The Idler: P Is for Peter

Alexander and Nicholas Humez are two brothers who like to roam through the alphabets of different languages. By vocation Alexander is a technical writer at a computer software company, and Nicholas runs a silversmithing workshop. The brothers have written three books devoted to the classical languages, A B C Et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet, Latin for People, and Alpha to Omega: The Life & Times of the Greek Alphabet. In their books on the alphabet they tend to ramble in fine idler style from A to Z with little plot but with many leisurely stops along the way, first peeking behind this tree, then that one. Here I follow along the rambling path of the Humez brothers, but I stop from time to time to take a longer look behind a few of those trees.

One evening while strolling lazily through the book A B C Et Cetera I wandered into the world of the letter P. The chapter starts:

P is for Peter, Paul, pontiff, pope, parable, and a whole host of other church-related words as well. Indeed, were it not for the church, Latin might have disappeared many centuries ago, metamorphosed into the Romance languages of today. As it was, the use of Latin for liturgical purposes gave it the status of a lingua franca for medieval clerics and scholars, in which the Scot could converse with the Spaniard and the German with the Gaul.

Peter, they write, comes from the Greek petros The Greek petra means rock; petrus and petra were borrowed into the Late Latin replacing saxum and lapis. Naturally, the first Peter brought to mind is Saint Peter, whose real name was Simon—his Aramaic nickname was Kepha, meaning rock. And Jesus said to him: “Et ego dico tibi, quia to es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam.” Peter led the early Church for about 15 years. His feast day is June 29.

But there have been other Peters. Saint Peter Chrysologus (ca. 400-450) was Archbishop of Ravenna, Italy. He was a close friend of Pope Saint Leo I the Great and was highly respected by all for his orthodoxy. When the Eastern monk Eutyches appealed to Peter to uphold his teaching that Christ had a merely human, not divine, nature (Eutychianism), Peter told him to obey the Church’s teaching. Saint Peter Chrysologus’s feast day is December 4.

Saint Peter Claver (1581-1654) born in Verdu, Spain, was a Jesuit missionary to South America. Despite strong official opposition in South America, Saint Peter Claver would feed and nurse the slaves and give them religious instruction. He continued this practice for 38 years and baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves. He dedicated his life to helping Negro slaves and earned the title of apostle to the Negroes. In 1896 he was proclaimed by Pope Leo XIII patron of all Roman Catholic missions to Negroes. His feast day is September 9.

Saint Peter Nolasco (ca. 1182-1249) was probably born in Barcelona. He was founder of the order of Our Lady of Ransom (Mercedarians), an organization originally designed to try to ransom Christian captives from the Moors. Saint Peter dedicated his life to aiding the poor. In Spain he ransomed many Christian slaves from the Moorsusing funds from his inheritance and contributions; he even went as far as Africa to redeem Christians there. He was canonized by Pope Urban VIII in 1628; his feast day is January z8.

Saint Peter of Alcantara (ca. 1499-1562) born in Alcantara, Spain, was a Franciscan mystic who founded an austere form of Franciscan life known as the Alcantarines, or Discalced Friars Minor. The convents for his disciples were known for their isolation and discomfort. Peter corresponded with Saint Teresa of Avila and aided her in her reform of the Carmelite nuns. He was canonized in 1669 by Pope Clement IX, and is patron saint of Brazil. His feast day is October 18.

Paul is the next name to which the Humezes refer. Saint Paul’s name, they say, is related to the pau of paucus meaning few and pauper meaning poor. It is common knowledge that Saint Paul was originally called Saul before his conversion from Judaism to Christianity on the road to Damascus. Saint Paul made three missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor and Greece, after which he maintained contact with the churches through his epistles. Around A.D. 57 he was arrested in Jerusalem and imprisoned at Caesarea for two years. He appealed to the Emperor, and was kept in custody in Rome for another two years while awaiting trial. His feast day is June z9.

Another Paul, Saint Paul of Thebes (ca. 230-341), also called Paul the Hermit, was traditionally regarded as the first Christian hermit. The legend goes that when the Christians were being persecuted under the Roman emperor Decius (249-251), Paul fled to the desert around Thebes, where he led a life of prayer and penitence. Legend also has that he died at 113 years of age. It was Saint Jerome (ca. 347-419), monastic leader and one of the most learned of the Latin Fathers, who considered Paul to be the first Christian hermit, but in modern times that honor is generally accorded to Saint Anthony of Egypt (ca. 250-355), first Christian monk who became founder and father of Christian monasticism.

The next Paul, Saint Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) was founder of the order of missionary priests known as Passionists. After he experienced a vision from the Virgin Mary he was inspired to found a congregation devoted to the suffering of Christ on the cross. He did so and his order was approved by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741. Later, he founded the Passionist Nuns at Cornew, Italy, and this order was approved by Clement XIV in 1770. By the time of his death he had established 12 monasteries in Italy, and his institute has subsequently spread throughout the world. He was canonized in 1867 by Pope Pius IX. His feast day is April z8.

After Peter and Paul the next word Alexander and Nicholas examine is pontiff. Pontiff is from the Latin pontifex (maximus) meaning chief priest. The Humezes say that some try to derive pontifex from the root pons, pontis meaning bridge, and the suffix -fex meaning maker. In this way a priest could then be seen as a bridge between the sacred and the profane—the word profane coming from the Latin pro fanum, meaning that which is situated before (i.e., outside) the temple. This concept is interesting because it corresponds with many other cultures which recognize their “priest” or “holy man” as a bridge between the sacred and the profane. Edmund Leach in his book Culture and Communication: The Logic by Which Symbols are Connected discusses the different boundaries which man sets for himself. Leach, a social anthropologist, says that the opposition clean/dirty (sacred/profane) has deep psychological roots. It is important to man to bridge the gap between the two, and one way this is done is through his religion. Leach writes that

The mediating bridge is represented in a material sense by “holy places” which are both in this world, and not in this world—e.g., churches, “the House of God.” Control over the mediating bridge is exercised by “holy men” (priests, hermits, shamans, mediums, inspired prophets) who are able to establish communication with other world powers even while they are still alive in this world.

But I digress. The Humezes go on to say that the idea that pontifex is related to bridge is probably incorrect.

Some pontiffs whose names begin with P are: Saint Paul I (757-767); Paul II (1464-1471); Paul III (1534¬1549) Paul IV (1555-1559); Paul V (1605-1621); Paul VI (1963-1978); and Popes Pius I through XII.

Saint Pius I was pope from about 140-155. During his pontificate he had to fight against Gnosticism. Saint Pius’s feast day is July II. Pope Pius IV was pope from 1559-65. He lived during turbulent times of political and religious warring in Europe. Al¬though pope for only a short time, he managed to effect several important reforms in the Church. He appealed to the Roman Catholic princes of Europe to resume the Council of Trent which had been suspended since 1552,. The Council was thus resumed on January 18, 1562. In Professio Fidei Tridentina Pius IV summarized the doctrine proclaimed in the Council and imposed it on the bishops as obligatory. He encouraged Saint Teresa of Avila’s Carmelite reform, reduced the powers of the Inquisition, revived the Roman university, and patronized Michelangelo. He was not, however, able to achieve his wish to bring the Lutherans back into the Church before he died.

Saint Pius X, pope from 1903 to 1914, influenced the early twentieth-century Church with his strongly conservative religious and political views. He eschewed politics and liberal intellectuals and concentrated on apostolic problems. His reaction against Christian Democrats, and his attitude toward separation of the church and state in France caused bitter controversy. But his promotion of catechetical instruction, preaching, and the education of the clergy were all improvements. He adapted and systematized canon law—the new code was published in 1917—and he was considered one of the forerunners of Catholic Action during his time. He was canonized on May 29, 1954, and his feast day is September 3.

Pope Pius XI, pope from 1922 to 1939, is considered one of the most important modern pontiffs; he strove to construct a new Christendom based on world peace. In 1929, Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with Pope Pius which recognized Vatican City as an independent state over which the pope ruled. The papacy then announced permanent neutrality in military and diplomatic conflicts around the world. A concordat was concluded which established the validity of church marriage, provided compulsory religious instruction for Catholic school children, and declared Roman Catholicism to be Italy’s religion. Pius XI concluded more concordats that strengthened and united Catholicism in other countries. To help in his struggle against totalitarian ideologies, he issued two encyclicals: Divini Redemptoris against communism, and Mit Brennender Sorge against Nazism. He founded the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology and the Pontifical Academy of Science, just two of many research establishments and institutes of higher education which he started.

Other related “P” words discussed by the Humezes are pontificate—to speak with papal self-assuredness. The Church holds that the pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra (literally, “from the bench”). Priest is from the Greek presbyteros, meaning elder. Thus, the first Christian priests were elders of their communities.

Pope—from Pap(p)a, Latin for dad. Pope does not come from the Latin popa. This word actually relates to the pre-Christian office of assistant priest, the Humezes say,

whose job it was at sacrifices to lead the intended victim to the altar and, on the command “Hoc age!” (“Do it!”) to fetch the unfortunate creature a sharp whack on the head with a blunt instrument.

The Humezes take a fork in the road for a moment to narrate on the word nonnus, Latin for uncle; the feminine is nonna, meaning aunt. Nonna eventually became the Old French nonne, and the Middle English nun, meaning “woman who has taken religious vows.”

Patricius—the Latin equivalent of the Irish word Padraig (Patrick). Saint Patrick, who is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland, was actually a Briton, who on his first visit to Ireland was captured and carried away in a raid. He spent his late adolescence in slavery as a herdsman in Ireland before escaping to the Continent. He studied for the priesthood in Gaul, probably under Saint Germanus, and returned to Ireland as a missionary around 432. The Humezes say, “It is doubtful whether there were any serpents in Ireland before his arrival, but there have certainly been none there since, save for those imported from off-island.” Saint Patrick is known to have written two short works, Confessio, a spiritual autobiography, and Epistola, a denunciation of British mistreatment of Irish Christians.

Pagan—from Latin paganus, from pagus meaning boundary fence or pale, which later came to mean countryside, district. Therefore, a paganus was a person under Roman jurisdiction. Paganus, in the meaning of “Roman provincial subject” was contrasted with Christianus, (follower of Christ) and eventually became today’s pagan, i.e., heathen—which originally meant “heath-dweller.” Today, heath means “an area of flat, uncultivated land with low shrubs.”

You never know what you may discover on a leisurely stroll, even when you’re merely rambling through so seemingly modest a topic as the world of the letter P.


  • Gayle Yiotis

    At the time this article was published, Gayle Yiotis was an assistant editor of Crisis.

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