August 18, 2020

For many of us, the best part of waking up is that first cup of coffee. Of course, after thanking God that we did wake up to another day. Leaving aside arguments on the benefits of coffee or the dangers of drinking too much of it, brewed coffee has an intriguing history and one in which the papacy played a decisive role.

There are multiple legends about the discovery of the coffee bean and how it later became a popular brewed beverage. One story tells how a shepherd named Kaldi in Ethiopia noticed how his sheep became hyperactive after eating the red berries from a certain plant in their pasture. He tried a few of the berries himself and soon was as overly active as his flock. The legend continues that a monk who was passing by rebuked Kaldi for “partaking of the devil’s fruit.” However, in short order the monks discovered that these berries could help them stay awake during their long hours of praying.

It seems that the Turks were probably the first to brew the roasted bean and adopt coffee as a drink. Quickly its consumption spread throughout the Islamic world. Techniques for roasting the bean and brewing the drink were highly guarded and transportation of the plant outside of Muslim countries was forbidden. The actual spread of coffee beyond Muslim society happened illegally. Eventually coffee did make its way into Christian Europe. Soon a heated debate began to percolate. There were those in the Church who felt that because of the origins and history of the beverage, Christians should never drink coffee. To determine whether these were valid grounds, an appeal was made to the reigning pope – Clement VIII – to forbid Catholics from consuming “the devil’s drink.” Before pulling the plug on coffee, however, Clement decided to give it a try. After a few sips, rather than condemning it, he declared that coffee was “fit for Christian lips” and well, as they say, the rest is history.

To be sure, approving coffee was not an exercise of the papal power of the keys to bind and to loose. That is reserved to the more important matters of faith and morals. But there is more here than an appeal to a broader papal authority to ban or to approve a beverage. Clement, who was pope from 1592 to 1605, demonstrated a truly catholic taste. It would have been easy for him to jump on the ideological bandwagon of exclusivity and condemnation. Instead he decided to judge not on the fact that it came from a non-Christian world and culture but rather on coffee’s own merits. The word “catholic” finds its roots in the Greek phrase “KATA HOLEIN” meaning “according to the whole.” Clement’s decision came from a truly universal outlook which allowed him to determine that this beverage of foreigners should not be foreign to the flock of Christ. There’s something worthy of our prayerful consideration in light of our times and our societal challenges.

So the next time you are enjoying your morning cup of coffee, why not raise it in a toast to Pope Clement VIII whose Catholic vision moved him to give his approval for coffee to pass through our Christian lips.

In Christ,
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer