Tag Archives: Rome

Remembering Lawrence

We remember Lawrence the deacon on August 19. He’s a favorite of mine whom I followed through the many churches and works of art in Rome that witness his influence on the Roman church. Some years ago I worked with others to produce a video on Lawrence. (See above.)

Lawrence reminds us that the Poor are the Treasures of the Church. I’m wondering if a good bit of Pope Francis’ present popularity comes from his strong commitment to the poor. He’s reminding the church-and the world too–how important the poor are   to Jesus and those who follow him.

Augustine in a sermon on Lawrence says that you don’t have to be in charge of a major relief effort to be like Lawrence, however. Each of us, treasuring the poor in our own way, follow Jesus.

“The garden of the Lord, brethren, includes – yes, it truly includes –  not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people, and the violets of widows. There is absolutely no kind of human beings, my dearly beloved, who need to look down on their calling.”

We’ all grow in the garden of the Lord. That’s a nice way of saying we’re all have something to give. Who are the poor we  treasure?

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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?  What about their fellow  believers who  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 and offers no excusing words for his failure as 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. Is the “Quo Vadis?” story an answer to that question?

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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St. Philip Neri, (1515-1595)

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Philip Neri, whose feast is celebrated today, is an interesting saint. Some rank him with Peter and Paul, founders of the church of Rome, because Philip  helped restore the  Roman church then reeling from the Protestant reformation.

Philip came to Rome as a young man and fell in love with the city’s history and holy places. He spent long hours in its ancient churches as a priest and roamed the catacombs of St. Sebastian where early Christians were buried. He became a regular guide for pilgrims searching for their spiritual roots. A familiar figure on Roman streets, he engaged ordinary people, especially the young, who warmed to his cheerfulness and found hope in his simple words. He listened to them.

Uncovering  forgotten lessons in the art and monuments of the city, Philip became a guide and inspiration to saints like Ignatius Loyola, Charles Borromeo and Pius V. He made new friends by sharing the beauty of the holy city, especially  the great churches of St.Peter’s, St.Paul outside the Walls, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, Holy Cross, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major, still the major pilgrim churches of the city today.

Protestants at the time were turning from theology to history to back up their claims against the Catholic Church, and Philip encouraged Catholic historians like Caesar Baronius to research the history of the church with fairness and accuracy. Baronius once said of him: “I love the man especially because he wants the truth and doesn’t permit falsehood of any kind.” He also supported Galileo: “The bible teaches the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Philip thought that church reform could come about best by  seeking the beauty of faith in its art, music and tradition. He promoted study of church history at a time when the Catholic Church needed to examine its traditions and roots. He brought gentleness, cheerfulness and friendship to Christian reform at a time when fierce controversy between Protestants and Catholics was the norm.   He was unassuming. A biographer said “ his aim was to do much without appearing to do anything.”

He died in Rome on May 26, 1595, at eighty years of age.

The great scholar John Henry Newman was attracted to Philip Neri and entered the religious society he founded, the Oratorians.

Here’s one of his prayers I like: ” Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow.”

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Stations of the Cross

 

 

 

 

 

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Feast of St. Polycarp

Today’s the feast of St. Polycarp. Some years ago, I visited Izmir in Turkey where Polycarp, a revered Christian bishop, was martyred about the year 155. The city was then called  Smyrna.  Now predominantly Muslim, there’s a small church of St. Polycarp in the city and up the mountain is the ancient agora and the ruins of the stadium where Polycarp was burned to death by the Romans.

The account of his martyrdom, sent to other Christian churches by the Christians of Smyrna, is one of the most interesting documents of the early church. Polycarp was an old man. As a child he knew John the Apostle and was a friend of Ignatius of Antioch, another early bishop martyred for the faith. He was also a teacher of Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyon in Gaul.

The old bishop went to his death peacefully and heroically, the account indicates:

“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.

There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.

Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.

“I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.”

When he had said “Amen” and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But, when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others. Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.”

One small incident occurred on our visit to Izmir I still remember. It happened during our visit to the Church of St. Polycarp, which is today the only Christian presence in a Muslim city. The custodian asked us to sign our names in the visitors’ book and as I did I noticed many signatures in Korean. When I asked about them, the custodian said the church is a favorite pilgrimage destination for Korean Catholics.

Somebody must have told Polycarp’s story in Korea and it must have impressed them there. A missionary priest or sister, perhaps? Heroes inspire us. Who know? But we need more Polycarps.

 

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St. Agnes, January 21st.

Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes, a popular Roman woman martyr of the 3rd century, ranks high among the seven women mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer. “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia…” Details of her story, from 5th century sources, may be questioned, but the essential facts about her are true.

A young Roman girl of 13 or so, she was a martyr put to death for her faith, because she rejected the offer of a highly placed Roman man to become his bride. Incensed, he tried to force Agnes to change her mind; eventually she met death for continuing to refuse him.

The Golden Legend, a favorite saint book  from the Middle Ages, says that Agnes was true to her name. She was a lamb (Agnus) who followed the Good Shepherd. Though young, she followed the way to truth, never turning away from it. God gave her strength beyond what we expect for her years.

Women were expected to marry young in those days, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. They were to produce children for Rome, especially soldiers needed for the empire’s many wars.

Agnes’ refusal to marry one of Rome’s elite was a dangerous decision for that time and place. With no support from family or friends, alone in a society of men, at a time suspicious of Christians and their beliefs, the little girl sought strength in Jesus Christ.

The 5th century legends say they put her among prostitutes to break and punish her, but God warded off those who tried to rape her. Besides the church where she is buried, a church in her honor stands today in the busy Piazza Navona in Rome. where abused women often pray  and draw courage from the young girl who had a similar experience.

They finally killed her with a knife to her throat. Still, the legends say that heavenly signs constantly surrounded Agnes assuring her that her faith was not in vain. The One she loved was with her as she struggled.

Agnes, the prayer for her feast says, is an example of how God chooses “what is weak in this world to confound the strong.” A young girl was stronger than the strong. “May we follow her constancy in the faith, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”

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Dedication of the Churches of Sts. Peter and Paul

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Two great apostles, Peter and Paul, are honored tomorrow in the ancient churches where they were buried. The Basilica of St. Paul and the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter were built in the fourth century,  reminders of the apostles who are founders and protectors of the Roman church.

Rome’s Christians marked the places where the apostles were martyred with special care. Peter, early sources say, was crucified on the Vatican Hill in 64 near the obelisk not far from the circus of the emperors Caligula and Nero and was buried in a cemetery nearby. The Emperor Constantine erected a basilica over the burial site in 326, while Sylvester was pope. Later in 1626 the present basilica replaced it. Recent excavations have uncovered Peter’s burial place under the papal altar of this church.

Paul, according to tradition, was beheaded on the Ostian Way, outside the ancient city walls, in 67. Constantine built a large church over his grave in 386. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1823 according to its original measurements. The apostle’s grave lies before the main altar of the church.

“The company of the apostles praises you…From their place in heaven they guide us still.”

Defend your Church, O Lord,

by the protection of the holy Apostles,

that, as she received from them

the beginnings of her knowledge of things divine,

so through them she may receive,

even to the end of the world,

an increase in heavenly grace.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen   (Collect for the feast)

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