June 24, 1535 The Cages of Münster

Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly debate.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now regarded as the beginning, of the Protestant Reformation.

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To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city, about 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Prince-Bishop of Münster Franz von Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm. Before long a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a pike for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on the evening of June 24, and into the early morning hours, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square some six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Three hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, hanging from the steeple at St. Lambert’s, to this day.

May 6, 1951 Father Wears Combat Boots

Father Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star by running through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. This was no rear-echelon ministry.

Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, he spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

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Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946 and rejoining, in 1948.

Father Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.

Kapaun’s unit entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950. He would minister to the dead and dying performing baptisms, hearing first confessions, offering Holy Communion and celebrating Mass from an improvised altar set up on the hood of a jeep.

Father Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. This was no rear-echelon ministry.

A single regiment was attacked by the 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day. For the 8th Cav., the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.

Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lt. Michael Dowe was among the prisoners, it’s through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of fellow prisoners.

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Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.

Chinese Communist guards would taunt him during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.

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Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. A short time later, he was incapacitated. Chinese guards carried him off to a “hospital” – a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “Death House”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager ration the guards had left for him. United States Army records report that Fr. Kapaun died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.

His fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on the 23rd, of malnutrition and starvation. He was only 35.

Scores of men credit their survival to Chaplain Kapaun. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with the Medal of Honor, posthumously, for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April, “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.

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Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Roman Catholic Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican. A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification and delivered a unanimous decision on June 21, 2016, approving the petition.

In January 2022  it was announced, that the Vatican is considering a declaration of martyrdom for the Catholic faith. If granted it’s an important step on Father Emil Kapaun’s continuing road, to canonization.

March 13, 1925 Trial of the Century

What began as a publicity stunt quickly became an overwhelming media event. 200 newspaper reporters from all over the country arrived in Dayton. Two come all the way from London. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day over thousands of miles of telegraph wires, specifically hung for the purpose.

On January 28, 1925, a measure prohibiting the teaching of evolution or denying the biblical account of the origin of man, passed the Tennesse House of Representatives, 71 to five. The Tennessee senate passed the so-called “Butler bill” named after Representative John Washington Butler on March 13, the measure signed into law that same month by Governor Austin Peay.

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It was now illegal to teach the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools, colleges and universities.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately announced an intention to sue, offering to defend anyone accused of violating the act. Local businessman George Rappleyea arranged a meeting with the county superintendent of schools and local attorney Sue Kerr Hicks, possibly the inspiration for Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” everyone remembers from the Johnny Cash song, of 1969.

The three met at Robinson’s Drug Store and agreed their little town of Dayton could use the publicity. The trio summoned 24-year-old High School football coach John Scopes, asking the part-time substitute teacher to plead guilty to teaching the theory of evolution. Scopes replied he couldn’t recall if he had done so or not, but he’d be more than happy to be the defendant if anyone could prove that he had.

Scopes stepped into legal history barely two months later. According to charging documents Scopes had used the textbook “Civic Biology” to describe the theory of evolution, race and eugenics. The prosecution brought in William Jennings Bryan to try the case. The defense hired Clarence Darrow. 

Two of the heaviest of jurisprudential heavy hitters of the day were now lined up in what promised to be, the “Trial of the Century”.

scopesBryan complained that evolution taught children that humans were no more than one among 35,000 mammals. He rejected the idea that humans were descended from apes. “Not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys”. The ACLU wanted to oppose the Butler Act on grounds that it violated the teacher’s individual rights and academic freedom, but it was Darrow who shaped the case, taking the position that theistic and evolutionary views were not mutually exclusive.

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What began as a publicity stunt quickly became an overwhelming media event. 200 newspaper reporters from all over the country arrived in Dayton. Two come all the way from London. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day over thousands of miles of telegraph wires, specifically hung for the purpose.

Trained chimpanzees performed on the courthouse lawn. Chicago radio personality Quin Ryan broadcast the nation’s first on-the-scene coverage of a criminal trial. A specially constructed airstrip was prepared from which two movie cameramen had their newsreel footage flown out, daily.

H.L. Mencken, writing for the Baltimore Sun, mocked the prosecution and the jury as “unanimously hot for Genesis.” Mencken labeled the town’s inhabitants “yokels” and “morons”. Bryan was a “buffoon” he claimed, his speeches “theologic bilge”. It was Mencken who dubbed the proceedings, “Monkey Trial”. The defense, on the other hand, was “eloquent” and “magnificent”.

Or so he claimed. Not the least little bit of media bias, there.

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After eight days of trial, the jury took only nine minutes to deliberate finding Scopes guilty on July 21. The gym teacher was ordered to pay a $100 fine, equivalent to something like $1,300, today. Scopes’ conviction was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, on the basis that state law required fines over $50 to be decided by a jury, and not by the judge presiding.

To this day you can find American creationists who believe that media reports turned public opinion, against the religious view.

Today, the Evolution vs Creation debate has faded to the background, but never really ended. Such discussions may be reasonably expected to continue. Neither view seems supportable by anything more than the faith, of its own adherents.

March 10, 1748 A Story of Redemption

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” ― John Newton

It was the Golden Age of Greek history, a time when “[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief…” according to the Greek poet, Hesiod. A time of Confucius and the Buddha in the east while the Olmec peoples ruled over much of South and Central America, a time when the Italian city-state of Rome overthrew a Monarch, to form a Republic.

Ancient Greece Costume - circa 500 BC2,500 years ago, Bantu farmers on the African continent fanned out across the land as the first Africans penetrated the dense rain forests of the equator, to take up a new life on the west African coast.

The Islamic crusades of the 7th and 8th centuries turned much of the Maghreb (northwest Africa) to Islam and displaced the Sahelian kingdoms of the sub-Saharan grasslands.   The hunters, farmers and traders of Coastal Africa remained free to make their own way, isolated by those same rain forests from the jihads and other violence of the interior.

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Sahelian Kingdoms of Sub-Saharan Africa

The first European contact came around 1462 when the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra mapped the hills surrounding modern Freetown Harbour, naming an oddly shaped formation Serra Lyoa (Lioness Mountain).

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Home to one of the few safe harbors on the surf-battered “windward coast”, Sierra Leone soon became a favorite of European mariners, some of whom remained for a time while others came to stay, intermarrying with local women.

From the 6th century to a peak of around 1350, Arab slave traders conducted a rich trans-Saharan trade in human beings.

According to the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, slavery among and between the African peoples of Sierra Leone appears to be rare at this time. Portuguese mariners kept detailed records and would have described such a thing though there was a particular kind of “slavery” in the region: “A person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, whereupon he became a “slave” of that king, obliged to provide free labour and liable for sale“.Arabslavers (1)While this type of “slave” retained rudimentary rights at this time, those unfortunate enough to be captured by Dutch, English and French slavers, did not.

It wasn’t long before coastal kidnapping raids gave way to more lucrative opportunities.  Some chieftains were more than happy to “sell” the less desirable members of their own tribes while others made a business out of war, taking prisoners to be traded for a fortune in European goods, including muskets.

While slave “owners” were near-exclusively white and foreign at this time, the late 18th century was a time of rich and powerful African chieftains, many of whom owned large numbers of slaves, of their own.1_bUM2OMXstOAZukyNAc8oFgThis was the world of John Newton, born July 24 (old style) 1725 and destined for a life, in the slave trade.

The son of a London shipmaster in the Mediterranean service, Newton first went to sea with his father at age 11 and logged six such voyages before the elder Newton retired, in 1742.

His was a wild youth, the life of a sailor bent on drinking and raising hell. That was all brought up short in 1743, when Newton was captured and “pressed” into service with the 50-gun HMS Harwich and given the rank, of midshipman.

The teenager hated everything about the naval service and tried to desert, earning himself a flogging for his trouble.

Eight. Dozen. Lashes. Imagine for a moment, enduring something like that.

Reduced to the rank of common seaman Newton was disgraced, wounded and humiliated. He vowed to murder the captain and hurl himself overboard but it wasn’t meant to be. The wounds healed over in time and, with the Harwich enroute to India, Newton transferred to the slave ship Pegasus, bound for West Africa.

Pegasus would trade goods for slaves in Sierra Leone to be shipped to colonies in the Caribbean and North America.maxresdefault (28)Newton hated life on the Pegasus as much as his shipmates, hated him. In 1745 he was abandoned in West Africa with a slave trader, named Amos Clowe. Newton was now himself a slave, given by Clowe to his wife Princess Peye of the Sherbro tribe, of Sierra Leone.  Peye treated Newton as badly as she treated any of her other slaves, treatment as wretched as that meted out to the human beings who had fallen into his own hands, as a slave trader. Newton himself later described these three years as “once an infidel and a libertine, [now] a servant of slaves in West Africa”.

Rescued in 1748 by his father’s request, Newton was returning to England aboard the merchant ship Greyhound when he experienced a spiritual awakening. Caught in a dreadful storm off Donegal, Greyhound seemed doomed when a great hole opened in her hull. Newton prayed for the mercy of God when a load somehow shifted, party blocking the hole. With pumps operating around the clock, the storm died down. Greyhound made port in Lough Swilly, Ireland, four weeks later.

With this conversion, John Newton had come to accept the doctrines of Evangelical Christianity.  On March 10, 1748 he swore off liquor, gambling and profanity.  For the rest of this life he would regard this day, as a turning point.

March 10, 1748 Amazing Grace

There’s a popular story that Newton’s life was changed then and there but it didn’t work out that way. Those hours of despair on board the Greyhound were an awakening, yes, but Newton would return to the slave trade. Even after the 1754 stroke which ended his seafaring career, he still invested in slaving operations.

His was a gradual conversion.  “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word” he later said, “until a considerable time afterwards.”

While working as tax collector in the Port of Liverpool, Newton studied Greek, Hebrew and Syriac, preparing himself for serious religious studies. In 1757 he applied to become an ordained minister, of the Anglican Church. Seven years would come and go when the lay minister applied with Methodists, Independents and Presbyterians.  He was ordained a priest of the Anglican church on April 29, 1764.

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Moving to London in 1780 as the Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth church, Newton became involved with the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

In 1788 he broke a long silence on the subject to take a forceful stand, against the “peculiar institution“. 

In his Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, Newton writes: “So much light has been thrown upon the subject…for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.”

Newton apologized for his past in “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.

The tract went on to two printings, describing the hideous conditions on board the slave ships and leading to an act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade, in 1807.67452William Cowper was an English poet and hymnist who came to worship in Newton’s church, in 1767.  The pair collaborated on a book of Newton’s hymns including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!,” “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare” and others.

“I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon”.  His last words

John Newton was a drunk, a carousing sailor and a slave trader who saw the light and left us one of the great hymns, of the last quarter-millennium.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

August 24, 1855 An Ungainly Old Chimney

193 engraved stones arrived from around the world but none met with half the fuss of that brought forth from the ancient Roman temple of Concordia and engraved with the words, ROME TO AMERICA. The gift of Pope Pius IX. The Catholic haters were aghast.

With a second Catholic president in the White House, it may surprise some to learn. This nation once harbored considerable anti-Catholic bias. Candidate John F. Kennedy tackled the issue head-on, addressing a Houston meeting of 300 Protestant ministers in an effort to separate the “honestly fearful”, from genuine bigots.

The strategy worked. Today, Catholic-issues voters have more in common with evangelical voters, than what separates them. Americans have come a long way but it wasn’t always, thus.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. Chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office), many were less than pious men. At one time the papacy itself was as political, as any public office..

The Protestant Reformation began with a series of events in the 16th century, aimed at correcting what were seen as errors and excesses of the Catholic Church.

Proponents of the Reformation strongly opposed the clerical hierarchy and particularly, the papacy. The Church of England broke with Catholicism under Henry VIII but, even then, groups such as Puritans and Congregationalists saw much to dislike in Church of England doctrine, based as it was on Catholic teachings.

So it was some of the earliest emigrants to the New World, harbored deep anti-Catholic bias.

George Washington was a passionate believer in religious tolerance and the importance of Christian virtue, in civil society. As General, Washington banned anti-Catholic celebrations such as Guy Fawkes day. Sensible of the indispensable contributions to independence made by Catholic France and Spain, many abandoned such prejudice for a deep and personal dislike, for British King George III.

Even so, some ideas die hard.

The Native American political party founded in 1844 had nothing to do with first nations. Originally begun as a secret society, the party was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-immigration, xenophobic and populist. The party held many views considered “progressive” in modern parlance, including opposition to slavery, support for an expansion of the rights of women, regulation of industry and a need for increased government spending. An early forerunner in the American temperance movement, the group’s strong anti-Catholic stance would later form the basis of the American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan.

“The Subtle Conspirator,” a 1926 anti-Catholic political cartoon by former Ku Klux Klan preacher Branford Clarke in the newsletter “Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty.” (Public Domain)

Immigration soared during the first half of the 1850s, to levels five times more than the previous decade. Most were poor Catholic peasants and laborers from Ireland and Germany, spawning conspiracy theories that the Pope was personally selecting these people, in order to exert influence.

Adherents to the self-described “American” party would claim ignorance when asked for specifics, by outsiders. Opponents derided them as “Know Nothings”.

Pierre L’Enfant was a French engineer who served with the Continental army, during the Revolution. In 1791, President George Washington appointed L’Enfant to design a home for the federal government, on the banks of the Potomac. George Washington personally laid the cornerstone, of the new Capitol building.

L’Enfant envisioned a large equestrian statue of the President, but Congress did nothing about it. Private enterprise stepped up to do the job in 1833 with the formation of the Washington National Monument Society founded by Chief Justice John Marshall, Librarian of Congress George Watterston and former President, James Madison.

Fundraising began in 1835 with donations limited to $1 per person, per year.

Architect Robert Mills’ plan was approved in 1845 for a 200-foot flat-topped obelisk, crowned with a statue of Washington in a chariot and surrounded by the 12-foot diameter columns of a “National Parthenon”, dedicated to heroes of the Revolution and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The original vision of the Washington Monument looks quite different, from what we have today.

On July 4, 1848, the 24,500 pound cornerstone was laid for the now-familiar Washington Monument in the nation’s capital. Inside a carved niche was placed a zinc capsule containing mementoes of the day including copies of the founding documents, currency, newspaper clippings and a long list of donated items.

Know-Nothings briefly emerged around this time, as a major political party. Future President Abraham Lincoln denounced the lot of them on August 24, 1855 in a letter to his close friend, Joshua Speed:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy”.

A. Lincoln

Peak year for the Know-Nothings came in 1856 with candidates elected to local office, and to the United States Congress. Meanwhile, fundraising continued for President Washington’s monument. It wasn’t just money, either. Engraved tablets came in from around the world, from individuals, Sunday school classes and Indian tribes. Organizations from the Masons to the Sons of Temperance, military units and the Odd Fellows all sent stones. At the 220-foot landing there’s a tablet from a group of Chinese Christians, all the way from Ningo, Chekiang Province, China.

193 engraved stones arrived from around the world but none met with half the fuss of that brought forth from the ancient Roman temple of Concordia and engraved with the words, ROME TO AMERICA. The gift of Pope Pius IX was announced on February 7, 1852 in the Daily National Intelligencer of Washington, D.C., page 4.

The Catholic haters were aghast.

Speeches were made and petitions went around. “This gift of a despot“, read one New Jersey petition, “if placed within those walls, can never be looked upon by true Americans but with feelings of mortification and disgust.

The Pope’s stone arrived in early 1854: 3-feet in length, 18-inches in height and 10-inches thick. It was placed in a shed on monument grounds called a lapidarium, there joining several other gift stones awaiting installation.

In a stunt familiar to anyone ever “fact checked’ on Facebook, Know-Nothings now changed tactics, demanding a “protest stone” be installed directly above the Pope’s tablet, and inscribed with some suitable refutation.

Then came the night of March 5-6. The heist. With night watchman George Hilton inside his guard shack, a group of men tied ropes around the hut, trapping Hilton inside. Newspapers were posted to cover the windows nearest the obelisk as the pope’s stone was wrestled, onto a hand cart.

The Potomac river was much closer in those days, before the land reclamation of the 1870s and ’80s. The stone was rowed out to the middle and splashed, to the muddy bottom.

The Monument Society put up a reward of $500, equivalent to ten times that amount today, but the bad guys were never caught. Hilton was suspected to be in cahoots with the thieves and fired, as he couldn’t explain why he couldn’t have opened the window or why that double barreled shotgun, remained by his side.

Know-Nothings not only destroyed the pope’s stone but now, members insinuated themselves into the Monument Society, itself. Contributions all but dried up particularly from Catholic donors and work ground to a halt, in 1858. For twenty years the thing sat. Incomplete. Mark Twain called the 153-foot stump of Washington’s monument, “An Ungainly Old chimney”.

Work resumed in 1878 but now stone was cut, from a different quarry. If you look closely you can see to this day the slight variation, in color.

It’s tough to get anything out of a bunch of guys, called Know-Nothings. Not until 1883 when an anonymous saloon keeper, probably one of the thieves, talked to the Washington Post. “If the dredges at work in the Potomac strike the right spot, they will fish up something that will create a sensation.” That’s just what happened in 1892 when a diver found a beautifully polished slab of pink marble on the muddy bottom engraved with the words, “Rome to America”. A few souvenir chunks were crudely chopped, out of the side.

Inscribed on the aluminum cap placed at the apex of the largest obelisk in the world are inscribed the words “Laus Deo”. Latin for “Praise be to God.”

Only two days later the stone was stolen once again, from a construction shack.

Nearly 100 years later a priest from the Other Washington – Washington state, commissioned a second stone.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II sent a white marble tablet bearing the Latin inscription, “A ROMA AMERICAE” – “Rome to America.”

That first stone, was never found. The second was installed at the 340-foot level where it remains, to this day.

July 17, 2004 Christ of the Abyss

Gonzatti’s fellow diver Duilio Marcante conceived an idea to honor his friend. A monument to the world beneath the waves and dedicated to those who had lost their lives at sea.

Man’s desire to enter the underwater world goes back to antiquity. Aristotle tells of Alexander the Great descending into the waters of the Mediterranean in something called a “diving bell”, as early as 332BC. The Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci designed a similar apparatus, adding a face mask and reinforced supply hoses, to withstand the pressure of the depths.

Diving bell, 1691

The first on-demand underwater breathing valve came about in 1860s France, thanks to the work of inventors Benoît Rouquayrol, and Auguste Denayrouze. British diving engineer Henry Albert Fleuss developed the first commercially viable “rebreather” in 1878, using an air bag and rope fiber soaked in potash to “scrub” carbon dioxide from exhaled air.

The 20th century brought with it new and improved methods of pumping, and storing, compressed gas. By the 1930s every major belligerent of the coming war, had developed its own underwater breathing apparatus.

Dario Gonzatti was the first Italian to use SCUBA gear and paid for it with his life in 1947, near the village of San Fruttuoso, on the Italian Riviera.

Gonzatti’s fellow diver Duilio Marcante conceived an idea to honor his friend. A monument to a world beneath the waves and dedicated to those who had lost their lives at sea. A 2½ meter tall bronze sculpture, Il Cristo degli Abissi. Christ of the Abyss.

There followed a period of collecting the metal. Cannon and other brass objects, retrieved from wrecks. Mothers and sweethearts sent coins and medals given to sailors, who never returned.

Sculptor Guido Galletti created the clay positive from which the mold was cast. A 2.5 meter (8.2 feet) likeness of Jesus Christ weighing in at 260 kg (573 pounds) without the foundation, eyes raised to the heavens and arms outstretched, in supplication. A benediction for untold numbers, lost at sea.

That first “Christ of the Abyss” was lowered in 57-feet of water on August 22, 1954, near the spot where Dario Gonzatti, lost his life.

The Cove of San Fruttuoso

Over the years, crustaceans and corrosion took their toll. A hand was broken off, by an anchor line. The statue was removed after a half-century and repaired, and re-lowered on July 17, 2004 to a newly-built foundation.

Since that first installation in 1954 two other Christ of the Abyss statues have descended into the depths, both cast from the same clay original. The first was a gift of gratitude given by the navy of Genoa, for assistance from the people of Granada in rescuing the crew of the Italian vessel MV Bianca, destroyed by fire in the port of St. George. That one was placed seven years after the original on October 22, 1961.

Italian dive equipment manufacturer Egidio Cressi donated a third to the Underwater Society of America, in 1962. This one was installed after much debate on August 25, 1965 in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo, Florida, the first underwater park in the United States.

Located in only 25-feet of water with hands but 8 to ten feet below the surface, the site remains a popular destination for underwater selfies, from that day to this.

June 24, 1535 Doctrinal Differences

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations.


A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly disputation.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at the preacher’s growing influence, church authorities banned Rothmann from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February 1532 and installed Rothmann, as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time would be very different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on June 25, 1535, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two, be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Their hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages, were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only, by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

June 21, 1633 The Last Word

Revenge it is said, is a dish best served, cold.

From the time of antiquity, science took the “geocentric” view of the solar system. Earth exists at the center of celestial movement with the sun and planetary bodies revolving around our own little sphere.

The perspective was widely held but by no means unanimous.  In the third century BC the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

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Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus wisely refrained from publishing such ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) on awakening on his death bed, from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes and never opened them again.

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Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. The “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, Galileo’s improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

Bad news for Galileo, they also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact and formed the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

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Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on June 21, 1633: “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. Refusing to accept the validity of his own conviction, the astronomer muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors. 

His final wishes were ignored at the time, though not forever. His final wishes would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred according to his wishes, in the basilica.

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Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

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“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Even so, the condition of Galileo’s body may have made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, one Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737. The digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy. 

Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popup100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day these are the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

379 years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that or the most famous middle finger on earth, flipping the bird in eternal defiance to those lesser specimens who once condemned him, for ideas ahead of his time.

April 15, 1889 Damien of Moloka’i

“I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work I am perfectly resigned to my lot”. Saint Damien of Molokai

It’s one of the oldest diseases in recorded history, the first written reference coming down to us, from 600BC. Ancient Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Middle Eastern sources wrote about the condition as did the Roman naturalist Pliny the elder, in the first century.

Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. Left untreated the condition produces skin ulcers, damage to peripheral nerves & upper respiratory tract, and muscular weakness. Everyday injuries go unnoticed due to numbness and lead to infection. Advanced cases result in severe disfigurement, crippling and/or the physical loss of hands, feet & facial features, and, finally, blindness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a death rate among leprosy sufferers four times that of the general population.

First discovered by Norwegian physician G.H. Armauer Hansen in 1873, M. leprae is the first bacterium identified as the causative agent of disease, in humans. Today, Leprosy is curable with multidrug therapy (MDT). The world saw 208,619 new cases in 2018, 185 of which occurred, in the United States.

The horrors of the condition and resulting social stigmas, are plain for anyone to see. Today, sufferers fear loss of jobs, separation of familial and other connections and social isolation. Though not as widespread as commonly believed, victims of “Hansen’s disease” were historically sent off to quarantine in asylums and “leper colonies” from which few, ever returned.

In the 19th century, Mycobacterium leprae came to the Hawaiian islands.

According to research, long-distance explorers first came to the Hawaiian islands around the year 300. For the next 500 years, settlers arrived from French Polynesia, Tahiti, Tuamotus and the Samoan Islands. Other research indicates a shorter timeframe, settlement occurring between 1219 and 1266. Be that as it may the Hawaiian islands were first unified in 1810 to become the Kingdom of Hawai’i, under King Kamehameha the Great. Captain James Cook made the first known European contact in 1778 followed by waves of others both European, and American.

King Kamehameha statue, stands in front of Aliiolani Hale (the judiciary building), Honolulu, Oahu

According to archaeological evidence, indigenous peoples occupied the Kalaupapa peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, for more than 900 years. Before first contact with Europeans their numbers are estimated, between 1,000 and 2,700, . Following the arrival of Captain Cook and others, Eurasian diseases decimated native populations. By 1853 only were 140 natives were left on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Overhead view of the Kalaupapa peninsula

Leprosy first arrived on the Hawaiian islands around 1830, believed to be carried by Chinese laborers. The disease was incurable at that time, the first effective treatment didn’t come around, until the1940s.

By 1865, sugar planters were concerned about the labor supply. The Kingdom passed a measure to remove the Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian inhabitants occupying the peninsula, in preparation for a leper colony.

The first such isolation settlement was established at Kalawao on the windward side of the peninsula and then on Kalaupapa, itself.

Even after a year of family disruption brought about by government response to Covid-19 the catastrophe of such a policy, is hard to process. In native Hawaiian tradition, Aloha ʻĀina means not only “Love of the Land” but a deep sense of connection, to all living things. For the descendants of those forcibly removed from the ʻĀina as well as those “lost” to Kalaupapa the wounds remain open, to this day.

By 1890, 1,100 ‘lepers’ lived in this remote, inhospitable place, prisoners of their own deteriorating bodies and a greater culture who loathed, and feared them.

Over the years some 8,500 unfortunates would come to live in this place, the last one, in 1969.

Rudolph Wilhelm Meyer set out from his native Germany in search of the California gold rush. He made it as far as Molokaʻi. By 1866, Meyer was a father and husband to Kalama Waha, settled on the steep cliffs above Kalaupapa. As the peninsula became a leper colony, Meyer became supply agent to the colony and liaison to those few healthy individuals, willing to work there.

Mostly, those were Belgian missionary priests from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the first of whom was Father Damien, who served there from 1873 until his death, in 1889.

Fr. Damien in 1873 before sailing, for Hawai’i

Father Damien arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa on May 10, 1873. At that time there were 600 lepers. He spoke to the assembled unfortunates as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”

After the Fr. Damien’s death of leprosy, commentators complained of contemporary accounts diminishing the work of native Hawaiians, some of whom served prominent roles on the island. While such are accounts are likely true enough there is no diminishing what the man did there.

For 16 years, father Damien lived and worked among the lepers of Molokaʻi. He ate with them, from the same bowls. He smoked with them, from the same pipe.

While the government had no desire to make this place a penal colony, outside support was slim to none. And this was no isolated population of yeoman farmers, these people were sickened and made weak by this most dreadful of medical conditions, many barely able to care for themselves.

Damien was not only a priest and teacher, he pitched in painting houses, organizing farms and building roads, hospitals and churches. He dressed the wounds of the stricken, built their coffins, dug graves and lived with the lepers, as equals. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

Father Damien and sister Marianne Cope have both received Roman Catholic Sainthood, for their actins on Molokaʻi

One day, it happened. In December 1884, he accidentally put his foot in scalding water. It was so hot that his skin blistered and peeled but he didn’t feel a thing. Father Damien was now himself, a leper.

Despite the illness destroying his body, Damien worked even harder in the last years of his life. He completed several building projects and improved orphanages, all while aiding his fellow lepers in their treatments and medical baths and spreading the Catholic faith. King David Kalākaua bestowed on the priest the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua.” When Crown Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani arrived to present the medal she was said to be too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of those poor people, to even speak.

Princess Liliʻuokalani spoke of her experience bringing the plight of Father Damien and his flock, to the eyes of the world. European and American protestants sent money to help with the work. The Church of England sent food, medicine and supplies. It is believed that Fr. Damien never wore his medal but he went to his grave, with it by his side.

Japanese leprologist Masanao Goto arrived to treat the lepers of Molokaʻi with medical baths, moderate exercise and friction applied to parts, benumbed by disease. Goto’s treatments were popular with his patients but, in the end, there was little hope. Four volunteers arrived in the end to aid the ailing missionary including sister Marianne Cope, a woman who would one day join Father Damien, in Roman Catholic sainthood.

Father Damien on his deathbed, 1889

By February 1889, the end was near. With his foot in bandages and an arm in a sling, his other leg dragging uselessly behind, Damien went to his death bed on March 23. Father Damien died of leprosy at 8:00am on April 15, 1889. He was 49. The entire colony turned out the following day as the Belgian missionary was laid to rest beside the same pandamus tree under which he had slept those sixteen years earlier, on his first night in Molokaʻi.

In John 15:13, the King James Bible teaches that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Today, I wonder how many know the name of Father Damien, of Molokaʻi . Or the faith which would bring a person to willingly submit to the literal rot, of such a hideous condition.

Let Mahatma Ghandi, himself no stranger to the horrors of leprosy, have the last word on that subject: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who, after the example of Fr. Damien, have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism“.

Feature image, top of page: Kalaupapa leper colony in 1905

January 26, 897 The Cadaver Synod

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…his predecessor’s deceased predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

Sometime down the road, future historians will remember this month for things that none of us ever thought we’d see. Concertina wire surrounds our nation’s capitol. Soldiers fill the streets of Washington as we are left to wonder.

Did somebody put Idi Amin in charge?

With so many needs to be met by the people we put in office, we get the bizarre spectacle of an “impeachment” and removal of a private citizen, who already left. The whole procedure is so outlandish the constitutionally mandated presiding officer, declines to show up. You would think these people have nothing better to do.

Someone once said “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, knew what they were talking about.

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…the dead guy who came before his predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

According to Catholic church doctrine, the Pontifex maximus sits at the head of the church from the time of Peter, to the present day. Today, the Cardinals meet in secret conclave to elect the bishop of Rome, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century the Papacy was often as political, as any public office.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. They were chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office). It was inevitable that some would be…umm…less than pious men.

Relations between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire were particularly incestuous. First appearing on the scene in 754 after Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin III “The Short” “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans), emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were known to select Popes and Popes, emperors.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once quipped: “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

Formosus became Cardinal of Porto in 864 and representative of the Pope in Bulgaria, two years later. Many considered the man to be a candidate for the papacy, as early as 872.

That was the year, political issues caused Formosus to beat a hasty retreat from Rome.

Anyone ascending the heights of such a system was bound to have powerful allies. And powerful adversaries. The Cardinal’s enemies, pounced. Pope John VIII ordered Formosus defrocked and excommunicated.

Excommunication might seem a real career killer in his line of work but the sanction was lifted, in 878. Formosus could never return to Rome or resume his priestly functions, but that too was restored, five years later. In 891, Formosus was unanimously elected Pontiff to succeed Pope Stephen V.

Formosus served in a time of great political upheaval. There were problems with Saracens. Power struggles within the eastern church, in Constantinople. The Frankish kingdoms were in a state of upheaval and, worst of all, Formosus supported the German king Arnulf for succession to Holy Roman Emperor, over emperor Guido III of the powerful clan of Spoleto.

Pope Formosus died of natural causes on April 4, 896. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lived for 15 days. Some say Boniface died of gout, others that he was poisoned by supporters of his successor, Steven VI.

Even by Medieval standards, Pope Stephen VI must have been some piece of work. In January 897, Stephen had Formosus dug out of the ground, dressed in papal vestments and put on trial.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not

With the corpse propped up on a throne, the outcome was never in doubt. A church deacon attempted to speak for the defendant while Stephen himself shrieked at the corpse, rehashing the old charges of John VIII.

Unsurprisingly, the dead man was convicted. Stripped of his robes, Formosus was clad in the garb of a layman. His papacy was annulled, ordinations cancelled and the three “blessing fingers” of his right hand, hacked off.

The body was buried in a pauper’s grave but even now the revenge of Stephen VI, was unsated. The Pope ordered Formosus dug up yet again and thrown into the Tiber River.

The episode led to widespread outrage, possibly at the behest of Stephen’s enemies. The Pope was incarcerated in the Summer of 897 and strangled, while still in prison.

The cadaver synod ushered in 100 years of corruption of the Holy See known by some as the “Saeculum obscurum” – the Dark Age/Century, and by others, the “Pornocracy”.

Fast forward 39-score and one and it’s January 26, 1661. Four days from now, January 30, the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, one-time “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” would be dug up and “executed”, by decapitation. The body was hung up in chains while his head was mounted on a pike, outside Westminster hall. That thing stayed there, for 24 years. Sold and sold again, Cromwell’s head would at last go to its final rest some 299 years later. In 1960.

History rhymes, indeed.

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