Fairy tales for the Yuletide season!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Saint Severus and The Three Languages


Any Liberal Arts major can identify with the fairy tale The Three Languages (full text below). At first glance, the story seems to be a simple and slightly humorous account of generational conflict with happy resolution. The theme of a parent’s objection to a child’s career choice is a common one, but rarely does a parent threaten murder. The oddity of this story is perhaps that the newly married protagonist takes an unexpected trip to Rome with young wife in tow. Strange, we might think, for a young man who speaks fluent barking, croaking and chirping to become pope. After all, he is married. It might be a surprise to learn that this fairy tale is probably based on a true life history, that of Saint Severus. *

According to legend, a new bishop was to be elected in Ravenna at Pentecost in the year 342 A.D. There was some uncertainty about who should be elected. When the wool weaver Severus appeared on the scene, a dove circled overhead three times and landed on his shoulder. The church community interpreted this as a sign from God and elected him bishop. Severus was buried near the harbor of Ravenna, which today no longer exists. In the year 836 the German Archbishop had his remains transferred from Ravenna to Mainz and ultimately they were moved to Erfurt. The stone sarcophagus of Saint Severus can still be seen in the Erfurt Church and it includes both wife and daughter of the saint (Vincentia and Innocentia). The story of Saint Severus’ divine selection would have been circulated at the time his relics were moved and used to promote Christianity among the pagan population.

The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit and according to Christian tradition has inspired church elders to expound the doctrines of Christian faith. In addition to Saint Serverus, Pope Gregory, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine are commonly associated with the dove. They are often depicted with a dove sitting on their shoulders or hovering overhead. The dove flies down from heaven, announcing God's will and provides concrete instructions to humans, which it whispers in their ears.


* (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, an account of his life history that was circulated at the time and is impossible to verify. In other words, a legend.)

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