“ Our Sister Earth cries out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness.
The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable; otherwise, the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.
It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. Any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.”
Today the church celebrates two early saints and martyrs, Cornelius, a pope who died in 253, and Cyprian, a bishop who was martyred in Roman Africa in 258.
At that time, the Roman emperors Decius and Valerian were demanding absolute loyalty from their people, as barbarian tribes in the west and the Persians in the east began invading Roman territory.
To prove their loyalty, Romans were expected to offer sacrifice in honor of the emperor. The Christians refused, so at first church leaders were executed or imprisoned, wealthy, influential Christians lost their property, their positions and possibly their lives– all Christians could expect punishment for not performing the rites of sacrifice.
The persecution was widespread. Cornelius was bishop of Rome, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage, an important Roman province. In the Roman persecution, many turned away from their faith; after it ended they wanted to return to the church they once knew. Hard liners called for them to be banned for life for their lack of loyalty. Let God judge them when they die, they said. Others, like Cornelius and Cyprian, called for welcoming them again, since God is all merciful.
Mercy and justice are always hard to reconcile. The Sunday gospels we just read seem to come down on the side of mercy. So should we
A number of martyrs have been remembered in our liturgy recently. Last week, August 10th, we remembered Lawrence the Deacon, one of the most important martyrs of the early church. The day before, August 9, we remembered Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, who died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz on that day in 1942.
Today we remember Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, who also died in Auschwitz about a year before her, August 14, 1941.
Peter Brown, an historian of early Christianity, says it wasn’t the bravery of Christian martyrs that impressed the Romans. The Romans were a macho people; war was in their blood. They prided themselves on dying bravely.
What the Romans marveled at was how Christian martyrs approached death. They had other values. They saw themselves as citizens of another world, who followed Jesus Christ in how they lived. They believed in his promise of everlasting life.
Lawrence the deacon, for example, could have escaped Roman persecution, but he wouldn’t abandon the poor in his care. Jesus said take care of the poor.
Centuries later, Maximillian Kolbe was a priest who wouldn’t abandon the vocation God gave him.
Before World War II, Kolbe was active as a Franciscan priest, promoting devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He ran a large, successful Franciscan printing enterprise in Warsaw.
In 1939, after invading Poland, the Nazi arrested him and a number of other Franciscans and imprisoned them for some months. They ransacked their printing place, probably hoping to intimidate them. Then, they left them go.
Instead of being intimidated, Kolbe began to house refugees from the Nazis, some of them Jews. That got him into trouble, so he was arrested again, on February 14th, 1941, and sent to Auschwitz to do hard labor.
Concentration camps like Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe and Sr.Teresa Benedicta died are the nearest thing to Calvary in modern times. More than 1500 of them were spread mostly through German occupied territories in Europe. Twenty million people died in the camps in the Second World War, 6 million were Jews. 1.3 million people went to Auschwitz; 1,1 million died there.
Five months after Kolbe entered Auschwitz, in July 1941, a prisoner from his barracks escaped. In reprisal, the Nazis took 10 men from the barracks to put them to death by starvation. One of them cried out that he had a wife and children who would never see him again. Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take the man’s place.
He was the last of the ten men to die of starvation and an injection of carbolic acid two weeks later, on August 14, 1941.
Many stories of Kolbe’s ministry among the prisoners in Auschwitz were told after his death when Auschwitz was liberated. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1983, who called him “Patron Saint of Our Difficult Age.”
He was a sign of God’s love in a place where God seemed absent.
Maximillian Kolbe’s death on the vigil of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven has been seen as a further sign. God’s hand reached into the dark horror of Calvary to save his Son. God reached out to Mary to bring her, body and soul, to heaven. God reached into Auschwitz and other camps of horror to bring suffering human beings to glory and peace.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, welcomes us to this church, the largest and most ancient of her many churches in Rome. On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)
Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking the city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized the city. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.
The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall.
In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”
Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church. The Christian world then saw her as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine. In 431, the Council of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said.
The title does not make Mary a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.
Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.
St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.
In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.
She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.
The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)
It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th , began in this church in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.
Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.
Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.
Visiting St.Mary Major
The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this important church at a time when many visitors, especially from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.
The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.
The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.
The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.
The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.
We need Christians like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher, we remember today. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true in our day.
In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.
Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato but “the prophets alone announced the truth.”
“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)
Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:
“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)
Ruins of the Roman Forum
Justin championed Christianity as a philosopher as Christians were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.
Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state. Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.
In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jew antagonistic to the new religion. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.
In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)
A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy, to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.
Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial still survives.
Monday: Acts 2:14, Octave of Easter22-23; Matthew 28,8-15
Tuesday: Acts 2, 36-41; John 20,11-18
Wednesday: Acts 3,1-19; Luke 24, 13-35
Thursday: Acts 3,11-36 Luke 24, 35-48
Friday Acts 4,1-12 John 21,1-14
Saturday Acts 4, 13-21 Mark 16,9-15
The weekday readings at Mass for the next 7 weeks of the Easter season come mainly from the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of John. Read the introductions and commentaries to these books in the New American Bible, available at the US Bishops’ site. (www.usccb.org )
The Acts of the Apostles, which continues St. Luke’s Gospel, is an important reading in the Easter season because it describes how God’s promise of salvation to Israel was brought to the world under the guidance of the Holy Sprit. Acts describes the beginnings of our church and also offers insight into how our church develops today.
From its Jewish Christian origins in Jerusalem the church gradually incorporated the gentiles, non-Jews, and steadily spread throughout the Roman world, eventually reaching Rome itself. The church today is growing globally. Its early growth described in the Acts of the Apostles can help us understand its growth in our time.
The Passionists celebrate two feasts immediately before Ash Wednesday. Last Friday it was the Solemn Commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the Prayer of Jesus in the Garden.
My intuition is that both feasts come from our missionary founder, St. Paul of the Cross, who spent lent for many years preaching in the villages and towns of the Tuscan Maremma, announcing the graces the lenten season promises.
It was a challenge. The Tuscan Maremma was a place where grace and good news seemed gone. An area in Central Italy facing the Mediterranean Sea of almost 2,000 square miles– roughly the size of Long Island and New York City together– it was the poorest, most troubled part of Italy in Paul’s day. Only gradually, towards the end of the 1700s, after his death, did it begin inching towards recovery.
The Tuscan Maremma is now a popular tourist destination; then it was an unhealthily mix of hills and swamplands. Malaria was widespread, roads were often impassible, dangerous because of bandits. Farmlands were abandoned; beggars were everywhere. The population in isolated villages and hill towns suspected outsiders.
Paul and his companions preached there for many years. Every year it was the same; it never seemed to change. You need other eyes and another kind of heart to work in a world like that and not get tired.
And so as they packed their bags for their lenten journey into the Tuscan Maremma they had to remind themselves what was there before them: the mystery of the Passion of Christ. They needed to pray so they wouldn’t forget. That’s what Jesus did before the mystery of his Passion.
It’s still so today. These are two feasts for tired missionaries.