The First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Today we celebrate the feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, which officially commemorates the martyrs killed under the Emperor Nero (54-68).  Fittingly, their feast is celebrated the day after the two most famous martyrs killed during that time, Peter and Paul.

While no one knows for sure why or how the famous burning of Rome took place, we know that Nero need a scapegoat.  And he found that scapegoat in the new mysterious sect that had been growing steadily in Rome.

The historian Tacitus gives an account of the persecutions under Nero:

“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to 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.”

It is believed that Christians were also killed before the time of Nero, during the reign of emperor Claudius (41-54).  Claudius probably expelled the Jews from Rome for a time because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” and he was famously opposed to the proselytizing of any religion.

Saint Prisca was a thirteen year-old girl killed during reign of Claudius.  She was of a noble family and was baptized by Saint Peter.  When the emperor tried to kill her in the amphitheater with a fierce lion, the lion licked her feet and did not hurt her.  Later she was beheaded.  She’s remembered as the “protomartyr of the West,” killed more than ten years before Peter and Paul.

Whether or not there was a girl named Prisca – modern historians doubt her existence – we know her story was repeated again and again, as the persecutions against Christians raged throughout the Roman Empire for almost three hundred years.  Lions, arrows, beheadings, fires — the martyrdoms were varied, but the witness the same: these people, regardless of age or sex or wealth, were willing to die at the hands of their emperor before denying their Lord.

The stories of the early Church martyrs also remind us that their witness did not begin with their deaths.  There must have been something that set them apart.  How did the emperors know about a thirteen-year old girl’s religion?  Why were there disturbances because of “Chrestus,” why was their “superstition” known by Tacitus, and why were they punished for “hatred against mankind”?

Their faith did not remain in the catacombs, hidden from view.  Their faith spurred them onward — to preach to their neighbors, to bring the good news to others, to live their lives differently.   Secular sociologists note that Christians were more likely to survive the diseases that plagued the city of Rome precisely because they were cared for by other Christians.  The Christians were known for their generosity to the poor and their service to the widows and orphans.  They didn’t just worship on Sundays — they served Christ every day of the week.  And it was obvious to those around them.

Someone once rhetorically asked me a thought-provoking question.  If I was arrested for being a Christian, would a jury find me guilty?  Or would I be acquitted for lack of evidence?

We know why the Christians went to their deaths singing songs of joy, their deaths prompting even more conversions.  “Martyr” is from the Greek word for “witness.”  But in order for them to be rounded up and thrown in jail, their witness must have been visible in the world before their deaths.  And so must ours.

What the HHS Mandate means for Christians throughout this country is that we cannot live our faith outside the catacombs.  It is fine to go to Mass and worship, but our beliefs cannot influence our daily lives.   We cannot live as Catholic Christians in our workplace, in our hospitals, or in our schools.

May the martyrs of the early Church be witnesses and reminders to us, in 2012, that our faith sends us out into the world.  And may their intercession give us the strength to be witnesses ourselves.

Sts. Peter and Paul

One of the most remarkable places to experience while visiting Rome is a small dark room under Vatican hill.  Very few tourists even know its existence, and access is limited to 250 people a day.   In a city filled with art, this room is bare.  A tour guide shepherds you into the room, and then points through a large glass window.  There, with a light shining on it, tucked in the ancient ruins of shrines and altars dating back to second century, is a plexiglass box, through which you can see their precious contents.

The bones of St. Peter.

The bones lie directly under the main of altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, far below the soaring dome of Michelangelo.   While most people believed the bones were there, their existence was not confirmed until the middle of the twentieth century, when archaeologists began excavating the pagan cemetery that lies under the vast basilica.

It is hard to not be moved when standing in the silence, seeing the bones of the first century fisherman.  The sinful man who denied Our Lord (Lk 22:59-62).  The repentant man who was commissioned to feed the Lord’s sheep (Jn 21:17).  The man named Rock (Mt 16:18).  Here are his mortal remains, far from the land of Palestine.

Could a fisherman from Bethsaida ever imagine he would find himself in Rome?  From the shores of the Sea of Galilee to being killed in Nero’s circus and buried on Vatican Hill.  From completely unknown to having one of the most glorious churches in the world built over his grave.  From a sinful, rash, passionate man to a saint in heaven, who is celebrated two thousand years later.

Even after meeting Jesus, when his life was drastically changed, Peter could never have predicted his own fate.  Christ reminds him that his life is no longer his own:  “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.'” (Jn 21:18)

Likewise Saul, an observant Jew, a promising scholar of the Law, never would have dreamed while studying at the feet of the famous Gamaliel that he would be accused of betraying Judaism and be killed for preaching a new Way (Acts 24:14).  Zealous against this new religion, Saul was an unlikely candidate to be the greatest preacher the Church has ever known.  But thus was the call of Christ (Gal 1:13-15).

St. Peter and St. Paul did not seek their fame.  They weren’t seeking to be remembered in 2012 in a far away land called America.  And yet they are remembered to this day.

Peter did not run for office.  If anything, he ran from office.  The Romans have a beloved story where St. Peter, fleeing the city of Rome and the wrath of Nero, meets Christ on the Via Appia.  Christ is headed in the opposite direction, towards the city.  “Quo Vadis, Domine?”  Peter asks.  Lord, where are you going?  Christ responds that he is going to Rome to be crucified a second time.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

Peter returned to Rome.

These two men could not have known the future – but they knew the present.  And they knew that Christ would give them strength for the future, even if it was a future they had not chosen for themselves.

Like Peter and Paul, we stand for a Way that is contrary to the ways of the world.  We stand for a Truth that is contrary to public opinion, the secular culture, and even some policies of our government.   We didn’t choose this battle.  But the battle is here.

The future is unknown.  What will be asked of us?  We don’t know where this battle will lead, but we know where it stands right now.

It is still possible to walk through the Roman Forum and walk the path that Peter the fisherman walked.   One can stand on the hill where the Temple of Jupiter once stood- the most important Temple in Rome.  Overlooking the Forum, it stood watch over the center of the known world.

Now when one stands on that spot, your vision is directed elsewhere.  Instead of east, you face west.  And looking out over the modern city of Rome, your eyes rest on the glorious dome of St. Peter’s.

The Colosseum and the Roman Forum stand as stark reminders that worldly victory is fleeting.  Nero thought he had won, when Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.  Instead he had crowned them with the glorious crown of martyrdom.

May we have the courage to accept the unknown future and the trust to accept the call of Christ.

St. Irenaeus

As we have seen thus far, difficult situations in the Church and the world have been occasions for God to raise up great saints.  When we are in need of certain gifts, whether it is the logic of Thomas More, the fortitude of John Fisher, or the simplicity of Josemaria Escriva, God gives us the heroes we need.  Saint Irenaeus (125-202) was one of those heroes.

Like St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Irenaeus spent a lot of time preaching and writing to refute misunderstandings and false teachings in the early days of the Church.  His greatest work, Against Heresies, was focused mainly on correcting the false teachings of a group called the Gnostics.

The Gnostics often used Scripture to back up their teaching and claimed to teach in the name of Jesus Christ.  Whoever responded to them would need to be articulate, intelligent, and precise.  He would have to know the truth and be able to preach the truth in a sophisticated, accurate, and attractive way.  He would need to be a deep thinker who would know the message of Jesus Christ through prayer, study, and lived experience, and be someone who could share the fruits of that prayer, study, and experience.

St. Irenaeus  was the man for the job.  He was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who had received the Gospel message from St. John, the beloved Apostle and evangelist.  Irenaeus wrote extensively, clearly, and with wit, while also ministering as bishop to the people of Lyons in modern-day France.

He not only knew the truth — he knew how to preach it.  The same thing is being asked of us today.

St. Peter gives us an important reminder in his first letter: Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.  (1 Pt 3:15)

We must know what we believe, but we must also have the words to defend it.

Have you ever had someone ask a question about something you believe in, only to have you at a loss for words to answer them?  Hopefully such an experience would call us to investigate deeper, to ask questions ourselves, to read and pray and search for answers.

The religious liberty issue is much broader than the picture painted by most of the media.  Are we investigating the issues ourselves?  Are we ready to answer the questions that our neighbors, coworkers, or friends inevitably have?  The United States bishops have ample resources and articles on their website.

Have we tried to educate ourselves so that we can make a defense for the hope that is in us?

When Pope Benedict met with the American bishops earlier this year, he spoke of a need in the American church: “the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity.”  He emphasized that the “preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in [the United States].” “The Church’s witness … is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”

He said these things the day before the HHS mandate was announced.  Are we ready to answer that call?  We can’t afford to wait another moment.

St. Cyril of Alexandria

Today’s saint lived a generation after the Roman persecution of the Church had ceased.  (Stay tuned for Saturday to hear more about that persecution.)  He lived at a time when the Church was growing at a rapid pace- by the year 300, Christians in the empire numbered over 6 million.  While the threat of persecution was over, peace was not reigning.  Disputes over doctrine were heated and false teaching was spreading, and heroes like St. Cyril of Alexandria were busy teaching and preaching the truth.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) is perhaps best known for fighting the Nestorian heresy, a teaching which held that Mary was not the Mother of God.  The heresy taught that she only gave birth to the human nature of Christ.  St. Cyril and other orthodox bishops recognized that this belief ultimately separated Christ into two persons, human and divine, violating the unity of Christ, Who was one Person.  Every mother knows that she doesn’t look at her newborn and think, “What a lovely human nature I gave birth to!”  Women give birth to people, not simply natures.  The Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer” and clarified that while Mary is not the source of God, nor did she pre-exist God, she did bear the Word Incarnate in her womb.

God chose a woman to bear His Son, to bear His flesh, to cooperate in salvation in an intimate way.  What dignity this gives women!

Christianity elevated women at a time when their situation was rather bleak.   In the Greco-Roman world, women were usually married by the age of 11 or 12 to much older men.  Afterwards, they suffered marriages where contraception, abortion, adultery, and unnatural sexual acts were the norm.

If their child wasn’t killed by abortion (and the abortions often killed the mother as well), it may not live much after birth, either.

Dr. Rodney Stark, a noted sociologist, observed: “Men greatly outnumber women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius, writing in about 200 AD, attributed the declining population of the empire to the extreme shortage of females. In his classic work on ancient and medieval populations, J C Russell estimated that there were 131 males for 100 females in the city of Rome and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Russell noted in passing that sex ratios this extreme can only occur when there is ‘some tampering with human life.'”

And tampering there was. Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced by all social classes in the Greco-Roman world.  Another historian noted that even in large families “more than one daughter was practically never reared.”  Historians were able to construct 600 families in the city of Delphi, using inscriptions from the time.  Of these 600 families, only six had raised more than one daughter.

On the subject of female infanticide, Stark asks us to consider “a letter written by one Hilarion to his pregnant wife Ails, which has been reported by many authors because of this quite extraordinary contrast between his deep concern for his wife and his hoped-for son, and his utter callousness toward a possible daughter: Know that I am still in Alexandria and do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son. And as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child before I come home, if it is a boy, keep it, if it is a girl, discard it. You have sent me word ‘Don’t forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.”

As you might imagine, this imbalance of men and women inevitably led to rape and sexual aggression.  All of which was considered quite normal.

Church historian Mike Aquilina comments, “That is the world in which the first Christians were born, in which they grew up and married, and in which they raised their families. You might call it a culture of death.”

In the midst of this culture of death, the son of God had come into the world… as the son of Mary.  And before leaving this world, He left us a Church- a Church that believes in the inherent dignity of the human person, one which sets a woman — the Blessed Mother — as the role model for Christian life — one that elevates marriage to a sacrament, that commands husbands to love their wives, that values the woman’s fertility.

During this current “culture of death,” may we turn to the Mother of Christ, asking her to intercede for us to Her Son.  It is no coincidence that at Aquinas College we are praying the rosary each day for religious liberty.  May her prayers for all of us, especially the women of our country, bear great fruit for the Church and for our beloved homeland.

“Give me an army saying the Rosary, and I will conquer the world.” -Blessed Pope Pius IX

St. Josemaria Escriva

As we continue to pray for religious freedom, the ability to allow our faith to impact our everyday lives, we turn to a saint who reminds us that the battle is most often won in the ordinary.

St. Josemaria Escriva lived during a complex and turbulent time: the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  It was a time of violent persecution of the Church, when thousands were killed simply because they were Catholic.  Churches and convents were burned.  Priests, religious, and lay Catholics were murdered because they wore a scapular, prayed a rosary, or went to Mass.  It is estimated that one diocese in northern Spain lost 85% of their diocesan priests to martyrdom.   Over a thousand Spanish martyrs from this time have been beatified or canonized.

In the midst of this, St. Josemaria Escriva, a priest, was ministering to his flock.  Hiding in attics and celebrating Mass in secret, Escriva was experiencing the very antithesis of religious liberty.  And what was he preaching during this time?

The same thing he had preached in the years leading up to the war: find God in your ordinary work.  Escriva was reminding the people that holiness was found not in great deeds, but in the humble performance of everyday tasks.  All activity, when directed toward God, sanctifies us — whether it is as menial as washing dishes or as heroic as hiding a priest in your attic.  If our actions are done in love — love for God, love for neighbor– they become much greater than routine tasks.

“Let me stress this point: it is in the simplicity of your ordinary work, in the monotonous details of each day, that you have to find the secret, which is hidden from so many, of something great and new: Love.”

He reminded them that holiness was accessible to all — God had given everyone a mission, and our responsibility was to fulfill it.   “Do you really want to be a saint? Carry out the little duty of each moment: do what you ought and concentrate on what you are doing.”

For some, that means serving our country in the military or in public office.  For others, it means raising children, a new generation of faithful Christians.  It means serving God in our work but also in our recreation.  He spoke of the apostolate of friendship, the apostolate of entertainment, and even the “apostolate of the dinner-table.”  Every deed, every moment, was a chance to glorify God and preach His Word — not necessarily by using grand theological language, but with a Christian joy that is contagious.

With this simple plan, Escriva set out to change the world.  If every Christian did his duty, lived his life, followed God’s Will, and served his Father in Heaven with joy and peace and love, we could survive any persecution.

If we look at the complex situation of the Spanish Civil War, which is often badly simplified as a conflict between Republican/Communist forces and Nationalist/Socialist forces, we step back and ask, “Who won?”  History books will say that Franco and the Nationalists won.

But ultimately, Josemaria Escriva and the Gospel won.  Governments come and go.   Christ the King reigns eternal.

Battles are fought, lives are lost, and history cruelly repeats itself.   The greatest heroes are the saints, who achieve the greatest prize: eternal life.

At times, the odds we face appear insurmountable.  What are we to do as Christians in the world today?

Josemaria Escriva reminds us to get to work.

“It is difficult to make our mark through quiet work and the proper fulfilment of our duties as citizens, so that later we can demand our rights and place them in the service of the Church and of society.  It is difficult… but it is very effective.”

Some Christians are called to be martyrs, as so many were during the Spanish Civil War.  Others are called to survive persecution, as St. Josemaria Escriva did.

But we are all called to be faithful.

“It is surprising how often, even in the name of freedom, many people fear and oppose Catholics being simply good Catholics.” -St. Josemaria Escriva

St. John the Baptist

 “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah 40:3

Today we celebrate the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, the precursor to the Messiah.  John heralded the coming of the Bridegroom even before he was born (Luke 1:41) and dedicated his life to this good news.   Hand-in-hand with his proclamation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah-Bridegroom was his testimony to the truth.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”  (John 1:6-8)

It was for this unwavering fidelity to the truth that John was imprisoned by Herod the tetrarch and eventually beheaded.  John was preaching against Herod’s adulterous union to Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (who was still living), and both Herod and Herodias were growing tired of their consciences being pricked.

The Gospel of Mark mentions an interesting detail about Herod and John, however.  Noting that Herod arrested John for the sake of Herodias, Mark notes that Herod liked to listen to John, even though he was perplexed by him (Mk 6:20).

You can almost see Herod sneaking down to John’s cell, without Herodias seeing him, and listening to this strange man speak of a new way of life, a kingdom and a Bridegroom, and repentance.  This charismatic preacher intrigued him.  This voice crying out proclaimed a message unlike Herod had ever heard.

That voice was a voice that could not be ignored.  It required a response.

Herod could listen to the voice.  Or he could silence it.  Listening to the voice would require sacrifice and courage.  In his case, it would require sending Herodias away and ending the sinful, adulterous union.  To listen to the voice demanded change. So Herod chose to silence the voice.

We too are faced with the same option.  We can listen to the Gospel message or we can silence it.   Once we hear it, it requires a response, and an affirmative response will demand that we live our lives differently than before.   Are we willing to let the Gospel change us?  Are we willing to embrace the sacrifices and the responsibilities the message will require?

The story of John the Baptist reminds us that the message does not remain a voice crying out into the wilderness.  It does not remain a Gospel preached from a pulpit or taught in a classroom.  The voice, the message, the Gospel must be responded to and must be lived.

But a culture that promotes secularism wants the voice silenced.  It does not want our lives to be changed by the voice.  It is uncomfortable about the demands the Gospel makes, and so it chooses to attack the voice rather than be transformed.

During this Fortnight of Freedom, we pray to have the courage of John the Baptist.  We pray for the passion to preach the truth and to join our voices to that voice crying out.  But we also pray for the courage to respond to the demands of the voice.  What am I called to do today, in my workplace or in my home?  What in my life needs to change?   Am I really willing to follow the Gospel?

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher

There’s an unassuming little memorial just northwest of the Tower of London, often missed by tourists because of the large World War I and II naval memorials that stand directly adjacent.  The memorial is just a series of plaques with lists of names; individuals who, in many cases, are lost in history books.   An inscription reads that the simple plaques “commemorate the tragic history and in many cases the martyrdom of those who for the sake of their faith, country or ideals staked their lives and lost.”

On that spot, Bishop John Fisher died on this day in 1535.  Sir Thomas More followed a few days later on July 6.

Both of these men, canonized together in 1935, “staked their lives” on the same faith, the same ideals, and “lost.”

For what?  What could have been so important that these men were willing to commit treason and give up their heads?

A few simple sentences.

The drama of Henry VIII and his (first) divorce and remarriage had come to its climax.  Henry was not free to marry Anne Boleyn because Rome hadn’t annulled his first marriage to Catherine.  Henry didn’t just ignore Rome; he declared himself supreme and head of the Church of England.   The preamble to the First Succession Act, which declared the children of Henry and Anne to be heirs to the throne, declared that the Pope had no right to judge these matters.  That was the sticking point.  Thomas More and John Fisher both refused to take the oath and were sent to the Tower of London for treason.

To most of their colleagues in the government and British Church leadership, it seemed scrupulous to refuse.  Couldn’t they take the oath and ignore that part of the preamble?  Even Thomas More’s wife and daughter tried to convince him to take the oath and rationalize his actions.  Every English bishop took the oath… except John Fisher.

Hindsight tells us that these men opposed the beginning of the English Reformation, which would alter the history of England forever.  But it wasn’t that clear at the time that England had reached this turning point.  To most of their colleagues, More and Fisher were making a big deal out of nothing.

But it wasn’t nothing.  They were remaining true to their consciences, which had been well-formed by the truth of the Gospel. They were remaining true to their Church, their Pope, and to their faith.

These were not the actions of crazy men who loved tyranny and rebellion and hated their government.  Sir Thomas More held one of the highest positions in the English government as Lord Chancellor, until resigning his post to stay true to his conscience.  He was a friend of Henry VIII, well-respected by his contemporaries.  These were learned men who did not act rashly.  They were men who loved England , who loved the Crown… but loved God first.

They staked their lives on ideals: the authority of the papacy and the sanctity of marriage.  John Fisher famously declared publicly that he was willing to die as St. John the Baptist died: in defense of marriage.   Pope Paul III made him a Cardinal while he was in the Tower of London, but Henry refused to allow the red hat come to England, proposing he send Fisher’s head to Rome instead.

Although few realized it at the time, “it was a time of national crisis,” British author Ronald Knox commented.  “There were only a few people who kept their heads, and those few who kept their heads lost their heads.”

Are we willing to stake our lives on such ideals?  For a few small sentences?  Have we formed our consciences so as to rely on them in times of crisis?  Have we prayed for the courage to face the consequences if we stake our lives on ideals … and “lose”?

Thomas More and John Fisher show us that we are called to be good citizens of our homeland, but good citizens of Heaven first.  Even when our colleagues and friends tell us that the issue at hand doesn’t matter and compromise is the better route, we know that Jesus Christ and His Church are worth staking our lives on and losing.

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, pray for us.

“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”  -St. Thomas More