A Saintly Chef; Constantine’s Conversion

Cardinal Baronio’s Canonization Cause Revived

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The virtue of patience is hard to come by in any day or age, but the extraordinary example of Cardinal Cesare Baronio should give us all heart.

Not only did he dedicate long hard hours to his studies and writing, and suffer the ceaseless practical jokes of St. Philip Neri, but additionally his cause for canonization has been stalled since 1745 when Pope Benedict XIV conferred on him the title of venerable.

But Cardinal Baronio’s spirit of forbearance has paid off. This year, the 400th anniversary of his death, Cardinal Baronio’s case has been reopened by the general attorney of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, known as the Oratorians.

“Peace and obedience” was the motto of this extraordinary man, and he lived both virtues throughout his life in such an exemplary manner that Pope John XXIII, an admirer of Cardinal Baronio’s, took the same words and inverted them to become his own dictum.

While his contemporary St. Peter Canisius traveled to heretical hot spots to preach — personifying the daring, brilliant charism of the Jesuits — Cardinal Baronio embodied the nurturing nature of the Oratorians by remaining stably in his parish, and writing steadily as he tended to his flock.

Both men, however, gave a troubled world the tools to perceive the truth. St. Peter Canisius wrote the first catechism and Cardinal Baronio wrote 12 volumes of meticulously researched Church history.

Cesare Baronio was born near Naples in 1538 to a poor but noble family. At the age of 19 he came to Rome to study law at the Rome University and found lodgings in Piazza Farnese around the corner from the Church of San Gerolamo della Carità where Father Philip Neri lived.

The young student was soon introduced to his saintly neighbor and, attracted by the great magnet of Father Neri’s holiness, he started to frequent the oratory.

Father Neri recognized the immense potential in Baronio and took an interest in his formation. Although Baronio’s natural inclination lent toward subjects such as death and final judgment, Father Neri called him back to the here and now by setting him to study Church history.

Baronio knew he was called to the priesthood, but wanted to join one of the new orders such as the Jesuits or Theatines, and to live among his brothers in the priesthood. After much discernment, however, he was ordained a secular priest in 1564.

He took up his ministry in the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, the Florentine national church in Rome in the care of Father Neri. Together with two other priests, they were the nucleus of the congregation of the Oratorians which was officially established in 1575.

Every day Father Baronio went from preaching and hearing confessions at San Giovanni to tending the sick and moribund at the hospital of Santo Spirito, and then returned home to cook for community of the Oratorians.

When he realized that the kitchen duty was always left for him, Father Baronio’s patience and good humor came to the fore and he inscribed above his oven “Caesar Baronius coquus perpetuus,” “Cesare Baronio, cook in perpetuity.”

Father Neri saw the many honors conferred on Father Baronio as a danger to his humility, and so the future saint would play tricks on the young priest to keep him from becoming too proud of his accomplishments.

Father Neri once told Father Baronio to sing Psalm 51 “Miserere” at a wedding, although it was reserved for Good Friday or funerals. The startled guests looked at Father Baronio with disgust, but he took the lesson to heart, and always remained gentle and unassuming.

While Pope Gregory XIII was reforming the Julian calendar in 1580 to fashion the Gregorian version still in use today, he set Father Baronio to reorganize the liturgical calendar, entrusting him with the task of revising the stories of the saints and martyrs. The Roman Martyrology has undergone numerous additions and alterations (the latest version was released in 2004). Father Baronio’s careful work forms the basis of this beloved and useful book.

During the writing of the martyrology, Father Baronio’s passion for relics grew, and he was one of the first people to come running when the Catacombs of St. Priscilla was rediscovered in 1578.

He was elevated to cardinal in 1596. Although he was very poor, he took great pains to care for his titular church, St. Nereo and Achilleo. He even obtained the return of their relics which had been transferred to the Church of St. Hadrian.

A scholar without intellectual arrogance, a cardinal who performed the humblest tasks for his fellow priests, a man inclined to solitude who spent most of his day caring for others, Cardinal Cesare Baronio offers a resonant example for our own time.

To revive the memory and commemorate his great scholarly contributions, the Oratory has organized a year of special Masses with various members of the College of Cardinals, symposiums, concerts and conferences. Not bad for the humble house chef.

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Lessons From Sylvester’s Chapel

The Lenten season brings the great consolation of the station churches and the opportunity to pray and meditate in old and beloved sites. The Church of the Quattro Coronati — Four Crowned Martyrs — a few short steps from St. John Lateran, is the station for the Fifth Week of Lent, but I went to visit it this week.

Once a jewel of a church, with inlaid marble floors and elegant architecture, today Quattro Coronati retains little of its former glamour.

One notable exception is the little Chapel of St. Sylvester, consecrated in 1247. The paintings have been beautifully restored, and when one walks into the little room, the images shine out brightly and vividly, recounting concerns that are still alive today regarding the relationship between Church and state.

The chapel was painted by an unknown artist working at the height of the struggles between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. It was built in part by a member of the Segni family which produced two of the most important Popes on the Middle Ages, Innocent III (1198-1216) and his nephew Gregory IX (1227-1241). These two dynamic men struggled valiantly against the Holy Roman Emperor’s continual encroachment on Church authority.

The Quattro Coronati Church suffered bitterly during these battles. During the Investiture Controversy in 1075, when the Pope and the emperor disputed the right to nominate bishops, Quattro Coronati had been sacked and destroyed.

Undaunted, the Popes rebuilt it, with even more beautiful decor and the addition of the little St. Sylvester Chapel. The decoration was completed under Pope Innocent IV, who also maintained the same uncompromising policies against the Holy Roman Emperor as his predecessors.

The chapel is dedicated to St. Sylvester, the Pope who, in Church lore, convinced Emperor Constantine to convert. During the Middle Ages, he became an excellent model for the Popes struggling against Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen.

The Holy Roman Emperor, since the time of Charlemagne in 800, received his authority to rule from the Pope, and in return protected the Church against the violence of her enemies. Over the centuries, the emperors had begun to usurp the Church’s role in ecclesiastical decisions.

In the wake of the reforms of the 10th century, the Popes tried to disentangle the Church from its secular manipulators, but the battle proved long and difficult. The city was sacked, prelates imprisoned and Church property confiscated.

In this Chapel of St. Sylvester, the artist painted with a vigorous freshness that declared from the very walls that the tides had turned. A series of panels right above the head of the visitor tell the story of how St. Sylvester converted Constantine.

The story is taken from the Golden Legend, which in this case is not historically accurate, but more important than historical accuracy the artists makes a contemporary point about the emperor.

According to the legend depicted, Constantine started his tenure as co-emperor as a persecutor of Christians. For his sins, he was struck with leprosy. This illness is dramatically rendered in the fresco. The emperor, replete with crown and jeweled robes, is depicted as covered with red spots while his head droops in shame.

There was only one supposed cure for leprosy in that age, which required that the victim bathe in the warm blood of babies to expunge the disease. An astonishing scene represents the leprous emperor, sitting on his throne and giving the order to have the babies gathered up for slaughter. Mothers and fathers plead, wail and clutch their children to no avail — the emperor must be cured.

It won’t escape many modern viewers how we have come full circle to the same barbarities. In the modern debate over embryonic stem cells, the chief argument used for the destruction of these tiny human lives is their putative power to cure other diseases.

Constantine, however, was troubled by this solution and rejected the cure, speaking some of the most resonant lines of the Golden Legend: “The honor of the Roman people is born of the font of piety, which gave us the law that anyone who kills a child in war shall incur the sentence of death.

“What cruelty would it be then if we did to our own children what we are forbidden to do to aliens! What do we gain in conquering barbarians if we allow cruelty to conquer us!”

Constantine was rewarded with a dream of St. Peter and St. Paul telling him to seek out Pope Sylvester in Rome. Upon finding the Pope, Constantine had himself baptized, and, in cleansing his soul, his body was healed.

Constantine’s gratitude to the Pope was boundless. Kneeling before the Pope, he recognized the importance of the spiritual power of the Pope.

Constantine paid honors to St. Sylvester and even led the Pope’s horse on foot, something Frederick II was unlikely to be repeating.

This story, which tries to define the realms of the temporal and spiritual, how the overlap and interact, shows the sophisticated medieval understanding that Church and state are not so easily divided. Separated from any moral authority, the state weakens and loses sight of what is best for its citizens.

Ironically, we use the term “medieval” to refer to what we perceive as an ignorant and violent age. I can’t help but wonder what the Middle Ages would make of us today.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].

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