Yes, the Holy Family Really Were Refugees (Part II)

My interest in writing about this was sparked in good part by the recent refugee situation, but it is a subject I have been studying for quite some time on my own; in fact, I hope to eventually  turn my studies about the Nativity and its earliest celebrations into a book. So my treatment has grown considerably as I have worked on it. I will conclude with Part III, which should be shorter.

Can we imagine historically what happened to Joseph, Mary and Jesus when Herod issued his orders, and the angel warned them to flee? Apart from the Gospel of Matthew, which tells us in the briefest possible words: “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod” (Mt. 2:14-15), we have almost no other direct historical information.


Refugees – La Sagrada Familia by Karen Lattimore

Yet do do know a few things. We can study the historical context, and it reveals some fascinating things. We can connect the flight of the Holy Family to the actual political situation at the time, which directly affected them. So first we need to look at this context.

The Date

One of the things that complicates our efforts to understand this story is that the traditional date of Herod’s death in 4. B. C. is almost certainly wrong, and the correct date is 1 B.C. This date is actually being accepted by more and more scholars. (see my blog post here). Knowing this, we can identify the much-discussed “census” that Joseph and Mary had come to Bethlehem for: they obeyed a decree of Caesar Augustus, which can be identified with the “enrollment” throughout the Empire in 3 B.C. It involved a loyalty oath to Augustus, in preparation for his being declared “Father of his Country” in 2 B. C. Jesus was therefore probably born in the fall or winter of 3-2 B. C. And the oath was important, yet it has so far been overlooked.

We also know from the Jewish historian Josephus that in Judea this oath was coordinated with a loyalty oath to Herod.[1] One of the stipulations of the oath to Augustus was that those who took it had to swear to reveal any plot against him, even by their friends and relatives.[2] The oath to Herod (if it was separate) probably included something similar.

Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph would have taken the oath, was the birthplace of King David and the home of the Davidic dynasty – and Joseph was of “the house and family of David.” All the tribal groups of ancient Israel tended to be concentrated in their ancestral homes, though some members lived outside of them. It was the ancient Israelite custom to have census taken by tribes and families gathered together, and this was still continued at Herod’s time; in fact, Herod had copies of all these tribal genealogies in his archives.[3] So Joseph and all the members of his tribe who lived or were staying outside that area would have gone to Bethlehem to take the oath. All of this is very important for understanding the situation, and historians have almost completely ignored it because they have been looking at the wrong date.

The Situation

Herod’s throne had been in trouble for some time, and especially just before this, because of a quarrel with the Emperor Augustus – the joint oath might be an attempt for the two to reconcile. The loyalty oath to the Emperor was alarming; most people in Judea would have feared that Augustus was getting ready to covert Herod’s kingdom directly into a Roman province. Most of Herod’s Jewish subjects heartily disliked him, but they felt direct rule by Rome would be worse. This increased the hostility of Herod’s subjects; some 6,000 Pharisees refused to take the oath, and Herod imposed a fine on them, which his sister-in-law, hoping to defuse the situation, promised to pay.[4] The fact that number of those who didn’t swear could be counted, and their names were recorded, makes it clear that the oath required some kind of written record. In fact, it would have been a convenient way to update the genealogies. Herod, of course, was aware of the growing unrest in his kingdom, and it would have increased his paranoia and fear that his throne was in danger.

The birth of Jesus didn’t go completely unnoticed at the time; we can tell this from some things in Luke’s Gospel that we don’t really mention that much: “So [the shepherds] went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.” (Lk. 2:16-18). When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem for the Presentation, the large crowds that were always present in the Temple would have witnessed Simeon proclaiming the “light to the nations and glory of Israel” had arrived; at the same time the prophetess Anna “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:22-38).

In short, all of Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, were buzzing about the newborn Messiah and his parents. This, by most reckonings was even before the Magi came. Somewhere someone probably let their names slip. The rumors of a Messiah and the names of his parents could easily have come to the notice of the authorities.

All this came at a time of widespread Messianic fervor. It has been speculated that the Magi knew the prophecy of Balaam (a non-Israelite) in Numbers 24:17-18:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed. . .

Herod was an Edomite, the Hebrew for the people of Idumea, the homeland of Herod’s father. He could have read the prophecy as saying he himself would be dispossessed by this new king.

It’s surprising that Herod, who basically ran a police state in the latter part of his reign  and used many spies, didn’t have the Magi followed when they went to visit the newborn King. He could easily have learned where the family he was looking for was staying without depending on the Magi coming back to tell him. Or perhaps Herod actually did this as a precaution, and the Gospel doesn’t tell us.

The logic of Matthew’s account – when the Magi don’t come back, he orders all the young male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding area killed (Mt. 2:16) – suggests Herod ordered the slaying because he didn’t know which child he needed to kill and wanted to make sure he got the right one. But if we recall who peopled Bethlehem and the surrounding Judean towns, and realize that a large proportion of them were members of the tribe of Judah, and a good subset of them of the house of David, the line from which the Messiah was to come — we can understand it better. He was not doing this just to make sure he killed the one child he was after; he was literally killing off all the potential Messiahs. This perhaps is why he killed not just the babies of Bethlehem, but the surrounding towns as well. Perhaps he would have done the same even if did know how to find Jesus.

If Herod had Mary and Joseph’s names and wanted to get their description or other details about them, he would only have had to look at the enrollment document they had just completed. And let’s not forget that every Jew in the area had just sworn to inform on people plotting against Herod – and setting up a rival king to him and his dynasty would definitely have been considered a plot. Many of Joseph’s relatives would have been affected, and their lives and their children’s lives were in danger. Hopefully Joseph would have been able to warn them, in time; Mary and Joseph may not have been the only ones in the family who had to flee with their children.

The Escape Route

How did the Holy Family get to Egypt? What borders would they have crossed and what would have been required of them?

Study of the known roads, travel conditions, and political realities of the time can tell us a few things. In a recent study, Bruce Crew notes that Joseph most likely would not have gone by the southern route through Nabatea, since, given Herod’s political ties there — his mother was from Nabatea — he could have easily had the borders watched or closed and had his contacts inside the country be on the lookout for these fugitives.

Rather, Crew thinks that once they left Bethlehem by night, Joseph would have gone westward on foot (traditionally, leading Mary and Jesus on a donkey) along the Roman road that descended into the Elah Valley and through Shephelah lowlands by way of the Hussan Ridge. They could have traveled this distance in 4 or 5 hours. Their path took them to Beit Guvrim. They were now in the Mediterranean coastal plain and could have joined a caravan traveling south on the international trade route. At some point, he believes, they would have turned west and had two choices. The could have headed for Ashkelon (ancient Askalon), a free Hellenic city, and a major seaport, which was outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. There they could have taken a ship to Alexandria – they certainly had received enough gold from the Magi to pay for their passage — and blended in with the population in that city’s Jewish quarter. This was the easiest and quickest route, especially when traveling with a baby or small child. Or they could have proceeded to travel by foot along the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula, until they reached Egypt.[5]

Crew never mentions the question of crossing borders. But his suggestions about the route receive some unexpected confirmation from the early material about the Flight to Egypt in one of the early Infancy Gospels, sources he never mentions. These works are, of course, without any historical attestation, but not completely without historical value, because they were written by people who understood something of the time, more perhaps than we many centuries later do.

Most of the apocryphal Infancy Gospels say little to nothing about the trip to Egypt. The Protevangelium of James stops before the Holy Family leaves for Egypt. The Arabic Infancy Gospel has them magically transported to Egypt after a single night of walking, and has nothing about the route. Most of the others don’t say anything about the route before they enter Egypt. The only early source that does describe their route to Egypt is the Armenian Infancy Gospel, and dates from the late sixth century or later, but though it is now found only in Armenian, its source was undoubtedly earlier and in Syriac, and so in time, area and language close to the original events.[6] It is based in good part on the Protevangelium and another work called Pseudo-Matthew. But the part on the Flight to Egypt appears to be original. I’m not accepting any information that comes from this or other works as infallibly true; I am using them as hypotheses to discuss the possibilities.

The Armenian Infancy Gospel, after describing Joseph’s dreams and his warning by the angel, says:

Joseph, rising in haste, took the child and his mother and left as a fugitive for Ashkelon, a city situated on the edge of the ocean sea and from there for Hebron, where they remained hidden for six months. . .[7]

This largely confirms Crew’s account as far as Ashkelon. But then they went to Hebron. There doesn’t seem to be anything objectionable about this route – unless you know the geography. This would have meant that they left the seaport where they were about to sail for freedom – and then turned and gone right back into Herod’s territory, to Hebron in southern Judea. Why would they have done that?

Holy family refugees map-1

The author of the Infancy Gospel doesn’t comment at all on it, or explain why they backtracked, which indicates that the Syrian author probably didn’t know much about the actual geography of southern Judea or Egypt. To me, this indicates that the author didn’t make up these details, but was just reporting what had come to him as tradition. Nor have Crew and other modern authors I have read, even when they mention the traditional sources, noted this oddity.[8] It actually seems that something sent Joseph and Mary back after they got to Ashkelon. What might it have been?

It might be because they had learned at the border that they needed some document they didn’t have, or would have had to take an oath that revealed their identity and purpose (see Part I). Even if they managed to cross the border unnoticed, they may have had trouble. Although Ashkelon was a Hellenistic city outside of Herod’s jurisdiction, it still had friendly relations with Herod. If Herod had details about Mary and Joseph, he probably would not have hesitated to send word to officials in Ashkelon and other seaports to be on the lookout for them. Their names would have been posted prominently. There are papyri from Egypt, for instance, that describe the search for escaped slaves, brigands and other fugitives. One said that an edict about brigands being sought was to be posted “in all the capitals and all the important places. . .” Another papyrus said: “The names and distinguishing marks (notae) of fugitives and those who associate with them must be given to the magistrates so that they may be identified easily.”[9]. If they saw their names posted, Mary and Joseph would have had to flee immediately.

But why go to Hebron? This and the rest of their journey and their return, will be treated in Part III.

[1] Josephus Jewish Antiquities 17: 41-45.

[2] The oath as taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia has survived: An English translation of the text can be found in N. Lewis and M. Reinhold, Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II: The Empire (New York 1966), pp. 34-35.

[3] Josephus, Life, 6.

[4] For more on this subject, see E. Mary Smallwood. The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 98.

[5] “Why not Nabatea?” The Flight of Joseph’s Family from Bethlehem to Egypt and Migration to the Town of Nazareth in Galilee.” Bible and Spade 19:4 (2006): 118-125

[6] See the introduction to Paul Peeters, ed. Les Evangiles de l’enfance II. Redactions syriaques, arabe et armeniennes, traduites et annotées (Paris: Picard, 1914)

[7] The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, XV, 2-3. I have translated the French text from Peeters, Les Evangiles de l’enfance II, pp. 160-61. This text is very little known; there is a new English translation by Abraham Tarian, The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy: With Three Early versions of the Protevanglium of James (Oxford / New York: OUP, 2008), but it is very expensive, and I haven’t yet seen it.

[8] James Cowan, Fleeing Herod: A Journey Through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family. Paraclete Press, 2013; Crew, “Why not Nabatea?” does not discuss any of the ancient accounts.

[9] Claudia Moatti, “Le controle de la mobilité des personnes dans le monde romain.” Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome. Antiquité 112 (2000): 926.

Yes, The Holy Family Really Were Refugees (Part I)


Carpaccio, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1500

President Trump’s refugee ban has brought the subject of refugees into Catholic internet commentary in a big way. I have been stunned by some of the arguments going around by anti-refugee people who call themselves Catholic. One attempt to carry modern concerns about refugees into first-century Palestine has been heard quite frequently on social media these last few weeks.

It seems to have started with Catholic writer Taylor Marshall more than a year ago:

“Remember the Good Samaritan! He did not take the roadside victim home with him. Rather, the Good Samaritan put the victim up in a hotel and paid for him to get better. The Good Samaritan was good and commended by Christ. The Good Samaritan did the right thing: humanitarian aid.” (Source)

This is frequently said by those advocating the establishment of “safe zones” for refugees in Muslim lands, in order to give them humanitarian aid in their own countries rather than allowing them to enter the U.S. However, I don’t think Marshall has though through this comparison very well. The situation in the parable does not fit at all the situation of refugees. The unfortunate man had been attacked by a couple of ordinary robbers. He was not in a war zone; he was not suffering persecution by those in power for his religion or ethnicity. He did not find it impossible to remain in his own country. There is no indication he needed or wanted to become a refugee. This is like saying that me being mugged in Central Park qualifies me to become a refugee to Canada.


Rembrandt knew what refugees looked like (The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647)

People are now repeating the comparison as though it was Holy Writ itself. The actual point of the parable – that those racial, ethnically and religiously different from us are also our neighbors – apparently sails right over these people’s heads. Do they really understand what things are like now in the war zones in Iraq and Syria? U.N. refugee officials say there is no way to secure any part of these countries and make them safe. Majority Muslim nations in the area, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have already taken in millions of refugees, and still there is need. That is why there is a crisis.

Others actually say: “What is wrong with extreme vetting? We all face extreme vetting to get into heaven.” (They conveniently forget that one of the requirements of that “extreme vetting” is “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” — Mt. 25:35).

This is again a false comparison. To begin with there is already “extreme vetting for refugees. A surprisingly large number of people are unaware of this. Including, it seems, President Trump, who said that his Muslim ban, which included refugees, had to be instituted and implemented as quickly as possible (apparently less than a day), because a large number of “bad dudes” would “rush over” to the U.S. as soon as they heard about it. This is absurd. Refugees coming to the U.S. are already put through an extremely rigorous process of identity and background checks, lasting 18 months to 2 years or more, before they are allowed to leave the refugee camps and come here. Those whose refugee status are halted because of the ban must begin this process all over again. All because of Trump’s inability to inform himself (he rejected all advice from Homeland Security and the State Department, who would have told him the facts). No one can just “rush over” to the U.S. as a refugee.

But my concern here is not with the President, but with Catholics. Some really strange attitudes are surfacing. One blogger around Christmas time insisted that the Holy Family could never have been homeless, or even been poor, implying that unless they were solidly middle class, he would have nothing to do with them. He also strangely insisted that could have done nothing illegal in fleeing as refugees to Egypt because “borders were immaterial” back then. Any attempt to say otherwise is “politicizing” the Holy Family. Others have echoed this: “It was all one Empire!”

I’m sorry, but the Holy Family were definitely refugees, with everything that goes along with it. Fleeing for your life from a homicidal maniac like King Herod was not a time for niceties. This is an area where a historian like me, who has studied ancient history, can be of help. While records aren’t the best for the late first-century B.C. early 1st century (as opposed to the later empire), we do know a few things.

It has often been said, even recently that Rome was a place of open borders.[1] But it wasn’t really quite that (as even the supporters of the idea acknowledge). The Mediterranean world of the time was made up of Rome, with its related Italian cities and Roman colonies, as well as semi-independent client kingdoms, like Herod’s Judea, Hellenistic “free” cities allied with Rome, federate cities and Roman provinces, each with its own governor; each of these entities, to a certain extent, had its own laws, privileges, customs and forms of citizenship, and of course, their own borders and different relationships with each other.

By the time of the birth of Jesus, mobility and travel throughout the empire had increased enormously because of the Augustan peace. Students and merchants, officials and diplomats, soldiers and slaves, traveled and crossed borders all the time. There were different categories of people, including those on the move. Incolae were residents with a domicile in a city; Peregrini, (migrants) were protected foreigners and could travel safely in the empire. They did have to prove their right to this by proving their identity and origin. There was a word for refugees, or “those who have fled their homelands”; it was advenae.[2]

This meant that people had to be identified while traveling. There was nothing like an identity card as such, though those with Roman citizenship could acquire a copy of the document and carry it with them; it would open doors for them. There were several means of identification, including a diploma by a prefect, or a letter of introduction and recommendation by a known person, with his seal; in lieu of photographs, identity could be proved by physical descriptions of the person in question with distinguishing marks, such as scars, in written documents. Papers weren’t always necessary; oaths often were. St. Paul twice informed the authorities of his Roman citizenship to get better treatment (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-29). We don’t know if he carried a certificate of citizenship with him, but given that making a false claim of citizenship was punishable by death, the authorities may have been inclined to believe him even without it.[3] Among the people that needed to be identified were fugitive slaves and escaped prisoners. Barbarians (Germans) were checked at the frontiers. Merchants had to have authorization to travel to certain ports in other countries. A Roman garrison was stationed at the border to some provinces to control entrance. Egypt, directly dependent on Rome, was a country with strict entrance and exit requirements, a diploma or safe-conduct was required for ships entering and leaving ports. [4]

Romans were proud of the fact that they were founded as a city of refugees: their founder, Aneas, had come to Rome with a small band after the fall of Troy. This could be compared to the nature of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants. But this doesn’t mean there were no problems. People in the empire often became migrants and refugees due to war and political strife. But Roman and its provinces didn’t always treat migrants well, even once they had found a home; whole peoples were often expelled, such as when Claudius expelled the immigrant Jews from Rome in 41 A.D. (They had originally come there as prisoners of war after Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.) From time to time beggars (often foreign migrants) were expelled from Rome. The ancient Romans often didn’t handle these matters better than we do today.

It is possible, then, that Mary and Joseph crossed the Egyptian border legally; on the other hand, they may not have had proper papers to cross (especially if they were not expecting to leave their native Kingdom of Judea and hadn’t brought any with them), and crossed illegally.

It’s also possible that they had to get in illegally because they were wanted fugitives. I’ll explain why in Part II.

[1] Mary Beard, “Ancient Rome’s Open Borders — The Romans would have been puzzled by today’s hostility to migrants — and the EU’s lack of political unity.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y] October 17, 2015: C.3. (This is bound to behind a firewall; I’m citing in such a way that it will be possible for people to consult the print ed).

[2] Claudia Moatti, “Migration and Cosmopolitanization,” The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome (Cambridge UP, 2013), p. 80.

[3] Sean A. Adams, “Paul the Roman Citizen: Roman Citizenship in the Ancient World and its Importance for Understanding Acts 22:22–29.” Paul: Jew, Greek and Roman, ed. Stanley F. Porter (Boston, Brill, 2008), pp. 309-326.

[4] Claudia Moatti, “Translation, communication and mobility in the Roman empire,” Classical Antiquity 25 (2006): 141–80. Egypt is one of the places for which we have the best records; due to the dry climate it was easier for them to be preserved. Note (3-7-2017): this section has been updated to reflect the new knowledge I gained from the same author’s article in French: “Le controle de la mobilite des personnes dans le monde romain.” Me?langes de l’Ecole Franc?aise de Rome. Antiquite? 112 (2000): 925-58

Franciscan Saints — January 2017

After a brief detour with Louis Massignon, I am continuing my discussion of the first Franciscan church in Rome, San Francesco a Ripa, and the Franciscan saints associated with it. I was delighted to be able to visit this church during my first trip to Rome back in 1985, and I made a modest financial contribution to the recent restoration of the cell Francis stayed in there. As a result, I’ve become more and more interested in this church.

I’m including a preview of what I hope to write on St. Ludovica Albertoni, whose tomb is here, especially since her feast day is today, January 31. The most notable early Franciscan figure associated with San Francesco a Ripa though, is Lady Jacopa dei Settesoli, who is credited with a role in founding the Franciscan monastery there.

The conventino of Lady Jacopa

Since the early thirteenth century, the Church of San Francesco a Ripa Grande has been an important center of the Order of Friars Minor in Rome. How the church came to be is something most people, even many Secular Franciscans don’t know. But now the details in the traditional written accounts have been supplemented by evidence from recent archaeological excavations.

The church’s name comes from its location near the Porto di Ripa Grande on the Tiber river in the Trastevere region of Rome. Recent excavations have shown that the area served from the earliest Christian period for pilgrims; a building and a small cemetery dating from the second or third century have been discovered; perhaps the cemetery was for foreign pilgrims to Rome who died before returning home. [1]

Sometime in the tenth century, the Benedictines of the Cluniac reform built a monastery on the spot known as San Cosmato. It had its own chapel, dedicated to St. Blaise, with a priest as chaplain, a hospital to care for lepers in the final stages of their illness, and a hospice for pilgrims. By the thirteenth century, it was surrounded by the palazzi and towers of the noble Roman families of the Trastevere. At the same time, the Benedictines seemed no longer to be making much use of the buildings including the hospice and hospital, for which they were heavily in debt.[2] This is how St. Francis first saw it, probably during his trip to Rome in 1212 to consult with the Pope

It was during his 1212 trip that he become acquainted with the Lady Jacopa, as we have seen (see my post on Jacopa from March-April 2016). Wadding says that it was during this stay that

[Jacopa] conceived a heartfelt devotion toward Francis and his companions; she used to always receive them with a hospitable welcome and with all charity, offered them kind services. She offered her aid in obtaining from the Abbot of St. Cosma, in the vernacular Cosmati, in the Trastevere region, near a lodging for foreigners near the bank of the Tiber, a certain refuge or guest-house for the brothers coming to Rome, where the holy father was accustomed to stay and where his cell, converted to a chapel, in which from time to time the sacred act is performed, is still devoutly honored by everyone.[3]

St. Francis’ cell at San Francesco a Ripa, after restoration

Wadding’s account is our basic written source. But we can get a better idea of the details from other documents. Jacopa clearly understood Francis’ preference for a poor habitation. During his trip to Rome in 1209 as he was hoping to have Pope Innocent III confirm his order, Francis and his brothers stayed at the leper hospital of San Antonio near St. John Lateran, where he and his brothers served the lepers.(At that time, he popes lived at the Lateran. [4]

While he sometimes stayed with the noble and wealthy, such as Jacopa and Matteo Rosso Osini, who sheltered Francis at the Castello Sant‘Angelo near St. Peter’s, Francis greatly preferred a poor habitation, and the decrepit and abandoned buildings of the hospice of San Cosmato were entirely in conformity to his desires. It is a relatively short distance from St. Peter’s basilica, which was an important pilgrimage place for him, proved by the trip he made to St. Peter’s at the beginning of his conversion.

A seventeenth- century document, copied from the original signboard in the cell describes the cell of St. Francis:

. . . a large room that was located behind the tribune of the Church for use in the Gothic period for the convenience of the hospice for hearing Mass and also served for use as a Choir for the Religious . . . In this large room the Holy Father made a partition of woven willow branches and potsherds and formed of it a little room and oratory, for his use when he came to Rome. From the same room one went from the pulpit of the church in cornu evangelii [on the Gospel side], according to Gothic custom; at present you can see the walled-up door; there followed from the side of the garden a little religious dormitory with little rooms, likewise of woven wicker branches, for use of [Francis’] religious companions.[5]

Intervening to get Francis and his friars permission to use the building was just the first step in Lady Jacopa’s intervention. In 1229, shortly after Francis’ death, his great friend Cardinal Ugolino, now Pope Gregory IX, wrote to the Benedictines at San Cosmato, asking them to relinquish the “almost abandoned” buildings of the monastery and hospital to the Friars Minor.[6] A new church and convent buildings were erected and while the original cell of St. Francis was preserved, the “little religious dormitory” was rebuilt] and formed what seventeenth-century documents call the “conventino [little convent of Lady Jacoba.” This is an indication that she had the new convent built at her expense.[7] Another Roman nobleman, Pandolfo dell‘Angullaria, helped pay for the construction of the new church, where he was portrayed in a fresco.[8]

But by 1249, the friars were beginning to leave the new church and convent of San Francesco for the new convent at Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the center of Rome, which soon became the Roman center of the order. San Francesco became the home of the Observant Franciscans in the 1500’s and the convent was expanded and rebuilt. The recent excavations have once again revealed Lady Jacopa’s conventino.

Ludovica Albertoni

My interest in Ludovica was first awakened even before I became a Secular Franciscan when I visited the church of San Francesco a Ripa and saw her tomb with Bernini’s renowned sculpture of her. But there is actually very little about her in English; in fact there doesn’t seem to be any modern biography in Italian. Her statue by Bernini is much more famous than she is. This is a shame, because her life is fascinating, she was loved by the poor of Rome for her charity. and there was a cult surrounding her from the time of her death in 1533. It was a friar at San Francesco da Ripa, named Giovanni Pauolo, and a descendant of Ludovica, who wrote her biography in 1671, at the time of her beatification.


Bl Ludovica Albertoni distributing alms

Ludovica, who was born in 1473, came from the noble family of the Albertoni, and married to a nobleman named Giacomo della Cetera. They had three daughters. After her husband’s death in 1506, Ludovica, now age 33, donned the habit of the Franciscan tertiaries, who were centered at San Francesco a Ripa. One of the most memorable events recalled in her biography was her aid to the poor after the sack of Rome in 1527 by the troops of the Emperor Charles V, who breached the city walls in the Trastevere district and poured into the city. The Pope and cardinals took refuge in the fortress, Castel Sant‘Angolo. Ludovica’s biographer recalls:

. . . there was nothing, either profane or sacred, that was not contaminated . . . neither the old men or the young, neither the married women, nor the widows, nor the young maids, nor the children, neither religious nor churches; turning everything upside down, profaning altars, violating the virgins and plundering everything, they left Rome bare of riches and possessions, but completely covered with sadness and infamy.

Blessed Ludovica . . . having compassion on Rome, her homeland, and her fellow citizens, the Romans, and each one without distinction, retired to the remotest corner of her house; having covered herself completely with hair shirt and sackcloth, she gave herself up to tears, weeping continuously for the misfortunes and calamities of the Romans. Forgetting completely the care of her body, she gave herself up completely to most urgently supplicating God. . . . Nor did the Blessed ever fail, as best as she could to exhort everyone to the defense of their legitimate head and true pastor [The Pope], the defense of whom in such a legitimate war was not to lose one’s life, but a changing of the temporal for the eternal.

That raging tempest was stilled: and Ludovica went to let herself be seen in public, as though a new light after a long and fearful darkness, she revived cheerfulness in her fellow citizens, consoling everyone; and distributing to the neediest almost all her possessions, she made herself a beggar, in order to come to the aid of the poverty of everyone. . .

. . having gone with a great sum of money through the city, and to each person she met, she would give, according to need, fitting alms. . . She had the finest cloth spun and woven to keep in this way many young girls from idleness and aided them with wages; with this cloth she later provided the churches with altar-cloths and albs and similar things, necessary for the divine worship.

Every day innumerable poor people came to her palace, and to each she gave either something to eat or money, consoling everyone equally, while to everyone she showed herself to be an equally compassionate mother.[9]

I will try to write more fully about Ludovica next time.

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[1] Paola Degni and Pier Luigi Porzio, eds. La fabbrica del convento. Memorie storiche, trasformazioni e recupero del complesso di San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere. (Rome: Donzelli, 2011), p. 176.

[2] See the bull Cum deceat vos of Pope Gregory IX, March 1229, in Wadding Annales, 1229, xxix.

[3] Wadding, Annales, 1212, xxxiv. Roger of Wendover, continuer of the English chronicler Matthew of Paris, says that St. Francis “constructed an oratory in the city of Rome,” which, though a bit of an exaggeration, can only refer to these cells of himself and his companions. Matthew Paris, Cronica Maiora, ad ann. 1227, ed. by Henry R. Luard (London, 1876), vol. III, p. 32.

[4] Bonaventure, Legenda Maior, III, 9. We learn this from a note was inserted by the Minister General who succeeded St. Bonaventure, Jerome of Ascoli, the future Pope Nicholas IV. He learned of it form Cardinal Riccardo degli Annibaldi, a relative of Innocent Ill; cf. Chron. 24 General. in Analecta franciscana, III, 365. See Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 204.

[5] Anna Menichella, San Francesco a Ripa. Vicende costruttive della prima chiesa Francescana di Roma (Rome, Edizioni Rari Nantes), p. 15.

[6] Wadding Annales, 1229, xxix.

[7] Wadding notes that Jacopa raised the abandoned buildings “to the dignity of a monastery”"Annales, 1229, xiv; see Menichella, San Francesco a Ripa, p. 13.

[8] Menichella, San Francesco a Ripa, pp. 11-13.

[9] Giovanni Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica Albertoni (Rome: Giuseppe Corvo, 1671, pp. 153-54, 166-67.

Marching for Women and For Life

One of the things that encouraged me most after Barack Obama’s election in 2008 — when there was very little to be encouraged about — was the way opposition to his anti-life policies united pro-lifers as never before. Good came out of that. women's march

This past weekend, with the inauguration of Donald Trump, was a pretty miserable one for me and for many others, but there was one astonishing bright spot: pro-choice and pro-life feminists united (very reluctantly in some cases) at the Women’s March in Washington on Saturday.

The march began as a protest against Trump’s and the Republican policies by some feminist and liberal women – they opposed the proposed Repubublica repeal of Obamacare with nothing to replace it, and anti-illegal immigrant policies that would separate mothers and children, along with other general concerns, such as rape, domestic violence, the wage gap between men and women — and for many, the renewed attack on abortion. “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” was the rallying cry.

Many pro-life feminists wanted to join in, and some groups applied as sponsors of the march. A group called New Wave Feminists was originally accepted, but when it was discovered they were pro-life, some of the march leaders insisted they be rejected. (Not all the leaders of the march were agreed about it). A pro-life women’s clinic was accepted, then rejected for the same reason. In the end, many pro-life women attended, wanted or not, including Students for Life, who hoisted a huge banner saying “Women are Betrayed by Abortion.”  Nearly 500,000 women (and men) attended the march in Washington, and hundreds of thousand more in other cities. Some pro-lifers were welcomed, some were yelled at and even attacked. But they were there.

Even more than this, the media took notice — although they have refused for over 40 years to give any notice to the yearly March for Life in Washington, whose numbers were just as large, and nearly as largely female, as many as 300,00-400,00 each year. Huffington Post published a surprisingly positive article about the pro-life presence at the march.  Another positive mention came from The Atlantic. I’m surprised at the way the Atlantic article, as well as others, marveled at the “new” type of anti-abortion feminists. They made it all the way through the article without mentioning Feminists for Life, which was founded in 1972, even before Roe v. Wade. Many early anti-abortion activists were also quite radical in their politics. The pro-life movement is really returning to its roots.

Here is an excellent video story by the Daily Signal:

here is Destiny Herndon-DeLaRosa, from New Wave Feminists, telling her group’s story:

Unfortunately not all pro-lifers sees this as I do. Many, including many Catholics, are hating on the march with astonishing venom. Simcha Fischer answers them much better than I ever could:

Let’s hope that this slight thaw between feminist groups turns into a genuine spring day. We can use the comfort in the fight ahead.

The Real Story of St. Francis and the Nativity Scene

My latest saint post for Tau Cross Books and Media. I had intended to continue writing this month about San Francesco a Ripa in Rome and Lady Jacoba dei Settesoli, but decided this article would be more appropriate for the Christmas season. A very Merry and blessed Christmas to everyone!

As Christmas approaches, Franciscans everywhere are recalling the famous scene at Greccio in 1223, when St. Francis prepared a memorable re-enactment of the birth of Jesus on Christmas eve with a manger, ox and ass. The event is commemorated at the chapel at Greccio, where Pope Francis stopped to pray on January 4, 2016.

Pope Francis prays in the chapel at Greccio. The stone under the altar is the one on which St. Francis placed the manger.

This is always spoken of as the beginning of the practice of the Christmas Nativity scene – though perhaps it is best to see it as one stage in the long development of this practice. In fact, a great deal of this history is not widely known. I propose to examine it here, because when we look at both the continuum of history, and what was happening in St. Francis’ time, we can understand a bit better what led him to present the scene as he did, and how people at the time saw it.

I will begin with this question: What did Francis himself experience in regard to the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the representation of the scene before 1223?

Historians have suggested some possible influences on St. Francis. One is the pilgrimage he is believed to have made to the Holy Places during his stay in the Middle East in 1219-1220. He had gone there in hopes of preaching to the Muslims, and when he was with the crusade army in Damietta, he was able to speak to the Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil. Though Francis did not succeed in converting the Sultan, according to some early sources, al-Kamil did give him a precious gift.

Like many Christians, he longed to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the goal of so many pilgrims. But the poverty that he and his friars were sworn to would have forbidden it, because from the time the Muslims had captured Jerusalem in 1187, they had demanded tribute money from Christian pilgrims to visit the holy places. On top of that, Pope Honorius III had forbidden the payment of this tribute, considering it an outrage for Christians to contribute to the coffers of the infidels at a time when the whole Christian world was at war with them.[1] Brother Angelo of Clareno, who knew some of Francis’ companions, said in his Chronicle that the sultan “ordered that he and all his brothers could freely go to the Sepulcher and without paying the tribute” and that Francis, before returning home, “visited the Holy Sepulcher.”[2]

But when he got there, he would have found almost nothing left in a war-ravaged Jerusalem. Malik al-Kamil’s brother Al-Mu'azzam, the ruler of Syria, in retaliation for the Crusader attacks, had razed Jerusalem almost to the ground. The walls of the city were destroyed, and Christian sites in the city were in rubble. The people thought Judgment day had really come, and had fled the city. The only Christian site left standing was the Holy Sepulcher itself.[3]

The nearby town of Bethlehem had also suffered destruction from the war, but the Church of the Nativity was still intact. The Crusaders had carried out restorations, and added a great deal of sumptuous decoration to the already existing basilica, including gorgeous mosaics and paintings in the upper church and the Grotto of the Nativity. Little of the poverty of the original cave was still visible in the grotto where Jesus was born. This is the scene, of combined desolation and magnificence, in which Francis would have meditated on the Savior’s birth in poverty. Was the experience an inspiration to him, or a disappointment?

Another influence on St. Francis mentioned by some historians is the already existing popularity of liturgical dramas inside churches in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, most importantly, the Officium pastorum (The Office of the Shepherds), performed at Christmas Matins, especially in monastic churches, in which there was a sung dialogue between the angels and the shepherds, and the shepherds and the midwives at the stable. The climax was the drawing of a curtain revealing Mary and the Child in the manger. Some manuscripts mention the imago or image of Mary; probably both Mary and Jesus were represented by statues or figurines. But while these dramas were widespread north of the Alps in France and Germany, there is little evidence that they were performed in Italy in Francis’ time. [4] It does not seem that Francis was aware of plays about the birth of Jesus, although Assisi there were in fact, other liturgical dramas in which, as Fortini has shown, Francis may have taken part, even being leader of the company. These included the story of Assisi’s patron saint, the bishop and martyr St. Victorinus.[5] All his life Francis had a sense of the dramatic, which he often used in bringing the Gospel to people. This could also have contributed to his ability to present the scene of the nativity at Greccio.

Still another possible influence is the liturgical practices of Christmas at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) in Rome. The original basilica was founded by Pope Liberius around 360, but it was completely rebuilt under Sixtus III in 432. He dedicated the basilica to Mary the Mother of God, in honor of the recent definition of this doctrine at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The original series of mosaics telling the story of Christ’s birth have been preserved. From at least the sixth century, and possibly earlier, the church was called Santa Maria ad praesepe, or “at the manger.”[6]

Numerous sources from the eighth century onward refer to the oratorio or chapel with crypt built into a part of the church, which seems to have been intended as a replica of the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was also reached by going into the lower part of the church. This Roman grotto contained relics of the sycamore wood of the actual manger in which the infant Jesus lay, which had been brought from Bethlehem.[7]

It is hard to know what this praesepe looked like in Francis’ time, because the interior of the church has changed so much, but medieval sources speak of the praesepe having double doors covered with pure silver with a white veil in front, and a silver lamp hanging above, and inside, curtains and tapestries of purple, and walls with “silver and gold panels with the history of holy Mary.” In the center, most likely in the crypt, was an image of the Mother of God embracing the infant Savior, adorned with gold and precious stones.

At the time of St. Francis, the Pope would celebrate Mass on the first Sunday of Advent, and the midnight Mass of Christmas in this chapel. Francis made a number of trips to Rome, and would very likely have been familiar with this church. In fact, he seems to have been in Rome at the end of November and beginning of December 1223, as the final form of the Franciscan Rule was approved by Pope Honorius III on November 30.[8] So he could have been present at the Pope’s Mass “at the manger” on the first Sunday of Advent.

It must have been at this very time that he began planning the representation of the manger at Greccio. In fact, Bonaventure says that Francis asked Pope Honorius III (no doubt while he was still in Rome) for permission to present the scene, “so that this would not be considered a type of novelty.”[9] As we have already seen, it was not exactly a novelty to have a representation of the manger in Bethlehem. So what was new about it? Let’s look at the scene as Francis wanted to have it. He planned it together with his friend, Giovanni, a knight of Greccio:

About 15 days before the Nativity of the Lord, Francis sent for [his friend Giovanni] . . . and said to him, “If you want us to celebrate the coming feast of Our Lord in Greccio, go, make haste, and prepare everything as I tell you. For I want to make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some way behold with my bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger, placed on the hay, with the ox and ass standing by.” . . . The brethren were summoned from many places, the men and women of that town with exulting hearts prepared tapers and torches, as they were able, to illuminate that night which with its radiant star has illuminated all the days and years. . . the manger had been made ready, the hay was brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty exalted, humility commended; and Greccio became, as it were, a new Bethlehem. The night became as bright as day, and humans and animals delighted. The people came, and lent new joy to the new mystery. The forest rang with voices and the rocks responded to their jubilation.[10]

As the text makes clear, the event took place not in a church, but outdoors, in a grove on the hilltop. (Thomas tells us that a church was built on the spot only later). This celebration of a Mass outdoors may have been the innovation for which St. Francis sought permission.[11] In addition, we are told:

A solemn Mass was celebrated over the manger. . . The saint of God wore the vestments of a levite, for a levite [i.e. deacon] he was; he sang the holy Gospel in a sonorous voice . . . then he preached to the people standing around and spoke mellifluous words about the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem.
It is especially striking that no human figures, live or sculpted ones, not even the infant Jesus, are mentioned in these sources. This leaves a strong impression that the celebration of Mass over the manger was suggested to Francis by the celebration of Mass in the presence of the relics of the manger at Santa Maria Maggiore. It is even possible that in Greccio the manger itself was used as the altar.[12]

The most important difference between this and earlier representations was that Francis brought a new realism to the representation of the poverty of the infant Jesus. The center of attention was the representation of the baby Jesus not surrounded by gold, precious stones and magnificent mosaics, as in the great churches in Bethlehem and Rome, but on the hay between the farm animals. The manger here was not an object of dramatic or artistic interest, but an object of religious contemplation; the mystery was the mystery of poverty and suffering that Jesus endured even as a child. It touched hearts as nothing ever had. Bonaventure says:

[The knight Giovanni] claimed that he saw a beautiful little boy asleep in the crib and that the blessed father Francis embraced it in both of his arms and seemed to wake it from sleep. For Francis's example when considered by the world is capable of arousing the hearts of those who are sluggish in the faith of Christ.[13]
Though the idea of the poverty of the Baby Jesus was not completely new, no one brought it home as St. Francis did.

The 1298 Nativity scene in Sta Maria Maggiore

From this time on, devotion to the Baby Jesus and the Christmas Nativity scene became popular all over Europe. One of the first such scenes, consisting of sculptures by Arnolfo di Cambio, was commissioned around 1298 at the orders of the first Franciscan Pope, Nicholas IV (who also approved the Third Order Rule). It was erected in none other than the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and is still there (right).

Every one of us has a Nativity scene in our homes, but how often do we really think about them? Let’s turn to the Nativity scene this Christmas with the same spirit St. Francis did, and awaken our hearts to what Jesus did for us.


[1] Giulio Bassetti-Sani, “San Francesco è incorso nella scomunica? Una bolla di Onorio III e il supposto pellegrinaggio del Santo a Gerusalemme.” Archivum Franciscan Historicum 65 (1972): 3-19. The author thinks that because of the prohibition, Francis could not have gone to Christ’s tomb, but the details Clareno gives seem to be based on a verified report. At any rate, the fact that Francis was not charged tribute seems to have made the prohibition a moot point.

[2] Angelo entered the order quite young, around 1260, and finished his Chronicle of Seven Tribulations of the Order in 1325; the Latin text is in Girolamo Golubovich, Biblioteca bio-bibliografica della Terra Santa e dell'Oriente francescano (Quaracchi: Collegio di s. Bonaventura, 1906), pp. 55-56 (translation mine). See also the account in the Little Flowers of St. Francis, Ch. 23.

[3] See cf. Oliver of Paderborn, “Historia Damiatina,” 41; also Arnaldo Fortini, St. Francis of Assisi (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 535.

[4] Karl Young: “Officium Pastorum: A Study of the Dramatic Developments within the Liturgy of Christmas,” Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters (1912): 299-396.

[5] Fortini, Francis of Assisi, pp. 131-32.

[6] Since praesepe in Latin means both “manger” and “stable,” it could also be called “at the stable.” In this sense the chapel could be said to represent the stable in Bethlehem.

[7] Hartmann Grisar, “Anche basiliche di Roma imitanti i santuari di Gerusalemme et Betlemme,” in his Analecta Romana (Rome, 1899), pp. 577-594. It is not certain when the relics actually came to the church. The first documented references to their presence in the basilica date from the late eleventh century. Many have thought that they were brought to Italy by refugees from the Muslim conquest of Palestine around 642. The altar in the present chapel still has some stones in a reliquary, which Grisar thought may have been brought from the basilica in Bethlehem soon after the construction of the church.

[8] See Fortini, Francis of Assisi, pp. 524-25.

[9] St. Bonaventure, Vita Maj. 10:7; translation by Ewert Cousins, Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 278.

[10] Thomas of Celano, Vita prima, 10, nos. 84-85 (translation mine).

[11] The seventeenth-century edition of Bonaventure edited by the Bollandists read “levity” instead of “novelty” here, which led L. Gougaud to suppose that Francis sought the Pope’s permission to avoid Innocent III’s condemnation of the frivolous excesses of some “theatrical plays” in churches: “La crèche de Noël avant St- François d'Assise.” Revue des Sciences Religieuses, 2:1 (1922): 26-34. But the editors of the Quaracchi edition seem to have determined that the best reading from the manuscripts is “novelty.”

[12] Cf. Young, “Officium Pastorum,” p. 342. He observes that the Nativity plays and other medieval sources frequently saw the body of Christ on the altar as symbolic of the infant Jesus in the manger.

[13] Bonaventure, loc. cit.