Monthly Archives: June 2016

The First Martyrs of Rome

June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians  martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early  church of Rome.

It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.

Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.

Nero, at his seaside villa in Anzio when the blaze began, delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people began believing that he  set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.

To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.

“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”

We don’t know their names,  how long the process went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in the Rome then; some followed Jesus, even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city. Before the great fire these Christians had broken with the Jewish community.

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some of them and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)

The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)

Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)

You can imagine how those Roman Christians reacted as victims of this absurd, unjust tragedy. Did they ask where God was, why this happened, why didn’t God stop it?  Fellow believers  turned them in.

The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions.  Jesus, innocent and good, experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives  no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.

The Gospel of Mark also presents an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion. It offers no excusing words for the failure of a church’s leader. Was it calling the Roman church experiencing betrayals to forgive as God forgave his fallen apostle?

Finally, the Christians of Rome would surely ask: should they stay in this city, this Babylon, a city where they found so much evil? Should they go to a safer, better place?

In spite of it all, they stayed in the city to work for its good.

May God strengthen us through the prayers of the martyrs of Rome to understand the evil we face in the light of the Passion of Jesus. Grant through them too, the patience to do God’s will where we are.

There’s a  video about the persecution at the beginning of this blog.

Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”

Here are Stations of the Cross in  the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero. Were some of the early Roman martyrs put to death here?

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The Feast of Peter and Paul

The church of Rome considers Peter and Paul her founders. By God’s will they came to the city and preached and died  there during the persecution by Nero in the early 60s. Their burial places, marked by great churches, St. Peter at the Vatican and St. Paul Outside the Walls, are among the treasures of the city.

They could not be more unlike: Paul, the educated Pharisee from Tarsus, who came late to Christianity and like a runner raced from place to place in the Roman world to plant the faith. In the end, he believed God would give him “a crown of righteousness”  for his mighty efforts.

Peter,  the fisherman from Galilee, was named by Jesus  the Rock on whom he would build his church. He denied Jesus three times and then was called by Jesus  three times  to shepherd the flock. Warily, he went to Caesarea to baptize a Roman soldier, Cornelius. Then, he went to the gentile cities of Antioch and Rome to tell the story of the One he had seen with his own eyes.

We ask for Paul’s zealous faith to bring the gospel to the world before us, and Peter’s deep love for Jesus Christ which he voiced at the Sea of Galilee and at his preaching and death.

St. Augustine commented on this feast and on the threefold call Jesus made to Peter. Jesus called three times to conquer the apostle’s “self-assurance.”

“Quite rightly, too, did the Lord after his resurrection entrust his sheep to Peter to be fed. Not that he alone  was fit to feed the Lord’s sheep, but when Christ speaks to one, he calls us to be one. And he first speaks to Peter, because Peter is the first among the apostles.

“Do not be sad, Peter. Answer once, answer again, answer a third time. Let confession conquer three times with love, because your self-assurance was conquered three times by fear. What you had bound three times must be loosed three times. Loose through love what you had bound through fear. And for all that, the Lord once, and again, and a third time, entrusted his sheep to Peter.”

“Today we celebrate the  the passion of two apostles. These two  were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labors, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching.”

“May your church in all things

follow the teaching of those

through whom she has received

the beginning of right religion.”

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Saint Irenaeus

Tagbha carol roth
Many years ago I took a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism, an early heresy that threatened Christianity in the 2nd century eventually waned as a movement and most of its writings were destroyed. Until a large cache of gnostic writings buried in the sands of Egypt was discovered about the time when I was studying under Fr. Orbe, most of what was known about the gnostics came from the writings of St. Irenaeus, an opponent of gnosticism we honor today in our liturgy,

Fr. Orbe was just back from Egypt and busy deciphering the new trove of gnostic writings. I remember an observation he made about St.Irenaeus. He said that, as he compared the writings, he was struck by how accurately and fairly Irenaeus reported what the gnostics taught, not distorting anything they said or omitting their ideas. He was very fair and respectful. From what we know of Irenaeus, that’s what he was, fair minded and respectful to friend and foe alike. He was a peace-maker.

Not a bad example for today when hot words and smear attacks, distortions and lies dominate so much communication. Irenaeus was a peace-maker. Peace makers don’t destroy, they heal and unite. That’s why they’re called blessed.

Irenaeus also had a deep respect for creation. Some scholars today say the ancient gnostics were broadminded, creative people–rather like themselves–  more progressive than the plodding, conservative people of the “great church”– a term Irenaeus used to call it.

In fact, the gnostics made the world smaller than it is, because they made much of the world evil, only some of it meant anything at all. Forget about the rest of it.

All creation is God’s, Irenaeus replied. “With God, there is nothing without purpose, nothing without its meaning or reason.” All creation is charged with the glory of God.

Irenaeus pointed to the Eucharist as a sign of this. Bread and wine represent all creation. God comes to us through these earthly signs. We go to God through them.

“God keeps calling us to what is primary by what is secondary, that is, through things of time to things of eternity, through things of the flesh to things of the spirit, through earthly things to heavenly things.”

Moses struck the rock and water comes out. People drank and were refreshed, but something more happened–they knew through the water, though dimly, the generous God who slaked their thirst.

We should not demean creation, Ireneaus taught. That’s also the message of Pope Francis in “Laudato si.”

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The Quality of Mercy

We’re reading from the Prophet Amos all this week at Mass. His message is “one of unrelieved gloom,” one commentator says, as he speaks  to the prosperous world of his day, especially 8th century Israel, the northern kingdom.

God doesn’t like anything about it: “I hate, I spurn your feasts…I take no pleasure in your solemnities…Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.”

God can’t stand the songs they’re singing, the music they’re playing, their beautiful liturgies, because they show no justice towards the poor. So destruction awaits them.

But wait! This Saturday we’ll hear God turning in mercy to his people in one of Amos’ most beautiful passages:

“On that day I will raise up
the fallen hut of David;
I will wall up its breaches,
raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old…
Yes, days are coming,
says the LORD,
When the plowman shall overtake the reaper,
and the vintager, him who sows the seed;
The juice of grapes shall drip down the mountains,
and all the hills shall run with it.
I will bring about the restoration of my people Israel;
they shall rebuild and inhabit their ruined cities,
Plant vineyards and drink the wine,
set out gardens and eat the fruits.
I will plant them upon their own ground;
never again shall they be plucked
From the land I have given them,
say I, the LORD, your God.”  (Amos 9,11-15)

There’s a definition of mercy in the prophet’s words. In mercy God comes down to humanity at its worst, in its sham, its blindness, its evil, and raises it up again. Mercy does not depend on merit. It’s God loving us in spite of ourselves.

We see mercy best as it’s exemplified in the Passion of Jesus. In spite of hypocrisy and injustice, God offers his love to heedless humanity and the promise of a kingdom.

Have mercy on us, O Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

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13th Sunday C: On the Journey

To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:

We’re reading the Gospel of Luke the Sundays of this year. At the beginning of his gospel, St.Luke promises to put down in an orderly way the events that have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As we listen to his account he wants us to realize that what we hear Jesus say to his disciples and to others he says to us. When we hear what happens to Jesus we are also hearing what happens to us.

In the 9th chapter of his gospel, part of which we read this Sunday, Luke describes a crucial turning point in the life of Jesus. After teaching and healing and performing wonders for a time in Galilee, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Then, he asks them, “Who do you say I am?” Of course, Luke wants us to face that same question too. “Who do we say Jesus is?”

Jesus then announces he must go up to Jerusalem. Listen to the way Luke describes his decision “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him.” This is a journey when the days for Jesus being taken up were fulfilled. In other words, this is a journey when Jesus will pass from this world to his Father. He is journeying to Jerusalem to suffer and die and rise again. He will be “taken up.”

And he doesn’t make this journey alone. At this point in the gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him, Luke says, but the evangelist wants us know that he’s calling everybody to follow him, not just a designated few. Greater than Elijah, Jesus gives his mantle to many followers who’ll share his journey and they’re taken up with him to share his reward, and he sends messengers ahead of him to gather as many as they can.

There’s a simple criteria Jesus gives for following him. “Take up your cross daily and follow me,” he says in Luke’s gospel. It’s an everyday cross he wants us to take up, not the cross of wood that he himself bore; it’s not nails in our hands and feet or scourges on our back that we’re asked to bear. It’s the everyday cross that we carry all the time, wherever we are. It’s the cross we carry on our journey of life, all our life. Sometimes it comes from ourselves, from sickness, or old age, or disappointments, or worry, or the constant pressures of living everyday. Sometimes it comes from the world we live in with its violence and uncertainties. It’s always there and Jesus tells us to carry it.

In today’s gospel the Lord says something more about following him; some of what he says we may find hard to understand. For example, what does he say to the man who wants to bury his father before following him? “Let the dead bury their dead.” What does he say to the one who wants to say goodbye to his family first? “ “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what’s left behind is fit for the kingdom of heaven.” Sounds hard and unreasonable, doesn’t it?

Hard and unreasonable, until we see how important it is to follow Jesus. If life is a journey, and it is, where are we going? Do we think this is all there is? If life is a journey, do we make it alone? If life is a journey, does it stop at death? If it doesn’t stop at death, who will take us beyond it? If life is a journey from this world to another world, who will be with us all days to bring us to that world?

We can see how important it is to follow Jesus Christ?

Some, of course, think he makes no difference. They can go it alone. Some think Christ is just a “back-up,” when you need him he’ll be there. Some think he brings power and success for living here and now. But look at what he says in today’s gospel: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus doesn’t assure us of a nice house or a good living. In today’s gospel, too, his disciples want to set fire on the Samaritans who refuse them hospitality, but Jesus turns his back on them.

For the next four months our Sunday gospels are mostly from the journey narrative of Luke. We will be hearing what Jesus says to those he meets on the journey. Let’s listen as if he’s speaking to us. On the way to Jerusalem Jesus calls followers. None of them are perfect, by any means. In Luke’s narrative it’s the lost sheep, the prodigal children, the forgotten poor, a blind man on the road, a crooked tax collector who follow him. He calls us too. Let’s listen to him.

We’ll hear warnings in the weeks ahead which we should take to heart. “You are a fool,” God says to the man who thinks only about building bigger barns. Let’s listen to him. We’ll hear about stopping and helping others, as the Good Samaritan did. Let’s listen to him.

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Birth of John the Baptist

birth john
Jesus himself praised John the Baptist for his holiness; one reason the church celebrates John’s birth and death in its liturgy. Luke’s gospel recalls John’s birth in detail, ending with the words:“The hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”

Like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah are recognized in Luke’s gospel for their role in the birth and raising of the child. However lonely and independent John appears in the gospels, he was influenced by them and the extended family he belonged to. They all left their mark on him. “The hand of the Lord was with him,” but human hands were on him  as well.

He had faith like his mother Elizabeth who recognized the Spirit’s presence in her pregnant cousin Mary visiting her from Nazareth. John would point out the Lamb of God among all those who came to the Jordan River for baptism.

He had faith like his father Zechariah who devoutly celebrated the mysteries of God in the temple of Jerusalem as a priest. At the Jordan River,John called pilgrims on their way to the Holy City to prepare the way of the Lord in their own hearts.

Undoubtedly, John was a unique figure, a messenger from God, a voice in the desert preparing the Lord’s way. But there were  faithful people behind him, as they are behind us.

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Friday Thoughts: You Dirty Rat

The Boyarina Morozova, Vasilij Surikov, 1887, detail 2

Vasilij Surikov, “The Boyarynya Morozova”, 1887 (detail)

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I am starving to death by not preaching. I search the garbage bins and pick out of dumpsters, ever eying with hungry eyes trash thrown by the wayside.

I am so wonderfully fed by Christ!

Yet I thirst a thirst of love. I long for more painful encounters that heal me so. I am a lover of the beach who roams the Sahara. Below the height of the mounting sun, among the singing dunes, I bellow with them the universal hum.

The sand is all about me. An oasis resides within my heart. I am surrounded by mirages of men whom long ago have forgotten to start.

I starve to preach. To sing of our Lord. I starve to fly high with no might of my own. Tapping toes and rocking forth, slightly bending knees, ready to spring forth from well to well.

I love our God. I love Him so. I love Him and Him alone. He tells me to love others as myself. I love Him despite myself. I love Him in others, and others because of Him. I love for I have been brought low. I love for I have learned to soar high. He is my all. My everything. Of Him, and Him alone, do I sing.

I sing of socks, and of sneakers, of old clothes and new sandals, and of wedding rings. I sing of mice, and of men, I sing of the difference that resides only in the length of whiskers. I sing of dogs and of cats, and o yes, of rats—o those ugly creatures that challenge me so.

I ask myself, are they not created by God as well?

Isn’t that dirty filthy stinkin’ rat also beautiful and also real?

Does not God shine the sun and shower the rain on disturbing rats as well?

O, if I could only love rates, then I would truly sing! Mend this heart, this rock of mine, hardened by selfish sight and by wanting what isn’t mine. Yes, boil me down, so I may drown in what the residue of life leaves to those who truly suffer.

I sing to you, O Glorious Rat. Creature of God!

I sing to you that you too shall sing with me. I see that I no longer need to sing alone. Come, accept my embrace. I forgive you. Now perhaps I too may be forgiven.

I see and smell and hear the truth. You the rat, object of everyone’s scorn. You too were once so young, before you crawled into the bin, before you journeyed down the darkened tunnel—you too—little infant rat—were brought forth from the mother’s womb.

Come young, come old! Come from your abandoned buildings, and vacant storage yards, from old ball fields well over grown. Come one, come all!

The pious pied piper now plays a gospel tune. The garbage begins to gather, the desolation takes on an evening glow. The sand all about me recedes from the stormy cloud. It slowly begins to lay low.

The desert creeps up upon a vast body of water.

I pass between walls of a held back sea, my feet tread cross a red clay bottom.

You too, brother rat, are a gift from our mighty God above. You too were loved into existence by the Lord of all.

God of all who share residence upon the earth.

God of all who sigh and sing.

God of all who snort and smile.

God of all who bellow and breathe, both fresh and soiled city air alike.

Come, then, last call, leave your dens, leave your hobbies, leave you daily work behind. Leave you rats, friends of mine, leave the muck and sewers of this world, climb the hills, and charge the mountain, dip yourselves in Carmel air, for even you reflect the glory of Zion from a peak so high.

Come and join the birds who listened so intently, who still this day patiently hear lonely troubadours sing. Yes, join us, for there is always plenty of room, room for even you, object of everyone’s scorn.

Enough for even you, you dirty rat.

A sight for sore eyes to this poor lonely thirsty preacher.

For through you I give our magnificent God mighty humble joy-felt praise.

———

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—Howard Hain

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