Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Smackdown in the 16th Century: Michael "the Scientist" Servetus versus John "the Predestinator" Calvin

Michael Servetus

John Calvin

Michael Servetus (1509/11-1553) was a Spanish theologian who was executed at the command of Protestant reformer John Calvin in Geneva. He was a very well-rounded man. Besides being a theologian he was the first European to correctly describe pulmonary circulation. He also studied math, astronomy, meteorology, geography, human anatomy, medicine, jurisprudence, foreign languages and poetry. In other words, he was a real over-achiever, the kind who got wedgies in school.

As a theologian he got himself into severe trouble with both Catholics and Protestants by denying the Trinity, a foundational Christian doctrine. Servetus made a major miscalculation which caused him his life. Since his denial of the Trinity got him in hot water with Rome, he decided to go to Geneva where he figured that Calvin, also an enemy of Rome, would welcome him with open arms. In reality Calvin welcomed him with an even warmer greeting. He had him burned at the stake.

Fortunately Christians no longer handle theological disputes with executions but, in the 16th century, religion and politics were not separate matters. To reject a ruler's religious beliefs was the equivalent of treason and was punished as such. Burning at the stake was the usual means.

Let's back up a bit.

Servetus wrote to Calvin before moving to Geneva. In 1553 he wrote a book entitled The Restoration of Christianity which besides denying the Trinity, rejected predestination. He sent a copy to Calvin who responded with a copy of his own Institutes of the Christian Religion. It would have been nice if the discussion had continued at that level but that was not to be.

Servetus, who lived in Vienne, sent Calvin's book back with marginal notes. Calvin responded by writing back: "I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity." Things escalated from there.

On 13 Feb 1546 Calvin wrote to  his friend, William Farel: "Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive."

Meanwhile back in Vienne, Catholic authorities arrested Servetus for heresy but he managed to escape. So, of all the places he could have gone to, what city does Servetus pick? Uh, Geneva. OK, to quote Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City, "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut!" Not only that, but on 13 Aug 1553, he decides to attend a sermon by Calvin. He was immediately arrested, imprisoned and had his possessions confiscated.

French Inquisitors requested that Servetus be extradited to them for execution - apparently he couldn't catch a break anywhere - but Calvin wanted to show himself as staunch a defender of Christianity as anyone else and pushed for Servetus' execution with all of his substantial influence.

Servetus was given a "trial" and convicted of spreading his non-Trinitarian heresy and for calling infant baptism "an invention of the devil, an infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity." To make things even weirder, the court questioned Servetus' sexuality. He had never married and was asked why. Servetus said that a rupture, actually an inguinal hernia, had given him erectile dysfunction in those pre-Viagra days. When that tactic failed he was accused of favoring the Jews and Turks and of studying the Koran in order to undermine Christianity.

Servetus lost. Surprise! Who could have seen that coming?

Calvin requested that Servetus be decapitated rather than burned at the stake but his friend William Farel teased him for being "too lenient." Apparently Farel was a bit of a disciplinarian. The Geneva Council must have felt the same way because they turned down Calvin's request.

On 27 Oct 1553 Servetus was burned at the stake with what was believed to be the last remaining copy of his book.


© 2016 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Sisters of St. Joseph versus the State of Florida 1916

St. Benedict the Moor School
St. Augustine, Florida

On 20 May 1916, three nuns in St. Augustine, Florida were arrested. Their crime was teaching black children. The Florida state legislature had recently made it illegal to do so, even in what were known at the time as "negro schools" like St. Benedict the Moor, the school operated by the white nuns.

The Sisters of St. Joseph, the order which ran the school, was founded in 1650 in Le Puy-en-Velay, France. Their mission was to educate the poor or otherwise disadvantaged. That is what they intended to do in St. Augustine, Florida where they established a school after being invited to Florida shortly after the American Civil War by Bishop Augustin Verot. Verot had grown up in Le Puy and asked that eight of the sisters come to America to educate the newly freed slaves and their children.

The first school they established in St. Augustine in 1867. As time went on they established others in Key West and Ybor City. Their efforts were aided by the financial help of St. Katherine Drexel. In 1898 they opened St. Benedict the Moor. They were not alone in their efforts. The Protestant American Missionary Association operated similar schools.

On 07 Jun 1913, the Florida legislature unanimously passed “An Act Prohibiting White Persons from Teaching Negroes in Negro Schools”. Bishop William John Kenny sought the advice of his legal advisor, Alston Cockrell, who told the bishop that he believed the law to be unconstitutional. At his advice the bishop decided to continue educating the children and to test the law's constitutionality. Even though the bishop died that October, his successor, 34-year-old Bishop Michael Joseph Curley, continued with the case. The authorities asked Curley to replace the white nuns with black teachers. He refused.

On April of 2016, while the nuns were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their mission, the sheriff came to the door with orders signed by Governor Park Trammell to enforce the law. The sheriff arrested three of the nuns, Sr. Mary Thomasine Hehir, Sr. Mary Scholastica Sullivan and Sr. Mary Benignus Cameron on the charge of "unlawfully teaching negroes in a negro school." The case drew national attention.

1916 was an election year and Sidney Johnston Catts, a Baptist minister who had left his job to sell insurance, was running for governor. A racist, Catts developed a series of conspiracy theories to scare white voters into voting for him. One of his theories stated that Catholics in Florida were hiding weapons under their churches and enlisting blacks in an armed revolt on behalf of German Kaiser Wilhelm II. (This is the time of World War I and Catts believed that the Italian pope was German by birth.) When they succeeded, Catts claimed, Pope Benedict XV would move the Vatican to Pasco County and close all of the Protestant churches. After his wild claims were responded to by Fr. Charles Mohr, a Benedictine abbot, Catts was forced to tone down the rhetoric and went so far as to make public appearances with Catholics.

Catts saw the nuns ministry as an attempt to undermine the public schools and destroy the Jim Crow social order. Catts won the Democrats nomination but a recount was ordered. He decided to run under the Prohibition Party and won the race.

On 20 May 1916 Judge George Cooper Gibbs ruled that the law violated both the state constitution and the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. He did allow the law to apply to the public schools.

The ministry of the nuns at St. Benedict the Moor continued until the school closed in 1968. Desegregation made it unnecessary. The school still stands and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Sidney Catts served a four-year term as governor and ran unsuccessfully for US senator. He ran for governor twice losing both times. He died in 1936. Today the Sisters of St. Joseph are still an active congregation of nuns with 14,000 members including 7,000 in the USA. They minister in fifty countries around the world. They now work with the aged, unwed mothers and migrants.


Gibbons, Patrick R. 20 May 2016. The Sisters of St. Joseph.

Wikipedia: St. Benedict the Moor School

© 2016 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

Billy the Kid and the Nun

Sister Blandian

When we think of Billy the Kid we think of all the bodies he left in his wake. Although legend says he killed 21 men, it was more likely 8 or 9 according to historians. His real name was William H. Bonney, at least that was the name he used. Or maybe it was Henry Antrim (from his stepfather), another name he used. His mother gave him the name William Henry McCarty, Jr. when he was born on 23 Nov 1859 in, believe it or not, New York City. (The date is not absolutely certain.) She was an Irish immigrant who came over during the potato famine. His father is unknown.

In 1868 his mother moved to Indianapolis with Billy and his brother. There she met William Antrim who was twelve years younger than her. Together they moved around the country. In 1873 she married Antrim at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico and they settled in Silver City.

Young Billy was sent out to work at a hotel where, ironically, his employer said he like him because he was the only kid who never stole anything. That changed in April of 1875 when he was arrested by the Grant County sheriff for stealing some cheese. In September of 1875 he was arrested again for possession of stolen goods but escaped by climbing up the chimney. His criminal career took off when he began stealing horses with John R. Mackie, a Scottish-born former cavalry officer.

Rosa Maria Segale was born in the little town of Cigagna in Italy on 23 Jan 1850. Her parents were well-off, the owners of two orchards. Despite this they tired of the political turmoil that characterized Italy at that time so they packed up the family and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Rosa was just four years old at the time. Growing up in Cincinnati she was familiar with the work of the Sisters of Charity who ministered among the poor and orphaned as well as nursing wounded Civil War soldiers and made up her mind that this was the life she wanted.

In September 1866, 16-year-old Rosa entered the order. Her desire was to work in Santa Fe. She made her vows on 08 Dec 1868 taking the name Sister Blandina.

In 1872 Sister Blandina, along with Sister Justina, were informed that they were being sent to Trinidad. Looking on a map, the only Trinidad they could find was the Caribbean Island. When she boarded her train she found out that the Trinidad they were headed was a town in southwestern Colorado. They arrived there on 10 Dec 1872.

Trinidad was much like the stereotypical western town of Hollywood. Saloons, gunslingers, etc. It all came as quite shock to the two nuns. The local newspaper was full of the exploits of Billy the Kid and his gang. Once Bill Schneider, one of the gang, rode past a terrified Sister Blandina and her schoolchildren. A week later she was told that Schneider had been shot and left to die after getting into a fight with another gang member. She was asked to bring him food and care for him. She went without hesitation.

During one visit to Schneider Billy the Kid stopped for a decidedly unfriendly visit. He planned to scalp the four doctors who had refused to treat Schneider. One of the doctors took care of the nuns and was a friend of Sister Blandina's.

Billy thanked her and told her that he would grant her any favor she asked. She immediately asked him to spare the lives of the doctors. A man of his word, Billy spared them. As he left he promised her that he and his gang would always be ready to help her.

In 1877 they met again. Sister Blandina, along with another nun, were traveling with a family on a short trip. The man was concerned because Billy and his gang had been robbing stagecoaches in the area. Sure enough the gang attacked but, when he saw Sister Blandina, he tipped his hat and rode away.

The two met one more time in 1881 when Billy was in prison in Santa Fe. It was only then that she learned his real name, well, the Bonney version of his real name. As she left she told him that she wished he had been treated with kindness before he had started down his path to destruction.

On 14 Jul 1881 Billy the Kid was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett and died at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Sister Blandina continued her work out west founding a school and a hospital. After 21 years in Colorado, she returned to Cincinnati. She died on 23 Feb 1941 and her story was published in a book entitled At the End of the Santa Fe Trail in 1948.


© 2016 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

St. Bernardine of Siena

Born: 08 Sep 1380
Died: 20 May 1444
Order: Franciscan (OFM)
Canonized: 1450 by Pope Nicholas V
Feast: 20 May

St. Bernardine of Siena

While preaching one day in 1408, St. Vincent Ferrer suddenly stopped and announced that there was among a young Franciscan there who would not only surpass him as a preacher, but that would also be more honored by the church. Vincent was speaking of a friar known as Bernardine, sometimes called "the Apostle of Italy."

Bernardine, also known as Bernardino, had been born into a noble family in Massa Marittima, Tuscany, in what is now Italy. His parents died when he was six and he went to live with his aunt, a holy woman. He spent his youth performing works of mercy. During this time he also studied civil and canon law at the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala church where he and his friends ministered to the victims of the plague which was ravaging Siena. In 1403 he joined the Order of Friars Minor and was ordained to the priesthood the following year. Since he had a speech defect, he was an unlikely candidate to be a preacher but, after praying, the problem was cured and his career as a preacher lasted 38 years.

His powerful preaching in colloquial Italian and his habit of displaying the Holy Name of Jesus on a tablet when he had finished speaking resulted in many conversions and brought reform to the places he preached. He had arrived at this devotion as a youth while caring for a destitute, elderly blind woman who could only utter Jesus' name. He frequently preached against gambling, witchcraft, sodomy and usury, usually for three or four hours at a time. Often a bonfire was built after his sermon and the people threw on it the possessions they felt were keeping them from Jesus. Bernardine traveled around Italy not remaining at any one place for more than a week or two.

Bernardine was the originator of a common symbol found in Catholic churches all over the world. This is the image of the sun with the letters IHS in the center. The IHS comes from the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek.

The saint was offered the position of bishop of Ferrara and, later, Urbino, but he declined them both. He wanted to stay an itinerant preacher. Bernardine attracted the ire of a group of cardinals and, at one point, he was denounced as a heretic and his devotion to the Holy Name said to be idolatrous. Although he went through many trials, his innocence was proven during his lifetime. Although the cardinals urged both Pope Martin V and Pope Eugene IV to condemn Bernardino, both acquitted him. A trial at the Council of Basel also ended with his acquittal.

There were some problems with his preaching, however. When he spoke about usury, the public often connected his words with the Jews whom they viewed as the main offenders in this regard, and some persecutions resulted.

Bernardine resumed his preaching travels in 1436, but abandoned them in 1438 when he became vicar-general of the Observant branch of the Franciscans in Italy. He founded or reformed some 300 Franciscan convents during his ministry. Although the opportunities were fewer, Bernardine preached publicly whenever he could. In 1443 Pope Eugene IV issued a papal bull charging him with the task of preaching the papal indulgence for a crusade against the Turks but there is no evidence that he did so.

Bernardine died on the eve of the Feast of the Ascension in 1444 at L'Aquila in the Abruzzi, while his brethren were chanting the antiphon, "Father, I have manifested Thy Name to men." He is buried in the Basilica of San Bernardino and was canonized six years after his death by Pope Nicholas V.

We can be reasonably certain about the accounts of this great saint since two biographies of him were written the same year he died and by friends of his (Barnaby of Sienna and Maffei Veggio). There is not a lot of room for myths about him to be invented.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pope Benedict IX: The man who was pope three times

Pope Benedict IX
Courtesy of

Birth Name: Theophylactus of Tusculum
Born: c. 1012
Papacy: 1) Oct 1032 – Sep 1044; 2) Apr – May 1045 and 3) Nov 1047 – Jul 1048
Died: Dec 1055/Jan 1056

Benedict IX was one of the Catholic Church's less deserving popes. Not only was he one of the youngest men to ever become pope, he was the only person to serve multiple terms as pope. (He served three terms.) To add to his infamy, he is also the only pope to sell the papacy.

Benedict was well-connected. His father was Alberic III, Count of Tusculum and, among his uncles, were Popes Benedict VIII and John XIX who immediately preceded him in the office. His father was able to obtain the office of pope for his son in Oct 1032. There are differing accounts of his birthday with some sources saying he was 19 or 20 years old but other sources put his age at 11 or 12 when he assumed the office. One legend has him running through the halls of the Lateran palace shouting "I am Caesar."

Benedict led a very immoral lifestyle. St. Peter Damian described him as "feasting on immorality." Some accounts describe him as a homosexual, but there is also an account which says that he wished to marry. True or not, he was the first pope to be accused of being homosexual. Perhaps he was bisexual. Whatever his sexual orientation, he held orgies in the Lateran palace. Bishop Benno of Piacenza accused him of "many vile adulteries and murders". In his third book of Dialogues, Pope Victor III wrote that Benedict was guilty of "rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts." He continued, "His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it."

Things did not always go well for Benedict. In 1036 he was forced to flee Rome but returned with the help of Emperor Conrad II.

Benedict's first term as pope ended in Sep 1044 when those who opposed him forced him to flee Rome again and elected Pope Sylvester III (John, Bishop of Sabina).

In April of 1045 Benedict returned to Rome with his forces and expelled Sylvester although the latter continued to state his claim to be the rightful pope for quite some time. Benedict did not stay pope for very long. In May 1045 his godfather, a pious priest named John Gratian, paid him to resign, allowing Gregory VI to become pope. Benedict may have been motivated to resign because he wanted to marry.

Benedict IX soon changed his mind. He returned to Rome, taking over the until July of 1046. During this time Benedict held the papal throne, but Gregory VI was still recognized as the true pope and, to make matters even more confusing, Sylvester III was still asserting his claim to the papacy.

The German King Henry III intervened in the situation. The Council of Sutri was called in Dec of 1046. It deposed both Benedict and Sylvester and encouraged Gregory to resign because his purchase of the papacy from Benedict was considered simony, a major sin as well as a scandal. Suidger, a German bishop, was crowned pope taking the name Clement II.

Not surprisingly, Benedict did not attend the council and rejected its decision. Clement II died in October of 1047. A month later Benedict seized the Lateran Palace. He was ousted by German troops in July of 1048 and Poppo, Bishop of Brixen was elected as Pope Damasus II with universal recognition. In 1049 Benedict was charged with simony but refused to appear at his trial. He was excommunicated.

What happened to Benedict after this is uncertain. He apparently gave up his claim to the papacy. Pope Leo IX may have lifted the excommunication. Benedict died in either December of 1055 or January of 1056 and was buried in the Abbey of Grottaferrata. According to the abbot, he had repented of his sins.

Little is known of his acts as pope but he did hold two or three synods in Rome and granted a number of privileges to various churches and monasteries. He also ordered Bretislav, Duke of Bohemia, to found a monastery because he had  taken the body of St. Adalbert from Poland. In 1037 he met with Emperor Conrad and excommunicated Heribert, Archbishop of Milan, who had opposed him.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Cadaver Synod: When a Dead Pope Was Put on Trial

Pope Formosus

In the past few centuries the Catholic Church has been blessed with holy, spiritually-minded popes. Even a cursory study of Christian history will show that this was not always the case. After the death of Pope Formosus in 896, Stephen VII took the papal throne. Stephen hated Formosus and, from all appearances,  may have been insane, accused his predecessor of perjury and of having taken the papacy illegitimately. His answer, put the dead pope on trial. The incident has become known as the Cadaver Synod.


The period between the mid-9th and mid-10th centuries was a politically unstable time in Italy. Some historians refer to this period as the iron age of the papacy. It was the low point of the papacy and the Cadaver Synod was the low point of the iron age.

There was a rapid succession of popes during this period with men taking the office due to the manipulations of various Roman factions. In the period from 872 through 965 there were 24 popes. In fact, between 896 and 904, just nine years, there were nine popes. The papacy changed hands when the current pope was deposed or killed by politically powerful families.

Formosus, Latin for "good looking," was made Bishop of Porto by Pope Nicholas I in 864. He brought the gospel to Bulgaria where the people requested that he be made their bishop. This request had to be turned down because it would have violated the 15th canon of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) which forbade a bishop from moving from one see to another. Formosus was not a particularly bad man but he made some very powerful enemies.

In 875 Formosus, now a cardinal, fled Rome for Tours in western France because he feared the current pope, John VIII. At the Synod of Santa Maria Rotunda, John issued a series of accusations against him claiming that he had corrupted the minds of the Bulgarians so that they would accept no other bishop besides himself and that he was attempting to usurp the papacy. Formosus was excommunicated.

Another synod was held at Troyes in 878. Formosus attended this synod and he begged the bishops' forgiveness, asking that the excommunication be lifted. He promised to never enter Rome again and that he would not try to regain his office at Porto. It was a promise he didn't keep.

John was murdered in December of 882, the first papal assassination, and Formosus returned to Porto where he served as bishop until being elected pope on 06 Dec 891.

As pope, Formosus made Lambert of Spoleto co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire along with his father, Guy III of Spoleto, who had been appointed by John VIII. Formosus feared Guy and , in 893, invited the Carolingian Arnulf of Carinthia to invade Italy promising him the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. The invasion failed and Guy died shortly thereafter. Oddly, Formosus gave Arnulf a second chance and, this time successful, he received the crown of the Holy Roman Empire from Formosus in 896. Later that year both Formosus and Arnulf died. In April Formosus was succeeded by Pope Boniface VI who died two weeks later and was succeeded, on 22 May 896, by Pope Stephen VI.

About this same time, Arnulf, whom Formosus had crowned Holy Roman Emperor, also died. Lambert, the son of Guy III of Spoleto who had so frightened Formosus, and his empress-mother Angiltrude entered Rome just as Stephen VI became pope. It is in this political context that the Cadaver Synod was held at the beginning of 897.

So why would Formosus crown Lambert and then ask Arnulf to invade? One theory says that Formosus was always pro-Carolingian and was coerced into crowning Lambert. Stephen may have been forced by Lambert to hold the synod so that, now that Carolingian control had collapsed, he could regain his power and exact his revenge on Formosus. However, in 1932 historian Joseph Duhr shot down this theory by pointing out that Lambert was also present at the Council of Ravenna when the decrees of the Cadaver Synod were revoked and approved of the revocation. There is also evidence that Formosus and Lambert were on good terms as late as 895 when Lambert's cousin, Guy IV, expelled the Byzantines from Benevento. Girolamo Arnaldi postulates that it was Guy IV who entered Rome with his mother, Angiltrude, in Jan 897 and agitated for the synod.

The Synod

Whatever his motivation, around January of 897 Pope Stephen VII ordered that Formosus' corpse be exhumed and brought to the papal court to receive judgment. The trial was held in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The corpse was seated on a throne and a deacon, a teenager, was given the unpleasant task of answering for him.

The charges against Formosus included:
  • Migrating from one see to another in violation of canon law.
  • Perjury.
  • Taking the office of bishop while he was a layman.

Stephen screamed and ranted, mocking and insulting the corpse. During his infrequent momentary pauses the poor teenage deacon would try to get in a few words denying the charges.

Not surprisingly Formosus was convicted. He was stripped of his papal vestments and the three fingers he used to bless were severed. Everything he had done, all of his acts and ordinations, including the ordination of then Pope Stephen VII as Bishop of Anagni, were declared invalid. His body was buried in a cemetery for foreigners but was later dug up, tied to weights and thrown into the Tiber River.

After the Synod

The disgusting spectacle turned the people against Stephen. Formosus' body washed ashore where it was retrieved by a monk. Miracles were attributed to it and Stephen was thrown into prison by a mob in July or August of 897 where he was strangled.

Stephen was succeeded by Theodore II who, that December (November, according to Wilkes), convened a council which cleared Formosus of all charges. His recovered body was buried in St. Peter's Basilica dressed in papal vestments. However, Theodore's papacy lasted a mere 20 days and, in 898, Pope John IX (898—900), who also nullified the Cadaver Synod, convened two synods, Rome and Ravenna, confirming Theodore's decision. He ordered that the acta of the Cadaver Synod be destroyed and prohibited future trials of the deceased.

This was not the end, however. Pope Sergius III (904–911), who had taken part in the Cadaver Synod as a co-judge, overturned the rulings of Theodore II and John IX, reaffirming Formosus' conviction, and had a laudatory epitaph inscribed on Stephen's tomb. This was the last official act on this trial made by the Church.


© 2016 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.