January 5 – Amma Syncletica; Twelfth Night; John Neumann

Card depicting Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Rijksmuseum, date unknownAmma (Mother) Syncletica of Alexandria (d. 350) was one of the greatest of the Desert Fathers* [sic], men and women who took to the deserts of the eastern Mediterranean to seek God. Dorothy Frances Garney, who quipped, “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / than anywhere else on earth,” clearly misspelled “d-e-s-e-r-t.”

Syncletica was both rich and beautiful, which was unfortunate in that day and age for a wannabe hermit (hermabe?), which she was. Parents in those days had a way of trying to marry their daughters off, and her beauty guaranteed a surfeit of serious suitors. Somehow, though, she gave them all the slip and entered the eremitic life anyway. After her parents died, she and her sister gave their considerable inheritance to the poor and fled to the desert to seek a life of prayer. But, as is not unusual with hermabes, pilgrims flocked to their sanctuary, and in time it became a monastery. At first Synclectica thought herself too humble to dispense wisdom, but judging by the amount that has come down to us, she got over it.

As a representative sample of her wisdom, I have selected the following: “Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.” I am hoping that the connection between nails and humility is clearer to my readers than it is to me. What are analogous to boards in our salvation? Sometimes the words* of the Desert Fathers get a little abstract. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Painting entitled Twelfth Night Feast by Gabriel Metsu, circa 1654.“Twelfth Night,” the eve of the Epiphany (Jan 6), was once in much of western Europe a day for gay celebrations, merrymaking, and all that. In some Catholic countries it was the beginning of the Carnival season, although few of those countries will admit it nowadays. Centuries ago, a now-obscure playwright wrote a play to present on this day, long forgotten and rightfully so. An actor named Shakespeare also wrote one, which is somewhat better known and occasionally staged[1]. In the eastern Church, today is a strict fast, as is often the case on the eves of great feasts. As such, it is marked by strict fasting, in one of those rare instances of calendarspeak where the words actually mean what they say (unlike, for instance, “all-night vigil,” which isn’t).

Mosaic of John Neumann from the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, PhiladelphiaJohn Neumann (1811–1860) (not to be confused with the newly-sainted John Cardinal Newman, who was a different guy), found his career goals stymied by the Bohemian priest glut, so after seminary he emigrated to the United States. He was ordained almost before he got off the boat, and was sent by his bishop to work among the German immigrants near Niagara Falls (on the Yank side). After founding a parish near there, he decided that what he really wanted to be was a Redemptorist in Pittsburgh (as one might). This order was founded to look after neglected country bumpkins near Naples, but clearly by the mid-nineteenth century it had spread to the Steel City, which my sources say still has a goodly number of Italians, though none so beloved as Mr. Negri of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (the things you run into while researching saints!).

After some time with the Redemptorists, John was made bishop of Philadelphia and a citizen of the United States, albeit through different agencies. He founded a diocesan school system as well as many parishes and convents. Indeed, he served the Catholics of Pennsylvania so well that the Know-Nothings, a gang-turned-political party whose claim to fame was hatred of Catholic immigrants and a desire to see all political and pedagogical posts peopled by Protestants, burned down several buildings in his diocese. (The Know-Nothings, thankfully, have no modern-day analogues.) Doubts plagued John, and he wrote a letter to Pope Pius IX asking to be released from his episcopal duties, but the pope demurred, and John soldiered on until his untimely death at age 48. He was glorified by Pope Paul VI in 1977, and a shrine to house his relics was built in Philadelphia, where this great Bohemian is still rhapsodized.

Throughout 2020 the Onion Dome is running a series of daily saints. In general we will meet one Orthodox saint and one Catholic saint per day, although many of course came before the churches split and thus are both. For an explanation of the whole thing, see the About page. Items with * are defined in the Glossary. Finally the † means “not really”.

[1] Actually it was just Shakespeare. I made up that other guy.