Doubting Thomases; the Pitfalls of Folly

God Responds to Dark Hours

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 11, 2009 ( This week the Catholic world celebrates one of its defining feasts, Corpus Domini. In 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted this holiday in the wake of the miracle at Bolsena, one of the most famous Eucharistic miracles of all time.

Peter of Prague, a priest troubled by doubt in the Transubstantiation (the doctrine that at the consecration the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ) prayed to God for help in believing. The Lord responded with a miracle. As Father Peter uttered the words of consecration, the host in his fingers dripped blood. This astonishing sign helped to bolster the faith of an age assailed by doubt and heresy.

The texts of many of the best-known Latin Eucharistic hymns, such as the “Tantum ergo” and the “Lauda Sion” were written by St. Thomas Aquinas to fittingly celebrate this great feast. And while many areas of Italy celebrate this day with great pomp and processions — in nearby Genazzano the streets are lined with floral mosaics — the most important procession is that of Rome where the Holy Father celebrates Mass at St. John Lateran and then processes with the Blessed Sacrament to the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

Although the holy day was instituted to celebrate the miracle of Bolsena, there are many documented Eucharistic miracles all over the world. In 2005, The Real Presence Association produced a catalogue of the Vatican exhibition “The Eucharistic Miracles in the World” to illustrate how the Real Presence in the Eucharist has manifested itself around the globe.

In Rome, there have been two miracles at 1,000 years distance. The first took place in the age of Gregory the Great and the second during the reign of Pope Paul V Borghese.

In 595, Pope Gregory was celebrating Mass in a Roman church. When it came time for consecration, the Roman noblewoman who had baked the bread for the Eucharist began to laugh in disbelief that the fruit of her oven could become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Pope Gregory, dismayed at her lack of faith, refused her Communion, but as he prayed over the bread, it transformed visibly into flesh. The woman fell to her knees repentant. The relics of this miracle are now in Andechs, Germany, although a damaged fresco by Pomarancio recounts the story in the portico of the Church of St. Gregory on the Celian Hill.

Rome’s most celebrated Eucharistic miracle, however, took place on the Esquiline Hill, in one of the oldest churches in the city. Tradition has it that St. Peter found hospitality in the home of Senator Pudens, father of Sts. Praxedes and Pudenziana, who famously collected the blood of the martyrs.

This prestigious site was soon converted into a church and to this day contains the oldest Christian mosaics in the world. This basilica enjoyed the patronage of many great churchmen and was beautified with paintings, mosaics and luxurious pavement over the centuries. But its most wondrous gift was the privilege of hosting a miracle in 1610.

While celebrating Mass in the Caetani chapel of the church, a disbelieving priest dropped the Host after consecration. (Some versions say he let it fall on purpose). The Host fell upon the steps, spilling blood onto the marble. To this day, the relics of this miracle can still be seen in the form of the bloodstains on the steps.

A common factor among the stories of these miracles is doubt. Anguished doubt, ridiculing doubt or disrespectful doubt plagued each of the recipients of these miraculous visions. Rarely has there been more confusion and certainty than in our present day, and these miracles demonstrate how God tries to help us overcome our dark hours so we can proclaim with St. Thomas the Apostle, “My Lord and my God.”

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The cost of compromise

In 1440, the printing press gave the world mass-produced books, transforming and enriching man’s life forever. These in turn were followed by broadsides, the first newspapers. And, in due course, the op-ed was born in the form of the pamphlet.

Renaissance pundits had plenty to write about. In the turbulent period of the Reformation, many people had strayed from their spiritual leaders and turned to sophisticated literary champions instead.

Heresy appeared side by side with sound doctrine and confusion was rife. People could read John Calvin one day and the Defense of the Seven Sacraments the next. As the Church was challenged in her most essential teachings, the faithful were left adrift and unsure, and certain pundits found they could easily make a name for themselves through facile engagement of the issues of the day, without every truly taking sides in theological debate.

Erasmus of Rotterdam was one such opportunist. Though he remained nominally Catholic throughout the Reformation, his writing and satires caused much uncertainty, to the point where the Catholic renewal of the following generation blamed him for having “laid the egg that hatched the Reformation.”

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly,” his most celebrated satire, where he lends his biting pen to the complaints of the Reformers, holding up popes, theologians and religious (among many others) to ridicule. The book is written by Folly in the first person (a woman, of course) exulting in her dominion and victories.

Erasmus, blessed with an excellent humanistic education, deployed his fine Latin and his gift for clever repartee in high profile polemics. But by glossing over the substantial problems facing the Catholic faith, and nodding in time with the Protestants’ chant for “change,” he disheartened and discouraged many of his fellow Catholics.

Erasmus’ treatment of the papal magisterium as a secondary consideration played a critical role in undermining the authority of the papacy. Confident in his own reason and personal brilliance, it never occurred to Erasmus to seek counsel from Rome on how his writing might affect those who were contending with the forces of Protestantism. Reading his work, some confused Catholics thought that open criticism of the Church was the order of the day.

The legacy of Erasmus illustrates the dangers of downplaying doctrine while taking a superficial approach to the great issues of the day. While the Eucharist was being dismissed and profaned from one end of Europe to another, Erasmus poked fun at those who tried to explain Transubstantiation. Brushing aside the role of theology in the Church, he played right into the hands of the Protestant dissenters who were quick to claim Erasmus as one of their own.

That sort of folly led to tragic consequences in the case of Erasmus. In 1535, his longtime friend and correspondent, Sir Thomas More, was beheaded in England. The two colleagues had come to a crossroads. King Henry VIII tried to coerce Thomas More to act against his faith and conscience by denying the Magisterium. Thomas could not. Erasmus was silent.

Erasmus’ usually ready pen spilled no ink during the trial, imprisonment and murder of his friend Thomas More. Whether paralyzed by cowardice or compromise, the results of his political coquetry must have been painful.

Undoubtedly with his wit and brilliance Erasmus hoped to play a crucial role in the important events of his time. But he lacked the clarity of conscience and desire for truth that characterized his friend Thomas More. Erasmus comforted himself by writing that folly held an easy route to forgiveness, allowing one to blame missteps and errors on youthful foolishness. But while Thomas More will be honored at the altars on his feast day of July 6, Erasmus will always be remembered as he who scribbled while Rome burned.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at

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