A libellus was a ticket that bought you life. All you needed to get it was to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. For the early Christian, it could mean engaging in meaningless pagan ritualism that allowed you to live. Or it could mean the ultimate act of apostasy — public rejection of Christ.
The 1,800-year-old libellus is pictured in Mike Aquilina’s “A History of the Church in 100 Objects” (Ave Maria Press, $24.95). With daughter Grace Aquilina’s assistance, Mike has put together a mini-history of the Church as told in 100 objects from history — everything from Michelangelo’s majestic Pietà to a prosaic parking pass from the Second Vatican Council.
The Aquilinas have selected common and uncommon material things through which, as they explain, “God makes himself known and accessible.”
Take the libellus. It belonged to one Aurelius Sarapammon of Alexandria and was proof that he had “sacrificed, poured the libations and tasted the offerings” as the emperor ordered in A.D. 250. Aimed at the growing number of Christians throughout the Roman Empire, the edict required a public act of pagan ritual witnessed by government officials. Do it and the Christians got their certificate; refuse and they could be imprisoned. Or martyred.
The Aquilinas use the libellus to present a brief but compelling overview of the Age of Martyrs from the post-apostolic Church to the ascension of Emperor Constantine in A.D. 312 and the legalization of Christianity that followed. Looking at the photo of the ragged libellus makes the imperial persecution edict seem so mundane, but the era of martyrs so terribly real.
Other objects continue the history. There is a small “leaden mortuary cross” recovered amid bones from a mass grave. It was for victims of the Black Plague that tore through Europe in the 14th century, leaving between one-third and half of the population dead.
Killing without discrimination, the Plague ended medieval Christian culture and the rural feudal economy in which it thrived. While it led to a “preoccupation with mortality, and a keen awareness of the effects of sin,” it also led to a new European artistic expression of faith epitomized in Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Then there are the more recent relics that tell their own histories. In 2016 workers digging a trench at the University of Notre Dame uncovered a trove of carefully and reverently buried holy water bottles. They had been used to bring holy water from Lourdes, France, to the university’s new grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes.
It was in an age of scientism that declared faith irrelevant that 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have been visited by a woman in white at a trash dump in Lourdes who identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception.” Water from a spring on the land appeared to have healing powers, and by the end of the century Lourdes was as popular a site for pilgrims to visit as Rome and the Holy Land.
The beautiful curls of hair from St. Thérèse of Lisieux at her childhood home. The altar in Divine Providence Hospital, San Salvador, where Archbishop Oscar Romero was martyred. Transmitters from EWTN in Birmingham, Alabama. The Aquilinas identify them and place each within our story of faith.
That parking pass from Vatican II is in a private collection of papal artifacts. The council, whose impact is still with us today and will be for years to come, was a new call to holiness, as described by Pope St. John Paul II, and a “stunning synthesis of old and new.”
The 100 objects pictured in this book are their own stunning synthesis of old and new, “your family heirlooms ... something in the faith you share with millions alive today.” This is a book to have fun with and savor.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.