Arise Sir John

Arise Sir John

Readers of the splendid British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, will be delighted to hear that its editor, John Wilkins, was recently made a papal knight. The Tablet is notable for distinguishing between fact and advertorial, and for allowing its writers and correspondents to say what they believe, provided they write clearly and charitably. More precisely, John was made a knight of the Equestian Order of Pope Saint Sylvester I. Since, like any magazine that believes that the truth will set us free, The Tablet has often been accused of disloyalty, the citation that praised the editor for showing loyalty in difficult times is particularly pleasing.

Reward irony

Examined carefully, all awards are exercises in irony. Papal knighthoods are no exception. Pope Sylvester I, for example, never felt any need of horsemen.

He was famous for not going anywhere. Although he was Bishop of Rome when Constantine embraced Christianity, he declined to take part in notable Councils at Arles and at Nicaea. He said he was too old. But Roman stories later placed him at the head of the Councils he had missed, and had Constantine put him over all the other patriarchs, as well as over bishops and secular rulers in the West. This useful legend was punctured by the fearless investigative reporting of the Renaissance scholar Aeneas Sylveas Piccolomini, later himself to become pope. He changed his name to Pius, after Virgil’s hero, Pius Aeneas. He also changed his opinions, and in one of his Bulls urged his readers to ‘Reject Aeneas, listen to Pius’.

The knights of the Equestrian Order of Saint Sylvester I, as every Catholic schoolboy knows, were first put on their saddles by the 19th century Pope Gregory XVI. Gregory ruled the Papal States with severity, and used to call in the Austrian army to sort out dissent there. Papal knighthoods presumably helped secure loyalty and finance for his campaigns. But Gregory may also have had a sentimental attachment to the old order of things, represented by horses, riders and knights. He hated those new fangled railway lines and banned them from the Papal States. In a nice pun, he referred to them, not as chemins de fer, but as chemins d’enfer—Hell’s roadways.

So long, farewell

Voyager 1 is our real-life Starship Enterprise. As it has now passed 90 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, or 13.5 billion kilometres, it earns its place as the ‘most distant human-made object in the universe’. Having successfully completed its mission of buzzing Jupiter and Saturn, beaming back images of far-flung planets and data on magnetic fields, ultraviolet light, cosmic rays and plasma waves, Voyager 1 is now headed for some long-distance R and R.

Voyager 1 has sufficient power and fuel to last until 2020, and looks set to escape our solar system. NASA predicts that in about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light years (14.95 trillion kilometres) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis, lending new meaning to the phrase ‘saw the light on and thought I’d drop in’. NASA also advises that Voyager 2 will pass 4.3 light years (40 trillion kilometres) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, in around 296,000 years’ time.

Voyager 1 is also carrying images and recordings of life on Earth should it encounter alien life in its travels. After all, one wouldn’t want to arrive at the neighbours empty-handed.

Rocket fuel

It may have escaped some that 2003 is the 125th anniversary of the Essay Prize offered by the South Australian Band of Hope and the Total Temperance League. According to Charles Gent in his genial new book, Mixed Dozen: The story of Australian winemaking since 1788 (Duffy & Snellgrove), the prize was won by Rev. Henry Burgess for his essay, ‘The Fruit of the Vine’. Burgess argued that wine rotted all the bodily organs, filled the prisons and caused insanity. He believed that Australian wine was particularly noxious. Gent remarks in exculpation, however, that Burgess did not repeat the assertion of some advocates of abstinence, that those who drank alcohol were liable spontaneously to combust.



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