First published in 1855, Newman’s novel remains fresh. Its foundation is a comparison of hereditary Christians to converts and those who seek happiness in the comforts of the material world to those who can be satisfied only by union with God.
Newman warmly and vividly details a story of death and new life in and about the Roman colony of Sicca Veneria in North Africa, circa 250 AD. As tour guide, he portrays the delicate shades of fields ripe with grain, rose gardens, vineyards, olive groves and orchards set against “the fantastic forms of the Numidian Mountains.” He escorts his readers through the hidden door to the wonderfully cool catacombs to share in the liturgy. He and his readers shop the market stalls of the forum. As barrister, he details the legalistic implications of the multiple forms of Roman marriage and then explains the process of the provincial courts along with their dreadful incarceration pits and their means of torture and execution. Mercifully, Newman also offers a peep at the beatific vision. The Cardinal adds a touch of the authenticity with the frequent use of contemporary Latin phrases, such as the infamous: “Christianos ad leones!” (Christians to the lions.)
As the story begins, the Christians had not seen a major persecution in fifty years. Worshipers of the Roman and local gods had come to tolerate, and even marry Christians. Bishops, priests and deacons grew more concerned with their business interests than their flocks. Their sheep strayed as they cooled in spiritual ardor. Christianity drifted toward extinction, as many idol worshippers hoped. Some thought a persecution would finish them off. Others remembered that previous persecutions had actually won converts to Christianity.
Then Rome celebrated its millennium with spectacles and sacrifices to honor the very gods that made Rome the ruler of the world. Decius, the emperor, decreed that the entire world should congratulate Rome through the worship of Jove and swear by the genius of the emperor. Decius promised that atheists (i. e. Christians) who refused to so swear would suffer a painful death. The onset of a persecution drew near.
In Sicca, the avuncular Jucundus, an innovative, prosperous but aging purveyor of idols, lived only for the moment with no thought to the hereafter. Unfortunately, his aspirations for a glorious legacy depended upon his nephews, Agellius and Juba. Agellius, widely known as a baptized Christian, avoided contact with the residents of Sicca, especially during their religious celebrations. Juba, his brother, would bend his knee neither to god nor man. His unpredictable behavior annoyed his uncle as much as did the stubbornness of Agellius.
Jucundus desperately hoped that Agellius might forsake Christianity if he married Callista, an artisan in his employ. Jucundus suggested to Callista’s brother, Aristo, that he urge her to accept Agellius. Aristo advised his sister: “I say he’s a fellow too well off to be despised as a lover.” Agellius needed no urging to approach Callista. Knowing that she admired Christianity he hoped this predisposition would lead her to accept him and that she would convert to the worship of the true God. Instead, Callista responded, “You have stood in the way of Him, ready to speak for yourself, using Him as a means to an end.”
Callista remembered Chione, a slave and a Christian who “spoke as if a Christian’s first thoughts were good will toward others; as if his state were of such blessedness, that his dearest heart’s wish was to bring others into it.” Callista has seen no such blessedness in Agellius. Chione had cared for nothing, Agellius wanted Callista for himself. Shortly before her death, Chione dreamed of a beautiful Lady who pledged to lead Chione to her Son, Jesus. Chione died joyfully, freed of her slavery and the bonds of earth as the Lady welcomed her into the beatific vision. Callista thought Agellius a cold Christian more interested in laws and restrictions. If anything he damaged what faith Callista still had.
On this low note the real troubles begin. Newman spares no detail in his descriptions of a locust plague, famine, riots; the brutal murder of Christians by the mob; the Roman legion’s methods of crowd control, as well as Callista’s arrest as a suspected Christian. She denied that she was a Christian, but refused to offer incense to Jove or swear by the genius of the emperor. Jucundus and Aristo used their influence to postpone Callista’s execution. They claimed that she must be out of her mind. The respite allowed a visit from a mysterious stranger.
Caecilius, a Christian priest had met Callista shortly before her capture. Their conversation stoked the embers of her faith. He trusted her with a scroll: The Gospel According to Saint Luke. Callista paid it no heed until her imprisonment. By the time Caecilius visited Callista in her cell, she was a Christian in all but baptism. Caecilius baptized her, conferred confirmation and fed her with the Eucharist. Before her ordeal, she dreamed of the radiant face of Chione. It gradually morphed into the visage of the Lady that had welcomed Chione and then changed again into that of her Son. Callista had found the love and meaning she sought all her life. She too, would soon enjoy freedom.
As Newman relates through his story, materialism twists the ethics of those who see nothing beyond this life. They might otherwise seek Christ but instead, freely reject the foolishness of Christianity because they know too many cold Christians rather than the likes of Chione and the new Callista. I highly recommend this book to all who seek to deepen their faith so that they may more freely articulate the true joy of Christianity to others.
(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)