Tag Archives: Constantine

St. Martin of Tours

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Martin of Tours is an important saint in our church calendar– worth reflecting on today, November 11th.   Saints are the antidotes to the poison of their times, Chesterton said,  so what poison did Martin confront?

One was the poison of militarism. Martin was born into a military family in 316.  His father, a Roman officer who came up through the ranks, commanded  troops on the Roman frontier along the Rhine and Danube rivers. When his son was born his father naturally figured he would be a soldier like him. He named him Martin, after Mars, the god of war.

Heroes then were soldiers, like Constantine and Diocletian: warrior emperors. Rome was mobilizing to stop the barbarians threatening their frontiers and soldiers were needed. But Martin wanted nothing to do with war. Even as a young boy he heard a message of non-violence from Christians he knew. Over his father’s strong objections, he gave up prospects for an army commission and became a Christian catechumen, preparing for baptism.

Later as a bishop, he spent a lot of his time peacemaking,  reconciling enemies. In fact, he died on his way to settle a dispute among some of his priests.

Another poison Martin confronted was the poison of careerism. When Constantine came into power he promoted Christianity in the empire and one way he did that was   to give Christian bishops more power in civil society. They received money and authority over projects and jobs. That prompted a lot of men to become bishops for the rich lifestyle and prestige it promised.

When Martin became Bishop of Tours at the invitation of the people of that diocese, he adopted a lifestyle that was  opposite to that of most of the bishops of Gaul. One of his biographers said he never went to bishops’ meetings. He couldn’t stand them. The bishops liked life in the cities. Martin preferred to minister in the country, to the “pagani”, the uneducated poor.

Are the poisons of militarism and careerism still around today? We remember our war veterans today. How many died in wars in the past 100 years? Too many. And too many bear the scars of war. Militarism is still around.

I think careerism is still around too.

The story that epitomizes Martin, of course, is his meeting with the beggar in the cold winter as he was coming through the gate in the town of Amiens, a catechumen but still a soldier. He stopped and cut his military cloak in two and gave one to the poor man. That night, the story goes, Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing the beggar’s cloak. “Martin gave me this,” he said.

Pope Benedict XVI has a beautiful comment on this event.

“ Martin’s gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist… It’s the logic of sharing. May St Martin help us to understand that only by a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if an authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.”

That’s well said.

A Church with a Mission

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Ss. Giovanni e Paolo 

A few days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Jerome, the great 4th century scripture scholar and controversialist. I’ll be staying through October in a place well known to him in Rome– the Caelian Hill and the church of Saints John and Paul.

In Jerome’s day Rome’s rich and powerful lived on the Caelian Hill, across from the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum. Jerome had prominent friends among them. Pammachius, the ex- Roman senator who built Saints John and Paul, the noblewoman Paula and her daughter Eutochium, who later joined Jerome in his venture in Bethlehem to study the scriptures, her other daughter Blaesilla and others.

Interest in the scriptures ran high among well-off Caelian Christians then, but they also were keen for gossip and religious controversies. Jerome loved the scriptures, but he also loved the fight. His relationship with Paula and her family was part of the gossip that  probably figured among the reasons he left Rome for the Holy Land. Following him there, Paula created a monastic community in Bethlehem and she and her daughter undoubtedly played  a bigger part in Jerome’s scriptural achievements than they’re credited for.

Jerome’s a saint, but I appreciate why so many artists picture him doing penance for his sins. He needed God’s mercy.

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Excavations, Saints John and Paul

Underneath Pammachius’ Church of Saints John and Paul are remains of Roman apartments going back to the 2nd-4th centuries, probably the best preserved of their kind in the city and a favorite for tourists.

Years ago, when I studied here, one of the rooms in the excavations was pointed out as part of a house church with Christian inscriptions , now archeologists are not so sure.. That doesn’t mean Christians didn’t meet or worship in these buildings, only they didn’t create a special liturgical space for meeting or worship.  Christian evidence, however, says a “house church” was here early on.

Why then did Pammachius in the fourth century build the imposing basilica of Saints John and Paul here on the edge of the Coelian Hill facing the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum ? Many retired soldiers settled on the Caelian Hill then. Did he wish to win them to Christianity through the example of two soldier saints, John and Paul, who were honored in this church? Their remains are still found under the church’s main altar today.

Is there another reason? According to Richard Krautheimer, an expert on Rome’s early Christian churches, the emperor Constantine built St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lawrence, the first Christian churches, on the edge of the city most likely in deference to the sensibilities of the followers of Rome’s traditional religions. He didn’t want any Christian church in the “show areas” of the city, near the Roman forum or the Palatine hill.

Saints John and Paul, Interior

 

 

By Pammachius’ time Christianity was more assertive. Was Pammachius’ church a statement to the city that Christianity had arrived and wished to speak its wisdom here at the heart of traditional Roman religion, near the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum? Jerome’s new translations and commentaries, along with the works of St. Augustine and others, gave them something to say.

So was this a church with a mission? A lesson for the church of today? Speak to the world of your time.

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The Triumph of the Cross: September 14

 

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Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

This ancient ecumenical feast,  celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, originated in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. A great church called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by the Emperor Constantine, was dedicated there on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.

Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.

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Tomb of Jesus

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Calvary

Pilgrims today visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.

Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”

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Egyptian Coptic Christians

Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars  expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.

For more on its history, see here.

And a video here.

Readings for the Triumph of the Cross

 

 

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“Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Psalm 78, Responsorial Psalm) We remember his great works here. How can we forget them.

Saint Lawrence, the Deacon

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Church of St. Lawrence, 17th century map

Today’s the Feast of St. Lawrence, the deacon. In the 4th century the Emperor Constantine built a splendid church honoring him on the Via Tiburtina, near one of the major gateways to the city. Why did he build the church? To honor a martyr who died for his faith? The emperor saw plenty of people dying bravely for one cause or another. It had to be something more.

Lawrence was a deacon of the Roman church in the middle of the 3rd century, when Rome began to experience wars and political instability. Gothic tribes were breaching the Roman lines along the Rhine River and the Persians were invading in the east.

The only thing to do was expand the army, and that’s what the Emperor Valerian did. It was time to build walls and expand armies. That cost money, of course, and in Rome the burden fell heavily on the poor. Famine and plague only worsened their situation.

That’s when the Christian church stepped in to help. Christians were still relatively few in numbers then, not wealthy, but they gave generously to the poor, and the Roman people admired what they saw.

Lawrence, the deacon, was behind this extraordinary Christian effort. After all, Jesus said: “I was hunger, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, you gave me to drink; I was sick and you visited me.”

Rome’s leaders became upset by the church’s growing popularity. They also wondered if the church’s money couldn’t be channeled towards their war effort. And so, in 257 an edict was published to imprison church leaders and confiscate church money. A second edict in 258 caused blood to flow. Pope Xystus II and four deacons were seized in the catacombs of St. Callistus and executed on August 6th. Lawrence, the deacon, was seized and executed on August 10th. That’s why his feast day is today.

Popular stories later offered a colorful account of Lawrence’s martyrdom shaping his story and the way artists pictured him :

The Roman prefect, anxious for the church’s money, promised Lawrence freedom if he would transfer it over to him. Lawrence asked for three days to get the church’s treasures together for delivery to the prefect’s house. Then, going through the city he gathered all the poor and unfortunate supported by the church and brought them to the prefect’s door. “Here are the church’s treasures,” he told the official, “ – the blind, the lame, the orphans and the old.”

The prefect ordered Lawrence burned alive on a gridiron. Those witnessing his execution said the saint went to his death cheerfully, even joking with his executioners. “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”

After these events the Roman church gained a flood of converts. Respect for Christianity grew, not just because of its brave martyrs, but because of its outreach to the poor.

I think that’s the reason Constantine built a church honoring Lawrence, not just because he died for his faith, but because of his care of the poor. Besides the church’s political support, the emperor appreciated what it could do for the empire he ruled. It would take care of the poor.

Wherever you go in Rome, you are going to find Lawrence. There are other churches honoring him; he’s often pictured with Peter and Paul, the founders of the Roman church; Michelangelo has him among the blessed at the last judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Lawrence represents something important in the church.

A large fresco of the saint stands at the entrance to the Vatican Museum’s Chapel of Nicholas V with its priceless works of art. Lawrence seems blind to the riches all around him as he boldly proclaims the message inscribed beneath his feet: The Poor are the Treasures of the Church.

They should always be the treasures of the church.

Saint John Lateran

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

Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.

Churches have stories, which is especially true of  St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built.  At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.

The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around  320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.

Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum,  because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the  traditional religions. Still,  the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.

Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met  in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes  where they met and worshipped.

That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians  participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)

So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.

That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)

An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery,  a large building connected to the church itself,  worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.

Those bound for heaven are born here,

born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.

Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.

No differences among those born here,

they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.

The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.

So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.

Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.

The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.

Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.

One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.

Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us  how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.

“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,

and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.

“If anyone destroys God’s temple,

God will destroy that person;

for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”

St. Paul Outside the Walls

 Paul the Apostle is buried in the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. His sarcophagus lies under the church’s main altar. Until 2008, when archeologists uncovered it, it was concealed underground in the same spot.

After their execution in the mid 60s, Peter was buried on the Vatican Hill and Paul was buried along the Via Ostia. Churches honoring the two apostles were built in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine over their graves. Constantine didn’t initiate devotion to the apostles, though. Christians from Rome and elsewhere came in great numbers from earliest times to these places to honor these great heroes.

Here’s a video of the church:

St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome

A statue of St. Paul welcomes us outside the church’s entrance. He’s an old man, clothed in a heavy traveler’s cloak, bent and tired from years on the road. Yet, the apostle holds a sword firmly in hand, not a military sword, but a symbol of a faith that won hearts and banished the powers of darkness. He has “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith,” and here in Rome his earthly journey ended. Pictures on the church doors recall Paul’s final hours, when he died decapitated by an executioner’s sword not far from this spot.

Lifting our eyes to the façade of the church, we see his dramatic journey in outline, from Jerusalem to Rome, as Paul carried the gospel of Jesus Christ announced beforehand by prophets of the Old Testament.  A more detailed description of his mission appears in the paintings around the church walls inside, from his conversion on the way to Damascus, to his death here in the capitol of the Roman world.

If we look higher before we go in, Paul appears on the church’s façade in the light of glory, his traveling days done. With Peter, a fellow disciple, he sits at the feet of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord who taught him so well. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul once cried, thrown to the ground. Now he sees Jesus face to face.

This same scene of glory is repeated within the church itself where columns in procession lead our eyes to a triumphal arch defining the apostle’s grave below and the altar above it. On the dome of the apse, Jesus sits in triumph, surrounded by Paul and his companion apostles and evangelists. “Come, blessed of my father, receive the kingdom prepared for you,” Jesus proclaims in the book of life he holds up to them.

Today,  we can see the apostle’s tomb, recently uncovered by archeologists, under the main altar.

Outside the Walls

The description “Outside the Walls” is a reminder that this church, now in a crowded city suburb, was once outside Rome’s city walls on a desolate stretch of the Via Ostia, part of a little cemetery where the apostle was first buried. As they did over St.Peter’s grave, early Christians built a modest memorial immediately after Paul’s death to mark his grave; then in the early 4th century the Emperor Constantine erected a small church facing the Via Ostia honoring the apostle.

It did not end there, however. Later that same century, a larger church replaced the small church, as large as that of St.Peter on the Vatican. Why build an immense building like this in an out-of-the-way place, we may ask? Was it devotion or Christian pride?

Perhaps. Yet, some speculate other reasons were behind it. In the late 4th century, hordes of “barbarians” were pouring through the frontiers of the empire, and the Romans–most likely Christians among them–  saw the newcomers as pesky strangers: violent, crude and uncultured. The latin word they used for them, “barbari,” dismisses them as little less than savages, unwelcome intruders to an orderly Roman world.

St. Paul once scolded the proud Corinthians for looking down on others and forgetting how God raised them up from nothing by his grace. “The door to faith has opened to the nations,” he said; God welcomes all, no matter who they are. Wouldn’t God welcome these new immigrants?

Did the new church call Roman Christians to open their hearts to these new gentiles as the apostles Peter and Paul had done before? Early popes like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great promoted this new church. Gregory not only welcomed newcomers to the Italian peninsula but inspired by Paul reached out to peoples beyond the borders of the empire, to the misty shores of England and the dark forests of Northern Europe.

To be catholic the church had to reach out to the world.

Peter and Paul complement each other. Paul, a complex intellectual, forged beyond the boundaries of Judaism to address the whole world.  Peter, the Galilean fisherman, was a cautious captain for the ship of the church. Their gifts are different, but we gain from both of them. Paul’s sword points to an unknown future and tells us not to be afraid to embrace it. Peter, holding firmly the keys given him by Jesus, calls us to stay close to the Good Shepherd, whose wisdom and love supports us.

The Church treasures their different gifts.

Websites:

http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/index_en.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061211-saint-paul.html

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jersusalem

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The ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, constructed over the places where Jesus was crucified and buried, has been the focus of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land since the 4th century. Built by the Emperor Constantine at the urging of Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, the church has suffered earthquakes, fires, and devastation; it’s authenticity has been questioned, especially since the Enlightenment; it has been fought over by competing Christian churches, yet it still has the best claim to be the place where the greatest of all Christian mysteries happened.
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The church received its worst blow when the calif Hakim began demolishing the church in 1009, an action leading to the Crusades. Once Jerusalem was conquered, the crusaders rebuilt the church, but only to half its former proportions.Calvary

Reliable historians weigh in positively today on the claims of the Church of the Holy Sepucher “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers.
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The Finding of the Cross

When Constantine in the 4th century looked for Calvary and Jesus’ tomb, he had no difficulty finding their location. They were buried beneath a Roman temple built in 138 AD by the Emperor Hadrian, in the new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, which he erected over the ruins of devastated Jewish Jerusalem. Christians since the time of Jesus knew the place and could point it out to Constantine’s builders.

Early witnesses report that, which tearing down the Roman temple and digging the foundations for the new church, the emperor’s workmen came upon an ancient cistern filled with debris from the old Roman execution site, including three upright beams and the title that Pontius Pilate had attached to the Cross of Jesus. The discovery caused a sensation in the Christian world.

Constantine’s 80 year old mother, Helena, had come the Holy Land as a devout pilgrim, “old in years, but young in spirit. She wanted to know this land… and walk in the footsteps of the Savior….”(Eusebius)
She took the precious remains from Calvary and distributed them, one part to the new church on Golgotha, another part to her son, Constantine, in Constantinople; the rest she placed in the chapel of her private residence at the Sessorian Palace in Rome, where they remain till this day, in the Church of the Holy Cross. She covered the floor of her Roman chapel with soil from the Jerusalem excavations.
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Christians rejoiced at the discovery. Less than 25 years before, they had experienced the worst of all persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, who tortured and killed great numbers, confiscating Christian homes and property. Their religion was on the verge of extermination. Now a new day had dawned; Christianity was triumphant.

The pieces of scarred wood buried in the earth for so long, became reflections of God’s triumphant power. They were placed in settings of gold and precious stones; signs that, like Jesus, the church also had tasted death but was now raised up.

Besides wood from Calvary, Constantine’s builders made another great discovery as they dug the foundations for the new basilica. They discovered the tomb of Jesus, and immediately constructed a splendid rotunda around it. The tomb survives today in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. Nearby one can still see and touch the rock of Calvary. Holy Sep

These early discoveries inspired a powerful movement of Christian devotion. Crowds of pilgrims made their way to the holy places. “The whole world is making its way to an empty tomb,” St. John Chrysostom said. Pilgrims returned home with reminders of their visit: small vials of oil from lamps at the tomb of Jesus, small handfuls of soil. Some even carried back tiny precious portions of the Cross itself.

A feast to celebrate the dedication of this church in 325 AD is found in various church calendars for September 14.