Doctors of the Church: St. Bede the Venerable

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Mosaic of St. Bede in Westminster Cathedral, London

We’ve finally moved on from the Fathers of the Church, and we find ourselves in the Dark Ages. But no worries, because as dark as they might have been, there were many great lights! Which leads us to St. Bede the Venerable, the Doctor Anglorum (English Doctor).

 

Not much is known about Bede’s life, but he fills us in from his own writings. He was born around 672 in Northumbria, northeast England. At the age of seven, Bede’s parents entrusted him to the Benedictine monastery to receive an education. With the Roman educational structure destroyed in Europe, monasteries were the place to be! We don’t know whether he intended to be a monk when he entered at such an early age, but that’s how it ended up. His exceptional abilities and dedication to the monastic rule led him to being ordained a deacon earlier than normally allowed, and he was ultimately ordained a priest at the age of 30. Although he travelled around a bit, most of Bede’s life was spent in the monastery. He died there on May 26, 735 (the Feast of the Ascension), lying on the floor of his monastic cell and singing the Glory Be.

Not much else is known about his life, but we have a lot of his works. Bede wrote many Scriptural commentaries and some scientific treatises. He also helped write several teachers’ manuals for grammar school, and dabbled in poetry.

But what St. Bede is known for most of all is his Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. This was a compilation of five books regarding the geographical makeup and history of England, beginning with Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC and stretching all the way up to his present day (731 AD). Interestingly, one of his unheralded contributions within this work was his dating system. While most writings at the time dated events as “during the reign of so-and-so,” Bede chose to refer to “the year of Our Lord,” or Anno Domini (AD). While Bede didn’t come up with this form of dating, his use of it made it mainstream, even to the present day!

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is one of the main sources for what we know of English history today. It includes the story of St. Alban, the first British martyr (although a different one from the namesake of our neighbors), the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons, and a description of the kings of Dark Age England in a time where there were very few details. Bede even describes the military victory at Badon Hill by Ambrosius Aurelianus, a guy some people say became known by a different name – King Arthur!

St. Bede the Venerable finds a special place in my heart because of my love for Church History. For Bede, history was more than just relating the events that have happened in the past, because honestly, that can get pretty boring. Church History offers an opportunity for us to look back to see the way the Holy Spirit has been weaving through our human experience. Hopefully these articles are not just a collection of stories and interesting facts, but can help you see the way God is working through his people!

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Doctors of the Church: St. Isidore of Seville

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Isidore of Seville by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

In today’s article, we honor St. Isidore of Seville – bishop, Father of the Church, Doctor, and patron saint of the Internet (for some reason). St. Isidore was one of the last ancient Christian philosophers, and his work as Archbishop of Seville helped shape Spain to be the country it is today, even earning him a place on the badge of the Spanish football team Sevilla FC, for all you fans out there (you know who you are!).

Isidore was born around 560 in Cartagena, Spain. He was a member of another one of those saintly families, with all three of his siblings canonized as saints! The most influential of these was Isidore’s brother, Leander. In a world where Visigoths had invaded and destroyed much of the vestiges of Roman culture, St. Leander of Seville tried to surround his brother Isidore with an atmosphere of learning, discipline, culture, and faith.

Leander became the bishop of Seville, and was a great hero for the faith in his own right. He opposed the Visigoth king and fearlessly defended the teachings of the Church against the Visigoth Arians, which ultimately led him to suffer exile. With such a great life and ministry, you can imagine how difficult it would have been for Isidore to fill his brother’s shoes when he was chosen to succeed him as bishop of Seville in 601.

But indeed, Isidore answered the call and became a great and holy bishop. He worked to eliminate the Arian heresy brought to Spain by the Visigoth invasions, and through his dialogues with the tribal leaders, he was able to bring some them back into the fold of the Church.

At the same time, Isidore knew that in order to build a better society, they needed to preserve an educational structure. He worked to establish new standards for education in Spain based on the old Roman structure that was fading away after the fall of the Roman Empire. His system was built on the liberal arts, especially science, history, and philosophy, and it was in those areas that most of Isidore’s writings were focused.

Isidore’s greatest work was the Etymologiae, a compilation and summary of general knowledge from old Roman handbooks and classical authors. The topics included ranged anywhere from grammar and rhetoric to metallurgy, medicine, and a theological understanding of the choirs of angels. Other works by Isidore include The History of the Gothic, Vandal, and Suebi Kings, a book on astronomy and history entitled On the Nature of Things, a treatise on the Trinity, the Natures of Christ, and Heaven, and even writings on the symbolic use of numbers in Scripture.

Isidore worked to preserve learning and science in a changing age, but always saw it as his way of glorifying God. In history, he saw how God worked through peoples and civilizations. In science, he saw how the beauty and intricacy of the natural world reflects the magnificence of the Creator. In doctrine, he saw how God continues to guide us in his people through the teachings of his Church. Let us likewise never forget these things and always use our learning to give glory to God!

Doctors of the Church: St. Basil the Great

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Icon of St. Basil the Great from St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev

Not too many people can claim the title “the Great” (St. Basil, St. Leo, Wayne Gretzky), but here we are with our second “Great” in a row! St. Gregory the Great was born around 540 of a noble family known for their piety and Christian fidelity. St. Gregory had quite a pedigree going for him – both of his parents were saints and two of his relatives had been popes – Felix III and Agapetus. So I guess you could say that whatever it was that he had ran in the family.

St. Gregory began his career by serving as the Prefect of Rome in 572, and while this sounds nice, it was not a terribly sought-after position at the time – Rome was falling apart! Maybe it was the vastness of the problems lying before him or something deeper, but Gregory eventually abandoned his secular ambitions and, like many Fathers before him, entered the monastic life. Whereas many of his monastic predecessors founded monasteries in the deserts or the wilderness, Gregory established mini-deserts in the middle of the city, including St. Andrew’s Monastery on the Caelian Hill in Rome.

Gregory’s holiness led others to grow in their respect of him, and he was appointed apocrisarius (basically a papal diplomat) to Emperor Tiberius II at Constantinople. His political mission was to acquire the Emperor’s help against the invading Lombard army, but he was also attentive to his spiritual mission: to free the Church from the Monophysite heresy. You remember these guys – the ones who rained on the parade at the Council of Chalcedon. If you recall, St. Cyril of Alexandria said that Christ was two natures (human and divine), but one person. Well, the Monophysites claimed that at Jesus’ birth, the divine nature obliterated the human nature, so Christ was really just one nature (divine). St. Gregory was having none of it, though, and worked to further clarify the Church’s teaching.

Despite his refusals and attempts to flee, Gregory was elected as Pope in 590, and is now known as one of the greatest in history. As Pope, he reformed the clergy to give them a more spiritual basis from which to conduct their ministry. He also emphasized missionary work in the Western Church. In Gregory’s mind, with all these barbarians invading Europe, why not convert them as well? He sent missionaries to Sardinia, Gaul, and England (including St. Augustine of Canterbury). Gregory also worked to reform the liturgy and firm up the order of the Mass as we know it today. Part of his work involved fostering the development of sacred music, especially a little thing you might have heard of – Gregorian chant!

St. Gregory himself chief pastor of souls and peacemaker in the Church. With the cities and territories of the former Roman Empire in shambles, Gregory took it upon himself to protect his people against invading armies, especially the Lombards. St. Gregory even negotiated two different truces to dissuade the Lombards outside of the government’s approval.

St. Gregory the Great was one of the first popes to use the title Servus Servorum Dei, the “Servant of the Servants of God.” As Pope Benedict XVI writes about him, “Precisely because [Gregory] was this, he is Great, and also shows us the measure of true greatness.” May we imitate St. Gregory the Great to aspire to true greatness in our Christian lives as well!

Doctors of the Church: Pope St. Leo the Great

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Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco de Herrera el Mozo

So, we’ve been at this for a while now, and we keep discussing various bishops and their roles in battling heresies, writing treatises, and speaking at ecumenical councils. You might be wondering, “Where was the pope during all this?” Well, the popes were always in the background, supporting the efforts of these other Doctors, but today’s Doctor of the Church stands out for his contributions. Of course, we’re talking about Pope St. Leo the Great.

St. Leo was born in Tuscany of an aristocratic family, and one would assume that like many of these guys, he received a good classical education. In 431, the same year as the Council of Ephesus, Leo was ordained a deacon for the Church in Rome, and apparently held a very important position in the Church, becoming the go-to guy in Rome alongside the pope. We have letters between him and St. Cyril of Alexandria (from last week!) and St. John Cassian, who actually dedicated a book to him. He also was sent to Gaul to settle a dispute between to of the leading Roman military commanders. All this was setting the table for him to be elected as pope in 440. St. Leo served the Church for 21 years as the Vicar of Christ, and is certainly one of the most important popes in history, hence the moniker “the Great.”

St. Leo threw his hat into the great ecclesiastical debate ring at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This ecumenical council built on the several we’ve already mentioned: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). The Council of Chalcedon affirmed all the doctrine of the previous councils, and definitively condemned Nestorianism (that whole divine Jesus and human Jesus, two persons in one Christ heresy from last week). Previously, Leo had been challenged by Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople, so as a statement of faith, purpose, and leadership, Leo issued the Tome of Leo to be read at the Council, affirming that the Church of Rome, the beating heart of the whole Church, was faithful to her ancient and true teachings. Of course, someone had to spoil the party, and this time, it was another heretic group, the Monophysites, but we’ll talk about them later…

St. Leo is probably most famous for a famous event that took place in 452. At this time, the Roman Empire was crumbling under constant attack by various barbarian tribes. One of those was the Huns, who attacked Rome all the way from Central Asia, destroying everything in their path. They had laid waste to northern Italy, and were rampaging south toward Rome. Most of the Roman government authorities had either fled or simply braced themselves for the destruction. Leo, the humble shepherd of the Church in Rome, saw that he was the only one who could do anything. The Pope, defenseless and surrounded by some of his clergy, rode out to meet Attila the Hun at Mantua, where he interceded for his flock and persuaded Attila to turn around and abandon the sack of Rome.

Think back to the profession of St. Peter in the Gospel – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As we can see, Pope St. Leo the Great showed that same commitment of faith and love of the flock entrusted to his care.

Doctors of the Church: St. Cyril of Alexandria

0609-cyril-alexandriaWho would have thought that the name “Cyril” would be such a popular one in the early Church? We had St. Cyril of Jerusalem before, and now we continue with our Doctors of the Church with St. Cyril of Alexandria.

Very little is known about Cyril’s early life, but he was probably born in Alexandria between 370 and 380. Cyril’s uncle Theophilus (also a popular name, apparently) was the bishop of Alexandria and well known for his strong leadership. With that in mind, Cyril was destined to follow in his footsteps, and at an early age, became involved with leadership of the Church. Eventually, Cyril literally followed in his uncle’s footsteps as they went together to Constantinople, where they helped the emperor depose a certain Bishop John, later known as “Chrysostom.” Woops!

When Theophilus died, Cyril became the bishop of Alexandria, where he served for 32 years. Despite his rocky relationship with the Church in Constantinople early on (deposing their bishop, and whatnot), Cyril worked hard to mend divisions. At least he did until a new bishop came to Constantinople.

Nestorius, a reputable Syrian priest known for his fantastic sermons, became famous for the heresy that later took on his name – Nestorianism. Nestorius divided Jesus Christ into two persons – the human Christ, and the divine Christ. At the time, people were growing in devotion to Mary, and had been referring to Mary as Theotokos, meaning “Mother of God,” or “God-bearer.” Nestorius refused to use that title, and preferred the term Christotokos, the “Mother of Christ.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but what he was doing was splitting the person of Jesus into two. We can even see this today when people say that they believe Jesus was a good teacher to follow (the human Christ), but not someone to be worshipped (the divine Christ).

Cyril went on the offensive, and wrote several letters to Nestorius to address these errors, and he later participated in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Cyril argued that Jesus is both true God and true man – two natures united in a single person. Because Jesus is one person (with both divine and human natures), and not two, Cyril reaffirmed that we truly can speak of Mary as the Theotokos, the “Mother of God.” The word “nature” in this case translates into Greek as hypostasis, and Cyril was the one to begin describing the unity of Jesus’ divine and human natures as the “hypostatic union,” a vocabulary word which you can use for your next round of Catholic Jeopardy.

St. Cyril of Alexandria devoted himself and his ministry to defending and explaining this doctrine of our faith until his death in 444. Let us thank God for being both eternal and born of a woman, Mary, and for sharing himself with us every day!

Doctors of the Church: St. John Chrysostom

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Mosaic of St. John Chrysostom from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

Our next saint is widely considered to be the greatest of the Eastern Doctors, and almost assuredly, the greatest preacher to ever take the pulpit in a Christian Church. St. John of Antioch is otherwise known by his nickname, “Chrysostom,” meaning “golden-mouthed.”

St. John Chrysostom was born around 349 in Antioch. His father died while he was still very young, so his mother Anthusa raised him in the faith, instilling in him a love for God and the Church. He studied under Libanius, one of the most famous pagan orators at the time, and after his baptism, under Diodore of Tarsus (where St. Paul was from!), who had been a great ally of St. Basil against Arianism.

After his studies, St. John felt called to withdraw from society, and lived as a hermit in the mountains near Antioch. He spent six years living in a cave, fasting and studying the Scriptures fervently. Unfortunately, this lifestyle didn’t agree with him, and after becoming very ill, he was forced to return to Antioch.

But that time as a hermit had changed him and given him a desire to serve the Church. He was ordained a priest in 386, and jumped right into becoming a pastor of souls. It was during this time that he wrote his greatest works. The most famous of these in his own day was his work On the Priesthood, a beautiful book on the greatness of the priesthood and what to look for in a priest. Today, he is best known for his sermons, and we have well over 700 of them authenticated and preserved. On a personal level, St. John Chrysostom is one of my favorite saints to read because not only is he intellectually brilliant, but he is also easy to understand. He is excellent at beautifully connecting his sermons to the reader/listener, so it’s no wonder he received the nickname “golden-mouthed!”

One story of St. John as a pastor stands out. In 387, the citizens of Antioch rioted over raised taxes, and in the process, destroyed several statues of the Emperor Theodosius and his family. Everyone knew the reprisal by the emperor would be brutal. St. John preached 22 Homilies on the Statues to the people, encouraging repentance and penance. He and his brother priests interceded with the emperor and brought about a peaceful reconciliation, while simultaneously converting many others to the faith.

St. John became so popular that he was actually kidnapped from Antioch and forced to become the bishop of Constantinople. Despite his undesired election, John applied himself immediately as a holy pastor, preaching frequently on marriage and the family, and upholding the dignity of all in society, especially the poor and women.

St. John ran into trouble with the Empress Eudoxia, who cared little for the faith and was insulted by his exhortations to reform. He was exiled initially by the Emperor, but was recalled after only three days, as the people rioted until he returned! After a spat with the empress, who had erected a silver statue of herself in the square outside the Hagia Sophia, he was exiled again, and ultimately died at the rough treatment of his captors.

He is still very influential today, as Pope St. John XXIII named him the patron of the Second Vatican Council, and he is cited in 18 sections of the Catechism. Let us thank God for this great preacher and shepherd of souls!

Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose of Milan

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St. Ambrose by Claude Vignon

Our next Doctor is Aurelius Ambrosius, better known as St. Ambrose of Milan. He was born into a Roman Christian family around 340, and like St. Basil, shared the household with a few other saints, namely his brother and sister. Ambrose’s father was in politics, perhaps even as high as the praetorian prefect of Gaul, a very lofty and influential position. At an early age, Ambrose followed the lead of his father, entering into politics, and became the consular prefect (essentially, a governor) of Aemilia-Liguria, a region in Italy that had its headquarters in the city of Milan.

Milan was the second greatest city in the Western Roman Empire, and as such it came into the crosshairs of the Arian controversy. All this came to a head at the death of the Arian-sympathetic bishop of Milan, Auxentius. In the early Church, bishops were elected, not appointed by the pope as they are today. So as governor, Ambrose tried to intercede with the opposing factions in the election, but each side saw him as a compromise candidate to the episcopacy, and he was quickly elected as the new bishop of Milan. This might not sound too strange until we consider that he was still a catechumen and hadn’t even been baptized yet!

The newly baptized and newly ordained bishop quickly committed himself to prayer and upholding orthodoxy. He brought several spiritual practices of the Eastern Church to the West, including lectio divina, a process of praying with the Word of God in Scripture. Ambrose wrote over 19 commentaries and exegetical works on Scripture, as well as a number of other works including hymns, letters, catecheses, writings on systematic theology, and even a few extended funeral homilies.

His upbringing and past life in politics played a role in his ministry as well. Ambrose worked to guide the Emperor Gratian to avoid Arianism and support justice for his people. He also worked for the Church’s independence from government against the Empress Justina, who tried to exert too much control over the custody of Church property.

St. Ambrose also came to know and work with the Emperor Theodosius, and there is a very interesting story about their relationship. After a mob in Thessalonica (in Greece) killed a military commander stationed there, Theodosius reacted by mercilessly ordering the massacre of the crowds responsible. Ambrose rebuked him, letting him know the severity of his actions. Because of the public nature of this sin, and to avoid scandal to the rest of the Church, Ambrose refused to allow Theodosius (again, the emperor) to receive Holy Communion. Eventually, the Emperor confessed his sins, and was finally reconciled with the Church and with Ambrose. The Emperor’s unrivaled civil authority didn’t seem to bother Ambrose one bit!

St. Ambrose is perhaps best known for guiding a young North African rhetorician to the faith – a guy named Augustine, who we’ll hear about in a few weeks. But in his own right, St. Ambrose was a great writer, bishop, and shepherd of his flock!