Tag Archives: St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Leo the Great

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Today’s the feast of St. Leo the Great, a 5th century pope buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the front of the church on the left side of the main altar.

The large picture over his tomb pictures him outside Rome before Atilla, the Hun, and his warriors who are ready to attack and plunder Rome in 452 AD. Previously, a Vandal attack in 410 AD shocked a city that thought itself impregnable.

Barbarian tribes were pouring through Rome’s defenses along the Rhine River and its northern frontier then, threatening the Italian peninsula. Most of Rome’s elite left for the safety of Constantinople, the new center of the empire. The rest of the population, convinced the world was ending,  retreated to their homes with everything they had. No one wanted to fund an army for the city’s defense.

Leo became Rome’s defense, persuading Atilla to leave the city untouched by offering him tribute money. A few years later, though, in 455 AD he was less successful when the Vandals returned to plunder the city for 14 days.

Yet that’s not why Leo’s called great. A holy, learned man, he saw the church’s best defense in knowing Jesus Christ and the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection. His sermons on the Incarnation,  preached in the course of the church year, urged  Christians to find strength by living as  Jesus did.

As bishop of Rome and successor to the Apostle Peter, Leo believed in the future of the church, as Jesus promised to his apostle Peter. He led the bishops of the western church and  asserted the authority of the bishop of Rome in the councils called by the universal church, particularly the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

In times of great suffering, like Paul the Apostle in his Letter to the Philippians, Leo found support in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from him:

“True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity…Who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding of tears of love are marks of the nature of a slave?

“It was this nature of a slave that had to be healed of its ancient wounds and cleansed of the defilement of sin. For that reason the only-begotten Son of God became also the son of man. He was to have both the reality of  human nature and the fullness of the godhead.

“The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours.

“If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too  rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before others, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven.”

 Sermon, Leo the Great

The Feast of Peter and Paul

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.”

Pentecost

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The scriptures for the Feast of Pentecost describe the coming of the Holy Spirit in dramatic terms. Strong winds and tongues of fire come upon the disciples of Jesus in the Upper Room,  the Cenacle,  fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. They’re filled with energy and joy. It seems like an unrepeatable experience.

Then, immediately, confidently, they preached the gospel to people from the ends of the earth who are amazed at their new knowledge and new words

Certainly the Holy Spirit gave them a burst of new enthusiasm that day.  We marvel–as their first listeners did– how these ordinary Galileans were transformed by the gifts they were given.   Peter eventually made it to Rome. John may have gotten to Ephesus in Asia Minor. Maybe Thomas got to India. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, “their message went out to all the earth.” Transformed, they began a universal church centered on Jesus Christ.

But, like the other mysteries of our faith, Pentecost is repeatable, on-going.  It’s not one burst of enthusiasm, a jump-start never to happen again. Without the strong wind or tongues of fire we experience the Holy Spirit too, usually in quieter ways.

Behind the Chair of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica, the artist Bernini, created a beautiful alabaster window where a steady light pours into the dark church through the image of the Holy Spirit,  in the hovering form of a dove.

Day by day, the light comes quietly through the window. Day by day, the Holy Spirit dispenses light for the moment, graces for the world that is now. As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit dwells with us. The Spirit remains with us as Jesus’ final gift.

“Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth…Come, Holy Spirit, and fill our hearts with the fire of your love.”

 

 

Relics

You can’t miss seeing relics in Rome.

Devotion to relics is waning in the church today as far as I can judge. In the western world, influenced as we are by scientific thinking,  we find them puzzling. Rome, the center of the Roman Catholic Church, is filled with them.

Most of the churches we are going to, like St. Peter’s and St.Paul Outside the Walls, were built to house them. So why are bones of saints and relics of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, like relics of the cross in St. Peter’s Basilica and Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the holy stairs at the Scala Sancta, St. Peter’s chains in the church of St. Peter in Chains, the crib from Bethlehem at St. Mary Major, there in the first place?.

The cult of relics flourished when people believed in an “enchanted world,” to use a phrase from Charles Taylor, where heaven and earth were close together and God was seen as actively engaged in nature and history.

Our western world believed in an enchanted world until the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, when scientific thinking began to emerge. From then on, religion came under the microscope of science and reason more and more.

You can see an enchanted world in the psalms. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Ps.18) God is “maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” (Ps.146) God is savior as well as creator: “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind…The Lord protects the stranger, sustains the widow and orphan,  but thwarts the way of the wicked.” (Ps. 146) He “dwells in a holy temple” and they are happy who find him there. (Psalm 84) He “takes delight in his people.” (Ps.149)

God is close to creation and is its loving savior, these prayers say.  God is not distant, as many followers of the Enlightenment came to believe, or unknown as many might say today. According to Christian belief, God is present in our world, as Jews believe, but he reveals himself now in Jesus Christ, his Son.

The sacraments of the Church–Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, etc..– are special signs of God’s abiding presence in our world. They’re signs of Christ who remains with us from birth till death, and leads us to a kingdom that will come.

Relics are part of the sacramental dispensation. Relics of the saints, like those of Peter and Paul,  are reminders that God works in people on earth. Now they see him face to face, yet “from their place in heaven they guide us still.” They are part of a communion of saints; even now drawing us into God’s loving friendship.

Similarly, relics of mysteries like his cross and his birth are sensible reminders that the great mysteries of Christ abide with us too.

One danger of an “enchanted world,” a world where God is close, is that people misuse its powers for their own selfish purposes and not as aids to salvation. The abuse of relics became particularly acute in the 15th century when they were bought and sold and used superstitiously. A slide to magical thinking began.

At the time, voices within the church condemned the abuse of relics, but church authority didn’t move quickly enough to stamp out the abuse–partially because they benefited economically from it themselves.

A major attack came from Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, who not only condemned the abuse of relics for endangering  faith, but also called for their elimination altogether.

In its own movement of reform, the Catholic Church upheld the practice of honoring the relics, but laid down laws governing their use. They are not magical objects that give us power over things, but holy signs calling for conversion and humble recognition of an all-powerful God.

A second attack on relics followed the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century. Rationalist scholars, focusing on the Christian faith, questioned the historicity of  Jesus himself and the gospels. Since relics were part of church belief and practice, they also came under scientific scrutiny. If they didn’t pass the test of science, they were rejected.

Because of religious and scientific questions about relics, some avoid them and turn to art and architecture instead. But don’t miss the relics. They’re important; you can’t understand the churches without them.