Helena, and what makes Christianity different

IMG_0412This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.

Waugh does a beautiful job depicting both the time and all the various places that appears throughout the book. The novel starts with Helena as young princess in Britain, which he portrays as both primitive and exotic, much like Till We Have Faces. From Britain, we then follow Helena all over the Empire: through Germany, out to the lonely Balkans, then to Rome, and finally through Asia Minor down to the province of Palestine. And each of these has their distinctive character, especially Rome. “To a Roman there can only be one City and that a very imperfect place indeed.” Waugh does not hold back from making Rome appear as unattractive as possible, everything from the court intrigue and treachery to the fashions and popular superstitions. Then there is the awkwardness of the newly legalized Christianity, personified in Pope Sylvester. This simple Pope is caught between gratitude for the new freedoms and yet the impossibility of compromising with  paganism, and so the risk of offending so great an ally as Constantine, who is at once planning to be baptized someday and yet also the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman pagan religion.

“All my life I have caused offense to religious people by asking questions.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of the book is that Helena is portrayed as a skeptic from beginning to end, always asking questions and rarely satisfied with answers (or a lack of answers). Her searching attitude allows Waugh to demonstrate how Christianity does not fall within the lines of myth and philosophy. Helena, after a particularly disappointing lecture on myth, turns to her Christian servants and asks, “Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?” “I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.” “Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?” And so the seeds are planted for the faith that will blossom in the soil of Helena’s desire for something tangible and historical, and ultimately lead her to seek out the True Cross of Christ. (Speaking of tangible and historical: I visited the tomb of St. Helena at the Ara Coeli Basilica in Rome this very day. The picture I took is just below.)

IMG_0410This tension between the abstract and the concrete appears not just between pagans and Christians, but even among Christians themselves. Eventually Constantine, tired of everything wrong with Rome (and it truly is wretched), decides to go and start a New Rome in the East which will be cleaner, and there he will make basilicas dedicated to “Wisdom” and to “Peace”. “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations.” After Constantine leaves, Pope Sylvester responds to this comment, “Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church.” How often this desire for a tidier faith recurs throughout the centuries! I am reminded of when the German Emperor Joseph II attempted to make Catholicism “tidier” by cutting the Stations of the Cross from 14 to 7, trying to reduce all the many religious orders to a single form of religious life, and many other so-called reforms. But faith is not just a bunch of ideas; true religion is not just a social program.

As intriguing as the description of Rome is, Jerusalem is the most significant place in the book, as the place where it happened. Having been to Holy Land a couple times, I had images to go with the ekphrases of the various sites, and I appreciated the accounts of how the places came to have their current shape. Waugh even makes one feel some horror at all that might have been lost in the effort to preserve the holy places. Helena’s devotion to the evidence of Christ makes me feel as though I never made a proper pilgrimage to those places, and I am eager to go back and follow in her footsteps, indeed, in the footsteps of the Master.

I heartily recommend Helena for anyone planning to visit Rome or Jerusalem, or even anyone who wants a glimpse at what makes Christianity different. I will probably end up adding more Evelyn Waugh to my list.

Pope Innocent on His Office

Pope_Innocent_IThe following are quotes taken from Pope Innocent’s responses to the letters sent on behalf of the Council of Carthage and the Council of Milevis, written around 416 and 417 respectively. The numbering is based on Augustine’s letter collection, which includes these two letters. I will highlight portions that seem of particular interest for understanding his role as bishop of Rome, as well as the role of councils and tradition. [Fun fact: Pope Innocent was a native of Albania!]

181.1. In examining questions about God, with which it is proper that bishops and especially an authentic, legitimate, Catholic council deal with the greatest care, you have observed the patterns set by ancient tradition and have been mindful of Church discipline. In that way you have added strength to the vigor of our religion by true reason, no less now in consulting us than earlier when you issued the decree. For you wanted it to be referred to our judgment, knowing what is due to the Apostolic See, since all of us who have held this position desire to follow that apostle from whom the episcopacy itself and the whole authority of this name is derived. Following him, we know how to condemn what is evil and to approve what is praiseworthy, just as we approve the fact that in observing the teachings of our predecessors you did not think that they should be ignored. For they established it not by a human but by a divine decision that one should not regard as settled, whatever questions are dealt with, even in distant and remote provinces, before it comes to the knowledge of this see. In this way a correct declaration is upheld by the whole authority of this see, and–just as all waters go forth from their original source and the pure waters of their incorrupt spring flow through the different regions of the whole world–from this see the other churches learn what they should teach, whom they should absolve, and whom a stream fit for clean bodies should avoid like those persons filthy with a foulness that cannot be purified. [A note: Augustine uses the language of “stream” and “spring” in Letter 177, apparently in the same sense used here.]

181.2. …you are demonstrating your solicitude for the good of all, and you ask that we decree through all the churches of the world what at the same time benefits all.

182.2. You act conscientiously and appropriately, therefore, in consulting the office of the Apostolic See, that mystical office, I say, to which, except for those matters that lie outside, there pertains the solicitude for all the churches over what judgment should be maintained in troubling affairs. You have followed the form of the ancient rule, which you know has been observed with me by the whole world. But I set aside this issue, because I do not believe that this has escaped the attention of Your Wisdom. Why did you endorse this practice by your action if it was not because you knew that responses always flow from the apostolic fountain through all the provinces for those who ask for them? I think that, especially when a question of faith is discussed, all our brothers and fellow bishops ought to refer it only to Peter, that is, to the source of their title and dignity, as Your Charity has now referred this question, which could benefit all the churches in common through the world. For these churches must necessarily become more cautious when they see that the inventors of these evils have been separated from communion with the Church by decrees of our judgments in response to the two synods.

182.6. …[Pelagius and Caelestius] are excommunicated from the Church by the authority of our apostolic power until they come to their senses (2 Tim 2:26).

[The translation cited is the New City Press edition of Augustine’s works.]

Augustine to Pope Innocent

The following passages are taken from letters written to Pope Innocent by St. Augustine on behalf of African councils of bishops. They indicate that the Apostolic See has a special role in matters of Church teaching and discipline. The context is that Pelagius was recently exonerated by bishops in the East who probably misunderstood his teaching on grace. The goal is to have Pope Innocent condemn the errors of Pelagius.

175.2. [from the Council of Carthage] We believed, our lord and brother, that we should inform Your Charity of this action so that the authority of the Apostolic See might be added to the decrees of our humble selves in order to defend the salvation of many and to correct the perversity of some. …

175.6. We have no doubt that, once Your Reverence has seen the episcopal proceedings that are reported to have been held in the East, Your Reverence will pronounce that judgment over which all may rejoice in the mercy of God. Pray for us, most blessed lord and pope.

176.5. [from the Council of Milevis] We think that with the help of the mercy of the Lord our God, who deigns to guide you when you consult him and to hear you when you pray to him, those who hold such perverse and destructive ideas will more easily yield to the authority of Your Holiness, which is derived from the authority of the holy scriptures, so that we may rejoice over their correction rather than be saddened by their destruction.

177.3. [from 5 African bishops] …He should either be summoned to Rome by Your Reverence and carefully questioned about what he means by the grace which he admits… And when he has been found to say what the apostolic truth of the Church teaches, then he should be acquitted without any worry on the part of the Church and without any shadow of ambiguity.

177.15. … Or if he denies that they are his writings or says that the passages which he denies are his own were inserted in his writings by his enemies, let him still anathematize and condemn them thanks to the fatherly exhortation and authority of Your Holiness. … For, if they know that the same book that they either believe or know is his has been anathematized and condemned by the authority of Catholic bishops and especially of Your Holiness, which we do not doubt carries greater weight with him, and by Pelagius himself, we do not think that they will dare to disturb the faithful and simple Christian hearts by speaking against grace…

177.19. … We do not presume that our little stream increases your bountiful spring, but in this great trial of our time, from which we pray that he to whom we say, Bring us not into temptation, may set us free, we want you to test whether our stream, though small, flows from the same headwaters from which yours also flows in abundance, and by your replies we want you to console us concerning our common participation in the one grace.

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The following selections are references to the Apostolic See in other letters by Augustine.

186.2. [Augustine to Paulinus of Nola] After we received a letter from the East that aired the same views in full openness, we ought by no means to have failed to help the Church with whatever episcopal authority we had. Reports from two councils in Carthage and in Milevis were sent to the Apostolic See, therefore, before the ecclesiastical proceedings at which Pelagius was said to have been acquitted in the presence of some bishops of the Province of Palestine arrived either in our hands or in Africa. We also wrote to Pope Innocent of blessed memory a personal letter in addition to the reports of the councils, in which we dealt with this issue somewhat more at length. He replied to us on all these points in the way in which it was right and necessary for a bishop of the Apostolic See.

190.22. [Augustine to Optatus of Milevis] By the vigilance of the councils of bishops along with the help of the savior, who watches over his Church, as well as by two venerable bishops of the Apostolic See, Pope Innocent and Pope Zosimus, [the Pelagians] have been condemned throughout the whole world, unless they are corrected and do penance.

190.23. … These words of the Apostolic See contain the Catholic faith that is so ancient and well-founded, so certain and clear, that it is impious for a Christian to doubt it.

194.1. [Augustine to Sixtus, a future pope] But now in your letter the very faith of the Roman church states more openly and more at length what you hold about and in opposition to that teaching along with us. For it was especially to that church that the blessed apostle Paul said many things in many ways about the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25).

194.43. … For they are bound by the authority of the divine Scriptures and by the rite of the Church handed down from of old and held firmly [antiquitus tradito et retento firmo] in the baptism of infants. [Not related to the Pope, but a good text on being bound by Scripture and tradition.]

209.9. [A very sad letter from Augustine to Pope Celestine. Augustine had recommended a certain man for the episcopacy who ended up devastating. It seems to Augustine that only the Apostolic See can set things aright.] … Do not allow this to go on, I beg you by the blood of Christ, by the memory of Peter the apostle, who warned the leaders of Christian peoples not to lord it over brethren with violence. … Both of them deserve your mercy–the people in order that they may not suffer wrongs, Antonius in order that he may not cause them; they in order that they may not hate the Catholic Church if they do not received help from Catholic bishops, especially from the Apostolic See itself, against a Catholic bishop, but he in order that he may not involve himself in such a great crime that he alienates from Christ those whom he wants to make his own against their will.

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In a consequent post, I intend to highlight passages from Pope Innocent’s three responses, where he is far more explicit about the purpose of his office. Although these are not from Augustine’s own mouth, they indicate what the Church of Rome taught even in the 4th century concerning the Apostolic See.

One final quote from Augustine. This is from Sermon 131, speaking about the Pelagians: “Concerning this case, two councils were sent to the Apostolic See: whence also the responses came. The case is finished. [Causa finita est.]”