For this week’s homily, please watch the video below.
For this week’s homily, please watch the video below.
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.
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 was at his seaside villa in Anzio and delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence, people wondered if 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 it went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly 60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in Rome then; some were followers of Jesus and had broken away from the Jewish community even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city.(cf. The Letter to the Romans)
Following usual procedure, the Roman authorities seized some 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)
How did the Roman Christians react to this absurd, unjust tragedy? They had to ask why God permitted this and did not stop it. Fellow believers were among those who turned them in.
The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions, scholars say. 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 gives an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion with no excuse for his failure. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.
Finally, the Roman Christians afterwards would surely wonder whether to stay in this city, an evil city like Babylon Should they go to a safer, better place? The Christians remained in the city. Was the “Quo Vadis?” story a story prompted by questions like these ?
The martyrs of Rome strengthen us to stand where we are and do God’s will, inspired by the Passion of Christ.
A video about the persecution is at the beginning of today’s 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 early Roman martyrs put to death here?
The church of Rome considers Peter and Paul, who came to the city and preached and died there during the persecution by Nero in the early 60s, her founders. Their burial places are marked by great churches, St. Peter at the Vatican and St. Paul Outside the Walls.
They could not be more unlike: Paul, the educated Pharisee from Tarsus was a latecomer to Christianity but 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 efforts.
Peter, the fisherman from Galilee, was named by Jesus the Rock on whom he would build his church. Denying Jesus three times, he was called by Jesus three times to shepherd the flock. Warily, he went to baptize a Roman soldier, Cornelius, in Caesaria; then he went to the gentile cities of Antioch and Rome to tell of the One he had seen with his own eyes.
The church today prays for Paul’s zealous faith to bring the gospel to the world and for Peter’s deep love for Jesus Christ which he proved by his preaching and death.
Commenting on Jesus’ threefold call to Peter. St. Augustine says it conquered 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.”
“We are all called to be holy. ‘Each in his or her own way,’” Pope Francis says in his exhortation “ Gaudete et exultate”. We’re all different; saints are different too.
Today, the church remembers St. Irenaeus, yesterday was the memorial of St. Cyril of Alexandria. You can’t find two people, two saints, so different. Cyril was a the forceful, confrontative bishop of Alexandria; Irenaeus, as his name suggests, was a fair man who worked tirelessly for peace.
Many years ago I took a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism was an early heresy that threatened Christianity in the 2nd century and afterwards most of its writings were destroyed. In the last century a large cache of those writings buried in the sands of Egypt was discovered and Father Orbe was just back after studying them. Until then, the Gnostic teachings were known mostly through the writings of St. Irenaeus, whom we honor today in our liturgy,
I remember an observation Fr. Orbe made about St.Irenaeus. He said that, as he compared the writings, he was struck 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. Cyril of Alexandria had a different kind of personality. He would have left those writings buried in the sands of Egypt.
Irenaeus is 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.”
Pope Francis, speaking in his recent Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et exultate” of “the saints next door” – the ordinary holy people of our world– says “Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” (3) They persevere.
The pope in that same exhortation says that canonized saints have their faults and failings too.“Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (22)
Later in his letter, Francis speaks about the dangers of modern day Pelagianism and cautions that when some say “ all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. (49)
Being holy, being a saint, doesn’t mean you’re perfect, the pope says. That’s good to remember when we consider St.Cyril of Alexandria, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the church, whose feast is today, June 26th.
If you read his online biography in Wikipedia–where many today look for information about saints – you’ll find that he was deeply involved in the messy partisan politics of his time, when Christians, Jews and Pagans fought and schemed to control the city that was then probably the most important city in the Roman empire. He was a “proud Pharaoh;” “ a monster” out to destroy the church, some said, an impulsive bishop in a riotous city. That’s the way the Wikipedia biography mainly sees him.
He was a saint, others said. Why a saint? Well, Cyril was absorbed in understanding and defending the Incarnation of the Word of God. Did the Word of God come among us? How did he come? Who was Jesus Christ? Pursuing that mystery defined Cyril during life.
He thought and wrote extensively about this mystery; it absorbed him. The way he came to express it was used at the Council of Ephesus (431) and became the way we also express it in our prayers. Mary was the Mother of God. The One born of her was not simple another human being. Her Son was true God, who would be truly human and eventually die on the Cross. God “so loved the world” that he came among us as Mary’s Son.
What we see as “the totality” of Cyril’s life, his “life’s jouney”, the “overall meaning of his person”, to use the pope’s words, is not his involvment in the violent politics of city and society of his day, but his quest to know Jesus Christ.
25 Mon Weekday (Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time)
2 Kgs 17:5-8, 13-15a, 18/Mt 7:1-5 (371) Pss IV
26 Tue Weekday
2 Kgs 19:9b-11, 14-21, 31-35a, 36/Mt 7:6, 12-14 (372)
27 Wed Weekday
[Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church]
2 Kgs 22:8-13; 23:1-3/Mt 7:15-20 (373)
28 Thu Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr
2 Kgs 24:8-17/Mt 7:21-29 (374)
29 Fri SAINTS PETER AND PAUL, APOSTLES
Vigil: Acts 3:1-10/Gal 1:11-20/Jn 21:15-19 (590)
Day: Acts 12:1-11/2 Tm 4:6-8, 17-18/Mt 16:13-19 (591) Pss Prop
30 Sat Weekday
[The First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church;
Lam 2:2, 10-14, 18-19/Mt 8:5-17 (376)
1st and 2nd Kings are Old Testament books that relate the history of the Jewish people after the time of Judges when Israel was ruled by kings, but they are not historical accounts as history is written today. Prophets like Elijah and Isaiah have an important part of play in these accounts. However grim and violent the accounts may see, the destiny of Israel is in God’s hands,. We might see them too much like the violent stories of today and turn away from them, but they’re reminders that our destiny is in God’s hands, no matter how bad our times are.
The saints we remember this week, Peter and Paul, Irenaeus, Cyril of Alexandria, take us back to the first centuries of the church. God provides leaders for every age, from the first centuries till now. The graces of the prophets are never lacking from age to age.