The First Holy Martyrs

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of the First Holy Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church. I remember as a child in Catholic elementary school being fascinated by the stories of the martyrs. I remember being particularly struck by the stories of the early missionaries to the American Indians, like St. Isaac Jogues, who was tortured and killed by the Iroquois.

Today’s feast memorializes those sometimes called the “Protomartyrs of Rome.” They were tortured and killed in the first persecution against the Church, initiated by the Emperor Nero after the burning of Rome. (Having burned Rome to cover his own crimes, Nero accused the Christians of doing the burning.) It is reported that some were burned as human torches, some crucified and others fed to wild animals. Their matryrdom occurred prior to the deaths of Sts. Peter and Paul and it is said that the courage and steadfastness of the martyrs in the face of the torture and death was such a powerful testimony that many became converts to the Church.

I read or hear the accounts of the martyrs and I wonder, could I be that strong? Would I be able to show that kind of courage and faith if I were forced to face that kind of suffering? (Or, like Peter, would I deny knowing the Lord to save my skin?)

How I would so love to say confidently, Hey, no problem…sure I could do what they did. And yet a part of me whispers, please do not put me to the test. And so I sigh and I pray for greater faith…greater trust….greater courage. And I pray that if I am put to the test, that God will give me the courage and the strength and faith of the martyrs.

Saints Peter and Paul

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. At one level, celebrating the two saints together may seem strange; we know there was a certain amount of tension between the two of them at times. However, if one understands the tension between them as reflective of a necessary and dynamic tension that is an inherent part of the Church, a joint celebration of the two makes more sense.

In his book, What is the Point of Being Christian, about which I’ve written before, Timothy Radcliffe, OP, talks about the tension reflected in the Last Supper (specifically, the difference between the bread given just to the disciples and the blood “poured out for many”) between “the gathering into communion of these disciples, Jesus’ close and intimate friends, and the reaching out to all, for the fullness of the Kingdom.” He identifies this as the tension between Peter and Paul.

Peter had been called by Jesus to belong to a community that was in its origins Jewish. Jesus may have reached out to foreigners at times but the inner circle, the apostles, were all Jewish and sent, in the beginning, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This was an understanding of the community which, for many of the first disciples, it would have been unimaginable that one might question. But the Church had hardly been founded when Paul’s reaching out to the Gentiles seemed to subvert the core of its very identity.

Radcliffe speaks of a centrifugal and a centripetal force “whose equilibrium had to be maintained if the Church was to avoid becoming either just another Jewish sect on the one hand, or losing continuity wtih its founder on the other.” The two forces, he suggests, are represented by Peter and Paul, whose dying together in Rome may be viewed as symbolic of the Church’s ability to hang on to the dynamic tension.

Happy Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

How God Works in the World

When one looks at the Jesus’ healing of the woman afflicted with hemorrhages and the raising of Jairus’ daughter in today’s Gospel, or Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant in yesterday’s Gospel, or God’s causing Sarah (who was way past child-bearing age) to be with child in yesterday’s first reading, and then looks at all of the suffering in the world today, there might be a temptation to ask, why isn’t God performing miraculous deeds today? Why doesn’t God step in now the way he did 2000 years ago. If God could make an old woman pregnant and raise a child from the dead, why is God sitting back not doing something about the problems of the world today? Why doesn’t God appear now?

The short answer, of course, is that the way God works in the world now is through us. In the words a young man once used to describe the message of the Ascension: “The ball’s in our court now.”

Throughout the long history chronicled in the Old Testament, while the Israelites waited longingly for the Messiah, God stepped in now and then to remind the people of His promise of salvation and to give them hope. And then God actually became human, fulfilling his promise of salvation through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. God did his part and before Jesus ascended, he commissioned us to do the rest. The victory already being won, he left us to mop up, so to speak.

We don’t always do such a great job of it. And, sure, it would be a whole lot easier if God just snapped his fingers and got rid of evil, fed the world’s hungry and stopped all the wars and all of the strife. But that doesn’t change the reality that it is our task…the reality is that we are called to be God’s agents in the world today. We are called to be Christ to the world. God is there to help us; God gives us the grace we need to accomplish what God wills and does occasionally give us a miracle as a symblo of hope. But He is not going to do the job for us.

Such Faith

Today’s Gospel from Matthew tells of the centurion who appeals to Jesus to heal his servant. When Jesus agrees to come to cure the servant, the centurion responds with the words that are the basis for those we recite at Mass before receiving the Eucharist: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus holds up the centurion to his followers, telling them that “in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” To the centurion, Jesus says, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And the Scripture tells us that “at that very hour” the servant was healed.

Every time I read or hear that passage I wonder if I have the faith of the centurion. Would I have been able to walk away from Jesus, secure that Jesus’ merely saying the words would be enough and that the servant would really be healed when I got home? Or would I have been dragging Jesus by the arm to my home so that I could watch and make sure the servant was healed?

Given my tendancy to want to see things for myself, my frequent habit of double checking things I’ve asked others to do for me to make sure they are actually done, I have to wonder. I think sometimes I’m more like the father of the boy needing healing in Mark’s Gospel, who cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” And so I pray for the faith of the centurion.

Year of the Priest

We recently commenced the Year of the Priest, declared by Pope Benedict XVI to run until June 19, 2010. The year began last week, on June 19, the 150th anniversary of the death of the Cure d’Ars, Jean Vianney, who will be proclaimed as patron saint of all priests.

I confess that I struggle with certain issues surrounding the priesthood, such as the question of ordination of women and the role of the laity in relation to priestly ministry, but those struggles take nothing away from the fine and important work done by those who have been called to the priesthood. I am blessed to have a number of diocesan and order priests among my closest friends and I’ve observed with admiration their commitment to their vocation and the fruits of their labor. I pray freqently for their ministries. (And lately, I have been praying all too frequently for the repose of the souls of priests who have died, most recently a Vincentian priest who died yesterday. RIP)

Here is the prayer suggested by the USCCB to be used by parishes during the Year of the Priest. You may want to consider including some version in your own daily prayer:

Dear Lord,
we pray that the Blessed Mother
wrap her mantle around your priests
and through her intercession
strengthen them for their ministry.

We pray that Mary will guide your priests
to follow her own words,
“Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).

May your priests have the heart of St. Joseph,
Mary’s most chaste spouse.

May the Blessed Mother’s own pierced heart
inspire them to embrace
all who suffer at the foot of the cross.

May your priests be holy,
filled with the fire of your love
seeking nothing but your greater glory
and the salvation of souls.

Amen.

Saint John Vianney, pray for us.

You can read the text of Pope Benedict’s Letter on the Year of the Priest here.

Words and Deeds

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

In other words: talk is cheap. Spouting out the right answers is easy. The real question is, do we live up to our words? Do we act in a way consistent with what we say we believe? (In the words of the old bumper sticker: If I were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence from my acts to convict me?)

In the Gospel, Jesus presents the parable of the wise man and the fool to illutrate the choice we are given: to hear God’s word and act on it or to hear God’s word and reject it for the sake of some worldly goal. Our choice to simply say “Lord, Lord” or to do the will of God.

The invitation to listen to God’s word and to act on it is there for all of us. It is our choice whether to accept it. Our decision whether to accept the advice contained in the Letter of St. James quoted on the sidebar: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like.”

Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist.  I’ve written about John before, as he is one of the figures that occupies a central spot when I visualize the Communion of Saints; he is one of my great insipirations and models.  In this month’s issue of Magnificat, Father Peter John Cameron, OP, gives a number of explanations for why we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.  Among the ones that most resonate with me are these two:

The nativity of Saint John the Baptist is a sacred reminder of the fact that I need born in my life every day:
* someone who leaps with joy before the presence of the Lord making me want to live my own relationship with Jesus with greater ardor and fervor;…
* someone who models for me that there is no greater joy in my life than for Jesus to increase and for me to decrease, especially as regards my self-reliance, my self-assertion, my self-importance.

John understood and embraced that it was about Christ, not about him. He understood that Christ was central – Christ is the light – and that our job is to point the way to, and reflect, the light. Not to try to be the light, but to point the way to the light. And he modeled that this is not a task we perform out of obligation, but rather, out of an incredible joy at Jesus’ presence with us. It is with that joy that we celebrate John’s birth.

A Short Form of the Examen

Part of my daily prayer is to engage in an examen of consciousness, a prayer in which we try to find the movement of the Spirit in our daily lives. This was a prayer that was very important to St. Ignatius and he encouraged all of his followers to make it a part of their daily prayer. (In fact, he asked his Jesuit companions to pray it twice each day.)

I have been including this as part of my daily prayer for at least eight years. There are many methods of doing this prayer; the one I generally do is the one described in this article by Dennis Hamm, S.J., which originally appeared in America magazine. I find it a very helpful part of my day.

During the closing liturgy of a day of retreat and reflection I gave the other day, the priest explained to us a short form of the examen that he uses with his high school students. They do this just before lunch each day. I share it because it seems to me that whether or not one includes a longer examen at the end of each day, this would be a worthwhile exercise to engage in during a break in the middle of our day. His short-form examen has three parts:

Step 1: How do you feel right now? Get in touch with what the feeling is and give it a number from 1-10.

Step 2: Why do you feel that way? What are one or two things that are contributing to the way you are feeling right now? The priest described this as “putting flesh on the number” given in step 1.

Step 3: P&P – praise and petition, or simply – prayer. Pray whatever prayer seems right, whatever you want to say to God given what came up in Steps 1 and 2. Perhaps gratitude…perhaps a plea for some help. Whatever it is, share with God what is going on in you and what you need.

That’s quick and easy enough to work into a mid-day break. Try it.

St. Thomas More

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas More, patron of lawyers. Many of us of a certain age obtained our first knowledge of Thomas More by reading or watching the film version of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play that deals with More’s refusal to endorse Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (which divorce split England permanently from the Catholic Church).

Thus, when we think of More, what we see is a model of a person of principle, someone courageous enough to stand up to the king, even at the cost of his death. And that is a worthy model.  But in how he dealt with others,  More is also a man worthy of imitation. Erasmus wrote this about More in a letter written in 1519:

It is said that none are so free of vice. His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity or dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery. …He seems born and framed for friendship, and is a most faithful and enduring friend . . .When he finds any sincere and according to his heart, he so delights in their society and conversation as to place in it the principal charm of life . . .In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More . . .In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent, if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity…. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. …No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense.

A worthy model, not only for lawyers, but for all of us.

St. Thomas More, pray for us.

Summer Reading: The Death of a Pope

Looking for a change of pace from the books I usually review for the Catholic Company, I selected a novel this time around, The Death of a Pope, by Piers Paul Read. If you are looking for an well-written and enjoyable summer read with Catholic flavor, this is a good choice. I was sufficiently hooked by it that I started it one day and finished it the next. (Think: warm sunny day….hammock.)

It is hard to write a review of a novel without giving away too much of the plot line, thus interfering with a first-time reader’s enjoyment of it. So as to plot, I’ll simply say this thriller concerns the efforts of a former Jesuit – using more than questionable means – to affect the results of the election for a new pope that will take place following the death of Pope John Paul II. (The book begins during the last stages of the previous Pope’s life.) His efforts involve the manipulation of the affections and idealism of a young female reporter and a willingness to be the cause of the death of the entire council of cardinals.

The novel manages to present the clash between the “conservative” and “liberal” arms of the Catholic Church without turning either into a stereotype or a caricature. Whatever Read’s own leanings may be, neither side is presented as so clearly right as cause one to discount the other. He conveys the sense of how each side believes strongly in the wisdom of its positions and in their adherence to the Gospel. He also raises in a powerful way some of the controversial issues that divide the “conservative” and “liberal” arms of the Church, especially the use of contraceptives to prevent the spread of AIDs, but also issues such as the ordination of women.

Read tells a good story that reveals great insight into the workings of the Church, points out the dangers of thinking the ends justify the means and illustrates that good motives are not always enough. At the same time that it entertains, it also provokes some serious thought about what it means to do the will of God and what the role of the Church ought to be in bringing justice to the world.