Where Has All the Apocryphal Literature Gone?

Domine, quo vadis?


These famous words of the Apostle and Pope St. Peter appear not in the Gospels or Acts of the Apostles. Rather, they appear in the apocryphal Acts of Peter. As Peter, despondent at the threat of his own martyrdom, leaves Rome he encounters Jesus and utters these now famous words:  “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?) To which Jesus replies, “I go into Rome to be crucified.” Peter realizes that his martyrdom is not alone or in vain, but the culmination of a life lived in conformity to the Cross.


This story, like all of the early apocryphal literature, is certainly not canonical, but it has the capacity to teach the reader and, in turn, the faith community a great deal about the theology, mindset, and life of the Early Church.
The Shepherd of Hermas, for instance, teaches us a great deal about how the early Church, particularly if we hold that the author was a convert from Judaism, the importance of penance in the forgiveness of sins and in the spiritual life for the early Church in addition to its understanding of the necessity of Baptism and the preeminence of the Church among all institutions.


The Protoevangelium of James, moreover, provides us with the first representation of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, as well as extended narratives pertaining to the miracles of Jesus as an infant and the virginity of Mary in partu (i.e. during the birth of Jesus), which, obviously, is a significant contribution from the early Church to our knowledge of and belief in the perpetual virginity of Our Spiritual Mother, Mary.


Apocrypha, however, is not simply restricted to the early Church. In our own Dominican tradition, we have a book with the prosaic title, “Lives of the Brethren,” that tells the stories of the early Dominicans, the miracles they wrought, and the intercessions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angels in building up and maintaining the Friars Preachers. There are stories of St. Dominic’s tunic warding off fire and Blessed Jordan of Saxony drawing 21 brothers into the habit at once.


In modern times, there are stories of the Venerable Fulton Sheen, too many to recount here, but one in particular stands out. A young starlet of the stage came to his door drunk and, after a conversation, the venerable bishop invited her back in the afternoon with promises of not asking her to go to confession. Upon her return, he showed her to the chapel and pushed her into a confessional; keeping his promise of not asking her to go to confession. Within a few months, the woman entered a monastery where she remained until the day she died.


All of the stories ancient, medieval, and modern teach us about our faith and the faith of our forefathers. Yet, looking around, I can’t help but wonder where will our day’s apocrypha come from. Will it be internet memes of Pope Benedict XVI? Will it be Chuck Norris-like sayings of Blessed John Paul II? (e.g. “Demons sit around campfires and tell Pope John Paul II stories.”  “John Paul II did not sleep. He prayed.”)


In any case, we could all stand to be imaginative in our faith; to believe the unbelievable; to seek the Truth in a grand story of a saint; to be a little hyperbolic for the sake of the Kingdom. Maybe in a thousand years, they’ll be telling stories of how Br. Francis’ beard saved a child from a fire or miraculously cured a squirrel that had fallen from a tree.