.  Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses’ reins.  He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

As if that weren’t shaking things up enough for his new subjects, Elagabalus promptly swept aside the old Roman pantheon of gods, and “married” his god Elagabal to the Roman goddess Minerva.  As a mortal “echo” of this Heavenly union Elagabalus then did the truly unthinkable: he took one of Rome’s Vestal Virgins as his wife.  Dedicated to the Roman mother goddess Vesta, whose service obliged these priestesses to remain virgins during their twenty years of service.  If one of them didn’t, the punishment was for her to be buried alive.  And Elagabalus took one of them, a woman named Aquilia Severa as his wife not once, but twice!

In the four years he was emperor Elagabalus took at least three different women as his wife.  These marriages were likely arranged by his grandmother and mother (“the Julias”) in order to help preserve the fiction that “Imperator Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” was a solid, dependable Roman citizen and emperor, rather than the capricious Syrian drag-queen high-priest of a bloody-thirsty sun-worshipping cult.  It was hoped that keeping up this appearance would help cement support for his reign.  In fact, these two formidable women proved themselves to be particularly shrewd and capable administrators.

Put simply, things ran so smoothly in Rome and throughout the empire that for a while people didn’t seem to mind how much of a “free spirit” their emperor appeared to be.

And a “free spirit” he definitely was.  Although Romans had tolerated the tendency among some of their previous emperors to take male lovers, homosexuality in ancient Rome was by and large frowned upon.  Elagabalus flouted this attitude by taking as his “husband” a big, burly slave from Caria; a charioteer of some skill named Hierocles.  One of his favorite roles to play was that of the “cheating wife,” allowing himself to be “caught” in bed with another man by Hierocles, who then beat the emperor (who apparently enjoyed “rough trade”), at times so badly that ‘he had black eyes’ for days afterward.

Probably transsexual, Elagabalus seemed obsessed with becoming more like a woman, not with just taking men to bed. The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor “had the whole of his body depilated,” and according to the disapproving contemporary historian and senator Dio Cassius, Elagabalus “had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether,” but settled for having himself circumcised as “a part of the priestly requirements” of his cult.

By the time Elagabalus turned seventeen his continual nose-thumbing at Rome’s religious, social and sexual norms began to take a toll on his public image.  In 221 two different legions mutinied and just barely missed proclaiming their respective generals “augustus” (“emperor”) in his stead.

This unrest did not escape the attention of Elagabalus’ grandmother, the Augusta Julia Maesa.  Her hold on the levers of power depended on her grandson staying in the good graces of both the people and army, and his increasingly erratic behavior and eroding popularity with his subjects made the dowager empress very nervous.

She opted to advance Bassianus Alexianus, another of her grandsons, as Elagabalus’ co-ruler and
Severus Alexander
“heir” (he was only four years younger than Elagabalus) with the ruling name “Severus Alexander.”  He too had a strong-willed mother named “Julia” (Julia Mamea), who “guided his actions.”

At first Elagabalus and his mother went along with the move.  Within weeks, however, the senior emperor had changed his mind and tried to have his younger cousin killed.  A power struggled ensued.  The modest, retiring Alexander was popular with the people, and especially with the army.
Julia Mamea

It all finally came to a head in March of 222, when Elagabalus flew into a rage during a meeting with the commanders of his personal bodyguard (the Praetorian Guard, which also acted as the city of Rome’s police force).  Having been reminded again and again of the “virtues” of his younger cousin, Elagabalus once more called for Alexander’s arrest and execution, bitterly denouncing the Praetorians for preferring his cousin to himself.

It was not a smart thing to do this while still standing in the middle of their camp.

Praetorian in full armor
The emperor, only just eighteen years old, was chased down by his own bodyguard and killed in one of the camp latrines.  Supposedly his last words were, “Leave my mother alone!”  If those actually were his final wishes, they were ignored.  His mother was killed right alongside him.  Their bodies were beheaded, and dragged through the streets of Rome.  The corpse of Elagabalus wound up in the Tiber River: the sort of burial that contemporary Roman law reserved for criminals.

Later historians (especially Christians) whipped up improbable tales of human sacrifice conducted by this teenaged demagogue, and speculated wildly about the various depravities in which he might have indulged.  This speculation included the unlikely story of how “Heliogabalus” (sic) invited several very important people to a dinner party only to have them smothered to death under the weight of several hundred pounds of flowers.  This painting trades upon that myth.

A 19th century artist's conception of Elagablus' supposed use of flowers to smother party guests
The truth as we can divine it about Elagabalus is far more interesting.  After all, what gender-confused, hormonally addled teenager wouldn’t go off the rails if handed the literal “keys to the kingdom”?  It sure makes for one fascinating bastard.