On March 7 1274, the greatest Catholic mind died from brain trauma. Here’s a timeline of what happened brought you to by the New Saint Thomas Institute:
Sometime in 1273: The sacristan Domenic of Caserta observes Thomas Aquinas to be levitating in prayer with tears before an icon of the crucified Christ. Christ said to Thomas, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas responded, “Nothing but you, Lord.”
Dec 6 1273: While celebrating the Mass of Saint Nicholas, Thomas went into ecstasy. Thomas’ friend and secretary Reginald later asks him: “Master, will you not return to your work?” Thomas Aquinas replied: “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” Thomas no longer works on the Summa theologiae.
Pope Gregory X asks Saint Thomas Aquinas to reconcile the Greek Orthodox bishops at the Second Council of Lyon in France to be held on 1 May 1274.
Early 1274, Thomas strikes his head on a tree branch along the Appian way near Monte Cassino. It’s not clear whether this happened while he was riding a horse or whether the branch or log was already on the ground.
Thomas recovers and continues his journey to the port. His health fails again and he is taken to the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova. While he was conscious, he gave a commentary on the Song of Songs, as had Saint Bernard.
March 7, 1274: His brain continued to swell. He received Last Rites and his last words were: “I receive Thee, ransom of my soul. For love of Thee have I studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught….” and then he was received into Heaven by Jesus Christ.
From this timeline, you can perceive the deep mysticism of Thomas Aquinas. Many wrongly assume that Thomas was an aloof college professor or academician. Far from it. He was a mystic full in love with Christ and driven to preach in teach in the parish churches and in the universities.
Here is a free video called “7 Reasons to Love Saint Thomas Aquinas”. This video will help you see the various levels of the spirituality and theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas in only a few short minutes. Watch it here.
If you’d like to try taking online classes on Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Mariology, Apologetics, Church History, and/or Medieval Theology, please explore the New Saint Thomas Institute: newsaintthomas.com.
Two of the most rewarding practices for a Christian are 1) reading the Bible from beginning to end, and 2) reading the sermons of the Church Fathers. One of the greatest theologians and orators of the Church Fathers is Saint Gregory Nazianzus. He is simply called Saint Gregory “the Theologian” in the East because of his precise and excellent presentation of theology.
Since the Apostles and Church Fathers universally recognized that baptism was the instrumental means by which Jesus Christ removes sin and infuses grace, they also received the pastoral question of what happens to unbaptized babies. Before we look St Gregory the Theologian, let that sink in. The presumption is that infants should be baptized.
Not only that, but we know from the Eastern Fathers and from Western Fathers like Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine that baptized infants were confirmed and received the Holy Eucharist. We Roman Catholics would do well to request that the Apostolic and Patristic practice of paedo-communion (infant communion) be rightfully restored to our children.
Here is Saint Gregory “the Theologian” Nazianzus on the death of unbaptized children:
Pope Zachary is one of the top 10 Popes of the early medieval periods. Let’s take a look at some high points in his pontificate:
Pope Zachary appointed Saint Boniface (Apostle of Germany) in AD 742 as Papal Legate to the German dioceses.
Pope Zachary condemned the practice of worshipping angels in AD 745.
He is the Pope known for deposing the Merovingian King of the Franks, Childeric III and then granting the crown to Pepin the Short, the father of Charlemagne. Saint Boniface crowned Pepin King of the Franks at Soissons in 752.
Pope Zachary accused the court of Constantinople, along with its Patriarch, and its Emperor Constantine V of heresy. They promoted iconoclasm: the destruction of images of Christ and the saints and banned their production. (Here’s my podcast on iconoclasm in its Byzantine context.)
Pope Zachary built the original church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (“over Minerva”) over an ancient temple to Minerva near the Pantheon. This church would later become a setting for the Dominican Order. It’s (revised) interior is stunning.
Pope Zachary forbade the selling of slaves to Muslims in the city of Rome.
But here is why I really like Pope Zachary: While restoring the Lateran Palace, he relocated the relic of the skull of Saint George to the church of San Giorgio al Velabro (a church I visit annually in Rome).
Here’s a photo of me in San Giorgio al Velabro kneeling by the altar that holds the skull of Saint George.
It looks empty now but a cleric in the church told me that the skull is still in there. Just not visible (if I understood his Italian).
On the interwebs you sometimes bump into a few Catholics that assert that canonizations are not infallible or are reversible. They will cite saints who are allegedly un-sainted (eg. St George, St Christopher, St Philomena – I explain why they are NOT un-sainted in this podcast) or they will object to canonized saints that they don’t like (eg, St John XIII or St Josemaria).
Canonizations are Infallible. Here’s why:
Concerning the Potential Problem of “Damned Saints”:
When a person is damned, he hates and curses God forever in Hell. That’s what damnation is. It’s a decision to reject God and His love. The damned person lacks all charity toward God. As Thomas Aquinas, would say, he belongs to the Kingdom of Satan. He is officially anti-Christ.
If the Church mistakingly were to canonize a damned man, then that means monks and nuns would be praying the Liturgy of the Hours and commemorating a man who currently curses God – and doing so annually in the liturgical cycle. Moreover, this would entail that priests are celebrating Masses in honor of a man who is literally diabolical. Even more so, churches, chapels, and cathedrals would be erected and consecrated in honor a man who hates God. No doubt, the devil would love all of this. So canonizations are infallible.
Concerning the Potential Problem of “Make-Believe Saints”
The same goes saints who are claimed to not have existed. If someone were to say that St George or St Christopher were make-believe people, then you have the Liturgy of Hours and Holy Mass celebrated to what amount to cartoon characters. It would be like celebrating Mass in honor of Luke Skywalker. It’s a mockery of true religion.
[Shameless plug: Check out my #1 Bestselling Historical Novel Sword and Serpent for a plausible biography of Saint George (and the “Dragon”) along with Saint Christopher by clicking here.]
We can grant that the legends and hagiography about certain saints are exaggerated or embellished, but we cannot say that the Church formally venerates imaginary people, celebrated Mass in honor of imaginary people, or that there are Churches dedicated to imaginary people.
If so, the devil would love all of this. So canonizations are infallible. It’s also worth noting that when a Pope canonizes a saint he invokes his authority as Vicar of Christ and successor to Saints Peter and Paul in a way similar to declaring dogmas infallible.
How do Christians account for child martyrdom, child death, original sin and the fact that the majority of Homo sapiens have died before birth?
The feast of the Holy Innocents marks the martyrdom of an unnumbered group of boys aged 2 and under during the reign of King Herod and fulfills the prophecy of St Jeremias:
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.’ (Jer 31:15)
How can children become martyrs if they cannot speak or affirm faith?
These holy innocents are martyrs because they were murdered in odium fidei (in hatred of the Faith). If someone kills a child on accident or even through malice, that child is not a martyr. However, if the murderer kills the child out of hatred for Christ or the Christian faith, then the child is a martyr. Same goes for adults. If a robber shoots a father in his home, he is not a martyr. If an Islamic State terrorists shoots because a man because he won’t renounce Christ, then that victim is a martyr.
Children can become martyrs for the same reason that children are baptized. Other persons can effect persecution (or sacramental grace) upon them. Babies have personal relationships. My babies had “personal relationships” with their mother at the breast immediately (and even before birth). It’s a unique non-verbal relationship. And if that “personal relationship” between mother and baby exists, then a “personal relationship” can exist between a baby and our Triune God.
Parents usher their babies into the eternal life and energy of the Holy Trinity at the baptismal font and so also did Herod’s soldiers baptize the Holy Innocents with their own blood.
Our family asks for the intercession of the boy Holy Innocents every evening and their presence in Scripture and the Catholic Calendar remind us that children die. But why?
Why do children die?
Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) explained how the sin of Adam and Eve passed down to all generations and deprived even infants of the supernatural blessing of Eden.
The Eastern Fathers such as Saint Gregory Nazianzus noted the theological problem of children dying. Children are not guilty of personal sins. Why would God allow them to die. And when they die, where do they go? Heaven? Hell? Perhaps a special place reserved for them?
Saint Gregory and others noted that children die not through their own fault, but on account of being born outside Eden – that is being born under the sin of Adam and Eve. The Eastern Churched calls this προπατορικὸν ἁμάρτημα (propatorikon harmatema) or “ancestral sin.”
The Western Church calls it peccatum originale or “original sin.” Without getting into Eastern vs. Western distinctions, all Christians agree that the penalty of death has spread to all human persons, even children. And we all agree (even the Jansenist or Calvinist) that children die not on account of their own personal misdeeds.
Why do they die? We don’t know, but we trust that their eternal life is better than any life they had here. Whether it is postulated as natural paradise, limbo, or a hope for supernatural Heaven itself, their life is one of peace, rest, happiness, and beatitude.
Do most humans die in infancy?
It’s patently obvious that more than 51+% of members of the race of homo sapiens died before the age of 7. We might even dare to say that 51+% of every homo sapiens died before being born. This is a starting fact to consider from a theological perspective. Most humans in God’s image died prior breathing.
Why is this?
There are a few optional explanations:
Predestination Option: God predestines most humans to die in utero or in infancy because he likes the idea of Heaven (or limbo) being populated with people who have never committed a personal sin against him or another – despite them having been conceived without habitual grace. This theory would posit that every human child receives habitual or sacramental grace prior to death to Heaven OR that they don’t receive habitual grace and so end up in perfect natural (but not supernatural) paradise. And this natural paradise is often known off the cuff as limbo. (Pun intended. The Latin limbus means “cuff”.)
[NOTE: I should add here that the heretic John Calvin used this argument above (that all deceased babies go to Heaven) in favor of unconditional election. He noted that so many babies die before and after birth (including his own dead children), and so this confirms the fact that God chooses them for Heaven without any faith or merit.]
Pre-Existence Option: The Church Father (but not saint) Origen posited that every human pre-existed in a celestial realm prior to conception in a mother’s womb. Each of these minds erred or sinned in this celestial realm and thus were consigned to a carnal life on earth suiting the measure of their rebellion. So a pre-existent mind that rebelled greatly against the Trinity would be given a very tedious life on earth so that they could merit salvation through Christ. However, a pre-existent mind that only slightly rebelled against the Trinity would be given a very brief life on earth by which they would turn back to God. And these, then, are the little children that die before and after birth. They are the ones who sinned in a lesser degree before being conceived on earth.
[NOTE: This opinion of Origen is not held by many today – except in a corrupted form by Mormons.]
We don’t really know. I think this is the theological position of most Christians. There is no easily packaged explanation for a pair of parents standing over their child’s tiny grave. There is no easy answer for a woman after miscarriage. It’s never been the position of Christians to dogmatically describe the afterlife for children other than saying: “they do not suffer and they are at peace.” We don’t know much because the Bible says nothing about it. We can only rest on the conviction that God desires all men to be saved and that He is fully aware that 51+% die before attaining the age of reason or before professing faith.
PS: If you’re interested in reading more of my posts on the topic of infant death, limbo, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas etc., check out this series of posts: Unbaptized babies that die: 5 Theories.
What was Saint Nicholas like as a young priest? Could he bi-locate? Could he read souls?
These are topics that I explored in my bestselling historical novel Sword and Serpent, in which I imagined a young and clairvoyant Saint Nicholas meeting a traveling pair of young future saints: Saint George and the recently baptized Saint Christopher.
These novels explore the historical martyrdoms of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian from the point of view of St George, St Christopher, St Nicholas, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Helena, Constantine, and dozens of other men and women who will go on to be known as Catholic saints. The novels are “clean” but contain gruesome and detailed accounts of martyrdoms, Roman battles, and gladiatorial bouts. If you mixed together Catholic Saint stories, The Princess Bride, and Lord of the Rings – you’d get the Sword and Serpent Trilogy.
Sword and Serpent Book 3: released today!
The first 2 novels were Amazon best-sellers in their categories – and on the feast of Saint Nicholas, we are announcing the print version of the third and final novel in the Sword and Serpent Trilogy is released: Storm of Fire and Blood.
The consensus from the reader reviews from the ebook version is that this third novel is exhilarating, well-researched, and the best of the three in the trilogy. Some have said it is the best book that they’ve read all year:
Here are 8 epic ways you can do epic things and win epic stuff:
1. Take an Epic #Selfie with the Book (Prize: a Free signed copy of Storm of Fire and Blood)
HOW TO ENTER: Take a photo with the book Storm of Fire and Blood. Extra points will be awarded for costumes or exotic places. We once had one taken in front of the Colosseum in Rome! The more epic, the more likely you are to win. Take a photo, post it on Facebook and then send an email to [email protected] with a link to your picture.
This is not a random drawing. This is a performance-based contest that will be judged. Be epic. Get the family to dress up as Jurian, Sabra, Aikaterina, Menas, Helena, et al. and snap a selfie with the book. Or maybe take a photo of yourself holding the book in someplace amazing. If you get a photo of yourself standing next to Pope Francis holding the book, you win hands down!
Selfies with any version of the Storm of Fire and Blood count (printed, ebook).
2. Just Get the Book Contest (Prize: $100 Amazon Gift Card)
HOW TO ENTER: Buy just one copy of Storm of Fire and Blood and then send an email to [email protected] simply stating “I bought a copy.” If you buy more than one copy, please send one email for each copy you bought. *If you already reviewed the novel before today and emailed me about it, you’re already entered into this contest.
You can enter for each copy purchased. (For example, if you buy four copies, send an email saying “I bought 4” in the subject line.)
Winner will be drawn at random on December 24.
3. St Nicholas Gift Contest (Prize: an iPad Mini mailed to your house! AND a free signed copy of Storm of Fire and Blood)
HOW TO ENTER: Several reviewers on amazon.com said that Sword and Serpent would be a perfect Christmas gift. This contest honors Saint Nicholas who is an important character in the book – it’s also his feast day this week. To win this prize, purchase at least 4 copies (1 for yourself and 3 as gifts to give away at Christmas) and send an email to [email protected] You can order copies by clicking here.
You must purchase at least 4 copies to enter.
If you purchase multiples of 4, you can enter that many times (8 copies = 2 entries; 12 copies = 3 entries; 80 copies = 20 entries – enter how many copies you got in the subject line: “I got 8 copies as Christmas gifts” – that’s 2 entries in this prize)
Winner will be drawn at random on December 24 and will receive an iPad for free.
4. Review the Novel at Amazon.com (Prize: $100 Amazon Gift Card AND a free signed copy of Storm of Fire and Blood)
What happens when you have canonized Catholic saints criticizing and resisting a canonic Catholic pope? That’s exactly what happened with Pope Saint Callixtus I, who died in AD 223.
Tertullian and Origen spoke against Pope Callixtus for his laxity. And Saint Hippolytus became the Catholic Church’s first antipope in resistance to Pope Callixtus who he saw as promoting and allowing: contraception, abortion, heresy, and easy-penance.
Why the conflict?
Before we get started I want to stress that all this happened 100 years before Constantine legalized Catholicism. Some wrongly assume that before Constantine the Church of Rome was a happy assembly of saints without church politics. Not quite. The Church of Rome has been plagued with conflict and controversy from the very beginning (as detailed in this book).
The document Philosophumena (attributed to Saint Hippolytus of Rome) recounts how Pope Callixtus had once been a Roman slave belonging to a Christian master named Carpophorus. Carpophorus placed his slave Callixtus (the future pope) in charge of funds that he had collected from other Christians for the care of orphans, widows, and the poor.
Callixtus the slave who lost all the money. He fled Rome but was discovered boarding a ship near Portus, the harbor city of Rome. Callixtus jumped overboard to avoid capture but was arrested nonetheless and taken back to his Christian master Carpophorus.
In an attempt to recover the money, Callixtus the slave physically assaulted Jews inside a Roman synagogue in attempt to either get a loan from the Jews or to collect debts from Jews. He was re-arrested. At this time, he was denounced as a Christian (probably by the Roman Jews) and sent as a prisoner to the mines of Sardinia.
Enter Emperor Commodus. Commodus was the son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. You likely remember him from the film Gladiator:
Emperor Commodus had a “Christian” mistress named Marcia (you might be surprised to learn that Rome one hundred years later had a collection of so-called “Christian prostitutes” that were regulated by Constantine’s son). The “Christian mistress” Marcia was served by a eunuch named Hyacinth who was also an ordained presbyter. (100 years later, eunuchs were banned from ordination at the Council of Nicea).
Marcia and Hyacinth appealed to the Roman Emperor Commodus for the release of Christian prisoners from the mines of Sardinia. This imperial intervention affected the release of Callixtus and other Christians in the mines. Life in the mines was rough and they had suffered there as witnesses to our Lord Jesus Christ. These Christians were honored by Christians back in Rome as quasi-martyrs.
Callixtus’s Rise to the Papacy:
Pope Victor I as Bishop of Rome honored Callixtus with a monthly pension from the Catholic Church, supposedly to honor him as a living confessor (one who suffered for Christ, but did not die).
Pope Zephyrinus (successor of Victor I) honored Callixtus in AD 199 by ordaining him as one of the prestigious “seven deacons of Rome,” and appointed him as guardian of the catacombs along the Appian Way. To this day, these catacombs are named after Callixtus as the “Catacombs of Saint Callixtus.” From his time until the time of Constantine, this catacomb became the ceremonial burial place for nine bishops of Rome. (Origen visited Rome during the reign of Pope Zephyrinus.)
Deacon Callixtus became the chief advisor of Pope Zephyrinus in Rome.
In AD 217, Pope Zephyrinus received the crown of martyrdom and the Deacon Callixtus was the obvious choice for Bishop of Rome.
Callixtus became Pope in AD 217 and established Santa Maria in Trastevere as his principle “cathedral” in Rome (this was before the Lateran basilica was given to the Church by Constantine and before the construction of the basilica at the Vatican).
Pope Callixtus as a “Lax Pope”:
Callixtus’s “pre-mining” life had been one of financial controversy, and yet he had proved himself faithful to Christ in the mines and worthy of respect and office in the Church of Rome. Perhaps it was his controversial past that lead to his position of laxity for the Church in Rome.
In AD 217 (the first year of his Pontificate), Pope Callixtus issued the “Decree of 217” which scandalized many, especially Tertullian who documents the episode. The Decree of 217 stated that penance and absolution would be enough to re-admit Christians to the Eucharist for the seven sins previously restricted. These seven sins were:
apostasy (publicly renouncing Jesus Christ)
adultery (sex with someone besides your spouse)
fornication (sex outside marriage) (this list is found in Tertullian’s De Pudicitia*, Ch 19).
Pope Callixtus also allowed:
not requiring public penance from heretics entering the Catholic Church.
clergy t0 marry before and after ordination.
noblewomen to contract Christian marriages with plebs and slaves (forbidden by Roman law).
The Christians at the time were divided on this lax approach to sinners.
Tertullian openly wrote and taught against the lax novelties of Pope Callixtus.
The Greek-speaking Roman priest Hippolytus was elected as a rival Bishop of Rome and became the Church’s first Anti-Pope.
Origen relates how when he was in Rome he heard the famous Hippolytus preach – showing that Origen was sympathetic with Hippolytus’ theology. It seems however that Origen greatly respected the Bishop of Rome and that he heard Hippolytus preach before Hippolytus presumed to become a rival Bishop in Rome. Nevertheless, Origen’s strictness would seem to make him more sympathetic with the ancient practice of making sacramental absolution rare.
In general, opponents of Pope Callixtus alleged that his policies would lead to a lower of morals among Christians, and this proved to the case with regard to contraception and abortion.
The Problem of Abortion and Contraception among Christians during the time of Pope Callixtus:
Hippolytus laments that Catholic women in Rome began to engage in contraception and abortion during the lax reign of Pope Callixtus:
Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round [their belly], so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church.
For Hippolytus, this rise in contraception and abortion among Roman Christian women was a sign that the laxity of Pope Callixtus was bearing evil fruit.
Five or six years later, Pope Callixtus received the crown of martyrdom in AD 222 or 223 and was enrolled in the number of the saints. His feast day is October 14.
Do grace and mercy lead to laxity? It’s a common question: If God forgives me no matter what, why not just keep sinning? Why change my life at all?
This precise question is tackled by Saint Paul in his epistle to the Romans 6:
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried[a] therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
It was and will be a perennial question for Christians in every age. If a Christian can just “pray the prayer” (as Evangelicals say), just be baptized, just go to confession, or just get an indulgence, why live like a saint?
Problems also with Rigorism:
But there is an opposite error. If the forgiveness of sin is rigorous (as it was before AD 217), two results follow:
First, is simply despair. If forgiveness if far off, why even try?
There is a second result that I would like to suggest that I rarely see in Patristic studies. I believe that the popularity of Gnosticism and Gnostic sects the exploded in the 100s was partly due to the lack of access to sacramental absolution. Gnostics promised that there were secret ways (not depending on morality or absolution) that allowed access to God. If a Christian had fallen into apostasy, murder, or adultery and could not find forgiveness and communion within the Catholic Church, there would be extreme pressure to join a Gnostic cult where immediate salvation and access to God was assured.
All Catholics today would grant that Pope Callixtus made the correct move, by allowing for “easy” absolution of grave sins before the time of death. (Easy, by the way, still entailed periods of public penance.) Did this new laxity come with a price? Yes. Did Catholic women try to “get away” with contraception and abortion? Yes. Does that still happen today? Yes.
Is the solution to this form of laxity to make the conditions for sacramental absolution more strict? No. I don’t think so. People can and will take advantage of grace in every age. There is no way to prevent that. However, we must always be in a position to recognize the forgiveness and mercy of Christ who was ready to immediately forgive the repentant Peter, Thomas, Paul, et al.
Question: I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic of lax vs. rigorous absolution. You can leave a comment by clicking here.