His Glory is our Ransom from Death
My more avid readers may remember some time back when I recommended to you a book I had found on Kindle by the soon to be beatified Servant of God John Henry Cardinal Newman entitled: Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert. Well, I’ve found another jewel in Newman’s crown to recommend to you entitled: Callista: a Tale of the Third Century.
This one is set in North Africa and tells the remarkable story of a young woman martyred for the faith at Sicca during the Decian persecution. The Cardinal is really a wordsmith and enriches the narrative with some beautiful descriptions of the North African countryside. It’s a very grownup book in the sense that it describes in great detail a number of characters in their search for faith. Callista, a young woman in her late teens, is indeed noble in her bearing as a pagan and more so in her search for faith; Agellius could as well be a young man of our day and time, noble in his own way, but awkward enough for any young man to be able to identify with him; the salvation of Agellius’ brother Juba for good deeds done despite his folly is in sharp contrast to Callista’s poor brother Aristo who rejects completely his sister’s choice of everlasting life over passing pleasures. The book is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking. It is a challenge to men and women of good will to grow in the faith of their baptism.
Apart from the rich food for thought provided by these character descriptions and Newman’s assessment of pagan society (at its best and at its worst), I think that what held my attention more than anything was the notion that the Decian persecution was not provoked by the Church’s vitality but by the Empire’s own debility and its search for a scapegoat. Decius’ edict pursued a Church for the most part already prostrate and on the verge of extinction under the weight of its own decadence after fifty years of tolerance by civil authorities. Agellius, baptized at his own request as a six year old, experienced Eucharist for the first time in his life as a young adult in the refuge in the hills above Sicca. He had memories of an elderly bishop, but had basically grown up without the sacraments or the community of faith, saying his night prayers at home and trying to live according to Gospel precepts. His brother Juba had remained a rebellious catechumen, scorning his stepmother’s paganism but unwilling to move forward for all of his young life.
In his novel, Callista: a Tale of the Third Century, Newman has crafted a hymn to hope and the power of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit. That Callista should come to faith and baptism through the good example of a slave girl, from casual conversations with Agellius, and after a hasty exchange about everlasting life with St. Cyprian, who entrusted a scroll of Luke’s Gospel to her which she then read in prison, would be cause for wonderment for anyone who does not have the faith. For convinced and practicing Catholics it provides a beautiful illustration of what Jesus meant by His promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.
By accident this week I ran across a YouTube channel entitled: RealCatholicTV. Despite my skepticism over the name, I took the time for one and then to watch several videos in a series the man calls “The Vortex”. I found him as clear-headed as I am, even if perhaps a bit more youthfully pugnacious and only slightly grating as he rejoices in the proximate demise of my generation. Oh well! Having Newman and the “Real Catholic” side by side provoked a thought about the reform and renewal of the Church in my own day and time (or what’s left of it before my demise, sir!) that kept me searching to the end of Newman’s novel. I found my connection close to the end of the book, from which I’d like to quote this paragraph:
“This wonderful deliverance was but the beginning of the miracles which followed the martyrdom of St. Callista. It may be said to have been the resurrection of the Church at Sicca. In not many months Decius was killed, and the persecution ceased there. Castus was appointed bishop, and numbers began to pour into the fold. The lapsed asked for peace, or at least such blessings as they could have. Heathens sought to be received. When asked for their reason, they could only say that Callista’s history and death had affected them with constraining force, and that they could not help following her steps. Increasing in boldness, as well as numbers, the Christians cowed both magistrates and mob. The spirit of the populace had been already broken; and the continual change of masters, and measures with them, in the imperial government, inflicted a chronic timidity on the magistracy. A handsome church was soon built, to which Callista’s body was brought, and which remained till the time of the Diocletian persecution.” (Callista: a Tale of the Third Century, by John Henry Cardinal Newman, Kindle edition - Highlight Loc. 5102-9)
Many sophisticates out there would probably scorn the prosperity and rapid increase which seemed to have come the Church’s way in the Easter period of the Acts of the Apostles and again in the Fourth Century when Constantine made peace. They would most likely say that the roots were never that deep because in another couple centuries the barbarians invading North Africa would so weaken the Church that it was easy pickings for Islam, disappearing almost without a trace under the sands of time. Wherein lies the victory amidst the ruins of North African Catholicism? What is so special about the succeeding waves of apostles who have re-conquered Europe or parts thereof for the faith? Is it just in that ability to bounce back when one least expects? What is supernatural of a survival marked by flight from one continent to another?
One news commentator claimed this week that the media frenzy over the whole abuse scandal within the Catholic Church will be the ultimate “bullet-to-the-head” of European Catholicism, that Europe’s “cultural” Catholics will finally cut their nominal ties once and for all and that the Catholic Church’s gravitational center will shift once and for all to south of the Equator… Personally, I don’t believe it. There are still lots of Cyprians, Agelliuses and Callistas around in the northern hemisphere. God is still the Lord of history and His Will, laid out with a garden east of Eden and then renewed and brought to perfection in the fullness of time upon the Tree of the Cross, is still that we, and not just a few, would walk with Him in Light for all time.
Just as St. Cyprian helps Agellius through penance back to the fullness of Catholic faith, so may we find today bishops and priests to help us mend the ruptures and purge our sins on the way back to fullness of life with Christ, our Savior and our Lord!
Let’s succumb to the temptation and start a little early, shall we?
Come Thou, Holy Spirit, Come!
And from Thy Celestial Home
Shed a Ray of Light Divine…
Bend the Stubborn Heart and Will
Melt the Frozen, Warm the Chill
Guide the Steps that Go Astray…