Monday, December 26, 2011

Review: St. Anthony: The Miracle Worker of Padua

St. Anthony: The Miracle Worker of Padua is one of those films that you always see in the Catholic film catalog and wonder if it is any good. It is always a crap-shoot with some of these Catholic-produced movies. Some are very good productions but still end up being bad movies, like Leonardo de Filippis' Therese. Others are poor productions by American standards but wind up being phenomenal films; the Spanish language Teresa of the Andes and Teresa de Jesus fall into this category. Some, like Patrick, are bad productions and bad movies, while others, like Padre Pio, wind up being all around decent. Then there are those saint films that are secular productions and may be anywhere on the spectrum, from Man for All Seasons (awesome) to Brother Son, Sister Moon (extremely questionable). Some secular saint films, like Becket are actually wonderful. and In short, when you look at these saint films, there is absolutely no way to know what you are getting in to.

Against this backdrop, St. Anthony comes off pretty well. The most famous episodes of Anthony's life are depicted well, the cinematography is excellent and the score is wonderful. The casting is spot on, with one exception, which I shall get to momentarily. There were a couple of tear-jerking moments, especially towards the end, and the whole film did a decent job of being faith-building. The film dwells not so much on Anthony's external ministry as much as his own internal struggles with pride and his desire to find and fulfill God's will. Like Teresa de Jesus, the focus is very introspective, though it is not handled quite as well.

I should also mention that the film is in Italian with English subtitles. To me this is a plus because subtitled movies are usually better than English language films, but if subtitles aren't your thing, then this movie isn't for you.

The big weakness in St. Anthony; The Miracle Worker of Padua is the same weakness shared by many other feature length films on saints: it spends way too much time developing how Anthony became a saint, focusing on his struggles in his pre-conversion life and his spiritual wandering to the point that by the time Anthony becomes sure of his mission and really starts to look "saintly", the film is practically over. Thus, we end up sitting down to watch a movie about Anthony the Saint but end up getting one about Anthony the worldly knight, Anthony the misguided, would-be Augustinian monk, Anthony the doubtful Franciscan full of inner turmoil but never really get to know Anthony the Saint. By the time the Saint does show up, it is so brief and rushed as to feel somewhat artificial and unbelievable. We have witnessed him struggling with pride, confusion and self-doubt for 75% of the film so that the miracles crammed in to the remaining 25% feel somewhat unrealistic.

This is a problem in many of these saint films; another one that comes to mind is Leonardo de Filippis' Therese, which dwells so exclusively on Therese going into the convent and her early life that, by the time we get to the Little Way, it seems just a footnote in the life of a character who does not come off as saintly at all. Perhaps the directors are trying to make the saints seem more "human"  by depicting these sorts of things in depth. But the fact is, when we watch a saint movie, we do not want to see the saints acting like us and dealing with petty troubles like we do; we want to see them acting saintly; i.e., transformed and transfigured by Christ's grace to be signs of God's presence in an unbelieving world. Paradoxically, in order to make the film believable, the saints should be depicted in a somewhat other-worldly (unbelievable) manner.

I mentioned one huge misstep in casting: while the actor who plays Anthony is perfect, and his side-kick Giulietto is likewise a great pick, the actor cast for the pivotal role of St. Francis of Assisi was terrible. The character is not central to the plot - he only shows up three times, I believe. But the presence of Francis is so important to the development of Anthony, both in the film and in real life, that the poor choice in casting this character is a definite detriment.

What is so bad about him? Well, without getting into too much detail, let's just say he looks and acts like Russell Crowe, which is about the last actor I would ever cast as Francis. Granted, St. Anthony depicts Francis in his older years, but what we have here is not the emaciated, half-blind yet joyful character from Bonaventure's biography, but rather a well groomed, rotund, and gruff character who seems almost too serious to be taken seriously as the Poverello. For all its other problems, at least Brother Son, Sister Moon did a great job in its casting for this part. Too bad St. Anthony missed out on this  important role.

All in all, this movie is decent. It is faith building, fairly historically accurate, and has good acting and cinematography. Like I said, though, it dwells too much on Anthony's struggles and not enough on his saintliness.  I give it two tiaras.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all of you, wherever you are! Here is an original composition a good friend of mine wrote. Some of you won't like it because it has drums; most of you will be able to get past that. In any case, Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What day was Jesus really born?

Since at least the 5th century, the birth of our Lord Jesus has been celebrated liturgically on the 25th of December. This date makes sense in the cycle of feasts, since it falls nine months after the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th). It is uncertain which feast came first; the Feast of the Annunciation originated sometime between 376 and 431 (Council of Ephesus), but it is not mentioned in the west until the time of Pope Gelasius (496). The Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) was celebrated from at least the third century and seems to have been fixed on December 25th sometime between 350 and 430.

The historical reasons for the dating of Christ's birth on December 25th are shrouded in mystery; many theories have been put forward. Some, denigrating the Catholic tradition, focus on the fact that the pagan feast of the birth of the sun god Sol Invictus also fell on December 25th. Other theories, relating to the winter solstice or to a Scandinavian pagan holy day, also have their supporters. In many cases, the implication of these theories is that Jesus was not really born on December 25th.

How can we tell when Jesus was born? Is there a way to tell when Jesus' real birthday is? Calculating the birthday of Jesus is not easy, and there really is no level of certainty that we can hope for here. Do we know when Jesus was really born? No. Can we use some data from the New Testament to narrow down the possibilities? I believe we can and, surprisingly enough, I think what we find vindicates a December birth for our Lord.

What we really need in examining this question is some fixed date, some event, to which we can "anchor" the events recalled in the Gospel of Luke. We already have a relative chronology: we know that Mary conceived our Lord six months after the conception of Elizabeth, for example. How can we anchor events such as the Annunciation and the Visitation to some concrete date or time?

The closest thing we have is the passage at the beginning of Luke's Gospel regarding the Temple service offered by Zachariah. Zachariah was a priest "of the division of Abijah" (Luke 1:5); this fact will be quite important. While in Jerusalem, "performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him." (Luke 1:8-11) The angel Gabriel told Zachariah that his barren wife, Elizabeth, was to bear him a son, and his name was to be John. "And it came about, that when the days of his priestly service were ended, that he went back home. And after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant." (Luke 1:23-24)

If we go back to 1 Chronicles 24, we read that the houses of Aaron were divided up into twenty-four "divisions", each serving God in the Temple on a kind of rotation throughout the year (see here). Abijah, the house to which Zachariah belonged, was one of these divisions. If we could find out when the division of Abijah was chosen to serve each year, we would know roughly the date of the conception of John the Baptist, and by adding fifteen months (Six of Elizabeth's pregnancy plus the nine months Mary was pregnant) we could get an idea of when our Lord was born.

The problem is that the Scriptures give us no data on when any certain division was on duty. For this, we have to turn to Jewish history and rabbinical tradition.

Josephus tells us that each division served from Sabbath to Sabbath, eight days, passing their duties on to the next division midday on the Sabbath (Against Apion, 2:8). Each division ended up serving approximately five weeks throughout the year, though this got a little complicated during major feasts (during Passover, for example, all twenty-four divisions served at once). So, pinpointing when Abijah was on duty would give us five potential "windows" of eight days each throughout the year from which to extrapolate our Lord's birth.

But when was Abijah, or any order, on duty?

An interesting point of evidence is that, according to Talmudic tradition, the destruction of the first temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. happened while the family of Jehoiarib was on duty. This event was so deeply burned in the Jewish psyche that it is not surprising they would have remembered what family was on duty. Consider the following passages:

"Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, and bad things on an unlucky day. It is reported that the day on which the First Temple was destroyed was the eve of the ninth of Ab, a Sunday, and in the year following the Sabbatical year, and the Mishmar [division] of the family of Jehoiarib were on duty and the Levites were chanting the Psalms standing on their Duchan (platform). And what Psalm did they recite? - [The Psalm] containing the verse, `And He hath brought upon them their own iniquity, and will cut them off in their own evil.' And hardly had they time to say, `The Lord our God will cut them off,' when the heathens came and captured them. The same thing too happened in the Second Temple." (Ta'anith 29a)

"It is said, The day on which the first Temple was destroyed was the ninth of Ab, and it was at the going out of the Sabbath, and the end of the seventh [Sabbatical] year. The [priestly] guard was that of Jehoiarib, the priests and Levites were standing on their platform singing the song. What song was it? `And He hath brought upon them their iniquity, and will cut them off in their evil.' They had no time to complete `The Lord our God will cut them off,' before the enemies came and overwhelmed them. The same happened the second time." (Arakin 11b).

Now, if Jehoiarib was on duty on the 9th of Ab (July 18th), and we consult the order of the priestly divisions of the sons of Aaron as recorded in 1 Chronicles 24, we see that Abijah was the eighth division and Jehoiarib the first. This means Abijah would have been serving eight weeks after Jehoiarib. Since we have a fixed date on which to place the service of Jehoiarib (July 18th), we can extrapolate the whole cycle and figure out when Abijah was on duty.

Unfortunately, there are many complications to this method, the biggest being that the priestly schedule was disrupted several times. For example, it was disrupted at the time of the Babylonian Exile. For seventy years Ezra 6:15-18 tells us that Ezra and Nehemiah had to reconstitute the divisions on a new schedule after the return from Babylon and even had to create four new orders because four of the old orders had been lost. This schedule was again disrupted at the time of the Maccabees.

Fortunately, we have another reference to the order from closer to Jesus' life: the time of the Second Temple. Like the first destruction, the second destruction also occurred in July (28th) and again, according to Josephus, Jehoiarib was on duty. Despite the disruptions and the creation of new divisions, if we presume that each division at least retained its similar place in the order throughout this time, we can use this method, to find at least eight weeks throughout the year when Abijah would have been serving. They are not even intervals of eight weeks, due to the fact that Abijah would have been serving at major feasts besides the regular intervals. These weeks are:

Jan 18-25
March 19-26
April 18-25
May 17-24
Aug 3-10

Sept 3-10
Oct 3-10
Nov 1-8

Zachariah would have been offering incense during one of these weeks. The fact that a "large multitude" was gathered outside the Temple further tells us that the specific day was probably one of the great feasts, either Passover, Pentecost or the Feast of Tabernacles.

Now, if we presume that Zachariah heard the message of the angel and John the Baptist was conceived during one of these intervals, specifically on one of the great Sabbaths or high feast days, then by extrapolating fifteen more months, we have the following dates as possible times when Christ was born:

Jan. 23
Apr. 10
June 11
July 10
Aug. 8
Oct. 25
Nov. 25
Dec. 25

Note that December 25th is one of the eight possible dates. If this were Christ's birthday, this would place the Annunciation on March 25th (in accordance with Tradition) and the conception of John the Baptist in the vicinity of October 10th. This would place Zachariah's temple service during the week of October 3rd-10th, which actually coincides with the Feast of Tabernacles, which fell during the week of September 29-October 5th in 6 BC.

This explanation is fraught with difficulties. Of course it could have been December 25th, but this explanation also allows for seven other possible dates. And, these dates themselves are all based on extrapolations from some very scanty evidence, mainly a few passages from Josephus. That being said, greater minds than I have certainly came up with this before; it was originated by St. John Chrysostom, though there is even dispute about that (some saying that the work this is found in is spurious). And there is much more reckoning that needs to be done that I omitted for the sake of brevity - calculations of Sabbaths, new moons, etc. spanning centuries, which is why even the Catholic Encyclopedia says such computations based on Zachariah's temple service are "unreliable"  "untrustworthy" and even "hopeless."

Is December 25th really Jesus' birthday? There is no way to tell for certain, but at least we know that the traditional date is not without grounds. We certainly can say that December 25th does have a solid biblical and historic support and allows us to comfortably explain the date of our Lord's Nativity without reference to the Sol Invictus or winter solstice theories.

Here is a good webpage with some more chronological information on Star of Bethlehem and further support for a winter nativity.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What did the Angel say to Mary?

As we celebrate the birth of our Lord later this month, and as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was this past week, we have will be hearing a lot of readings at Mass about the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

In the account of the infancy narrative of our Lord as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, the verse when Gabriel comes to visit is subject to an unusual amount of creativity in translation. We all know different versions of the Bible translate words differently, but this one verse has more variety than usual.  In Luke 1:28, we have the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce the conception of our Lord. Look at some translations of this passage:

  • "And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." (NAB)
  • "And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!"(RSV)"The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." (NIV)
  • "And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee." (KJV)
  • "And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women (NKJV)
  • "The angel came to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!" (ISV)
  • "And the angel being come in, said unto her: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." (Douay-Rheims)
  • "Gabriel appeared to her and said, "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!"(NLT)
  • "The Angel entered her presence, and he said to her, “Peace to you, full of grace, our Lord is with you; you are blessed among women.” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English, 2010)

While we could dwell on many elements of this passage, such as whether the correct translation is "favored woman", "highly favored one", or "full of grace", I think the initial greeting of the angel is interesting to look at, too. Does Gabriel say "Hail," "Greetings", or "Peace to you?" I have found that Protestants, who typically use either the New King James or the New International Version, prefer the translation "Greetings" or "Rejoice," frowning on the "Hail" of the Douay, old King James and NAB as implying that Mary has some sort of authority or power. After all, "Hail!" is a salute given to a superior. If the angel said "Hail" to Mary, one could make the argument that she is, in some manner, superior to the angel Gabriel.
The literal word in Greek here is chairō. We immediately encounter a problem in that chairō does indeed mean a formal, military salute or hail, but it can also be translated as greeting. Let's look at some other contexts in the New Testament where chairō is used. I tried to use passages where the translation was pretty much agreed upon between the NAB, RSV, NKJV and NIV:

"And forthwith  he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him" (Matt 26:49). The passage where Judas betrays our Lord. Clearly, the greeting chairō here denotes authority - a disciple greeting his teacher, and in the case of Jesus, more than just a teacher. Thus, "Hail" makes sense as a translation.

And platting a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand. And bowing the knee before him, they mocked him, saying: "Hail, king of the Jews."  (Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:18; John 19:3) I do not believe I have ever seen this verse translated in any other way than with the word "Hail." Indeed, "Greetings, king of the Jews" would make very little sense. This suggests that, even if this word chairō can be interpreted as "greetings" at times, it is never a casual greeting, but always a kind of greeting that implies an authority. The inference if this authority is what makes the use of the word by the soldiers so mocking. Had they not been mocking the claims about Jesus' authority, their use of the word chairō would not make any sense.

"And behold Jesus met them, saying: "All hail." But they came up and took hold of his feet, and adored him"  (Matt. 28:9). This verse is often translated "All hail!" in older translations, even Protestant ones, but more often as "greetings" in modern editions, Catholic and Protestant alike. This seems to be due to an evolving understanding of apostolic authority - a gradual shift ecclesiology from viewing the apostles as successors of Christ to viewing them as Jesus' "friends", for whom the salute "greetings" would be more appropriate than "hail." I think this change in ecclesiology was reflected in translation.

"Claudius Lysias to the most excellent governor, Felix, greeting." (Acts 23:26) Here is a case where we definitely can see how chairō would imply authority. If the word chairō meant a simple "hello" or good day" or something neutral, it would not be used by a Roman to salute an imperial governor. We know that what Claudius Lysias actually said to Felix (presuming they are speaking Latin and Luke is translating into Greek), is the word ave, which has unanimously been translated as "Hail" from time immemorial.

What conclusions can we draw here? While I think that sometimes the rendering of chairō as "greetings" might be appropriate, it seems that the context of how the word is used always denotes a kind of superiority or authority in the one to whom it is said, as exemplified by the use of the Latin ave ("hail") in translation. The use of chairō by Claudius Lysias to Felix, a superior, as well as the mocking way in which the Roman soldiers use the phrase when they denigrate our Lord reveals that this word carried with it an implication of authority.

So what did the angel say to Mary exactly? When Gabriel said chairō, he was acknowledging that she had an authority, that she was, in a way, his superior - not in the order of nature (where mankind ranks below the angels), but in the order of grace, where mankind is exalted above the angels and even made to sit in judgment over them. This superiority in the order of grace is why the next words of Gabriel after saluting this singular woman are Kecharitomene, literally "you who have been perfected in grace," but which the Vulgate translated as gratia plena, "full of grace" in the Douay-Rheims. But that is another discussion. It suffices to say that Mary is hailed as having authority over the angel because she is exalted above the angels in the order of grace and is truly Queen of the Angels, who form a kind of "honor guard" around her. Thus says a hymn for Morning Prayer in the Armenian Liturgy for the Feast of the Assumption: "O Mother of God, you are born aloft in the triumphal cars of the Cherubim, with Seraphim for your escort and the arrayed army of heaven’s hosts is prostrate before you." From the Ethiopian Missal comes: "O Mary, heart of the whole world, you are greater than the many eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, and heaven and earth are utterly full of the glory of your holiness."

Hail, full of grace!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

St. Cyprian on Tradition

Great quote from the Bishop of Carthage on the value of Tradition in discerning the truth when a question is in dispute:

"But there is a brief way for religious and simple minds, both to put away error, and to find and to elicit truth. For if we return to the head and source of divine tradition, human error ceases; and having seen the reason of the heavenly sacraments, whatever lay hid in obscurity under the gloom and cloud of darkness, is opened into the light of the truth. If a channel supplying water, which formerly flowed plentifully and freely, suddenly fail, do we not go to the fountain, that there the reason of the failure may be ascertained, whether from the drying up of the springs the water has failed at the fountainhead, or whether, flowing thence free and full, it has failed in the midst of its course; that so, if it has been caused by the fault of an interrupted or leaky channel, that the constant stream does not flow uninterruptedly and continuously, then the channel being repaired and strengthened, the water collected may be supplied for the use and drink of the city, with the same fertility and plenty with which it issues from the spring? And this it behooves the priests of God to do now, if they would keep the divine precepts, that if in any respect the truth have wavered and vacillated, we should return to our original and Lord, and to the evangelical and tradition; and thence may arise the ground of our action, whence has taken rise both our order and our origin" (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 73:10).

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Books Won't Imperil The Soul

A while back, someone suggested to me that I expand on my "Books That Won't Imperil The Soul" category on the sidebar and give a list of great books that would serve as ideal Christmas gifts while being edifying to the soul and enlightening to the mind. I think this is a great idea! So, without further ado:

Boniface's Christmas List of 15 Books that Won't Imperil the Soul (and Make Good Gifts)

To make it easier, I have divided these books into four categories based on content: History, Philosophy, Theology-Spirituality, and Literature. I have also divided them by difficulty - Beginner, Intermediate and Challenging, based on how much of a chore they are to read through and how much prior knowledge in the subject matter they require to comprehend. Each title also contain a direct link to the book on Amazon; I will also link them on the sidebar.


(Beginner) The Birth of France: Warriors, Bishops, and Long-Haired Kings by Katharine Scherman, 1987 (323 pages). Excellent history of the Merovingian kings of France, with all their glory and debauchery. The book is detailed and engaging but appropriate to someone new to the subject matter. Very colorful portrayal of an important era of French (and Church) history.

(Intermediate) Henry VIII by J.J. Scarisbrick, 1968 (561 pages). An extremely thorough yet readable biography of Henry VIII that is pretty even handed in its approach. The author takes care to really delve into the theological and canonical background of the divorce case. Catholics will feel the author has handled the material well. Very long, but worth the read.

(Challenging) The Rise and Fall of the Hapsburg Monarchy by Victor Tapie, 1969 (430 pages). This is an extremely dense book that takes you through the political and economic minutiae of the Hapsburg monarchy from the 15th century until World War I. Prior knowledge of basic Austrio-Hungarian history is necessary.


(Beginner) Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage by Jacques Barzun, 1958 (400 pages). Great historical-philosophical critique of Darwin, Marx and Wagner, whom the author all associates together as being positivists in their respective realms of science, politics and music. The author is not necessarily Catholic friendly, but he offers well thought out critiques of Darwinism, Marxism and modern music.

(Intermediate) Philosophy and Civilization in the Middle Ages by Maurice de Wulf, 1958 (299 pages). This little book is a wonderful overview of the interrelationship between philosophy and civilization in the medieval period. After looking at the tension inherent in the relationship between philosophy and theology, the author affirms the harmony between the two engendered by medieval civilization and the patronage of the Catholic Church.

(Challenging) The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas by Etienne Gilson, 1994 (502 pages). Classic on Thomistic theology, centering on the difference in Thomas' doctrine of esse from other philosophers. You'd better be proficient in Thomism to master this one.


(Beginner) Platitudes Undone by G.K. Chesterton, 1997 (105 pages). Hilarious and unique book; a facsimile reproduction of a book by Holbrook Jackson that G.K.C marked up, mocking Jackson's trite, Victorian platitudes. Great reading, and not too much of a commitment.

(Intermediate) My Antonia by Willa Cather, 2006 (272 pages). I was surprised how much I liked this book; one of the best American novels ever written, set in the American prairie of the late 1800s. Catholicism is treated in an interesting way; wife thought it was anti-Catholic, I thought it was pro-Catholic. Very sentimental and worth the time.

(Challenging) The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1954 (704 pages). Dostoevsky's greatest work, in my opinion. A frightening profile of the madness that is the logical conclusion of nihilism. Nobody delves into the human psyche quite like Dostoevsky, especially when revealing the malice potential in that psyche.


(Beginner) The Sign of the Cross by Msgr. Gaume, 2007 (158 pages). This little book has an astounding amount of history and insight on the Sign of the Cross, much of it information I had never come across anywhere else. Lots of small chapters make it easy to break down and read with ease.

(Intermediate) Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, 2002 (112 pages). Classic work of spiritual theology on the three conversions of soul a believer must go through on his path to Christian perfection, written by one of the 20th century's greatest theologians.

(Challenging) Poena Satisfactoria by John Joy, 2010 (106 pages). Have to recommend Anselm's book here, not because he is a better theologian than Lagrange, but because Largrange's book is more for popular consumption while Anselm's masterly inquiry into St. Thomas' theory of atonement is for a more scholarly audience. See here for my review of this excellent little treatise on Thomistic soteriology.

Finally, let me offer my "wildcard" book suggestion, which is just a kind of off the wall book that I picked up and happened to really enjoy but that kind of crosses categories:

The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story by Janet Gleeson, 1999 (336 pages). This is a fascinating book about the history of the discovery of porcelain by a German alchemist in the mid 18th century. This book tells a truly fascinating story of how crackpot alchemist Johann Frederick Bottger was locked up by the Duke of Saxony after boasting he could transmute lead into gold. The greedy Duke confined the hapless con-man in a tower, and in a Rumpelstiltskin like arrangement, giving him so much time in captivity to come up with gold before being put to death. In his panic to come up with gold, Bottger ended up discovering the secret of manufacturing porcelain on accident. This book is part investigative journalism, part science, and part history, but very interesting all the way around and skillfully written as well.

Hopefully all of this can give you some ideas for Christmas gifts for the discriminating reader!