morning-starRecently I got a query from someone wondering about an anti-Catholic video that claimed “the pope’s deacon” invoked Lucifer during the Easter Vigil liturgy and referred to Jesus as his Son.

Of course, that’s not what happened, but to understand what really did happen, you need to know a few things about “lucifer.”


What does the word lucifer mean?

It’s a Latin word derived from the roots lux (light) and ferre (to carry).

It means “light-bearer” or “light-bringer,” and it was not originally used in connection with the devil.

Instead, it could be used multiple ways. For example, anybody carrying a torch at night was a lucifer (light-bringer).

It was also used as a name for the Morning Star (i.e., the planet Venus), because this is the brightest object in the sky other than the sun and the moon. As a result, Venus is the first star seen in the evening (the Evening Star) and the last star seen in the morning (the Morning Star).

Venus is also known—in English—as the Day Star because it can be seen in the day.

Because its sighting in the morning heralds the light of day, it was referred to by Latin speakers as the “light-bringer” or lucifer.


So there was no connection with the devil?

No. In fact, it was used as an ordinary name. Thus in the 300s, St. Lucifer of Cagliari was a defender of the deity of Christ and of St. Athanasius against the Arians.

Another bishop in the 300s—Lucifer of Siena—also bore this name.


Is the symbol of the Morning Star used in any surprising ways?

Yes. The Bible uses it as a symbol for Jesus Christ. In the book of Revelation, we read:

“I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16).

(Spoiler alert! This is going to play a key role in what we have to say about the liturgy.)


So we shouldn’t freak out just because we see references to the words “lucifer” or “light-bringer” or “morning star”?

No. They have no intrinsic connection to the devil. In fact, they may be used—as in Scripture itself—as symbols of Jesus Christ.


How did this word get connected with the devil?

It’s based on a passage in the book of Isaiah. Chapter 14 of that book contains a taunt (a kind of ancient insult song or poem—like you might find at a modern rap battle) against one of the oppressors of Israel: the king of Babylon.

It predicts his downfall, but it also depicts his pride, which sets him up for the downfall.

Thus we read:

How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low! (Is. 14:12).

In the Latin Vulgate, that’s:

Quomodo cecidisti de caelo,
lucifer, fili aurorae?
Deiectus es in terram,
qui deiciebas gentes.

The king of Babylon thus fancies himself as something high and mighty—like the Day Star itself—but God brings him low in the end.

In this passage the reference to the Day Star/the Morning Star/lucifer is thus an ironic allusion to the king of Babylon’s prideful self-image.


But surely we’re talking about the human king of Babylon—not the devil. Doesn’t the passage refer to him as a man who dies?

Yes. This passage explicitly refers to the king of Babylon as a man (Heb., ’ish) who conquered kingdoms:

Those who see you will stare at you, and ponder over you:

“Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who did not let his prisoners go home?” (Is. 14:16-17).

It also refers multiple times to his decay after death and how he will not lie in his own tomb!

Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps;
maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering” (Is. 14:11).

All the kings of the nations lie in glory, each in his own tomb;
but you are cast out, away from your sepulcher, like a loathed untimely birth (Is. 14:18-19).

So we’re talking about a human king—at least in the literal sense of the text.


How did this passage get connected with the devil?

Some of the early Church Fathers took it that way.

They compared the pride that the king of Babylon displays in the passage (“I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High”; Is. 14:14) with the pride of the devil.

They also compared the fall of the king of Babylon to Jesus statement that he “saw Satan fall like lightning” (Luke 10:18)—though in context that passage refers to the defeat of the devil in the ministry the apostles just engaged in.

It is legitimate to use the spiritual sense of this text as an application to the devil, but many people have lost sight of the literal sense of the text, which applies to the human king of Babylon.

Worse, in the popular mind “Lucifer” has simply become a name for the devil, and that causes problems when people who only know this use encounter other uses of the term—as in the Latin liturgy.


Is thus just a Catholic interpretation?

No. In fact, the Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin acknowledged it.

Luther wrote:

12. How you are fallen from heaven, Lucifer! This is not said of the angel who once was thrown out of heaven but of the king of Babylon, and it is figurative language. Isaiah becomes a disciple of Calliope and in like manner laughs at the king. Heylel [the Hebrew word used in the text] denotes the morning star, called Lucifer and the son of Dawn. “Heaven” is where we are with our heads, and that is obviously above the ground, just as that most powerful and extremely magnificent king was once above, but now his lamp is extinguished (Luther’s Works 16:140; Preface to the Prophet Isaiah, ch. 14).

Calvin as quite hostile to the application of this passage to the devil, writing:

12. How art thou fallen from heaven! Isaiah proceeds with the discourse which he had formerly begun as personating the dead, and concludes that the tyrant differs in no respect from other men, though his object was to lead men to believe that he was some god. He employs an elegant metaphor, by comparing him to Lucifer, and calls him the Son of the Dawn; and that on account of his splendor and brightness with which he shone above others. The exposition of this passage, which some have given, as if it referred to Satan, has arisen from ignorance; for the context plainly shows that these statements must be understood in reference to the king of the Babylonians. But when passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this kind frequently arise. Yet it was an instance of very gross ignorance, to imagine that Lucifer was the king of devils, and that the Prophet gave him this name. But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables (Commentary on Isaiah at 14:12).


So what have anti-Catholics claimed about the Easter Vigil liturgy?

Some have claimed that “the pope’s deacon” invoked Lucifer and described Jesus as the devil’s Son.

This claim is based on translating part of the Easter Vigil liturgy this way:

Flaming Lucifer who finds mankind;
I say O Lucifer, who will Never be defeated.
Christ is your Son, who came back from Hell;
shed his peaceful light and is alive and reigns in the world without end.


What’s the real story?

The pope does not have a personal deacon, though deacons can sing the part of the Easter Vigil liturgy known as the Exsultet, Easter Proclamation, or Paschal Proclamation. (Exsultet is its first word in Latin: “Let them exult!”)

You can read about it here.

The Exsultet is part of a ceremony involving the Paschal Candle, which symbolizes the light of Christ.

In Latin, the relevant part of the Exsultet reads:

Orámus ergo te, Dómine,
ut céreus iste in honórem tui nóminis consecrátus,
ad noctis huius calíginem destruéndam,
indefíciens persevéret.
Et in odórem suavitátis accéptus,
supérnis lumináribus misceátur.

Flammas eius lúcifer matutínus invéniat:
ille, inquam, lúcifer, qui nescit occásum.
Christus Fílius tuus,
qui, regréssus ab ínferis, humáno géneri serénus illúxit,
et vivit et regnat in sæcula sæculórum.

In good English (as opposed to the incompetent translation given by the anti-Catholic commentator), this means:

Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.

May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Up to the first reference to the Morning Star, this passage of the Exsultet is asking God to let the Paschal Candle continue to give light, so that it still be burning in the morning (“May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star”).

Then the prayer pivots to re-conceive of the Morning Star not as the literal one in the sky but as Jesus Christ himself, based on the symbol in Revelation 22:16 (“the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son”).

It is a moving, poetic prayer to God—not an invocation of the devil.

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pope-francis-st-patrickIn his recent homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Pope Francis made a comment that some have leapt on as yet another outrage committed by the pope.

Allegedly, Pope Francis said that Jesus was a failure.

I’d provide links, but I don’t want to give the outrage mongers the traffic.

I have, however, received several queries from people saying they are troubled and wonder what to make of the remark.

So for those concerned by the situation, let’s take a look at it.


1) What did Pope Francis actually say?

In his Sept. 24 vespers homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in which he was addressing a group of priests and religious, Pope Francis said:

We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world.

Not that these things are unimportant!

We have been entrusted with a great responsibility, and God’s people rightly expect accountability from us.

But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes.

To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion in the first days and years of our vocation and, need I say, it calls for great humility.

The cross shows us a different way of measuring success.

Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors.

And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus… and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.


2) People are really upset about that?



3) Really?

Yes. Next question.


4) Why would they be upset about it?

I’m not going to go into the psychology of the outrage mongers, beyond noting that they appear to have an anti-Francis animus that distorts their ability to read straightforward texts.

However, they are objecting to the statement that Jesus’ “life . . . ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.”


5) But wait! Didn’t you just omit an important qualifier in what the pope said?

Yes. The ellipsis (i.e., the “ . . . ”) in the above statement replaces the all-important qualifier “humanly speaking.”

It’s only by omitting or ignoring or misunderstanding this qualifier that one could take offense at the pope’s remark.

This qualifier tells the listener (or reader) that the statement is only an apparent, not an actual, description of affairs.

Pope Francis means that from a superficial, human point of view Jesus’ death might make it look like he was a failure, but from God’s perspective, this was not so.


6) How would that human assessment work?

In Jesus’ day, people expected the Messiah to lead a triumphant rebellion against the Romans, restore political independence to Israel, and reign in Jerusalem as a Davidic king.

Jesus didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, the Romans killed him, and they did so in a particularly painful and humiliating way via his death on a cross.

Similarly, his followers were scattered and took to meeting in secret after his crucifixion.

From the perspective of most people of the day, based on their expectations of what the Messiah would do, he looked like a failed political revolutionary.


7) How does that contrast with the true perspective on Jesus?

From God’s perspective, Jesus did exactly what he was supposed to.

He was never meant to lead a political rebellion against the Romans. He expressly told the Roman governor, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Instead, he fulfilled God’s plan precisely by dying on the cross.

And, while his followers may have been scattered and driven to meeting secretly for a time, they later became a massive movement that converted the Roman Empire to the Christian Faith.

Even in the first generation of that process, the early Christians could be described as having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

While, from a human perspective, Jesus and his movement looked like failures at the moment he was killed, from God’s perspective, Jesus was a success, and in time this would be revealed by the fruit his movement bore.


8) How do we know this is what Pope Francis has in mind?

Well, the phrase “humanly speaking” tells the reader that the pope is setting up precisely this kind of contrast between the human and the divine perspective.

So does the surrounding text. Look at the beginning of the quotation above: The pope is telling priests and religious that they should not judge the success of their efforts by purely worldly standards. That kind of evaluation has a role, but it is not the definitive standard. Instead, God’s perspective is.

Thus he stressed:

But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. . . .

The cross shows us a different way of measuring success.

Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors.

The pope’s point is that, judged by worldly standards, our efforts might seem to end in failure, when in reality—from God’s perspective—they are actually succeeding!

Thus he reminds us that

if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus

It is at this point that he introduces the merely apparent failure of Jesus’ efforts in human terms and how the apparent “failure of the Cross” was actually a brilliant success that bore fruit according to God’s timetable rather than man’s.


9) Isn’t this contrast between the human and the divine perspective on Jesus’ ministry reflected in the New Testament?

Yes. Multiple times. One example is 1 Corinthians 1, where St. Paul writes:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor. 1:18, 22-25).

The fact that Jesus’ death on the cross was scandalous and a mark of failure to people in Paul’s own day (“folly . . . a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks”) is being contrasted with the true perspective, according to which it is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

It is precisely this contrast in perspective that Pope Francis is referring to.


10) Couldn’t Francis have been clearer?

One can always say that someone could have been clearer (even when this isn’t true).

But we, as listeners and readers, have an obligation to devote reasonable efforts to understanding what is being said in the things we hear and read.

Pope Francis is not obliged to speak at all times in public as if he were addressing small children.

When he’s addressing adults, he can reasonably expect them to know what is meant by phrases like “humanly speaking” and to be able to recognize the use of ironic references like “the failure of the cross.”

St. Paul expects the same thing of his readers when he uses phrases like “the foolishness of God.” (Just imagine how the outrage mongers would get the vapors if Pope Francis had uttered that phrase!)

Popes—and this certainly includes Pope Francis—are not always clear, but this is not one of those times. What Pope Francis said is perfectly clear for anyone who reads it attentively and with good will.

In the Foreword to his Jesus of Nazareth series, Pope Benedict XVI made a simple request:

I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

That is precisely what the outrage mongers are not showing to Pope Francis in this case.

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Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.

This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from from 15 August 2015 to 28 September 2015.


Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

General Audiences





Papal Tweets

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new testamentWho wrote the New Testament?

Let’s see . . . there was Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul.

Those are the easy ones.

Anybody else?

If you think about it for a moment, you’ll likely come up with James, Peter, and Jude.

Good. Now, who else was there?


Harder Cases

At this point, your mind might flash to the book of Hebrews, which doesn’t list its author. Some have proposed that it was written by Apollos, Barnabas, Luke, or another member of the Pauline circle, but I’m not talking about it’s unnamed author. I’m looking for named authors.

Depending on how much you read the Church Fathers and some modern authors (like Benedict XVI), you might know that there is a question of whether one or two people named John contributed to the New Testament, but I’m not talking about that, either.

There are three additional men who are named in the New Testament as authors.

So who were they?

The answer is Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy.


“Wait,” you may be saying. “What books did they author?”

In the case of Sosthenes (SOSS-thin-EES), it was one book: 1 Corinthians.

In the case of Silvanus, it was two books: 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

In the case of Timothy, it was a whopping six books: 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.


“Wait! Didn’t Paul author those?”

Yes, he did. Paul was the primary author of each letter, and Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy were his co-authors.

You can tell this by the way each book is addressed. In the ancient world, letters were commonly begun with a variant on the formula “X to Y,” where X was the author and Y was the recipient.

Thus 3 John opens with:

The elder to the beloved Gaius (3 John 1).

This tells us that “the elder” is the author and Gaius is the recipient. It presupposes that Gaius knows who the elder is, but other than that it is a fairly standard opening for a first century Greco-Roman letter.

On the other hand, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, we read:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Cor. 1:1-2).

The formula “X to Y” is somewhat obscured by the literary-theological elaboration it is given here, but it’s still present. Stripped of the elaboration, it reads:

Paul and Sosthenes to the church at Corinth.

This lists both Paul and Sosthenes as authors, and that’s weird.



It may be common today to find a book written by more than one person (e.g., the sci-fi classic The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle).

Co-authors are common today when it comes to books, but not with letters. Today most letters are authored by only one person.

The same was true in the ancient world, so Paul’s listing of other individuals as co-authors was startling.

It was one of several unusual things about his letters. (For another, see here.)

What does his inclusion of co-authors mean?


The Role of Authors

Today we think of the author of a work as the person who writes it, but this is not a guarantee.

In the modern world, we have “ghost writers,” who write a work on behalf of the person who is listed as its author.

Even apart from such an extreme case (where one person composes all of a work’s words in the name of another), we have intermediary stages involving editors, copy editors, and proof readers, where various other individuals make some contribution to the composition of the words that the author eventually signs his name to.

These kind of intermediate contributors are, in fact, the norm in modern publishing.

Take it from me as someone who works (in multiple roles) in that industry: No professionally published book comes out without being looked over, and contributed to, by individuals such as these.

And yet it is the author who lends his name to the work and takes responsibility for it.

That’s true all the way up to the pope.


Even the Pope?

Popes—whether they be Francis, Benedict, John Paul, or others—give tons of speeches and issue far too many documents for them to be solely responsible for.

They have helpers, editors, and even ghost writers. Yet they ultimately sign their names to documents and take responsibility for them.

That’s the ultimate mark of an author: Regardless of what role he played in the composition of a document’s words, he lends his name to it and takes responsibility for it when it’s published.

The author is the authority behind the letter.

He’s likely to have played a role in the composition or revision of the text (particularly if it’s an important text), but it’s the ultimate acceptance of public responsibility for the document that makes him its author.


Ancient Authors

The same was true in the ancient world. Authors generally proposed that the work be written and played a role in the process of its composition and revision, but what precisely that role was could vary, depending on how much freedom the author gave to those he was working with.

The author may or may not have asked for changes before the final draft was published, but he was the one responsible for how the process as a whole played out.

Ultimately, he authorized the publishing of the work in his name and so became its author.

Or co-author.

In Paul’s case, he included people like Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy, who lent their names to various letters when they were sent. They took responsibility for them, alongside Paul, and so became his co-authors.


The Role of Paul’s Co-Authors

This did not mean that they made large contributions to the text. In all likelihood, they did not.

It is clear, when we read Paul’s letters, that he has the dominant voice. Paul frequently speaks in the singular (“I”) rather than the plural (“we”). And we don’t read things like, “I, Sosthenes, say . . . ” or “I, Timothy, tell you . . . ” That’s one reason why it’s so easy to mistake Paul as the sole author.

But it’s likely that his co-authors did make contributions alongside his.

Some have suggested, for example, that Paul was more brusque than his co-authors, and that may be why 2 Corinthians 10-13 is so harsh in tone compared to the part of the letter that precedes it (i.e., Timothy was not with Paul when he wrote this part and so couldn’t urge him to tone down his brusqueness, though he was listed as a co-author of the letter as a whole).

However Paul’s co-authors may have contributed in the writing of the letters to which they lent their names, they still played a distinct role.


Authors vs. Secretaries

It’s important to recognize that they were not simply Paul’s secretaries or scribes.

Serving as a scribe in the ancient world did not make you an author.

Scribes had many roles, which ranged from copyist to ghost writer, depending on how the author wanted to use them.

What they did not do is lend their name to the document in the opening address and take that kind of responsibility for it.

Thus in Romans, Tertius—the scribe who Paul employed—merely greets the recipients near the end of the letter, saying:

I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord (Rom. 16:22).

He does not have his name listed in the “X to Y” address of  Romans 1:1-7, alongside Paul as a co-author.

This is not to say that people like Sosthenes, Silvanus, and Timothy couldn’t have simultaneously functioned as scribes—just that their role was not limited to this.

If they played a scribal function in composing these letters (though this is not at all certain), their role went beyond that, and Paul had them include their names in the address, thus authorizing the letter and becoming its co-authors.

This means that, in a real sense, they are authors of the New Testament!

Yet we rarely hear about them in this capacity.

So who were they? What do we know about them?

That’s the subject of another post.

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paul-writing-his-lettersSome folks have the idea that the authors of the New Testament did not know that they were writing Scripture.

According to this view, they just thought they were writing Christian literature, and the Church gradually—even a century or more later—recognized that it was Scripture.

Some time ago, I wrote about this issue, and I argued that the authors of several books in the New Testament clearly knew that they were writing Scripture, right from the get-go.

These books were Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Revelation.

That’s everything in the New Testament except the letters.

So what about them?


The Case Against

If any authors of the New Testament weren’t aware or weren’t clear that they were writing Scripture, it would be the authors of the letters.

There are several things you might appeal to if you wanted to argue for this view:

  1. There isn’t a prior precedent for letters as Scripture. None of the books of the Old Testament are letters. Some have historical accounts that contain letters, but none are letters. As a result, the New Testament authors of letters would have been striking out in new conceptual territory to think of their works as Scripture. Letters in their day weren’t thought of as Scripture any more than letters in our day typically are. What’s more, in their day there was no precedent for thinking of letters as Scripture (whereas, at least in our day, we can look back on the letters of the New Testament).
  2. Many of the letters may have been written before the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. If so, they were written before the Christian works whose authors have clear scriptural intent. Consequently, they may have been written before it was clear that there would be any Christian Scriptures, which would be another conceptual hurdle for the early letter writers to jump.
  3. The letters often contain material that is local and situational—e.g., Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to discipline a particular man (1 Cor. 5:1-5) or his offer to pay Philemon to compensate him for money or goods that Onesimus may have stolen (Philemon 18-19). Such passages are more specific than the more general matters we find discussed in clearly-recognizable books of Scripture.

Still, this doesn’t mean that the authors of the New Testament letters didn’t recognize that they were writing Scripture.

Here I’d like to suggest one reason which supports the idea that Paul, in particular, did recognize it.


First Century Letters

Most of us don’t have any exposure to first century letters other than those found in the New Testament.

As a result, it’s easy for us to have misconceptions about them and how they were written.

For example, the picture above is the product of later artistic imagination. Paul did not write his letters personally, alone, or at a table!

We can also miss how unique Paul’s letters are. They are not typical of the letters in the ancient world.

One way they are different is very simple: their size.

In his excellent book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection, Randolph Richards writes:

The typical papyrus letter consisted of one or two sheets. Paul’s letters were not typical length. We think of Philemon as a very short letter, but in actuality, it was a fairly typical letter in length, perhaps even a trifle long. Imagine the church’s surprise when Paul’s letter to the Romans arrived! (p. 52)

How long, specifically, were ancient letters?

Writing out a dispatched copy of a letter of Paul was complicated by the fact that Paul’s letters were inordinately long. The typical papyrus letter was one papyrus sheet. In the approximately 14,000 private letters from Greco-Roman antiquity, the average length was about 87 words, ranging in length from 18 to 209 words. The letters of the literary masters, like Cicero and Seneca, were considerably longer. Nonetheless, Paul stands apart from them all. (p. 163)


Cicero’s Letters

Let’s take Cicero as an example. He was one of the most famous letter-writers of the ancient world, and his letters have remained in print to this day.

Here’s an example of a letter from Cicero—the kind he (and his audience) thought worth preserving and publishing in his volumes of collected letters. This one was sent to his friend Atticus in Athens in December of 68 B.C.:

All’s well at your mother’s, and I keep an eye on her.

I have undertaken to pay L. Cincius 20,400 sesterces to your credit on the Ides of February.

Pray see that I receive at the earliest possible opportunity what you say in your letters that you have bought and secured for me.

I should also be very much obliged if you would, as you promised, think over the means of securing the library for me.

My hope of getting the one enjoyment which I care for, when I come to retire, depends entirely on your kindness (The Letters of Cicero, vol. 1, III [A 1, 7]).

This letter is only 97 words long in English (minus the greeting, etc., which isn’t included here). That makes it a bit longer than the average ancient letter (87 words).

It’s a bit short for Cicero, though. His average was 295 words in Latin. But that’s Cicero’s average.

Now let’s compare it to Paul’s shortest letter: Philemon.


Paul’s Letters

Philemon is 335 words long in Greek, which means that Paul’s shortest letter is longer than Cicero’s average one.

By contrast, Paul’s average letter is 2,495 words, which is more than 8 times Cicero’s average and almost 30 times the average ancient letter.

Paul’s letters are huge by ancient standards.

They’re epistolary monsters, and Paul’s longest letter—Romans—runs to 7,114 words in Greek.

That makes it 82 times the length of the average ancient letter, so Romans is the city-stomping kaiju of Paul’s literary corpus.

Richards is right: The Romans would have been shocked when Paul’s letter courier showed up with his letter to them!

(In fact, there’s reason to think that they may have gotten something even bigger and more shocking than Romans alone in the mail, but that’s a story for another time.)


How Much This Cost

Writing letters of Pauline length was not cheap. Paper (papyrus or parchment) was hand-made and expensive.

So were the secretaries who prepared the drafts and final copy for mailing (as well as the copy literary figures like Paul tended to retain for their records).

While it’s difficult to make cross-cultural cost comparisons, by one way of estimating it, Romans would have cost Paul $2,275 to produce (Richardson, p. 169).

This would have been no small amount for an itinerant preacher who eked out a living making tents on the side.

In fact, Paul was almost certainly dependent on the donations of wealthy patrons to be able to produce letters like this.



Between the impressive length and investment that Paul sank in writing his letters, one conclusion is clear: Paul knew he was doing something extraordinary.

The fact that he so dramatically breaks the literary customs of his day and spends large amounts of money doing so indicates how important his letters were to him.

This, coupled with their theological content, indicates that—at a minimum—Paul thought he was producing highly important works of Christian literature.

Important enough to rank as Scripture?

It’s a distinct possibility, and the length and cost of his works aren’t the only reason for thinking so.

We’ll go into additional reasons in another post, but for now it’s worth noting the implications of the sheer size and cost of his letters.


Learning More

If you’re interested in learning more about the subject, I’d recommend Randolph Richards’ book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection.

It covers not only the length and cost issues but also many other aspects of first-century letter writing that most of us have no idea about—as well as the implications for our understanding of Paul.

I was delighted when this book recently came out on the Logos Bible software platform.

Personally, I use the Catholic version of Logos—Verbum—every day as part of my research, and I highly recommend it, too.

If you’re interested in checking it out, you can click here (affiliate link), and I can save you 15% on their base packages if you use the code JIMMY1 at checkout.

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SyringeAfter having failed to get a doctor-assisted suicide bill passed earlier this year though the normal legislative process, the California legislators who are in the pocket of the assisted-suicide lobby recently rammed one through in a surprise move.

The time they did it happened to be suicide prevention week!

Now the bill is on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not announced whether he will sign it or not.

You can use this form to tell him no.

In May, 2015, Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) and I engaged in a cordial, online debate on doctor-assisted suicide.

He, and users of his web site, came up with the questions, and I provided answers.

Since the topic is now back in the news, I thought I’d re-present the exchange.

It got rather lengthy, since there were 18 questions (actually more than that, since some were compound questions) on a sensitive subject, and they could take a few hundred words to answer on average.

For that reason, I’m providing a set of questions with hyperlinks so that you can read the part of the exchange that most interest you.

You can read the original version, on Scott’s blog here.


  1. Why would you use to deny me the right to a painless death at the time of my choosing?
  2. What do you mean by the “common good” in the case of assisted dying?
  3. How is the common good is achieved by making my grandmother suffer, against her will, for an extra month before death?
  4. Oregon already has an assisted dying law. What problems have you seen with Oregon’s experience?
  5. Do you think the folks in Oregon would agree that their law has not worked for their common good?
  6. Do you believe psychological anguish is “pain” in the context of end-of-life decisions about reducing pain?
  7. Would your concerns be alleviated if California law allowed people to issue an advance health directive refusing all assisted suicide options?
  8. Do you believe physical pain can be nearly eliminated by drugs at the end of life, and that doing so is already the common practice?
  9. How many people do you think will be in terrible pain and wishing they had an assisted dying option?
  10. How many people do you think would choose an assisted death only to learn their disease has a cure just around the corner?
  11. How many disabled people do you think would be persuaded to end their lives early for the sake of someone else’s convenience?
  12. Some have argued that assisted suicide is a slippery slope. Can you give examples in which the slippery slope actually happened?
  13. How do you weigh the elements of “common good”?
  14. What does “do no harm” mean in an era when medical science can keep you alive and imprisoned in your own body indefinitely?
  15. If someone is brain dead, would you keep them alive for the common good?
  16. Do you believe pain relief is achievable for all people in the real world?
  17. Does the Catholic Church teach the sanctity of life or reverence for life?
  18. If people choose assisted death often enough, could it reduce the amount of efforts that go into curing those problems?

Also, here is Scott’s response to my answers.

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francis-readingThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from from 3 September 2015 to 15 September 2015.


Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

General Audiences



Papal Tweets

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FrancisBlessesPalmsThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from From 23 August 2015 to 7 September 2015.


Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

General Audiences

Papal Tweets

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pope-francis2On September 8, the Holy See released a pair of documents by Pope Francis which reform the way in which the Church handles annulments.

Here are 9 things to know and share . . .


1) What is an annulment? Is it the same thing as a divorce?

An annulment (formally known as a “declaration of nullity”) is a ruling that a particular marriage was null from the beginning—that is, something was gravely wrong at the time the time of the wedding and it prevented a valid marriage from coming into existence.

This is different than a divorce, which proposes to dissolve a marriage that is in existence.


2) Why are annulments an important issue in the Catholic Church?

Jesus Christ expressly taught that if two people divorce and then remarry that they are committing the grave sin of adultery. He taught:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12).

Because of this teaching, the Church cannot simply give divorced people permission to remarry. To do so would be to give them permission to commit adultery.

Consequently, if a divorced person wishes to remarry, the Church needs to examine the first marriage to see if it was valid or not.

If it was valid then the person is still bound to their previous spouse and cannot marry another person.

If it was not valid then the parties to the first marriage are not bound and so, unless something else affects the situation, they are free to marry other people.

The number of people in our society who are divorced makes this a pressing pastoral problem.


3) How does the annulment process work?

This is a complicated subject, but in simplest terms, the rules governing annulments are expressed principally in two documents: the Code of Canon Law, which governs the western Catholic church, and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which governs the eastern Catholic churches.

When a man and a woman have divorced, they can contact the appropriate diocese and have their marriage investigated to see if it was valid.

This process could be simple or lengthy, depending on the nature of the case and the forms of evidence available.

If their marriage was not valid then they would be given a decree of nullity or “annulment.”


4) What has Pope Francis done?

He has issued two documents, each of which is a motu proprio. A motu proprio is a document issued on the pope’s initiative. They are frequently used to establish or clarify legal matters (as opposed to matters of doctrine, which are dealt with in other documents, such as encyclicals).

A famous example is the 2007 motu proprio issued by Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, in which he gave greater permission for the celebration of the traditional Latin liturgy.

The two documents issued by Pope Francis are:

  • Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge”), which reforms the annulment process for the western church (Latin, Italian), and
  • Mitis et Misericors Iesus (“Gentle and Merciful Jesus”), which reforms the annulment process for the eastern Catholic churches (Latin, Italian).

At the time of this writing, these documents are only available in Latin and Italian. An English translation is not presently available, though you can use Google to produce a machine translation of the Italian version using the links above. (Also, here’s a partial, unofficial translation provided by Vatican Radio.)

These documents were prepared, at Pope Francis’s direction, by a group of legal experts at the Vatican, which he appointed to the task in October of 2014.

Both documents contain an introduction explaining the pope’s actions, followed by a set of canons which replace the sections on annulments in the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

Appended to each document is a set of procedural rules explaining to bishops (and others) how the new processes are to work.


5) Why has Pope Francis done this?

He did so out of a desire to make the annulment process more efficient. In many parts of the world, the process has been notoriously slow and difficult. In some countries, it could be practically impossible to get a Church court to even hear one’s case, and if they did take it, it could take many years to get a ruling.

Thus, as Pope Francis notes, the 2014 Synod of Bishops requested changes to the annulment process. The Synod wrote:

A great number of synod fathers emphasized the need to make the procedure in cases of nullity more accessible and less time-consuming, and, if possible, at no expense.

They proposed, among others, the dispensation of the requirement of second instance for confirming sentences; the possibility of establishing an administrative means under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop; and a simple process to be used in cases where nullity is clearly evident.

Some synod fathers, however, were opposed to these proposals, because they felt that they would not guarantee a reliable judgment.

In all these cases, the synod fathers emphasized the primary character of ascertaining the truth about the validity of the marriage bond.

Among other proposals, the role which faith plays in persons who marry could possibly be examined in ascertaining the validity of the Sacrament of Marriage, all the while maintaining that the marriage of two baptized Christians is always a sacrament [Relatio Synodi 48].

The new documents seek to make the annulment process more accessible and less time-consuming.

They do not require the process to be free of charge (dioceses need to pay the people who work on these cases, and in some cases that means paying a fee to partially cover the costs), but the procedural norms attached to the documents do call for the costs to be minimized (see Art. 7 §2).


6) What changes did Pope Francis make to the process?

This is a complicated subject, because he replaced the sections in the two codes of canon law that deal with annulments. In the case of the western Code, that means he had twenty-one canons rewritten (canons 1671-1691).

Some of the changes were slight, but there are too many to go into here.

Among the major changes, as listed in the introduction to Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, are as follows:

  • Only a single judgment of nullity is required. Until now, in most cases, if one tribunal determined that a marriage was null, the decision was automatically appealed to a court of second instance, and only if the second tribunal agreed was an annulment granted. Now the morally certain decision of the first court will be sufficient in uncontested cases.


  • The bishop himself is a judge. Although the bishop has always been the principal judge in his diocese, previously, the section on annulments did not establish that the bishop himself was a judge in marriage cases. Now, in keeping with his role as shepherd of the faithful, it does. In fact, he is the principal judge in his diocese, to be assisted by others whom he chooses. The new law thus puts the responsibility squarely on the bishop as a pastor.


  • A new, briefer process involving the bishop has been created. Up to now there have been two processes for handling annulments: the formal process (which is the lengthier one involving gathering and weighing testimony) and the documentary process (which deals with situations where a marriage can be proved invalid simply by presenting certain documents, such as showing that a Catholic got married outside the Church without the required permission). Now there is a middle process involving the bishop. If the evidences for nullity are especially clear, they can be presented to the bishop in a process intended to take less time than a formal process case. However, if the evidences require more examination, the case is to be referred to the formal process.


  • Appeals can be made against the judgment of the bishop to the metropolitan. As a check on the judgment of the bishop, parties can appeal his decision to the metropolitan bishop (i.e., the bishop who heads the local ecclesiastical province, composed of several neighboring dioceses). Or, if it was the metropolitan himself who heard the original case, appeal can be made to the senior suffragan bishop (i.e., the bishop in the province with the most seniority, apart from the metropolitan).


7) In what kind of situations can the new, shorter process be used?

According to the procedural norms attached to Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (see Art. 14 § 1), these cases include the following:

  • lack of faith resulting in the simulation of consent to be married or an error that determines the will regarding one of the requirements of marriage
  • the brevity of married life (i.e., the couple divorced very quickly after being married)
  • procured abortion to prevent procreation (presumably during the marriage itself, prior to bearing other children and thus showing an unwillingness to procreate)
  • the stubborn persistence in a extramarital affair at the time of the wedding or at a time immediately following
  • the malicious concealment of:
    • infertility
    • a serious contagious disease
    • children born from a previous relationship
    • an incarceration
  • a reason for getting married that is completely foreign to married life (presumably something like entering a legal fiction of a marriage to be able to immigrate or gain an inheritance) or consisting of the unplanned pregnancy of the woman
  • the physical violence inflicted to extort the consent to marry
  • the lack of use of reason proved by medical documents


8) When does all this take effect?

Not immediately. According to Vatican Information Service, the effective date is December 8, 2015.
9) Is there more to say about all this?

Lots. However, this will do for an initial look at the subject.

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FrancisBlessesPalmsPope Francis has just released a letter in which he made several announcements concerning the upcoming Year of Mercy.

This includes absolution for those who have procured abortion and the ability to go to priests of the Society of St. Pius X for confession.

These have raised a lot of questions, so here are 12 things to know and share . . .


1) What is the Year of Mercy?

Popes periodically dedicate a year to a particular theme. For example, Benedict XVI dedicated 2010 to priests and 2013 as a Year of Faith. Now, Pope Francis has devoted 2016 to the theme of mercy.

Designating such years are one of the ways that the popes call attention to particular themes and help people understand and live their faith more deeply.

The upcoming Year of Mercy runs from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016.

It doesn’t coincide with the calendar year because it’s based on the Church’s liturgical year (which begins with Advent rather than January 1) and because it’s adjusted to begin and end with certain special days on the Church’s calendar (December 8 is the Immaculate Conception and, in 2016, November 20 is Christ the King).


2) What has Pope Francis said about the year and what are we supposed to do during it?

Pope Francis discussed the year at length when he announced it. You can read what he had to say here.

Pope Francis also discusses the year in a new apostolic letter, released on September 1, which you can read here.

In the new letter, Pope Francis talks about several opportunities for celebrating the Year of Mercy, including doing a pilgrimage in your diocese to gain an indulgence, performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, praying for the departed, etc.

He also talks about priests absolving those who have procured abortion and going to priests of the Society of St. Pius X for confession.


3) What does “procuring” an abortion mean?

In ordinary speech, procuring means obtaining, but here the term is used in a somewhat special way.

In canonical terms, it is generally taken to mean cooperating in an abortion in such a way that, if you hadn’t done your part, the abortion would not have taken place.

It is generally understood that only those immediately involved can be guilty of procuring an abortion in the canonical sense.

Those more remotely involved (e.g., workers at the electrical plant that supplies the abortion clinic with power, politicians and judges who make bad abortion laws) are not involved in this way.


4) Can’t priests just absolve people who have procured abortions?

Not without something else happening. Here’s why:

Step 1: The Code of Canon Law provides an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication for those who procure abortion.

Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.

Step 2: Excommunication prevents a person from receiving the sacraments.

Can. 1331 §1. An excommunicated person is forbidden:

2/ to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;

Step 3: The bishop (local ordinary) is the one empowered to remit the excommunication that procuring an abortion causes.

Can. 1355

§2. If the penalty has not been reserved to the Apostolic See, an ordinary can remit a latae sententiae penalty established by law but not yet declared for his subjects and those who are present in his territory or who committed the offense there; any bishop can also do this in the act of sacramental confession.

Therefore, a person who procures an abortion incurs an automatic excommunication which prevents them from receiving the sacraments. Confession is a sacrament, therefore, they cannot be absolved in confession until the excommunication is lifted. The bishop (or a bishop) is the one who needs to get involved in order to lift the excommunication and allow the person to be sacramentally absolved.

Except . . .


5) Except what?

Three things.

First, the Code of Canon Law provides a long list of things that can stop an automatic excommunication from taking effect. See here for more on that.

Of special note are these provisions:

Can. 1323 The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept:

1° a person who has not yet completed the sixteenth year of age;

2° a person who without negligence was ignorant that he or she violated a law or precept; inadvertence and error are equivalent to ignorance;

4° a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;

Can. 1324

§1. The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed:

4/ by a minor who has completed the age of sixteen years;

5/ by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;

8/ by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in ⇒ can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present;

9/ by a person who without negligence did not know that a penalty was attached to a law or precept;

§3. In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the accused is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty.

Since many who procure abortions are under sixteen, very fearful, and do not know that there is an automatic excommunication for procuring an abortion, this canon provides multiple grounds on which many who commit the act do not incur the penalty attached to it.

In such circumstances, they can be absolved in confession without the involvement of the bishop.

Second, I am informed that—due to how widespread abortion is in America—most American bishops have given their priests ability to remit the abortion excommunication in confession, without having to consult the bishop first.

Third, see comments by canonist Dr. Edward Peters here.



6) What should a person who thinks they may have incurred an excommunication by procuring an abortion do?

If they did incur the penalty (which includes knowing that the penalty existed and procuring the abortion anyway) then they should go to confession.

If the priest needs to consult with the bishop, he will let you know. Otherwise, he will be able to absolve you immediately upon determining that you have repented of procuring the abortion.

Or, because of what Pope Francis has done, go to any priest during the Year of Mercy.


7) What has Pope Francis done?

In his apostolic letter, Pope Francis states:

I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.

By his apostolic authority, Pope Francis has thus granted ordinary priests the ability to deal with this situation in confession, without having to involve the bishop, during the Year of Mercy—as a special sign of God’s mercy and as an encouragement of those who have procured an abortion to repent and return to the practice of their faith.


8) Can priests of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) validly absolve people under normal circumstances?

No.  According to the Code of Canon Law:

Can.  966 §1. The valid absolution of sins requires that the minister have, in addition to the power of orders, the faculty of exercising it for the faithful to whom he imparts absolution.

§2. A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself or by a grant made by the competent authority according to the norm of can. 969.

Can.  969 §1. The local ordinary alone is competent to confer upon any presbyters whatsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of any of the faithful. . . .

So under normal circumstances, the bishop (local ordinary) must give a priest the faculty to hear the confessions of the faithful and validly absolve them. Without this faculty, he hears their confessions illicitly (contrary to the law) and absolves them invalidly.

The problem is that the priests of the SSPX are operating independently of the diocesan bishops and so have not been granted the faculty of hearing confessions. As a result, under ordinary circumstances, any absolutions they impart are invalid.

But, because of what Pope Francis has done, not during the Year of Mercy.


9) What has Pope Francis done regarding the priests of the SSPX?

In his apostolic letter, he writes:

A final consideration concerns those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X. This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one. From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint.

I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity.

In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.

Pope Francis has thus used his apostolic authority to grant the faculty of hearing confessions to SSPX priests during the Year of Mercy. Therefore, during that time, the faithful are both licitly (lawfully) and validly absolved by them.


10) Is Pope Francis usurping the authority of the local bishops by doing this?

No. As the legislator of the Code of Canon Law, Pope Francis has full authority here.

A local bishop might like or dislike Pope Francis doing this, but the pope has the legal authority to do it. There is no usurpation. It’s simply an exercise of the pope’s legitimate authority.


11) What does the pope mean by referring to restoring “full communion” with the SSPX? Does that mean that they are in schism?

No.  Schism also incurs an automatic excommunication (canon 1364 §1), which the SSPX bishops did incur back in 1988 (see John Paul II’s document Ecclesia Dei).

However, in 2009 Benedict XVI remitted the excommunication the bishops had incurred. They are, therefore, no longer in a state of schism.

They are, however, operating in an illicit (contrary to the law) manner, which is why their priests ordinarily cannot validly absolve people in confession.

Their communion thus is impaired by their irregular status. While they are not in schism, they are in a state of impaired communion, and Pope Francis hopes that they will be restored to full communion in the future.

(Note that we are talking about ecclesiastical communion, not Eucharistic Communion. The first refers to the bonds that unite people in the Church; the second refers to the administration of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.)


12) Is Pope Francis doing this because he wants to restore full communion with the SSPX?

You bet! He expressly states his desire to find solutions “in the near future” to restore the SSPX to full ecclesiastical communion.

Granting the SSPX priests faculties for the Year of Mercy is a profound gesture in that regard.

It is also motivated—as Pope Francis states—by his concern for the good of the faithful who attend SSPX chapels.

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