Author Archives: vhoagland

Paul in Sin City

We’re reading Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian for the next few weeks at Sunday Mass. Paul wrote a number of letters to the Christian community he founded after reaching Corinth about the year 50. It was the most exasperating community Paul dealt with, but the Corinthians made him think about faith, so we can thank them for keeping Paul on his toes.

Corinth was a rich, sprawling seaport, being rebuilt as Paul arrived, a frontier city attracting ambitious people from all over the Roman world. They were people who wanted to get ahead. Corinth was a city of “self-made” people; only the tough survived there. It was also a center for prostitution and sexual commerce. We could call it a “sin” city.

Maybe that was a reason why Paul wanted to establish a church there. He was God’s apostle to the Gentiles. Where could be better meet Gentiles than a seaport connected to the whole world. If Christianity could take root there, it could take root anywhere.

When Paul arrived there around the year 50 AD, he did what anybody has to do when they go to a new place– find a place to stay and get a job. He stayed in the house of Prisca and Aquila, a Jewish Christian couple who owned a small shop in Corinth. He worked as a tentmaker in their shop. He met people, and Paul spoke to them of Jesus Christ, and they believed.

Then on the Sabbath in the synagogue he made contacts too, but I think Paul probably did most of his preaching while working. A lot of things can happen when you are working.

To form new believers, Paul asked some of his friends with large houses to hold meetings there. A lot of things happen in homes that don’t happen in church.

Paul generally founded a church and moved on. But when he moved on, troubles often started in many of those communities, so sometimes he wrote letters, and sometimes he had to come back himself to try to straighten things out. There were some grave problems in the church at Corinth. The church was split into factions, based on wealth, status and friendship. It also was confused about sexual morality.

Paul reminded the Corinthians where they came from and who they were. Not many of you were wise or well-born, he told them. God chooses the weak things. God still does.

St. Agnes, January 21

St. Agnes
January 21, 2019

St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes, one of the most popular Roman women martyrs of the 3rd century, is among the seven  women mentioned in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer:  “Felicity, Perpetua,  Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” She’s honored in a special liturgy in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

Her story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but some basic facts about her seem historically reliable. Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him because she believed as a Christian she had the right to remain unmarried. A deeply religious young woman, she wanted to give her life to God.

That wasn’t an option for Roman women then. Women were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed citizen soldiers then to grow and hold on to its empire. Only reluctantly did Rome come to depend on foreigners for its fighting. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. 

When Agnes refused to marry, she went against Roman expectations. She was also a Christian and since she lived in times influenced by Diocletian, a notorious enemy of Christianity, she was a target of religious persecution. They pressured her to give up her beliefs; when she refused they declared her an enemy of the state.

Tradition says the authorities brought her first to the Stadium of Domitian, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of degradation, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her to the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith. 

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Martyrdom of Agnes, Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Commentators like St. Ambrose, writing afterwards about Agnes, marveled at the young girl’s bravery. In Roman households of the best kind, young girls were protected and not expected to speak for themselves. Here was a young girl who stood up to the Roman establishment, even till death. How did she do it ?

“God chooses the weak to confound the strong” the prayer for the Mass of St. Agnes says.  She confounded the way Roman Christians thought about holiness. Men like Peter and Paul and other disciples of Jesus, soldier saints like Sebastian, who witnessed to the faith by dying for it were  the usual measure of holiness then. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, grew later in the 4th century, as disputes took place about the human nature of Jesus. In Agnes’ time women were hardly seen or heard. 

Agnes and women martyrs like her redefined the way early Roman Christians thought about holiness. Women, even young girls, could be heroic witnesses to the Jesus Christ. 

Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city and has been honored there ever since. A majestic ancient church stands over her grave. Another 16th century church honoring her in on the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl endured great suffering.

Some say the 1st Eucharistic Prayer mentioned above goes back to the 6th century pope, St. Gregory the Great, whose family home was on the Celian Hill in Rome, Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women listed in that prayer, all strong women who died for their belief.

One of the new Eucharistic prayers asks us to see “the signs of the times by the light of faith.” What’s the role of women in our times and in our church? 

Wonderful churches to visit, if you go to Rome.

st. agnes church
St. Agnes, Via Nomentana, Rome

Climbing On God's Creation

by Francesca Hain, Grade 4, Catholic Schools Week 2020, Poetry Contest


Rocks. Ropes. Nature.
Trees everywhere.
Figures climbing,
But not many are there.

What could it be?
A forest?
God’s creation?
An adventure ahead?
Maybe so.

What are the figures doing?
Perhaps setting up gear.
Tying knots everywhere.
Ropes swinging down a mountain.

A tent.
A sleeping bag.
On walls of galore.
Maybe the figures are scaling the walls.

As I help set up the ropes,
There’s this strong feeling inside me, saying,
I’m scared! What if I fall?

Will I see God’s creation?
Are there spiders, leaves, or caterpillars?
Perhaps I will see a stream of water flowing from a rock.
On the journey up the wall, will I fall?

As my hand touches the hard rocks,
I say in my mind,
You can do this!

When I slip, I try again.
Although the rock is rough, no matter what,
I try again.

If I do succeed, I scream
Shouts of happiness and fear
At the same time.

When I’m up there,
I thank God that I’m all right.
As I stand up at the top, I see seagulls and many other birds.
What wonderful creations God has made!


Pierre Toussaint

Toussaint

We observe a day in honor of Doctor Martin Luther King. Someone asked Doctor King, ‘What will we do if the whites continue to discriminate and mistreat us?’ ‘We will continue to love them to the point that they can’t do anything else but love in return, ’’ he said.

That sounds like what Jesus would say, who took the “form of a slave” when he came among us “and  became obedient, even to death, death on a cross.”

That was how Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave brought to New York City late in 18th century lived, until his death in 1853. Toussaint was motivated by a profound love of Jesus Christ. When he  died, a New York newspaper recognized him “ a man of the warmest and most active benevolence.” His goodness was legendary.

Toussaint came to New York City with his French owners, the Berard family, shortly before the Haitian revolution in 1789. He lived in the city almost 66 years. A successful hair-dresser, confidant to some of New York’s most prestigious Protestant families, extraordinarily generous and faithful to the poor, a devout parishioner of St. Peter’s church on Barley Street, at Mass each morning at 6 AM. At his death in 1853 he was acclaimed one of New York’s finest citizens.

St. Peter's Church
St. Peter’s Church

His first biographer was Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, a Protestant who wrote about him shortly after his death. It’s a lovely biography, of memories she and others had of him. She admired his character, his good deeds, his genuine love for people, black or white:

“He never felt degraded by being a black man, or even a slave…he was to serve God and his fellow men, and so fulfill the duties of the situation in which he was placed…. He was deeply impressed with the character of Christ; he heard a sermon from Dr. Channing, which he often quoted. “My friends,” said Channing, “Jesus can give you nothing so precious as himself, as his own mind. May this mind be in you.”

Those last words, of course, come from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.*
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.…Philippians 2, 6-9

Toussaint made the mind of Jesus his own. His body now lies in the crypt under the main altar of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and his cause for canonization has begun.

Some question why Toussaint wasn’t more aggressive in the struggle against slavery. He could have easily won his own freedom well before 1807, when Madame Berard  emancipated him before her death. Why didn’t he? Why wasn’t he active in the abolitionist movement against slavery then?

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For one thing, Toussaint feared violence would erupt in the United States, like the violence destroying Haiti then.

But he was influenced most of all by the teachings of the gospel and the example of Jesus Christ who insisted on loving God and your neighbor.  Loving and serving others is his great commandment, more important than the color of your skin, or your status in life or even fighting for a cause.

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Toussaint understood that. Doctor Martin Luther King did too. 

Believing for Others

The healing of the paralytic told in today’s gospel from Mark is a great story. Four friends bring him to the door of Peter’s house in Capernaum but the crowds are so dense that they can’t get in to see Jesus so they climb up on the roof, cut a hole in it and lower him down before Jesus. Was the paralyzed man conscious, or half conscious? We don’t know.

What ingenuity! What nerve! What determination on the part of his friends! Think of the logistics involved in it all. The pictures here show the ruins of Peter’s house now enclosed in a shrine and a picture from the shrine looking down into the house–possibly just where the man was lowered down.

We know Jesus forgave the man’s sins and then healed him completely, so he left the house carrying the mat that once bore him. The gospel wants us to recognize that Jesus the healer is Jesus who forgives sins. Those who heard his words of forgiveness that day were shocked by this action which they rightly judged was divine.

But I’m led back to the four friends who had a part in this miracle. Let’s not forget them. They believe and their belief makes them go to extraordinary lengths to  help another .  We believe for others as well as for ourselves. Faith reaches out; it doesn’t remain within.  Believing prompts us to do daring things.

Back to Peter’s house. Did Peter look up that day and say, “Who’s going to pay for that hole in the roof?” The story of the paralyzed man is a wonderful story.

Anthony of Egypt

temptation anthony copy

January 17th is the memorial of Anthony of Egypt, a saint representing the important early saints and spiritual tradition of Egypt. He influenced St. Athanasius and St. Augustine, as well as modern spiritual authors like Thomas Merton.

Anthony offered himself as a martyr during a 3rd century Roman persecution of Christians in Alexandria, his biographer St. Athanasius says, but they ignored him, and so he turned to the martyrdom of everyday.

There’s a martyrdom every day, and every day we’re tempted, Anthony realized. But don’t fear the trials you face. That was Anthony’s advice to those seeking his counsel. Artists like Martin Schongauer (above) portrayed Anthony surrounded by his temptations, but the saint is not afraid. Know your temptations, he said, and God will lead you from them.

Anthony abu

Anthony’s life helped many, among them St. Augustine, to steer through the temptations they faced. Here’s a simple version of Anthony’s battle with temptation as Athanasius describes them:

“Those who follow Jesus should expect temptation; Anthony experienced a range of them over the hundred years of his life. The devil knocked regularly on the door of his heart, assuming different faces and making different suggestions, but this shy, gentle man was not conquered.

“In the early years Christ called him, he often thought: ‘Have I made a mistake?’ The days were so slow and monotonous, nothing important going on. ‘Am I doing anything with my life?’ he wondered.

“One day, weary of it all, he left his house and opening his arms wide cried to heaven: “Lord, what should I do?” For awhile, nothing but silence. Then, Anthony heard someone moving behind him. Turning, he saw someone like himself, getting up from his bed, saying his prayers, eating his meals, doing his work, welcoming some visitors, and finally saying his prayers and going to sleep. Just as he did everyday.

“God’s angel answered his prayer, Anthony realized. He was beginning to think ordinary life had no meaning. But that’s where treasure is; life is holy ground. Ask God to see it, and don’t give up. Anthony went back to his life again.

“Other temptations beset Anthony. Sometimes he worried about his health. If he got sick, who would care for him? He had chosen to live for God alone. Wouldn’t it be better to have a family to support you? He gave so much to others and kept so little for himself. Wouldn’t it be better to be a rich man? Lustful thoughts sometimes filled his mind.

“Temptations swept over his soul like dust storms, causing confusion and uncertainty. But in the storms, Anthony learned another lesson: Christ is always with you.

“One restless night, Anthony was almost pulled to pieces by violent temptations. Monsters and demons were everywhere, flying through his room shouting and screaming, ready to kill him. He was about to give up hope when a beautiful light shone through the roof of his house and the demons disappeared. In the peaceful light, he saw Christ.

“Lord, where were you when I was being tried?” Anthony said.
“I was right here all the time you struggled,” Jesus replied. “My hand was on you as your helper.”

“After that ordeal, Anthony experienced peace for a while. Then, one day he heard a knock at his door and, opening it, saw a little man grinning from ear to ear, bowing to the ground before him as if he were king.

“You are a saint, Anthony,” he said ingratiatingly. “Everyone says so. People say you’re wiser and better than anyone on earth. So, tell me everything you have to say and everything you know; you’re just perfect.”

“Anthony slammed the door in the little man’s face. “You’re more dangerous than any temptation I’ve had, because you want me to believe I’m God, and I’m not. You are the temptation of pride.”

“Gradually over the years, people discovered this man with so much hard earned wisdom. Soon , from everywhere people were coming for his advice and his prayers and his healing for themselves or someone they loved. Because he knew himself so well, Anthony knew their hearts too.

“One constant message he repeated again and again to those who came to him, ‘Don’t be afraid, live joyfully in God’s grace. Never give up. God delivers us from temptation.’”