When he came to the other side, to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met him. They were so savage that no one could travel by that road. They cried out, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?” Some distance away a herd of many swine was feeding. The demons pleaded with him, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go then!” They came out and entered the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea where they drowned. The swineherds ran away, and when they came to the town they reported everything, including what had happened to the demoniacs. Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged him to leave their district.Matthew 8:28-34
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.
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
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.”
Pierre Toussaint died in New York City June 30, 1853. Today the remains of Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who came to the United States as a Haitian slave, rest under the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He is venerated by the Catholic Church and his cause for sainthood is underway.
Saints are important in the Catholic Church. They witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their time and place, for one thing, but they also have a predictive role. They point out the direction the church and the world should take now under the guidance of the Spirit. For this reason we pay attention to them. They bless their own days and our days too.
What does Pierre Toussaint tell us about our American church today? He brings important issues, racism and systemic racism, before us. When he came to this country in 1787 about half of the households in New York City had slaves. Slaves built much of the city’s early structures. Toussaint only received his freedom in 1807.
After slavery was completely abolished in 1841 in New York, black people and people of color faced systemic discrimination in housing, education, jobs and health care. They still face these issues today.
Toussaint was an example of the goodness and gifts of his race to the people of his time. He changed the way they thought; he gained their appreciation and challenged them to be just. Saints bless their own times and times to come.
So listen for 12 minutes to his story. May he bless us.
“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.
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.”
June 28 Mon Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr Memorial
Gn 18:16-33/Mt 8:18-22
29 Tue SAINTS PETER AND PAUL, APOSTLES Solemnity
Acts 12:1-11/2 Tm 4:6-8, 17-18/Mt 16:13-19
30 Wed Weekday [The First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church]
Gn 21:5, 8-20a/Mt 8:28-34
July 1 Thu Weekday [USA: Saint Junípero Serra, Priest]
Gn 22:1b-19/Mt 9:1-8
2 Fri Weekday Gn 23:1-4, 19; 24:1-8, 62-67/Mt 9:9-13
3 Sat Saint Thomas, Apostle Feast Eph 2:19-22/Jn 20:24-29
4 SUN FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Ez 2:2-5/2 Cor 12:7-10/Mk 6:1-6a
The Genesis stories read this week recall Sarah’s death and her burial in land promised to Abraham by God. They also recall Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, securing the promise of heirs to Abraham. The last great test God gives to Abraham is recalled on Thursday, when God asks him to sacrifice his son.
Three important apostles are recalled in feasts this week: Peter and Paul and Thomas.
Morning and Evening Prayer: week 2 here.
There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.”Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who has touched my clothes?” But his disciples said to him, “You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. The woman, realizing what had happened to her, approached in fear and trembling. She fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”Mark 5:25-34
For this week’s homily, please watch the video below.