Sermon 12. The Mission of St. Philip Neri—Part 1

"I awaked last of all, and as one that gathereth after the grape-gatherers. In the blessing of God I also have hoped; and as one that gathereth grapes, have I filled the wine-press. See that I have not laboured for myself only, but for all that seek discipline." Eccli. xxxiii. 16-18.

{199} THE Picture of St. Philip is ever in this Chapel, and his image is ever in our minds. Not only we, who belong to his Congregation, and have devoted ourselves to his service, but you, my dear Brethren and Children, who come to worship here under his shadow, you, too, I am persuaded, carry him away with you to your homes, and find by experience the benefit of such a Patron. His commemoration is of daily wont in this neighbourhood, and the Octave of his Festival runs round the full circuit of the year. At no season is it necessary to remind you of him; nor at this particular season is there any {200} special reason, either from ritual or from custom, which makes it suitable or dutiful to do so. And yet, in our own case it is more natural to think and speak of him at this time than at any other, for we are approaching the anniversary of his coming into England and into Birmingham, and are returning thanks to our good God in a series of devotions, for all the mercies which, through his intercession, have, in the course of two years, been poured out upon us. We are now close upon completing the second year since the first introduction of the Oratory into England [Note 1]; close upon completing the first, since it took up its abode in this populous town [Note 2], to which the Apostolical Brief sent it. Our prospects, we know surely, will extend, and our successes multiply, as time goes on; and we may be enabled to furnish the elements, or to lay the rudiments of Oratories for other places; but, if the proverb be true, that "he who begins, does half the work," we had a mercy shown us this time last year, the like of which we never can have shown us again.

Nor do we at this season turn only in gratitude to our dear Saint and Father, for what he has gained for us; we also turn to him as our most necessary pattern in the acknowledgment which we must make to God for it. He who has gained for us God's mercies, he, my dear Fathers of the Oratory, must teach us to use them worthily, and this leads us to think over and dwell both on him and on his history, as though it were now his yearly festival;—to enlarge upon the special traits of his character and memorable passages of his life, if not for {201} his sake, at least for our own; if not to do him honour, at least to gain guidance for ourselves, by reason of the light which all that is recorded of him casts upon our vocation, our duties, and our work; for then only are we his true followers when we do as he did. Moreover, although all this is a subject of thought which concerns us, the members of the Oratory, primarily, yet it must have an interest for those also who, like yourselves, my Brethren, make use of our ministrations; for, whereas there are many professions, missions, and undertakings in the length and breadth of the Catholic Church, you will, by considering it, understand more exactly what it is in particular, that the Oratory proposes to do for you.

Let us, then, inquire what St. Philip's times were, and what place he holds in them; what he was raised up to do, how he did it, and how we, my Fathers of the Oratory, may make his work and his way of doing it a pattern for ourselves in this day.

1. His times were such as the Church has never seen before nor since, and such as the world must last long for her to see again; nor peculiar only in themselves, but involving a singular and most severe trial of the faith and love of her children. It was a time of sifting and peril, and of "the fall and resurrection of many in Israel." Our gracious Lord, we well know, never will forsake her; He will sustain her in all dangers, and she will last while the world lasts; but, if ever there was a time when He seemed preparing to forsake her, it was not the time of persecution, when thousands upon thousands of her choicest were cut off, and her flock decimated; it was not {202} in the middle age, when the ferocity of the soldier and subtlety of the sophist beleaguered her,—but it was in that dreary time, at the close and in the fulness of which St. Philip entered upon his work. A great author, one of his own sons, Cardinal Baronius, has said of the dark age, that it was a time when our Lord seemed to be asleep in Peter's boat; but there is another passage of the Gospel still more wonderful than the record of that sleep, and one which had a still more marvellous accomplishment in the period of which I have to speak. There was a time when Satan took up bodily the King of Saints, and carried Him whither he would. Then was our most Holy Saviour and Lord clasped in the arms of ambition, avarice, and impurity:—and in like manner His Church also after Him, though full of divine gifts, the Immaculate Spouse, the Oracle of Truth, the Voice of the Holy Ghost, infallible in matters of faith and morals, whether in the chair of her Supreme Pontiff, or in the unity of her Episcopate, nevertheless was at this time so environed, so implicated, with sin and lawlessness, as to appear in the eyes of the world to be what she was not. Never, as then, were her rulers, some in higher, some in lower degree, so near compromising what can never be compromised; never so near denying in private what they taught in public, and undoing by their lives what they professed with their mouths; never were they so mixed up with vanity, so tempted by pride, so haunted by concupiscence; never breathed they so tainted an atmosphere, or were kissed by such traitorous friends, or were subjected to such sights of shame, or were clad in such blood-stained garments, as in the centuries upon {203} and in which St. Philip came into the world. Alas, for us, my Brethren! the scandal of deeds done in Italy then is borne by us in England now.

It was an age when the passionate wilfulness of the feudal baron was vigorous still; when civilization, powerless as yet to redress the grievances of society at large, gave to princes and to nobles as much to possess as before, and less to suffer; increased their pomp, and diminished their duties and their risks; became the cloak of vices which it did not extirpate, made revenge certain by teaching it to be treacherous, and unbelief venerable by proving it to be ancient. Such were the characteristics of St. Philip's age; and Florence, his birth-place, presented the most complete exhibition of them,—and next to Florence, Rome, the city of his adoption.

Florence was at that time the most intellectual, the most magnificent city of Italy. About a century before, one of its richest merchants and bankers [Note 3] had become its virtual ruler, and had transmitted his power to his descendants, who still possessed it. The history of this family is intimately connected with that of the Holy See; at times they were its enemies: they ended in giving to it three or four princes of their own blood to fill it: but whether in alliance with it or at war, whether at Florence or at Rome, they exerted, at least for many years, an influence prejudicial to its real, that is, its religious well-being.

This was the time of the revival of what is called classical learning; that is, the learning of ancient Greece and Rome. Constantinople had lately been taken by the {204} Turks, who still hold it; its scholars, with their traditions and their manuscripts, escaped to Italy, and they found a home at Florence with this powerful family. The heads of this family became the special patrons of Literature and the Arts, and leaders of the classical revival. Under their auspices, public schools were opened; the Greek language was studied; an academy was established for philosophy; a library was founded, and placed in the Dominican Convent of St. Mark. Its librarian in course of time became Pope [Note 4], and founded at Rome the famous Vatican Library. Books in the languages of the East,—Hebrew, Arabic, even Indian, were collected; the lost writings of Greek and Roman authors were brought to light and published.

So far, you will see, there was little which could be censured; the revival of learning was in itself a great benefit to mankind, and the labour which it involved was well bestowed. But, in this world, evil follows good as its shadow; human nature perverting and corrupting what is intrinsically innocent or praiseworthy. So, in this instance, the pursuit of the old learning became a passion. As the crumbling cloisters of the East were ransacked, and manuscripts were found and deciphered,—as the ruins of pagan edifices were excavated, mounds of earth removed, and the sculptures of classical art disinterred,—an uncontrollable excitement, an intoxication, seized upon the classes which were engaged in the work. It seized upon young and old: while one celebrated archćologist [Note 5] spent fifty years in the discovery of ancient authors, and another's [Note 6] hair turned white on his losing by shipwreck his cargo of discoveries, noble ladies became {205} prodigies of learning, and a youth [Note 7] of twenty exhibited himself at Rome as the master of twenty-two languages, and proposed nine hundred subjects for disputation.

The wonderful art of printing, which had been lately discovered, added to the excitement, not merely by what it actually did in that day, but by the brilliant future which it opened on the imagination, to the advance both of knowledge and of society.

Nor was this the limit of the discoveries of that remarkable age;—news came of another continent beyond the ocean; America, North and South, became known to Europe, and the extent of the earth was doubled. The strangest tales were circulated, true and false, of the riches, of the gold, silver, and gems, of the animals, of the vegetable productions, of the new hemisphere. The public mind was agitated by a thousand fancies; no one knew what was coming; anything might be expected; a new era had opened upon the world, and enormous changes, political and social, were in preparation. There was an upheaving of the gigantic intellect of man; he found he had powers and resources which he was not conscious of before, and began in anticipation to idolize their triumphs.

And, while the world was becoming so strong, the Church, on the other hand, was at the moment proportionally weak, as far as relates to the human instruments of her power. Great, indeed, was her temporal exaltation at that day; great she was then, as she will ever be, in her invisible, divine strength; but in the ordinary elements of her greatness and weapons of her {206} success, in order and discipline, in pastoral vigilance, in the sanctity of her individual members, in these respects certainly she was taken at disadvantage. I do not like, nor would you, my Brethren, wish me, to enlarge upon a most sorrowful subject. The great Italian families intrigued and fought for her supreme rule, as if it had been a mere earthly principality. And on this account, she was unable at the moment, from scarcity of champions, to cope with the vehement enthusiastic movement which I have been describing, and which assailed her within and without. All things are good in their place: human learning and science, the works of genius, the wonders of nature, all, as I have said, have their use, when kept in subordination to the faith and worship of God; but it is nothing else but an abuse, if they are suffered to engross the mind, and if religion is made secondary to them. Yet they are so fascinating,—so enchanting,—so present, tangible, constraining, in their influence,—that, unless the watchmen of the Holy City are on the alert, they are almost sure to act to the prejudice of the highest interests of man. So it was at the time I speak of; what was beautiful was placed before what was true; or rather, the beauty of the creature was preferred to the transcendent beauty of the Creator. Nature and art, the rich material, the creative mind, were suffered to invade and oppress the Church, instead of ministering to her. The world entered her sacred precincts forcibly, and embellished them after its own fashion. It addressed itself to her rulers, who were already enervated by the homage of nations; and it attempted to persuade them to disguise the awful Bride {207} of the Lamb in an old heathen garb, of which her very coming had long since been the destruction. More seemly by far had it been to ask her to take part in the abolished ceremonies of the Mosaic law, than to intrude classical literature upon her instead of the teaching of the Holy Fathers. It was Satan carrying her up to the high mountain, and showing her all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory, with the hope of tempting her to forget her mission.

"Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die:" so was it said of old by the heathen; so was it now said, almost in the same words, by Christians, not meaning, indeed, to deny the life to come, but hoping to inherit the future without giving up any enjoyment of the present. The artists, poets, and philosophers, who flourished under the smile of the great Florentine family, and their disciples through Italy, if they were not allowed to decorate Holy Church at their will and pleasure, at least could do as they would with the world; and fallen as it is, they made it still, by the splendour of their genius, a very paradise of delight. They flung a grace over sin, and a dignity over unbelief. Life was to them one long revel; they feasted, they sported, they moulded forms and painted countenances of the most perfect human beauty; they indulged in licentious wit, they wrote immodest verses, they lightly used the words of Scripture; they quarrelled, they used the knife, they fled to sanctuary, and then they issued forth again, to go through the same round of pleasure and of sin. Festivals and Carnivals became seasons of popular licence, for dramas and masquerades; and the excesses of paganism were renewed {208} with the refinements supplied by classical associations. Dances, processions, and songs, formed part of the entertainment. Florence especially was the scene of the pageant, and its whole population were either actors in it, or spectators. The time chosen for it was the night; the performances were carried on by torchlight; bands of women, as well as of men, had their appointed parts in them, nor were they concluded till after daybreak. On St. John Baptist's day, in the year preceding St. Philip's birth, such an exhibition, with tournaments and other celebrations, was held in that same city, his birth-place. Seven sacred princes came up incognito to attend it; two lions and a panther were sent as a present from a member of the reigning family, then seated in the Vatican; and a triumphal arch was erected, in honour of the donor, opposite to the Dominican convent of St. Mark.

All this for the people:—Their rulers, who had introduced or patronized these shows, and the immediate circle of those rulers, went further. They took heathen names; they kept the feasts of the heathen founder of Rome, and the heathen philosopher Plato; they died with heathen consolations sounding in their ears. They attempted to hold intercourse with the evil powers;—we have the record of a scene in the great Roman amphitheatre, called the Coliseum. The sorcerer is said to have possessed a sacred character; thousands of devils are described as rising at his incantation, who promised, and who kept their promise, to grant a wicked gratification to the celebrated artist [Note 8] who consulted them. A {209} greater sin could not have been committed by an ecclesiastic, but scandals there were worse. If even in the very opening of the Gospel, when faith was keenest and the heart purest, there was a Judas among the Apostles, and a Nicolas among the deacons, and a Simon Magus among the neophytes, we need not wonder, much as we may lament, that in the degenerate age I am speaking of, lapses should occur, far more numerous than those early ones, if not so great in enormity of crime. One of the most zealous restorers of the ancient learning, who has been already spoken of, was an ecclesiastic with a family [Note 9]; one of the chief writers of licentious tales had on him both religious and episcopal obligations [Note 10]. And a writer [Note 11], who is reckoned the vilest of his day, being patronized by one of the great Florentine family at Rome, was audacious enough to set his heart (unsuccessfully) on becoming a Cardinal of Holy Church.

Good and evil, sacred prerogatives and sinful hearts, were brought into close contact, marvellously and awfully. The Sovereign Pontiffs were familiarly dealt with, and then slandered behind their backs by the profligate artists whom they had benefited. Holy men grew up and won their crowns, out of families on which history has set its note of shame. Two saints, contemporaries of St. Philip, will occur to you, my dear Fathers, as instances of this portent:—St. Francis Borgia, the third Father-General of the Society of Jesus, bears a name, shameful in the history of Rome; St. Mary Magdalene of the Pazzi came of a Florentine stock infamous {210} for a deed of combined sacrilege, bloodshed, and treachery perhaps without a parallel.

These are some of the traits of the times in which St. Philip was sent on earth: certainly, an Apostle was needed both for Florence and for Rome.

2. And for Florence, that Apostle seemed to have been found just before St. Philip's day. You may recollect, my Brethren, I have more than once spoken of the great Dominican convent of St. Mark. That convent, built though it was by the first prince of the rich family I have so often mentioned, was devoted to a style of art and a description of learning far different from those for which Greece or Rome was famous. Under the shadow of St. Dominic, such learning alone had place, which ministered to the most symmetrical theology, and to a philosophy in accordance; and the serene wisdom which his name recalls, had been carried out into poetry and the fine arts, by the genius of his children and his clients. That very convent of St. Mark is still adorned by the celebrated paintings executed by the Dominican artist, called, like the Dominican St. Thomas, the Angelical; and about the same time, it had been under the rule of the celebrated Dominican confessor and writer, afterwards archbishop of the city, St. Antoninus. Here, too, came about thirty years afterwards, and shortly before St. Philip's birth, that fiery Reformer, also a Dominican, of whom I am to speak as a sort of Apostle of Florence, a man certainly of commanding eloquence and extraordinary influence, full of the traditions of his order, and cherishing a fierce hatred of the reviving heathen literature {211} and the classical taste of the day; I mention his name, on account of the affection which St. Philip felt for his memory,—Savonarola.

A true son of St. Dominic, in energy, in severity of life, in contempt of merely secular learning, a forerunner of the Dominican St. Pius in boldness, in resoluteness, in zeal for the honour of the House of God, and for the restoration of holy discipline, Savonarola felt "his spirit stirred up within him," like another Paul, when he came to that beautiful home of genius and philosophy; for he found Florence, like another Athens, "wholly given to idolatry." He groaned within him, and was troubled, and refused consolation, when he beheld a Christian court and people priding itself on its material greatness, its intellectual gifts, and its social refinement, while it abandoned itself to luxury, to feast and song and revel, to fine shows and splendid apparel, to an impure poetry, to a depraved and sensual character of art, to heathen speculations, and to forbidden, superstitious practices. His vehement spirit could not be restrained, and got the better of him, and—unlike the Apostle, whose prudence, gentleness, love of his kind, and human accomplishments are nowhere more happily shown than in his speech to the Athenians [Note 12]—he burst forth into a whirlwind of indignation and invective against all that he found in Florence, and condemned the whole established system, and all who took part of it, high and low, prince or prelate, ecclesiastic or layman, with a pitiless rigour,—which for the moment certainly did a great deal more than St. Paul was able to do at the Areopagus; for St. Paul made {212} only one or two converts there, and departed, whereas Savonarola had great immediate success, frightened and abashed the offenders, rallied round him the better disposed, and elicited and developed whatever there was of piety, whether in the multitude or in the upper class.

It was the truth of his cause, the earnestness of his convictions, the singleness of his aims, the impartiality of his censures, the intrepidity of his menaces, which constituted the secret of his success. Yet a less worthy motive lent its aid; men crowded round a pulpit, from which others were attacked as well as themselves. The humbler offender was pleased to be told that crime was a leveller of ranks, and to find that he thus was a gainer in the common demoralization. The laity bore to be denounced, when the clergy were not spared; and the rich and noble suffered a declamation which did not stop short of the sacred Chair of St. Peter.

"In the houses of great prelates and great doctors," he cried out, "nothing is thought of but poetry and rhetoric. Go and see for yourselves; you will find them with books of polite literature in their hands, pernicious writings, with Virgil, Horace, and Cicero, to prepare themselves for the cure of souls withal. Astrologers have the governance of the Church. There is not a prelate, there is not a great doctor, but is intimate with some astrologer, who predicts for him the hour and the moment for riding out, or for whatever else he does. Our preachers have already given up Holy Scripture, and are given to Philosophy, which they preach from the pulpit, and treat as their queen. As to Holy Scripture, they make it the handmaid, because to preach philosophy looks {213} learned, whereas it should simply be an aid in the interpretation of the divine word."

"Our Church," he continued, "has outside many fine ceremonies in divine worship, fine vestments, an uncommon display of drapery, gold and silver candlesticks, so many fine chalices, quite magnificent. Those great prelates with their fine mitres on, of gold and jewels, with crosiers of silver, with their fine chasubles, and copes of brocade, there they are at the altar, singing fine vespers, fine masses, so solemnly, with so many fine ceremonies, so many organs and singers, that your head turns. And they seem to you, those men, to have great gravity and a saintly show; and you think that they cannot do wrong, but that their words and their deeds are Gospel, and claim your observance. That is how the modern Church is made. Men feed on these husks, and make themselves happy in these ceremonies, and say that the Church of Jesus Christ never was in a more flourishing state, and that divine worship never was so well carried out as at present,—as on one occasion a great prelate said, that the Church never was in such honour, and its prelates never in such repute, whereas its first prelates were but small men, because they were humble and poor, because they had not such ample bishoprics, such rich abbeys, as ours of this day, nor had they as yet such gold mitres, such chalices. Do you take me? I mean in the primitive Church, the chalices were of wood, and the prelates of gold; but now the chalices are of gold, and the prelates are wooden."

"O Italy!" he cried out in the tone of a prophet, "O rulers of Italy! O prelates of the Church! the wrath {214} of God is over you, and your conversion alone will avert it. Do penance, while the sword is in the scabbard, and ere it is imbrued in your blood. O Italy! thou shalt be given into the hands of a fierce, a barbarous nation, whose only pleasure will be to do thee ill. And Rome shall fare worse from them than any other city; your possessions and your treasures shall be given into their hands."

Such bold language effected for the moment a revolution rather than a reform. The eloquent preacher became the political partisan; the great family was forced by political circumstances to give way, and for the better part of ten years Savonarola was ruler of Florence. Not only the populace, but courtiers, noble ladies, scholars, artists, all put themselves at his disposal, and became his disciples. He found a way to the hearts of philosophers, poets, painters, engravers, sculptors, architects, and made them renounce their heathen tastes and heathen aspirations. "Behold the sun," he said; "its beauty consists in possessing light; behold the blessed spirits, their beauty is light; and God Himself, because He is the most full of light, is beauty itself. The beauty of every creature is more perfect, the more closely it resembles God's beauty; and the body is beautiful in proportion to the beauty of the soul. Conceive what must have been the beauty of the Blessed Virgin, who possessed such sanctity, sanctity that shone from all her features. Conceive how beautiful was Christ, who was God and man. Now even Aristotle, who was a pagan, bids us not to tolerate indecent pictures, lest children, seeing them, be corrupted; but what shall I say to you, Christian {215} painters, who execute these immodest figures? I tell you to do so no more. You who have them and destroy them, will do a work pleasing to Almighty God and the Holy Virgin. 'You have dedicated My temple and My Churches to your God Moloch,' says the Almighty. See how they act at Florence! mothers take their unmarried daughters to the cathedral, decked out for show, till they look like nymphs. 'These are your idols, which you have placed in My Temple.' The young men say of this or that maiden, 'This is Magdalen,' 'That is St. John,' because you paint figures in the church, which resemble this woman or that. You painters act wrongly; you introduce worldly vanities into the Church. Do you believe that the Blessed Virgin was dressed as you represent her? I tell you that she was modestly dressed, and so veiled that one could scarce see her face; and St. Elizabeth too was modest and simple in her attire." [Note 13]

Wonderful were the conversions which followed on the enunciation of truth so undeniable, so grave in import, so earnestly enforced. As to the artists, many of them became Dominicans, and the convent of St. Mark had to be enlarged to hold them. The members of another convent in the city, feeling their state of relaxation, begged to be allowed to come over to him in a body, and to take the rule of St. Dominic upon them. The population of Florence rose from their beds after midnight in winter to attend upon his sermons. There they stood in the Church, waiting, taper in hand, or singing hymns, or praying, or saying office, for three or four hours, till he began to preach. They showed the fruits of his exhortations {216} in their homes. Women reformed their dress, youths unlearned their light songs, heads of families read the lives of the Saints to their children. At length the zealous preacher determined on having, in token of repentance, a solemn conflagration in the great square, of all the scandals and the various occasions of sin with which the city abounded. At the time of the Carnival, the special festival of the world, the flesh, and the devil, he invited the whole city to this stern act of reparation. He raised a high pyramid, with a quantity of gun-powder at its base. His innumerable penitents formed in long procession, and hither they marched with the instruments and incentives of iniquity in their hands, to be offered up in expiation of their sins. It was a costly sacrifice, ruthlessly performed. Artists brought their beautiful pictures, portraits, and figures in ivory or alabaster, and flung them upon the pyre; others brought richly worked tapestries; others, lutes, flutes, guitars, cards, dice, looking-glasses, perfumery, paint, masks, disguises; others, novels and poems. Lighted torches were then applied, and, amid the ringing of bells and the acclamations of the vast multitude, the whole was reduced to ashes. A foreigner had in vain offered 20,000 crowns to ransom them from the flames. The same impressive ceremony was repeated in the following year.

A very wonderful man, you will allow, my Brethren, was this Savonarola. I shall say nothing more of him, except what was the issue of his reforms. For years, as I have said, he had his own way; at length, his innocence, sincerity, and zeal were the ruin of his humility. He presumed; he exalted himself against a power which {217} none can assail without misfortune. He put himself in opposition to the Holy See, and, as some say, disobeyed its injunctions. Reform is not wrought out by disobedience; this was not the way to be the Apostle either of Florence or of Rome. Then trouble came upon him, a great reaction ensued; his enemies got the upper hand; he went into extravagances himself; the people deserted him; he was put to death, strangled, hung on a gibbet, and then burned in the very square where he had set fire to the costly furniture of vanity and sin. And then the rich and powerful family returned to Florence; and things went on pretty much as before; and, on the very year preceding St. Philip's birth, took place that riotous festivity on St. John Baptist's day, over against the convent of St. Mark, of which I have already spoken.

And now I have added something more to the picture, which I have proposed to give you, of the state of things both in Florence and in Rome, when St. Philip was raised up to be an Apostle of another sort.

(Preached Jan. 15, 1850, in the Oratory, Birmingham, on occasion of its first Anniversary.)

Part 2 of sermon

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Notes

1. February 2, 1848.
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2. Birmingham.
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3. Cosmo dé Medici.
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4. Nicholas V.
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5. Poggio.
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6. Guarino.
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7. Pico of Mirandola.
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8. Cellini.
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9. Poggio.
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10. Bandello.
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11. Pietro Aretino.
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12. Acts xvii.
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13. Vide Father Meehan's translation of Marchetti's work.
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