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Category: Classic
Date Published: 1889
Number of Pages: 392
Print Price: $27.62
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“He knelt down and took the pyx from his bosom. He had eaten nothing that day; but even if otherwise, it was a crisis which allowed him to consume the sacred species without fasting. He hastily opened the golden case, adored the blessed sacrament, and consumed it, purifying its receptacle, and restoring it to its hiding-place. Then he rose at once and left the cottage.”

In third century Rome and its colonies, Catholics had to protect their new faith at all costs – especially the source and summit of that faith – the Eucharist. Yet, the scene described here, in which Cæcilius, Bishop of Carthage, is about to be overtaken by a pagan mob, is the exception in a world otherwise the ruled by apostasy..

In the opening pages of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman's Callista we find this disheartening description of the present situation: “...many would join the Church on inferior motives as soon as no great temporal disadvantage attached to the act; or the families of Christian parents might grow up with so little of moral or religious education as to make it difficult to say why they called themselves members of a divine religion... Everyone was applying himself to the increase of wealth; and, forgetting both the conduct of the faithful under the Apostles, and what ought to be their conduct in every age, with insatiable eagerness for gain devoted himself to the multiplying of possessions.”

The story is set in Sicca, a colonial city of Rome located in Africa, but could just as easily be in the present era, as these words are unfortunately applicable to Christians of today. With this premise Newman creates a timeless novel, with relatable themes such as hypocrisy, romance, and conversion.

During a relaxation in the intense persecution of third century Rome, Agellius finds himself alone among pagan tempters. He seems to be the sole Christian in Sicca and cries in anguish: “Am I forever to belong to a great divine society, yet never see the face of any of its members?” Having no support in the disciplines of the faith, nor access to the sacraments, Agellius begins to fall into lukewarmness and is in serious danger of being swayed from the faith. His brother, Juba, and uncle, Jucundus, actively try to persuade him to give up loyalty to Christ and worship the Roman gods instead.

They especially rely on the wiles of the beautiful Grecian Callista, who has caught Agellius's eyes and heart. Unexpectedly, she brings about his recommitment and reversion to the faith, although her own conversion is more delayed. Callista forces Agellius to examine his true motives and realize the hypocrisy of his heart. After Agellius attempts to woo her and claim that he innocently desires her conversion, she challenges his motives, accusing him: “O Agellius, you have stood in the way of Him, ready to speak for yourself, using Him as a means to an end.” Newman invites readers to search their own hearts through Agellius's journey of faith.

Immediately following this Agellius experiences a powerful and intense conversion of heart, which is accompanied by violent physical illness. The characters in this novel often experience physical symptoms coinciding with spiritual ones. Newman may have used this device to show the connection between body and soul.

Bishop Cæcilius comes to Agellius through divine providence and nurses him back to health both spiritually and physically. Following this, the priest becomes important in the lives of all involved in this intricate and epic tale.

On the heels of Agellius's reversion to the faith comes the edict of Decius – ending the reprieve in persecution and bringing it back with a vengeance. Persecution brings out the true desires and motives of the characters, such as Aristo, who abandons his sister Callista in her time of need. Callista's long anticipated conversion comes to fruition when she is imprisoned for refusing to worship Roman gods. Although some try to persuade her using philosophical arguments, it seems she is ultimately convinced by a deep instinct for the truth: “I feel that God within my heart. I feel myself in His presence.” Eventually, reading the Gospel of St. Luke and having met truly devoted Christians turns her heart to the good for good.

An underlying theme is the unworthiness of the human heart and the divine love which overcomes it. The characters must face the fickleness of their hearts and accept forgiveness to experience true conversion. Supporting this theme is the importance given to the sacrament of reconciliation. Cæcilius is used to convey deep spiritual Truths which make this more than a fictional novel. It is a veritable devotional and vehicle for the reader to be touched deeply by the love of God.

In response to Callista's insistence that she is unworthy, Cæcilius replies, “Every man is in that state which you confess of yourself. We have no love for Him who alone lasts. We love those things which do not last, but come to an end. Things being thus, He whom we ought to love has determined to win us back to Him. With this object He has come into His own world, in the form of one of us men. And in that human form He opens His arms and woos us to return to Him, our Maker. This Callista is our Worship, this is our Love, Callista.”

All the devout Christian characters show a complete willingness to die the death of a martyr. Cæcilius even goes so far as to say it is “easy for us to die for our faith.”

The author also comments on the historical accuracy of his novel.  “The following Tale is a simple fiction from beginning to end,” Newman writes. “It has little in it of actual history, and not much claim to antiquarian research; yet it has required more reading than may appear at first sight.”

The characters engage in many Catholic devotions which may or may not have actually been in practice at the time.  Devotion to The Blessed Virgin Mary is prominent, there is a reference to the Catechism, the sacrament of reconciliation and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are practiced in their modern forms.

If taken as a powerful piece of fiction, Newman's work can be spiritually edifying. Like all great authors, Newman draws you into his elaborate descriptions of the rich North African countryside and of the deep movings of the heart drawing near to God, until you find yourself exclaiming with Agellius: “I serve a Master whose love is stronger than created love. God help my inconsistency!”

ISBN-13: 978-0548790212
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.9 inches

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Victoria Clarizio is currently a full time nanny and part time blogger.  Her mother insists that she came out of the womb reading and has always been a lover of literature and Truth.  She writes about discernment, particularly of the vocation to religious life, and comments on morality on her blog, .

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