The Christian Heritage Centre


Our Lady, the Rosary and Europe

11th October 2021

Our Lady, the Rosary and Europe

Stefan Kaminski

Since the end of the 19th century, October has been dedicated to the Holy Rosary. Of all the devotions to Our Lady, the rosary is the most notable, of course. Indeed, the place of the Rosary at the forefront of Marian devotion particularly, and Catholic prayer generally, is reinforced by the fact of the Church having established a universal Feast of the Holy Rosary, which is celebrated on the seventh of October, and from which grew the dedication of the entire month to this prayer.

In this month of October then, it’s worth calling to mind both the origins of the Rosary as well as its historical role in the fortunes of Christian Europe. Although the challenges facing Christians and Catholics today have a different aspect and character, the nature of those challenges to the Faith remains the same.

Tradition tells us that it was St Dominic who received the Rosary from Our Lady in response to his plea for help in the face of the Albigensian heresy. Surfacing near Toulouse in the eleventh century, this corruption of the Christian faith took a particular hold in the southern French territories in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Albigensian heresy, though formally speaking long extinct, is not entirely irrelevant to today’s dialogue with a secular world.

The Albigenses held a belief in two opposing principles of existence: a good principle and an evil principle. They held the good principle to be the creator of the spiritual world, and the evil principle to be the creator of the material world. Thus, a fundamental rupture with the Christian faith takes place: the good principle is not all-powerful, being co-equal to the evil principle; and material creation is not good, being the work of the evil principle, and therefore not redeemable. Morally speaking, this resulted in a dualistic view of the human person, where the body – and all activity related to it – seen as something to be supressed and denied.

On the face of it, this does not seem to bear much similarity to today’s attitudes to the body, which simultaneously exalt bodily desire, justifying all forms of its expression, and degrade the body by objectifying it. Underneath however, lies the same problem: an inability to grasp and to accept the intrinsic goodness of the body’s natural ordering. If for the Albigenses the material world was evil, today’s secular world sees the material world as meaningless. Thus, where the Albigenses repressed, we manipulate according to our desires. And we forget that these desires remain profoundly marked by sin.

In the midst of the division and conflict caused by this heresy, St Dominic presented the Rosary to the Catholic faithful as an antidote. This might strike some as slightly strange, if we consider St Dominic as a great preacher and founder of an order that has a particular charism for teaching. Why not combat an error of thinking with an irrefutable piece of writing or speaking? And here lies a two-fold lesson.

Firstly, our rational knowledge or understanding of the faith can never be separated from the life of prayer. At both a corporate (i.e. the Church) and individual level, that which we pray informs that which we believe. This is summed up in the ancient axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi (the law prayed is the law believed). The rosary is a particularly powerful instrument in this respect, as it directs us to meditate on the key moments of the story of God’s Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection amongst us.

Pope Pius V Credits Our Lady of the Rosary with the Victory at the Battle of Lepanto, Grazio Cossali , 1563-1629

Secondly, Our Lady has a particular and active part to play in nurturing and defending the Church, of whom she is the Mother. An appeal to Mary was not just successful in the case of the Albigensians, where the Rosary was seen as securing their final defeat at the Battle of Muret in 1213, but has a strong track record since. Most notably is the Battle of Lepanto, where the threat of the Turkish empire overrunning and extinguishing Christian Europe was, and has ever since, been attributed to the plethora of rosaries offered publicly and privately in response to Pope Pius V’s call for prayer.

Less-known, but equally important, was the previous Turkish attempt to gain a foothold in Europe in 1565, with the Great Siege of Malta. Again, after much Marian invocation, the Turkish fleet – the largest recorded in history to that date – sailed away from Malta with its army and weaponry, never to return, on the Feast of Our Lady’s birthday. Similarly, the victories of Christendom at the Battles of Vienna in 1683 and of Peterwardein (Hungary) in 1716 against the same Turkish aggressors were attributed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Numerous other histories of victory or protection, not just physical but also spiritual, exist, which this article will have to leave to the reader to discover for themselves!

Although the Faith and its practice may be on something of a decline in modern-day Western Europe, a powerful reminder of our historical devotion to Our Lady and her concern for us remains emblazoned on the very flag of the European Union. Aside from the devout Catholics who were behind the original EU project – such as Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi – the designer of the flag, Arsene Heitz, told Lourdes magazine how his inspiration had come from the Book of Revelation: “a woman clothed with the sun… and a crown of twelve stars on her head”. Coincidentally (or perhaps God-incidentally!), the flag was adopted on 8th December 1955: the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Our Lady of Europe, pray for us!

Christian soldiers in the Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea and Bormla are surrounded by the Turkish army on Malta
The EU flag designed by Heitz draws from the Book of Revelation
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St Catherine, Patroness of Europe and Italy

29th April 2021

St Catherine, Patroness of Europe and Italy

Stefan Kaminski
View of the Court d'honneur at the Papal Court at Avignon, France

Europe has six patron saints, amongst them St Catherine of Sienna, who is also shared with Italy as patron saint and whose feast is today.

The remarkable Catherine is known, amongst other things, for her hard-hitting reform of Church politics, including persuading the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon and reconciling his successor with the Roman Republic. What is even more remarkable though, is that she did all this before dying at the age of 33.

Neither was Catherine brought up in the sort of circles that were used to such high-level diplomacy. She was the youngest of the large family of a tradesman, who nonetheless was one of a faction that ruled the Republic of Sienna for a brief period in between revolutions. Born in 1347, she was graced with a deep love for Christ and with visions from her earliest years. This put her firmly on the path towards a consecrated, religious life as the means to unite herself to her one, true Love. Her hard-headedness was quickly revealed as this course of life was not quite what her parents hoped for. Indeed, aged 16, she cut off her long, beautiful her in protest against their desire for her to attract a suitable husband.

Giovanni di Paolo, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena
The tomb of St Catherine in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

However, in her active and practical mind Catherine was equally sure that she did not want a cloistered life. She therefore joined the lay branch or third order of the Dominicans, choosing to wear the Dominican habit and making a promise to God of celibacy. After three years of enclosed prayer (aged 16 to 19) and mystical experience, she emerged to begin serving the sickest and poorest in the Sienese community. Her joy, deep spiritual insight and practical wisdom quickly attracted a group of men and women disciples around her. Together, they began travelling the country, calling both the laity to conversion and the clergy to reform.

In 1370 (aged 23), Catherine received a particular vision of the next life and, together with this, a call to enter public life. She began to write letters to influential public figures, extending her call to conversion to them. The depth of philosophical and theological knowledge that she had gained through prayer, and her complete dedication to God, resulted in this young lady quickly gaining the attention of the day’s leaders, including Pope Gregory XI.  The latter was currently residing in Avignon, which had been sold to the Papal States in 1348. Catherine was adamant that the Pope should reside in his own see (like any other bishop), wanting him to reform the clergy generally and also the administration of the Papal States, and so to help bring peace to a fractured Italy.

In 1376, she was sent as an ambassador for Florence to the Pope in Avignon to sue for peace in the war that had broken out between the two. Although she was unsuccessful at that moment (mainly due the constant shifts in power in the Florentine government), the impression she made on the Pope convinced him to return to Rome, despite the opposition from his cardinals and the French King. Back in Rome, the Pope in turn sent her to Florence to negotiate peace in 1378. After a tumultuous six months in Florence, during which she narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, peace was finally achieved. In the meantime however, Gregory XI had died and been succeeded by Urban VI.

The election of Pope Urban VI was followed by a schism within the Western Church, as the electing cardinals, influenced by political concerns and pressures, backtracked on their choice. Claiming an invalid election, a small number of cardinals elected another candidate, who settled into Avignon as Clement VII.

Catherine, in the meantime, returned to Rome, continuing to work strenuously to effect reforms amongst the clergy and to serve the destitute in the city – as she had continued to do in Siena. She also took up the cause of Pope Urban VI and the unity of the Church, sending streams of letters to low and high alike, in all directions. At the beginning of 1380, she began suffering a mysterious agony after imploring the Lord to take her body in sacrifice for the unity of the Church and for the sins of the world. This suffering culminated in her death on 29th April, but not before her last diplomatic coup of bringing about a reconciliation between the Roman Republic and Urban VI.

St Catherine’s remains are buried under the high altar of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, next to the Pantheon. She leaves us some 400 letters, besides her prayers and key work, the “Dialogue”, which together are recognised as having greatly influenced Italian literature.

Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Dictating Her Dialogues
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A change of Christian climate, and its deniers

Friday 7th February 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

A change of Christian climate, and its deniers

Stefan Kaminski

That there is a change in the Earth’s climate is an undisputable fact. The significance of that change is debated by some. Others label these people as ‘climate change deniers’. However, there has also been a different sort of ‘climate change’ going on for a while, which also has its own set of rather vocal deniers.

In last month’s article on Christian heritage, Sr Emanuela Edwards wrote eloquently of the significance of the Magi’s journey. She noted their wisdom and courage in recognising and following the star, which guided them to the full revelation of the Incarnate God. 

Her article was a call to Christians today to offer such a “guiding star” to the people of our own times by their witness to the faith. The particular need for visible ‘stars’ in contemporary society was already present in St Pope Paul VI’s time: she noted that he had already identified a “rupture between the Gospel and culture as the drama of our time”. 

Christianity has provided the general ‘climate’ for European culture for the best part of the last two millennia. It has shaped the greatest thinkers, writers, artists and scientists who stand unchallenged at the pinnacle of what Europe has to offer. From Augustine to John Paul II, from Agnelli to Pugin, from Albertus Magnus to George Lemaître: they were all formed by a certain worldview, which has gradually been divorced and discarded by modern thinking. 

That worldview, which the scholastic thinking of the Medieval period had elaborated and expressed so clearly, understood the entire cosmos as being in an inherent relationship to God. Creation is not seen merely as a onetime, distant event somehow linked to God, who is then subsequently written out of everything that happens since; creation is a continual act of holding everything in being, intentionally guiding every development in the cosmos, however random these may appear to us.

The Gothic masterpiece of Amiens Cathedral

 Frank Sheed (of Sheed & Ward publishers), described it as “nothingness worked upon by omnipotence”. Deliciously succinct, this phrase captures the two essential facts about our world, from a Christian point of view: it would not exist if God did not will it; it only continues to exist because God continues to will it.

This is the perspective that underwrote our Western culture, providing direction and impetus for both the sciences and the arts. The meeting of faith and culture was not simply a convenient intertwining of two parallel strands: culture was shaped by faith. Nonetheless, many academics today insist on minimising, if not altogether setting aside, the religious dynamic when delving into the minds of those cultural icons whom we all admire. A bit like today’s climate change deniers (but in reverse), they attempt to write the significance of a previous, Christian climate out of the textbooks. 

One such icon whose Christian adherence and life is frequently downplayed is the Victorian polymath, John Ruskin. He was the subject of our first evening talk of the year at The Christian Heritage Centre. Professor Keith Hanley, of Lancaster University, offered a fascinating insight into John Ruskin’s Travels on the Continent, providing us with a view of European art through this particular set of English eyes. Brought up as a devout evangelical, Ruskin had clear ideas of what defined good landscape painting. As the epigraph to his five-volume series on modern landscape painting stated, ‘Nature presented the laws behind God’s creation for mankind. Landscapes, therefore, were worthy insofar as they revealed the truth, the beauty and the intelligence of God’s creation.’

John Ruskin

In Ruskin’s opinion, the realism of William Turner was the epitome of this artistic form, which formed the comfortable confines of Ruskin’s artistic world for his early years. 

But Ruskin’s first solo trip to Italy changed all that. There, he was confronted – and indeed, “utterly crushed”, as he put it – by the revelation of the full ‘Art of Man’. His initial encounter with Jacopo Tintoretto’s work in the School of St Roch, and in particular with Tintoretto’s Crucifixion, opened his eyes to the world of “theological symbolism of the entire Christian scheme of redemption”, as Prof Hanley expressed it. Thereafter, while his views continued to evolve, they were marked by a new and lively sensibility to the transcendent world, which informed and brought a whole new significance to the material order. 

Indeed, his very last work, on the Gothic cathedral of Amiens, recognised the full drama of the medieval worldview that is so wonderfully expressed in the cathedral’s West Front: the interconnectedness of everything, from the lowliest elements of creation to the highest personages in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in a single, allembracing path to Christ.

Our next evening talk at The Christian Heritage Centre, Stonyhurst will pick up another figure who has been recently “rediscovered” and again often remoulded to the post-Christian thinking of today: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. His realism, often considered in purely psychologically terms, has even led some to consider him a 20th century painter in spirit. Yet his genius is firmly grounded in the dynamism between the spiritual and earthly worlds, and his ability to communicate this. 

Providing a “guiding star” to the one true Creator and Redeemer of the world in today’s society also requires being able to point to and reclaim the fruits that have been borne by our faith over the course of its history. 

There are plenty of voices ready to point out the apparent defects of Christianity and the problems they claim it has caused; we need more voices that can speak eloquently of the truth and beauty that Christianity has engendered over the centuries in our Western culture.

 Stefan Kaminski is the Director of the Christian Heritage Centre, Stonyhurst.