Saints removed by the Catholic Church

Westminster_Psalter_St_ChristopherMany of the saints revered during the era of the Knights Templar (12th and 13th centuries) were removed from the liturgical calendar in the sweeping reforms of the Catholic Church in the 1960s.  Up to 40 saints were no longer to have their own saints days.  Now some argue on the web that this doesn’t mean they have been de-sainted but they’re certainly not encouraged.

The most prolific of these saints who’ve had their halos taken away is Saint Christopher.  Like many of the great medieval saints, he had been martyred under one of the later Roman emperors.  In this case, different accounts of his life indicate he died either under the Emperor Decius or the Emperor Maximinus Daia.   The familiar story runs that Christopher was a giant from what’s now Lebanon – the biblical kingdom of Canaan.

The alternative versions of his life smack of later concoctions and additions but basically he went on a quest to find Jesus Christ during which he was tasked with helping people to cross a river – by carrying them.  One of those he carried was a child who was extremely heavy and the river was treacherous that day.  Christopher got to the other side and remarked on how heavy the child had been.  He then revealed that he was Christ and upon his shoulders was the world.  Then the child disappeared.  Unsurprisingly, Christopher became the patron saint of travelers.

800px-Hans_Memling_074Saint Ursula was another saint taken off the calendar.  She was a Romanised Briton and the daughter, in one account, of King Donaut of Dumnonia.  She was betrothed to be married to Conan Meriadoc, the pagan governor of Armorica – modern day Brittany.  Anyway, she didn’t want that being a good Christian but she had to set sail with eleven other virgins.  Then the accounts from various sources get massively mixed up.  Some say she was blown off course, went to see the Pope in Rome, helped fight off the Huns who were besieging the Roman city of Cologne and may have eventually ended up marrying a now Christian Conan.  A less happy version has her boat blown off course, ending up in Germany where she and her virgins were killed by the Huns.

Amusingly, the number of virgins over the centuries increased from eleven to eleven thousand!  And even as high as 70,000!!  Quite how they all fitted on the boat or boats is anybody’s guess.  Still, even if the story sounds totally far fetched, it inspired the founding of the Ursuline order of nuns and Christopher Columbus named a group of islands in the Caribbean after this saint and her followers – the Virgin Islands.  But all this was not enough to save her from the cull of saints initiated by Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Another saint to get chopped was Saint Philomena.  Again martyred in the late Roman Empire. According to some church related sources, she was never a saint and the Vatican was merely clarifying the situation in the 1960s. Those who defend de-listing this martyr saint, point out there is no literary or archaeological evidence to prove her existence as a person let alone a saint. That strikes me as slightly unfair because I’m pretty sure you can say that about umpteen other saints.

A body was found in the Roman catacombs in 1802 with the inscription “Filumena” on the tomb. Her veneration took off pretty quickly and spread all over Italy and France. The problem was that this cult had never received official papal approval. And even though she was referred to as a “saint”, her miracles had never gone through the Vatican’s testing process. So she came off the books!

Saint Nicholas, the model for Santa Claus, also got the boot. Yo ho ho? No, no, no – responded the Vatican. He has been put into a kind of saintly limbo. With Nicholas, there wasn’t the formal exit that Philomena got but an instruction to Catholics from Rome that they had no obligation to honour his feast days. Defenders of Nicholas, especially the eastern Orthodox church, point out that the creation of saints went on for centuries in the early church without the procedures that Catholicism has imposed now. They see this retrospective de-canonisation of popular saints as quite ridiculous and unfair.

And Saint Barbara – a very popular medieval saint – was similarly struck off the liturgical calendar.  Though Barbara was allegedly martyred in the third century AD – therefore most likely under the Emperor Decius and his widespread persecution – she doesn’t pop up in Saint Jerome’s list of martyred saints just two hundred years later and the first mention of her that has been found is in the seventh century.

The story of her martyrdom follows a familiar pattern where ghastly things are done to her by the Romans and somehow she manages to survive.  Every morning, her prison cell was bathed in light and all her wounds disappeared.  Burning torches thrown at her extinguished at the touch of her skin.  Rather cruelly, her father volunteered to behead his own daughter as he didn’t approve of her Christian conversion.

The execution went ahead but on the way home he was struck by lightning.  This rather combustible conclusion to her father’s life led her to being venerated as a patron saint for anybody involved in explosives.  You think I’m making this up but believe me I’m not.  Miners, sappers, artillery – etc.  All prayed to Saint Barbara.  Her cult in England was huge and across Europe.  And I suppose her greatest memorial is the city of Santa Barbara in California – named by the Spanish who held her in high esteem.  But yet again – not good enough for the reformers of the 1960s and you won’t find her name in the liturgical calendar.

Benedict XVI removed twenty saints’ feast days in recent years though Rome is at pains to clarify that these saints have not had their halos confiscated – unlike those who fell victim to the 1960s reforms. They have simply been shunted to the side to make way for other saints in the liturgical calendar.

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The more bizarre and strange saints

The Knights Templar were keen on their saint martyrs – the upper class Roman woman Euphemia for example, butchered in the arena during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century AD.  Diocletian was the last pagan emperor and while a brilliant administrator and largely responsible for saving the empire at a time of huge crisis, he unleashed a rather ill judged attack on Christians that backfired spectacularly within a generation.  The following emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity and Diocletian had given the faith a legion of martyrs to venerate.

Euphemia was broken on the wheel then fed to a bear in the arena.  The martyrdom stories of these saints are always rather lurid and test one’s credulity to the maximum.  Another such martyr was Saint Lucy.  According to different versions of the story she either tore out her own eyes and gave them to her husband (oh that I was making this up) or they were taken out by a Roman soldier with a fork!   She if often shown, rather confusingly, with her eyes in her head but another set, the real ones I presume, on a plate.   Here she is from one church I’ve visited in Europe.

Saint Lucy with her two sets of eyes

Another saint martyred in the Roman era and popular in the medieval era of the Templars was Saint Denis – after whom a district of Paris is named.  Under the Romans, Paris was called Lutetia and in an earlier persecution, under the Emperor Decius, Saint Denis – a Christian bishop – was beheaded.  True to saintly form, he picked up his head and walked round for a while before dying.  Yes, this is in the story.  A statue of him can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum in New York which I enjoyed visiting earlier this year.

Saint Denis carries his own head around for a while

While the Templars were at the height of their power and influence in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, Saint Francis of Assisi was founding a new order of friars – the Franciscans as they came to be known.  In 1219 he went to Egypt at a time when the crusaders were attacking the city of Damietta and according to accounts from the period, hoped to be martyred.  Instead, the story goes, Egypt’s Islamic rulers were so bowled over by Francis that they promised to convert at some unspecified date in the future.  That I find this story impossible to believe is an understatement.  This sculpted tableau I came across in southern Europe last year in a medieval Franciscan church tells a different and more credible story.  The picture says it all.

Franciscans beheaded by Saracens

Of course the daddy of all Christian martyrs and a saint hugely revered by the Templars was John the Baptist.  See my earlier post on the Johnannite heresy.  The man who cleared a path for the Messiah and baptised him in adulthood.  He was then beheaded and his head delivered to Salome, step-daughter of Herod, on a plate.  Here he is – well his head anyway – on said plate.

John the Baptist - well, his head anyway

Top Ten Martyred Saints!

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Diocletian – last Roman emperor to persecute the Christians

The Templars loved to worship saints who had given up their lives in name of Christ so here’s a list of top ten martyred saints the knights would have known and possible revered. Many of them were martyred during the reigns of two Roman emperors – Trajan Decius and Diocletian. As a rule, the Romans didn’t ban religions outright. The only criteria for clamping down was disloyalty to the state and sedition.

 

But as the empire, under increasing attack from stronger enemies, became more unstable – it sought greater unity. These two emperors demanded pledges of loyalty from all citizens and while some Christians went along with this and made the dutiful sacrifice to the emperors at a local temple, others did not. Under the emperor Diocletian in particular, this resulted in a nasty end. Ironically, Diocletian was the last pagan emperor with his successor Constantine embracing Christianity.

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    Saint Agatha – in some accounts her breasts were cut off, which she carries on a tray in many paintings!

    AGATHA – died 251 CE – during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius who had outlawed Christianity, Agatha was tortured very brutally including being rolled over broken tiles, cut in various places and burning coals applied to her flesh. The incorrupt body was apparently sent to Constantinople centuries later but then parts of Agatha ended up in Catania.

  • ALBAN – died 304 CE (disputed) – an Englishman and a pagan by birth. He hid a priest from the Roman authorities and then to protect him, dressed as the priest when soldiers arrived at his house. The local governor new Alban and asked him to return to the state religion. He refused. After being scourged he was taken to be beheaded but supportive crowds blocked the way and a river had to be crossed. Alban caused the waters to part so he could be martyred for Christ. The executioner was so impressed that he converted on the spot. Both men were then beheaded.
  • EUPLIUS – died 304 CE – like so many of the early martyred saints, this is another one under the reign of Diocletian. He was found reading the gospels and was led to the place of execution with the sacred texts hung round his neck. He had been brutally tortured and beheading was apparently a sweet release.
  • FEBRONIA – early fourth century – like many other young female martyrs of this time, she was said to be exceedingly beautiful and a virgin. She refused to renounce her faith and was roasted on a gridiron, had her teeth knocked out and breasts cut off. Then she was executed. Out of remorse, the uncle of the local Roman prefect was said to have dashed his own brains out.
  • GENESIUS – died 285 CE – yet another Diocletian purge victim. This time starting out in life as a pagan comedian who mocked the Christians but then suddenly realising the error of his ways, converted. The praetorian prefect Plautian reacted by having Genesius stretched on a rack and torn at with hooks before the inevitable beheading.
  • GORDIUS – early fourth century – a Roman soldier who became a Christian. In the town of Caesaria, he was told there were to be games in honour of the god Mars. When Gordius showed up, both pagans and Christians were queueing up for the festivities and entertainment in the arena. So he began insulting Mars and was dragged before the governor who offered him riches to recant. But he wouldn’t. So it was off to the torturer and when that didn’t work, he was burned to death.
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    Lucy and her eyes

    LUCY – died 304 CE – one of the most revered female saints from very early on in the church’s history. Martyred at Syracuse in Sicily, she was reputed to have either gouged out her own eyes to put off a potential suitor (bit extreme!) or they were gouged out by the Romans during her torture. As a result, she is patron saint to the blind.

  • POLYCARP – died 155 – the Knights Templar believed they had the head of Saint Polycarp. He was said to have been a disciple of the apostle Saint John. Polycarp was made bishop of Smyrna before John was banished to the island of Patmos, from where he wrote the Book of Revelation. It’s claimed he was martyred during a persecution by the emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. That is the emperor played by the actor Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator.
  • QUIRINUS – early fourth century – Diocletian abdicated as emperor but his co-emperor Galerius continued the policy of purging Christians. Quirinus was a bishop who was ordered to sacrifice to Jupiter and refused. He was tied to a millstone and chucked in the river. But miraculously, the millstone and Quirinus floated to the top and he continued to preach for a while to the huge crowds. Then he sank and died.
  • VITALIS – first or second century – an early Christian martyr. A similar tale to the above with a refusal to renounce Christ and accept the state gods leading to his execution. What distinguishes this story is that his wife Valeria was then set upon by the pagans and died of her injuries. She was subsequently canonised too. One of the statues in St Peter’s square in Rome is of Vitalis and the Byzantines built a octagonal basilica to him at Ravenna that can still be seen today. It includes a mosaic of the emperor Justinian, a Christian and a Roman ruler.

Couple of things to note.

Many Christians did not wish to be martyred and so sacrificed to the gods. This caused an early division within Christianity where some of the faithful refused to associate with those who had chickened out of martyrdom. These die-hard Christians were called Donatists and held sway in parts of north Africa. Their view did not prevail and even though the martyrs were lauded, those Christians who had chosen the path of compromise prevailed.

Also – just to reiterate that the Roman state was largely disinterested in theology.  It was more focussed on the correct practice of religion and loyalty to the emperor than what the Christians actually stood for. There is an enduring myth that when Rome became Christian, slavery, brutal capital punishment and the games disappeared. They did not. Christians and pagans shared many social values including the holding of slaves and the need for executions to maintain order. In fact, Christians introduced new capital crimes related to moral failing – for example executing slaves who assisted their owners in committing adultery.

 

 

Royston Cave – what were the Templars doing down there?

royston-caveSome investigators believe the Templars were using a network of Neolithic caves throughout the UK for religious/mystical purposes.

Royston is a bell shaped cave, man made or shaped with a ventilation hole.  The symbols carved on the wall bear an uncanny resemblance to Templar images seen at their properties throughout Europe and the Middle East.  It’s thought that the strange inscriptions in the cave at Royston are a form of hieroglyphic text that the Templars discovered in outremer – an ancient form of writing long forgotten.

These are some of the identified carvings:

  • Saint Christopher near the entrance, the dog head saint carrying Jesus
  • Saint Katherine, revered by the Order is nearby
  • Saint Lawrence complete with the gridiron that he was brutally martyred on
  • A figure with a sword who could either be Saint George or more likely, Saint Michael the Archangel.  He is pointing to the apostles, the smallest of whom is the traitor Judas (author of a gnostic gospel as well all know)

Richard the Lionheart has been identified with his queen Berengaria of Navarre whose crown is above her head but not on top of it, as her status as crowned queen seems to have been disputed  The poor woman also had to contend with the Lionheart’s alleged preference for chaps over the ladies.  All good fun with the squires and knights no doubt.

There is a figure that looks almost Celtic in its crude simplicity who was wrongly credited as King William of Scotland – mainly because a ‘WR’ is scrawled on him.  More likely to be Saint David.  Unfortunately, the cave is covered in the grafitti of idiots who have seen fit to leave their names there – as if posterity would remember them on account of that act of vandalism.

If Royston is a Templar creation, it does beg the question of whether the Templars had other similar cave-like places of worship.  Caves have always been mystical places seen as bringing worshippers closer to the subterranean Gods but as the Templars, like all Christians, worshipped as sky god, it’s hard to see what the significance would be.