A Delightful Book about Catholic ‘Stuff’

A Review A History of the Church in 100 Objects by Mike Aquilina with Grace Aquilina (Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2017).

IN A History of the Church in 100 Objects, Mike Aquilina presents the bimillennial history of the Church utilizing a clever, attention-grabbing conceit: each of the book’s one hundred chapters tells the fascinating story of an artifact, that is, a corporeal object, whose tale fits into the larger unity of the book. The objects include small pieces of art, relics, weapons, pages from books, and even currency.

The book begins, appropriately enough, with the birth of Our Lord in Bethlehem of Juda, where the object under consideration is the fourteen-pointed silver star that marks the spot where Jesus was born. It ends with a photo of “pilgrim offerings,” which don’t tell of a history but, rather point to the future of the “pilgrim Church on Earth.”

Each chapter of the book is no more than two pages, which might render a 200-page book, but photography and generous amounts of white space put the book at 424 pages, including the index.

This reviewer will mention here only two of the book’s one hundred objects.

The first is a simple wooden post — called the Thomas post — on India’s northeastern coast in the city of Chennai. According to local legend, Saint Thomas the Apostle had thrust a post into the ground at this spot, promising that the sea would never rise so high. Since Apostolic times, much of the coastline that Saint Thomas visited is now under water, but the Thomas post has remained dry for more than two millenia.

On the day after Christmas in 2004, a great earthquake and tsunami struck the Indian Ocean. According to seismologists, it released the energy equivalent of 23,000 nuclear bombs. Thousands died and many local cities were drowned. Christians in the area rushed to get behind the Thomas post. Amazingly, the flood waters stopped short of the marker. After the Indian bishops published a press release, the locals, in gratitude, built a fence and shrine around the post commemorating the “miracle of the tsunami.”

To this day, one segment of the Christian population of India call themselves “Thomas Christians,” or Mar Thoma Christians, to distinguish themselves from more recent converts. Included among these Mar Thoma Christians are many Eastern Rite Catholics of the Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar Rites. Although there is no hard historical evidence that Saint Thomas actually planted the post, the apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas” claimed other miracles performed by him in that same area. It is possible that, following the example of Saint Paul, Saint Thomas preached in the local synagogue to the small but prosperous community of Jews, converting many of them as well as some of the local Gentiles.

Saint Thomas was martyred by the local priests of the goddess Kali near Chennai where the San Thome Basilica stands today.

The other chapter I thought worth mentioning holds a personal interest for me. It is titled “A weapon against Genocide.” The photograph is of a blunderbuss pistol owned by the Armenian, Garo Sassouni, leader in the fight against the Turks during the Armenian Genocide of 1894-1923. The Armenian nation was the only Christian one surrounded by a sea of Ottoman invaders, whose goal was to annihilate all Armenians and steal their land, thereby creating a Muslim Empire.

As part of their modus operandi, the Ottomans emptied prisons to create butcher squads for the liquidation of the Christians. Unsurprisingly, Armenians were slaughtered in gruesome and hideous ways — rape, crucifixion, starvation and marching naked in the hot desert without food or water until they dropped dead of exhaustion. Garo’s own mother was put in a cage and burned alive. Others members of his family were simply shot. (The book, Black Dog of Fate, claims that many of the woman had their long hair doused with gasoline and set on fire — gruesome, indeed!) My own daughter-in-law’s grandmother was one of a tiny minority of her large extended family who survived the death march. She eventually made it to the United States. Most of the Armenians were members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, but many were Catholics of the Armenian Rite, and a few were Protestants.

Sadly, with World War I raging, the Genocide received little or no publicity. By the middle of the 1920’s a million and a half Armenians were dead with millions more living in exile. Years later, Adolf Hitler expressed admiration for the “thoroughness of the Turks,” declaring, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians.”

Until 1910, the United States government gave no official recognition to the Genocide. Turkey has never acknowledged responsibility. In fact, when Pope Francis marked the centennial of the twentieth century’s “first genocide” with a Mass at Saint Peter’s, Turkey withdrew its envoy to the Vatican.

These and ninety-eight other objects await the reader’s curiosity in Mike Aquilina’s informative, entertaining, and quick-reading A History of the Church in 100 Objects. Thankfully, many tell much happier tales than that of Garo Sassouni’s blunderbuss.