As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”Matthew 9:9-13
July 1 is the Feast of the Precious Blood of Jesus in the Passionist calendar. It was a feast dear to St. Vincent Strambi, an Italian Passionist who lived in the 19th century as Europe was convulsed by Napoleon’s dreams of world conquest. Over 4 million people, military and civilian, were killed in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that stretched out for decades afterwards. Bent on victory, Napoleon saw war and the blood shed in mass warfare as the price of empire.
Strambi had great devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus and often preached about it. He saw the blood shed by soldiers in fierce battles raging through Europe and by those suffering in “collateral damage” as a new crucifixion. Their blood mingled with the blood of Jesus, a precious blood that God mourned and judged holy.
The Feast of the Precious Blood not only turns our eyes to the blood flowing from Jesus’ side as he died on the cross, but it calls us to count precious the blood shed in today’s wars, persecutions, capital punishment, and the sufferings of the poor.
Painters like Durer (above) pictured angels holding cups catching blood from Jesus’ wounds. Don’t let his blood fall to the ground unnoticed, he tells us. It’s precious. All human life is precious.
He entered a boat, made the crossing, and came into his own town. And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, “Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He rose and went home. When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings.Matthew 9:1-8
The faith of friends
Heaven’s will bends?
The couplet ends in wonder because theologians themselves debate the workings of divine providence. How can God be both “immutable” (lacking imperfection) and also be moved by the prayers of the faithful? Does prayer change God?
Any attempted solution comes from a “perspective,” which by definition is limited. From the perspective of time, observers mark the changes of being and becoming, and it appears that prayer changes God.
From the “perspective of eternity” (a contradictory notion), God is “the simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life” (definition of Boethius as quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica 1.10.1). Accordingly, God does not change.
Eternity and time, primary and secondary causes, find their convergence in God beyond all concepts and “perspectives,” even beyond the concept of God.
In Aquinas’ classic solution, prayer fulfills God’s unchangeable will from all eternity (ST 2-2.83.2c).
St. Thomas realized at the end of his life, however, that all words fail to circumscribe the uncircumscribable: “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me” (December 6, 1273 after a mystical experience).
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.
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 was at his seaside villa in Anzio and delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence, people wondered if 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 it went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly 60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in Rome then; some were followers of Jesus and had broken away from the Jewish community even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city.(cf. The Letter to the Romans)
Following usual procedure, the Roman authorities seized some 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)
How did the Roman Christians react to this absurd, unjust tragedy? They had to ask why God permitted this and did not stop it. Fellow believers were among those who turned them in.
Some scholars say the Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy, was likely written to answer these questions. innocent and good, Jesus 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 gives an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion.. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers, Peter prominent among them.
Finally, the Roman Christians afterwards would surely wonder whether to stay in this city, an evil city like Babylon. Should they go to a safer, better place? The Christians remained in the city. I wonder if the “Quo Vadis?” story was a story prompted by questions like these ?
The martyrs of Rome strengthen us to stand where we are and do God’s will, inspired by the Passion of Christ.
A video about the persecution is at the beginning of today’s 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.
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.”
After this, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish. When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.John 21:1-11
“We are all called to be holy. ‘Each in his or her own way,’” Pope Francis says in his exhortation “ Gaudete et exultate”. We’re all different; saints are different too.
Today, the church remembers St. Irenaeus, yesterday we remembered St. Cyril of Alexandria. Two different people, two different saints.. Cyril was a forceful, confrontative bishop of Alexandria; Irenaeus, as his name suggests, was a fair man and a peacemaker.
I learned about Irenaeus many years ago in a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism threatened Christianity in the 2nd century; afterwards most of its writings were destroyed. A large cache of its writings buried in the sands of Egypt had been recently unearthed and Father Orbe was just back after studying them. Until then, the Gnostic teachings were known mostly through the writings of St. Irenaeus, whom we honor today.,
Fr. Orbe observed that as he compared the gnostic writings to Irenaeus’ reports of them he was struck how accurately and fairly Irenaeus described them,, not distorting anything they said or omitting their ideas. He was fair and respectful. Irenaeus was fair minded and respectful to friend and foe alike. He was a peace-maker. Cyril of Alexandria was different. He would have left those writings buried in the sands of Egypt.
Irenaeus is not a bad example for today when hot words and smear attacks, distortions and lies dominate so much communication. Peace makers like him don’t destroy, they heal and unite. That’s why they’re called blessed. He was named the 37th Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis in 2022, who said he was a “Doctor of Church Unity.”
Irenaeus also had a deep respect for creation. Some scholars today insist that the ancient gnostics were broadminded, creative people–rather like themselves– more progressive than the plodding, conservative people of the “great church”– a term Irenaeus used..
In fact, the gnostics made the world smaller than it is, because they made much of the world evil, only some of it meant anything at all. Forget about the rest of it.
All creation is God’s, Irenaeus wrote. “With God, there is nothing without purpose, nothing without its meaning or reason.” All creation is charged with the glory of God.
Irenaeus saw the Eucharist as a sign of this. Bread and wine represent all creation. God comes to us through these earthly signs. We go to God through them.
“God keeps calling us to what is primary by what is secondary, that is, through things of time to things of eternity, through things of the flesh to things of the spirit, through earthly things to heavenly things.”
We should not demean creation, Ireneaus taught. That’s also the message of Pope Francis in “Laudato si.”
Some today might strongly object to some of those we honored recently in our calendar as saints. John Fischer and Thomas More (June 22) lived in the fierce world of the Reformation and English power politics. Cyril of Alexandria (June 27) was bishop of Alexandria in Egypt when that city was being fought over by rival factions, and he was in there fighting with the rest of them. Junipero Serra (July 1) was part of the Spanish colonization of the New World. His statue was recently toppled in San Francisco as a subjugator of the native peoples.
So, are these people really saints?
Saints, according to the The Second Vatican Council, are examples of the “whole mystery of Christ” and God’s power on earth. Their feasts “proclaim and renew the paschal mystery of Christ.” (Paul VI) They’re examples of faith in their time, and they help us envision faith for our time. They offer a panoramic view of the journey of the church over the centuries.
Saints assure us that “holiness is not bound by time and place,” still, they’re men and women of their time and place, and so they have their limitations. We can’t understand them unless we appreciate the world they lived in. The saints in our calendar recently are examples.
Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et exultate” describes ordinary holiness in our world, beginning with“the saints next door”. “Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord. Amid their faults and failings they persevere.”
Canonized saints have faults and failings too, the pope says. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (22)
Later in his letter, Francis cautions about the dangers of modern day Pelagianism: “When some say ‘ all things can be accomplished with God’s grace’, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is added. They fail to realize that not everyone can do everything, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. ” (49)
No one, not even a saint, is perfect, the pope says. In an imperfect society there are no perfect people. We all await the mercy of God. That’s good to remember when we consider Saints Thomas More and John Fischer, Cyril of Alexandria, and Junipero Serra and so many others.
They were holy, but not perfect. They lived in an imperfect society, as we live in one today. Yet, they were seen by many as their lives ended, not as unscrupulous political figures or colonial oppressors, but as people reflecting Jesus Christ and recipients of his mercy.
We’re reading from the Prophet Amos this week at Mass. As he speaks to 8th century Israel his message is “one of unrelieved gloom,” one commentator says. Free from wars, Israel was far from gloomy. Its rich were getting richer and enjoying the “good life”, at the expense of the poor. The religious authorities said nothing. The only voice raised was the voice of a poor, uneducated farmer who cultivated figs, Amos.
Amos spoke for God: “I hate, I spurn your feasts…I take no pleasure in your solemnities…Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.” Destruction awaited a people unconcerned about the poor.
Still, God offers mercy to his people as we hear on Saturday in one of Amos’ most beautiful passages, echoes of which inspired Martin Luther KIng’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
“On that day I will raise up
the fallen hut of David;
I will wall up its breaches,
raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old…
Yes, days are coming,
says the LORD,
When the plowman shall overtake the reaper,
and the vintager, him who sows the seed;
The juice of grapes shall drip down the mountains,
and all the hills shall run with it.
I will bring about the restoration of my people Israel;
they shall rebuild and inhabit their ruined cities,
Plant vineyards and drink the wine,
set out gardens and eat the fruits.
I will plant them upon their own ground;
never again shall they be plucked
From the land I have given them,
say I, the LORD, your God.” (Amos 9,11-15)
A beautiful definition of mercy. God comes to humanity at its worst, in its sham, its blindness, its evil, and raises it up again. Mercy does not depend on merit. It’s God loving us in spite of ourselves.
We see mercy best as it’s exemplified in the Passion of Jesus. In spite of hypocrisy and injustice, God offers his love to heedless humanity and the promise of a kingdom.
Have mercy on us, O Lord.