It’s the feastday of St. Joan of Arc.  Here’s the entry on her  from The Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

(Clicking on each page will bring up a larger, readable version.)



Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. My film-buff older son’s #1 favorite film of all.


7 Quick Takes

—1 —

I’m in Living Faith today. Go here for that. 

— 2 —


Pentecost is coming, of course.

Pages above are (left) from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols  and (right) from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.  Click on images for larger versions. Remember that for the Signs and Symbols entry, there’s another page –  a full page of more detailed text.

— 3 —

Pentecost is one of the events in The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

(The book is structured around the virtues. Each section begins with an event from Scripture that illustrates one of those virtues, followed by stories of people and events from church history that do so as well)


This hasn’t been published in a book – yet – but it’s a painting byAnn Engelhart, illustrator of several books, including four with my writing attached – all listed here. It’s a painting of the tradition of dropping rose petals through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.



(Our Cathedral here in Birmingham has also done this the past two years…but not this year on Pentecost – rescheduled for the Assumption.)

— 4 —

By the way, please follow Ann on Instagram. She features her beautiful art and regularly posts live painting sessions on Instagram Stories. 

— 5 –

One more, from The Words we Pray:

Hopefully this weekend,  you’ll be hearing/singing/praying Veni Creator Spiritus.  I have a chapter on it in The Words We Pray. A sample:



— 6 —

Earlier this week, I posted on an article about the agnus dei sacramental and the English Reformation. Melanie Bettinelli went with it, and took the topic further, exploring how the children’s novel Sun Slower Sun Faster features the sacramental:

So Cecil’s little wax seal with the lamb was made of wax from paschal candles, chrism oil, and holy water and blessed by the pope. Her uncle isn’t wrong to see it as a strongly papist artifact. And indeed in the story the seal seems to be the mechanism for the time travel, bringing Cecil, Rickie, and Dominic into the past where they meet with their Catholic relatives.


— 7 —

This week, several causes for canonization were approved. Here’s the list and a brief synopsis of the blesseds’ lives:

Blessed Cesare de Bus was distinguished by works of charity and zeal in preaching and catechizing. He founded the “Secular Priests of Christian Doctrine” devoted to preaching Christian doctrine. He also founded an order of women, the Daughters of Christian Doctrine, which died out in 17th century.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld was an officer in the French army. He became a Trappist monk, but left the order to live as a hermit. He was ordained to the priesthood in France, then settled in the Algerian Sahara. He evangelized the Bergers, learning their language and culture. De Foucauld was assassinated at his hermitage in 1916.

Blessed Maria Domenica Mantovani was the co-founder, with her spiritual director Fr Giuseppe Nascimbeni, of the Little Sisters of the Holy Family, dedicated to educating children and young women, and assisting the sick and elderly of the community. She became the first superior of the order, taking the name “Maria Giuseppina of the Immaculata”.

Venerable Michael McGivney was the founder of the Knights of Columbus, now the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization. 

Venerable Pauline-Marie Jaricot was devoted to assisting the work of missionaries, encouraging all Catholics to involve themselves in the work of spreading the Gospel. She founded the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, dedicated to helping missionary efforts worldwide; and the Living Rosary Association, whose associates are committed to saying a decade of the Rosary each day. In 1835 she was healed of a serious illness after visiting the shrine of Saint Philomena in Italy.

The Servant of God Simeon Cardon was the prior of the Cistercian abbey in Casamari, Italy. During the Napoleonic wars, French soldiers sacked the abbey, breaking into the Church and scattering consecrated Hosts on the floor. When the Servant of God, with five fellow monks, attempted to retrieve the Hosts, they were shot by the soldiers and killed.

The Servant of God Cosma Spessotto joined the Franciscans in 1940, and was ordained eight years later. Filled with zeal for missionary work, he went to El Salvador in 1950, at the time one of the poorest nations in the Americas. He preached peace amidst the violence in the country. He was killed in 1980 as he knelt in prayer in his church. He is remembered for his love of the poor and his witness to fraternity.

Here’s a post I just put up on Charles de Foucauld. And here’s his Prayer of Abandonment:

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.



For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

“Is my presence here doing any good? If it does not, the presence of the Most Holy Sacrament certainly does it greatly. Jesus cannot be in a place without shining forth. Moreover through contact with the natives, their suspicions and prejudices are slowly abating. It is very slow and very little. Pray so that your child does more good and that better workers than him might come to clear this corner in the field of the family’s Father.”


This week, it was announced that Charles de Foucauld would be canonized.
At the end of his 2005, beatification,  Pope Benedict XVI remarked:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Let us give thanks for the witness borne by Charles de Foucauld. In his contemplative and hidden life in Nazareth, he discovered the truth about the humanity of Jesus and invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation; in this place he learned much about the Lord, whom he wanted to follow with humility and poverty.

He discovered that Jesus, who came to join us in our humanity, invites us to universal brotherhood, which he subsequently lived in the Sahara, and to love, of which Christ gave us the example. As a priest, he placed the Eucharist and the Gospel at the heart of his life, the two tables of the Word and of the Bread, source of Christian life and mission.

My former editor from OSV back in the day, David Scott, wrote an article on Blessed Charles for Godspy, also back in the day. There is not lack of material about Blessed Charles online, but David’s article is a great place to start.

Nazareth had captured his imagination. At Nazareth, Charles marveled, the almighty creator of heaven and earth had lived for more than thirty years, quietly making his home with a mother and father, holding down an ordinary job, answering to a common name, Jesus.

Charles was fascinated by what Catholic tradition has long called “the hidden life” of Jesus—those thirty years or so between his birth and the start of his public ministry, about which the gospels say only that he lived with Mary and Joseph and worked as a carpenter.

For Charles the “ordinariness” of Jesus’ hidden life was a divine sign of the way we are to live our lives. We are to live on earth as God himself lived on earth—content with few possessions, with no dreams of fame or fortune; doing our daily work out of love for God and loving kindness towards others.

If there was a certain holy abandon, even a wildness to his appearance, Charles was nonetheless a missionary from the old school. He believed in the French colonial project of bringing “civilization” to Africa, and the Christian mission of preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth.

He was a frequent critic of the greed and mixed motives in the French occupation, complaining once: “If these unfortunate Muslims know no priest, see as self-styled Christians only unjust and tyrannical speculators giving an example of vice, how can they be converted? How can they but hate our holy religion?”

Charles didn’t proselytize as such. His mission, he once explained, was to be a good friend and a good example: “I must make people say this when they see me: ‘This man is so good that his religion must be good.'”

And he saw himself as the advance guard of what he envisioned as a missionary movement of priests, brothers, nuns, and lay people. He had no illusions of Muslim mass-conversions, but he did believe that genuine Christian love and virtue, expressed in friendship and charity, would bring “conversions, at the end of 25, 50, or 100 years, as fruit ripens.”

“I do not think there is a gospel phrase which has made a deeper impression on me and transformed my life more than this one: ‘Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ One has only to think that these words were spoken by the uncreated Truth, who also said, ‘This is my body . . . this is my blood . . .’ to be kindled into searching for Jesus and loving him in ‘the least of these brothers of mine,’ these sinners, these poor people.”
His deep love and respect for the Muslims was matched by his heart for the poor. Like so many saints and spiritual masters before him, he came to see a profound connection between Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and his presence in the poor and oppressed:

He helped farmers find ways to irrigate their crops in the desert; he fed the hungry, and helped the sick. Most controversially, he began buying the freedom of slaves from their Muslim captors.

France had abolished the flourishing Muslim practice of slavery upon establishing colonial rule in Algeria. But slavery continued, with colonial officials turning a blind eye for fear of a backlash from volatile tribal chiefs and other major slave holders.

Charles wrote indignant letters to Church authorities, demanding that they denounce “the monstrous injustice,” and expressing outrage that “the representatives of Jesus are happy to defend ‘with a whisper in the ear’ and not ‘with a shout from the rooftops’ the cause which is that of justice and charity.”

He purchased the freedom of numerous slaves, including one who became his personal aide and, fourteen years later, an eyewitness to his death.


Here’s another good site, with many quotes.

De Foucauld’s life and witness is sometimes misrepresented as an argument against conversion as a goal of mission. Studying what he actually said and did reveals this characterization to be just that – a misrepresentation.  Charles de Foucauld certainly took the long view. He saw his presence as a witness to Christ by virtue of simply living in friendship, community and love, but he was not indifferent on the question of conversion. He hoped and prayed for it, and saw his way of life as sowing seeds that others might harvest decades hence in a challenging landscape.

Men before Charles de Foucauld’s tomb, Algeria, ca.1920-1940


Men before Charles de Foucauld’s tomb, Algeria, ca.1920-1940

Oh, and here’s a nice deep rabbit hole for you – the International Missionary Photography Archive at USC. Link goes to “Catholic” as a search term. 8778 results. You’re welcome. Or not.


Quick digest, since I’ve not done that in a while:

Writing: Did a couple of sample chapters for a Thing. Not sure if I will be the Chosen One amy_welbornor not, don’t know when I’ll hear. God’s got this!

I’ll be in Living Faith on…Friday.

But, I just noticed that Living Faith is offering free pdf downloads of their devotionals a week a time. So here’s this week, with mine at 5/29. 

My brain seems to have cleared out just a bit. I don’t know why. Not completely, mind you. Kid #5’s online piano competition – deadline 6/1, 3 pieces to be recorded by then, plus technique recorded, plus paper written, plus theory test taken – is occupying some brain space as well. And I think other corners of the brain are occupied with the unanswerable, at this point by me, question of what’s happening with College Kid’s fall semester. Once that announcement is made, I think Full Brain Space will be activated.

But what little has been released has found time to get out file folders, look over some writing, ditch some things, shrug through others, murmur, not terrible about others and devise a sort of plan.

Reading: Over the past week or so? Greene’s Ministry of Fear. Academic stuff, because I’m a grazer that way. Picked The Secret Sharer off the shelf, started it, got bored, put it away. About 3/4 of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Tonight, I think I’ll take a shot at Simenon’s The Rules of the Game, borrowed from archive.org. 

Update, am:  Finished the Simenon. It was, as are all of his books, short (150 pages). It was quite interesting to me, if not that engaging or successful, in the end. It wasn’t a mystery, but a character study. Simenon lived for a time in Connecticut, where this book is set, and adds an outsider-looking-in twist to mid-century ruminations on the Mid-Century Man – an unexpected angle to the landscape we know through Cheever, Updike and others.

A grocery store manager with a wife, four children and a quite unexpected fifth on the way (his wife is 45) is struggling with his place in society and his sense of self. The hinge episode his is hope to be accepted in the local country club. The incident reveals his general insecurity as well as insecurity about his origins. There are breakthroughs of a sort related to the country club’s decision about him, his reaction, and an epiphany that occurs at, of all places, a school board hearing. I found all of that really promising, but in the end, the resolution was far too pat. Not a waste of a couple of hours, but not ultimately that satisfying.

Next up, again, from archive.org – Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by novelist (not actress) Elizabeth Taylor. 

Waiting for libraries to re-open, which…I don’t expect for maybe another month at least. This week, most of the branches have started taking books back through the book drops  – we got rid of the haul we’ve had in the house since February today, finally –  and many have announced June 1 as the beginning of curbside service. Eh. I’ll wait.

Watching: We finished season 3 of Fargo, which I wrote about here the first time I watched it.My views haven’t changed, although if I were to write about it again, right now, I’d focus on the whole notion of story and narrative, as well as the weird mystical elements that enter into both seasons 2 and 3.

Hopefully, with that done, and no other series calling our names, we can get back into wp-1590533230851.jpgmovie watching. Kid #5 watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon last night. I’d never seen it, didn’t watch it, didn’t care to.

Listening: THE SAME – Haydn, Brahms, Prokofiev. With now, the added attraction of Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody, which Kid #5 alternates between playing around with and declaring, “This is impossible for any normal human being.”

This is where we spend some time every day, recording. Just a few more days.

Also listening to many In Our Time podcasts while walking. I need to write about those. I do. 

Cooking: Because of Kid #4’s work, many casserole-type dishes that can be reheated when the need arises. I did make this little snack cake, which was very easy and very good. 

And this no-knead focaccia.It seems to have maybe one less step than my usual recipe, and was just as good.

I guess I won’t be fixing beef for a while…geez louise. Not going to pay $6.99/lb for hamburger…

Traveling: Just kidding. But – many restaurants are slowly opening up around here. We got to this barbecue place on Monday afternoon (dine-in service, no shared condiments, etc.)  after Kid #4 got off work, and Kid #5 and I went to this Cuban placeafter his piano lesson yesterday. Observe the taped-off booths.



Lamb of God

Another jog back into the past.

Reminder: JSTOR is giving access to 100 academic articles for the next few weeks. You have to register, but it’s no big deal. Go here, if that’s your thing. 

This article, however, is not via JSTOR – it’s via the British Catholic History website. The way these academic journal websites generally work is very few articles are available to non-subscribers at any given time. Maybe one per issue. This is one currently available.

Yesterday, we went to 16th century Milan and considered the shape and purpose of the anti-plague procession. Today, we go north to England to explore the importance of the agnus dei to Catholics during the Elizabethan repression.

“The agnus dei, Catholic devotion, and confessional politics in early modern England”

Why are we interested, aside from our general historical curiosity? Well, perhaps because what’s explored, in part, is the importance of sacramentals and devotionals to maintaining faith. People deprived of the Mass and of normal, public religious observance had these small objects to help keep them spiritually anchored. The Mass was of supreme importance to them. They sacrificed much to protect priests who would say Mass as well as to preserve the objects needed. But even without the Mass, they weren’t left with nothing because these material objects – and the Catholic culture they came out of and represented – remained.

In other words – and this is a blog post that’s been churning about in my head for a couple of months now – when you tell people that (correctly) the Mass is the “source and summit” of the Christian life and then subsume every other expression of spirituality to that, and perhaps even degrade and take those other expressions away – what happens when the people are not able to go to Mass? What happens when a mostly poorly catechized Catholic population is then told, even by the Church, maybe don’t come to Mass. 

What do they have left? 

So, what’s an agnus dei?

Agni dei were conventionally made in the pontifical apothecary and consecrated by the pope during Holy Week in a special ceremony witnessed and assisted by the cardinals. 13 The ceremony was conducted in the first year of a pope’s election and once every seven years thereafter during his pontificate. Crafted from the wax of paschal candles, chrism oil, and holy water, the agni dei were stamped with the image of the Lamb of God on one side and the image of a saint or the name and arms of the consecrating pope on the other. They could be worn as pendants or preserved as devotional objects. The agnus dei was believed to possess many protective powers, including defence from storms, pestilence, fires, and floods, as well as the dangers of childbirth.

Once consecrated the papacy typically distributed agni dei as gifts to cardinals, ambassadors, and other important figures in Rome, as well as to rulers throughout Europe. Following the initial distribution of the sacramentals, recipients might bestow agni dei upon other friends and relatives, or even share them with a wider social circle or community; in theory, they could not be bought and sold. Because the wax medallions were fragile, it was also common to break an agnus dei into smaller pieces to be shared amongst the faithful, and carried in cases for protection…

….Despite the inconsistent survival of agni dei, other surviving evidence points to the part they played in pre-Reformation devotional culture. Probate records, for instance, indicate the significance of the agnus dei as a bequest to friends and family in England, especially for women. Constance Despenser received an agnus dei encased in gold from her husband upon his death in 1400. Similarly, the will drawn up by Henry, Lord Scrope in 1415 dictated that an agnus dei be left to his kinswoman, Mathilda Skidmore, after he died. In 1524 William Peerson, an alderman and draper of Lincoln, bequeathed an agnus dei and a pair of red coral beads to his daughter Elizabeth.The agnus dei was particularly prized for the protection it supposedly accorded to mothers and children, and it is likely these associations that made it a conventional bequest for women.The papacy frequently sent boxes of agni dei as gifts to queens regnant and consort who were expecting or had just delivered children.



The issue in Reformation-era England was not only that various regimes outlawed possession of such sacramentals, but that the agnus dei had particular dangerous symbolism because of its connection to the papacy, considering Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570.  The article explores that issue, and it’s easily available, so if you want to know more from that angle, here you go. I just want to highlight one more passage:

The manual written by William Allen and Robert Persons encouraged priests to bring agni dei and other blessed objects into England because ‘pious things were not to be neglected because of danger’. While they instructed the priests only to give agni dei to those who wanted them, Allen and Persons also suggested that such objects could be given to those in schism with the church, as long as there was no danger that they would abuse them. This points to the potential of the agnus dei as a tool of evangelisation, by which priests could encourage people to embrace or return to the Catholic faith. The use of sacred materials in this manner was common in other parts of early modern Europe. ..

The role of missionary priests in encouraging this culture of resistance through the distribution of sacred objects also merits further reflection. While the involvement of missionary priests in the circulation of prohibited religious books and the ‘sacred economy’ of masses and relics in early modern England has received considerable attention, they also played a central part in the circulation of other sacred objects like the agnus dei. Although the agnus dei lost its more dangerous political meanings when Elizabeth I died, it remained a popular but illicit devotional object in the seventeenth century. Missionary priests continued to bring agni dei and other prohibited sacred items into England, and their possession remained a significant expression of dissent. From this perspective, the possibilities for political participation within Catholic communities diversify and expand considerably.

At the same time, this process shows continuities between Catholic missions to England and those operating in other parts of the early modern world. The employment of sacred objects like the agnus dei to attract converts and schismatic Catholics back to the Roman fold in England reflect a broader strategy used by missionaries in Europe, Asia, and South America in this period The spiritual importance of materials like the agnus dei to the sustenance and survival of Catholicism in England also supports a growing body of scholarship which has emphasised the intellectual, cultural, and devotional connections between members of the English Catholic faith and their counterparts in other regions.The continued popularity of the agnus dei and other sacred materials in the late sixteenth century illustrates the resilience of ties between English Catholicism, the papacy, and the wider Catholic community, while the subversive significance it assumed during the reign of Elizabeth I embodies the wider political and confessional contexts which made English Catholicism distinct in early modern Europe.



St. Philip Neri

Here’s a post from many  years ago (2008) – when I traveled to Rome to visit Son #2 who was teaching English there at the time – related to today’s saint, Philip Neri.

Friday morning, after I’d finished at St. Peter’s, I had some time to kill before meeting David at 11 in front of S. Maria di Trestavere. So, over to the Center for a bit. I disembarked in front of the Chiesa Nuova, which is the church of S. Philip Neri.

It was about 9 o’clock, and drizzling, a foretaste of the rest of the day during which we would do battle with occasional blasts of rain and even hail. I noted a bakery across the road for a later visit.

The church, cavernous and thick with paintings and decoration, was practically empty. As my eyes grew accustomed to the half-light and I searched for the typical wall-chart explaining the interior, a voice echoed through the space. I checked the schedule – it must be Mass.

And it was. Up to the left, at a side chapel, which turned out to be the resting place of St. Philip’s body. One priest, one congregant with backpack and umbrella and very much the air of a pilgrim, I decided as I observed him walking around later, and then me.


The priest finished proclaming the Gospel, then turned quickly to begin the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  There was so much going on in the world, so much suffering and weeping that was not absent from his place, but was instead quietly confronted and humbly offered up,  the mystery of a small, yet persistent light penetrating that darkness, borne in a Body, born in the bodies of those who embrace, suffer and bear the light of the Risen One.

Corpo di Cristo.

And we walked back out into the rain, the pilgrim and I, he going one way,  another, but both, I sensed, journeying in the same direction.


Continuing on a theme….

Well, here’s some good news. Okay, you probably don’t care. So – here’s some news.

JSTOR – one of the larger portals for academic material – has upped its “free articles” allowance from six at a time to….100. 

So, for some of us…that’s fun!

This means I’ll be boring you even more upping my game, bringing you even more nuggets from the past which I will, in convoluted ways, tie to the Present Moment. Hopefully one a day for a while.


slow clap gifs Page 5 | WiffleGif

Y’all are just….thrilled. 

This one doesn’t require convolution, though.

Singing on the Street and in the Home in Times of Pestilence: Lessons from the 1576–78 Plague of Milan

See? I told you this would be fun! 

It’s a chapter from a book – the entirety of which is available. Domestic Devotions in Early Modern Italy – which I’ll be digging into tonight.


This essay examines the ritual of the plague procession as a response to the problem of collective sin, using as the focal point a series of well-documented processions held by Carlo Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, during the city’s outbreak of 1576–78. It will first explore the ways in which music, as a central component of the procession, interacted with other elements of the ritual to facilitate corporate worship while strengthening the civic bonds of the processional community. However, large congregations of people in processions exacerbated the very real threat of contagion and contravened medical and civic rules for isolation. The second half of this essay will investigate how Borromeo coped with this struggle between piety and public safety by relocating the procession off the public streets and into private homes when parishes were placed under quarantine.

Gee…maybe things don’t change so much.

Let’s sum this up quickly and point you to reasons why you might care. There’s much conversation these days about the shape of public religious observance now and in the near future. My concern has always been – as I articulated here – that this be a moment of evangelization, not fear. It is quite possible to say, “For your safety, take these precautions which might even include not attending large gatherings” without also giving the impression that what we are really saying is “STAY AWAY! WE PROBABLY WON’T VISIT YOU EITHER! OBEY THE GOVERNOR! DON’T MAKE OUR PRIESTS SICK! DON’T SUE US! BUT STILL GIVE US MONEY!”

This, you will not be shocked to hear, was not the case in Milan where, indeed, there were serious discussions about safety and prudence.

  • You know the drill: Time of pestilence calls for processions to express penitence and encourage social solidarity. Borromeo led three during this particular outbreak.
  • The processions had a structure – Psalms, antiphons, and a Litany of Saints.

Special pamphlets containing the prayers of plague processions were sometimes issued, and they can help us flesh out the liturgical programme of a given procession. For the ritual in Milan, Borromeo published a palm-sized booklet…that could easily have been carried in procession. The book opens with a selection of seven antiphons and the seven Penitential Psalms, to be performed ‘pro arbitratu’. Three additional Psalms (94, 87 and 90) and two biblical readings (Jonah 2 and Isaiah 38) follow, again to be performed as the participants see fit. The Litany of the Saints comes next, followed by a reprint of Psalm 50 and then a set of five short prayers, the first of which is merely a rubric instructing the supplicants to perform a prayer to the saint in whose church they find themselves (‘de Sancto, in cuius Ecclesia supplicationes fiunt’). The rest are prayers for mercy and protection

  • What follows is a very nice discussion of the litany of the saints, both from a musical point of view and with respect to the ease with which the litany includes general participation.
  • And then a discussion of the tension between health and safety and spiritual needs. Very pertinent to the present moment. People did have these discussions in the past.

New Liturgical Movement: Pray for Italy

What interests me is the author’s exploration of the role of imagination and “virtual” procession and pilgrimage.

A piece of advice from Borromeo is pertinent here; to those who could not attend mass in the midst of plague, he said, ‘Go to church in spirit’, making viable the substitution of physical presence with an imaginative attendance. While the harrowing plague-tide factors motivating Borromeo’s solution in this instance may be extraordinary, such virtual devotional acts themselves were not. Popular meditation guides of the period, for example, encouraged their readers, with the help of visual aids, to imagine themselves with Christ as he suffered his Passion. The sacro monte in Varallo just outside Milan – financially supported and frequented by Borromeo, who called the complex a ‘New Jerusalem’ – sent visitors to the Holy Land with chapels arranged to tell a Christological narrative, made even more vivid by thousands of statues and painted figures. In an even more direct parallel to our quarantined Milanese, cloistered nuns were encouraged to go on pilgrimages imaginatively, since travel outside their convents was impossible. For such an exercise, they relied on pilgrims’ diaries and narrative travelogues, maps, images of landmarks, and souvenir relics to imagine the visual and affective experiences of a journey, and they even made use of ‘scripts’ in devotional literature (say certain prayers while walking a certain distance, for instance) to verbally and somatically act out a pilgrimage.


*Short break to say that this interests me because one of the digs on pre-Vatican II liturgical practice was the popularity of this sort of thing for the laity to pray during Mass – imaginative prayers that might or might not be directly related to what was going on at any particular moment. Put all that away and pay attention was the command. Participate. *

But, as the author points out, the Milanese were not just told to do this. They were given assistance – they were guided and not just by someone saying, Feel the presence of God inside you. Better now?

….the clergy are told to prepare each household for the devotional activities devised for the extraordinary circumstances by teaching them a variety of prayers, litanies, and Psalms ahead of the quarantine. During the quarantine, bells across the parish were to be rung seven times a day, approximately every two hours, to call the households to prayer. Once begun, the bell would be rung again every quarter hour, until the fourth bell signals an end to the hour of prayer. While the bell rings,

litanies or supplications will be chanted or recited at the direction of the Bishop. This will be performed in such a way that one group sings from the windows or the doors of their homes, and then another group sings and responds in turn.

To ensure that these prayers are carried out properly, the decree continues, a member of the clergy or someone trained in these prayers (possibly the head of the household) should also come to a window or door at the appointed times to direct the prayers and stir up enthusiasm for this devotion. To further facilitate these devotional activities, Borromeo instructed the parish clergy to be supplied with books ‘that contain certain prayers, litanies, and oration, which will be made freely available, in order that he may go and distribute them to his own or other parishes’.

… Borromeo’s directive to sing at doors and windows was evidently put into practice and impressed a number of chroniclers. In his Relatione verissima, Paolo Bisciola reports:

[W]hen the plague began to grow, this practice [of singing the litanies in public] was interrupted, so as not to allow the congregations to provide it more fuel. The orations did not stop, however, because each person stood in his house at the window or door and made them from there […] Just think, in walking around Milan, one heard nothing but song, veneration of God, and supplication to the saints, such that one almost wished for these tribulations to last longer.

Giussano likewise remarks on the harmonious piety of Milan, even going so far as to describe the plague-stricken city as heaven on earth on account of the pious singing:

It was a sight to see, when all the inhabitants of this populous city, numbering little short of three hundred thousand souls, united to praise God at one and the same time, sending up together an harmonious voice of supplication for deliverance from their distress. Milan might at this time have been not unfitly compared to a cloister of religious of both sexes serving God in the inclosure [sic] of their cells, an image of the heavenly Jerusalem filled with the praises of the angelic hosts.

We can imagine the astonishment of these chroniclers, hearing the disembodied voices emerging from isolated homes all around, aggregating and blanketing an entire parish in song. Borromeo’s transference of the public procession from the street and into the home depended on – and was regulated by – sound. The ritual began with the sound of church bells, which not only signalled the times of the prayers, but also, as Sarah Hamilton and Andrew Spicer describe, intruded into domestic spaces from without, ‘denoting the lordship and dominion of a particular  house [of worship] over its territory.’ The bells thus extended the sacred spaces of the parish into the homes. There, led by stationed liturgical leaders, the Milanese sang together. The litany, which so effectively encouraged participation and stitched together the processional body, became even more useful in suturing together members of segregated households; its musical simplicity and short-range call-and-response structure were essential when isolated neighbours could not even see each other. With their voices comingling, the penitents breached the walls between each other’s houses, and between their homes and the streets, eroding the conceptual boundaries between public and private worship


In conclusion, she writes:

Then, as now, the management of disease was not a straightforward project. In times of plague, civic and religious leaders had to carefully balance the demands of spiritual and biological health, both communal and individual. When faced with the obstacles posed by the threat of contagion, pre-modern Christians found new ways to carry out their spiritual duties as a community. Within this picture, singing served as an essential tool for maintaining a continuity of devotional practice in the challenging conditions of plague. Whether performed publically or behind doors and windows, music brought the prayerful thoughts and spirits of the penitents together to fight against the communal scourge. The devotional activities during the outbreak in Milan can teach us many lessons on the texture of ritual practices in this period. Those activities can reveal to us, in turn, the extraordinary resilience and adaptability of the devout in the face of crisis. As Randolph Starn writes, ‘[the] chronic presence of disease suggests that we should not think of medieval and early modern societies as caught in the grip of plague-year panics or as waiting passively to be delivered by modern medicine. The newer accounts [of plague history] speak of “experienced populations,” of well-organized institutional responses, of resourceful strategies for survival’. Our history of Milanese devotion in times of pestilence is precisely such a narrative of organisation and resourcefulness.

Most Catholics don’t live in communities like that any more, at least in the United States. But what’s the spirit at work here? It’s a sense of we will do what we can, we will do what we must to make sure the people stay connected to God during these times – because they need him, and it’s our duty. 

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