Author Archives: vhoagland

The Precious Blood

durer crucifixion

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.

The First Martyrs of Rome: June 30

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 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.”

Saint Irenaeus

Tagbha carol roth

“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.”

Are Saints Really Saints?

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.

The Quality of Mercy

The Prophet Amos. by August Done

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.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (d.444)

To be a saint doesn’t mean you’re perfect, Pope Francis says in his exhortation “Gaudete et exsultate“, on holiness in today’s world. That’s good to remember when we consider St.Cyril of Alexandria, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the church, whose feast is today, June 26th.

If you read his online biography in Wikipedia–where many today look for information about saints – you’ll find that he was deeply involved in the messy partisan politics of his time, when Christians, Jews and pagans fought and schemed to control the city that was then probably the most important city in the Roman empire. Some called him a “proud Pharaoh;” “ a monster” out to destroy the church, an impulsive, scheming bishop in a riotous city. The Wikipedia biography mainly sees him that way.

He was a saint, other biographies say. Why a saint? Well, Cyril was absorbed in understanding and defending the Incarnation of the Word of God. How did the Word of God come among us? Who was Jesus Christ? Pursuing that mystery defined Cyril during life. It was at the heart of things for him, and the voluminous collection of sermons, letters, commentaries and controversial essays he left bears out that interest.

He thought and wrote extensively about this mystery. The way he came to express it was used at the Council of Ephesus (431) and became the way we also express it in our prayers. Mary was the Mother of God. The One born of her was not simply another human being. Her Son was true God, who would be truly human and eventually die on the Cross. God “so loved the world” that he came among us as Mary’s Son.

What we see as “the totality” of Cyril’s life, his “life’s jouney”, the “overall meaning of his person”, to use the pope’s words, is not his involvement in the violent politics of his day. Yes, that was there. But his abiding quest was to know Jesus Christ.

“‘The Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14], can mean nothing else but that he became flesh and blood like ours; he made our body his own and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was. 

“This is the correct faith proclaimed everywhere. The holy teachers taught this and so they called the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity began from the holy Virgin, but because that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word, personally united, was born of her according to the flesh.”

— St. Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Nestorius

“When poisonous pride swells up in you, turn to the Eucharist; and that Bread, which is your God humbling and disguising himself, will teach you humility. When the fever of selfish greed rages in you, feed on this Bread; and you will learn generosity. When you feel the itch of intemperance, nourish yourself with the Flesh and Blood of Christ, who practiced heroic self-control during His earthly life, and you will become temperate. When you are lazy and sluggish about spiritual things, strengthen yourself with this heavenly Food; and you will grow fervent. Lastly, when you feel scorched by the fever of impurity, go to the banquet of the Angels; and the spotless Flesh of Christ will make you pure and chaste.”

13th Week of the Year: Readings and Feasts

JUNE 27 Mon Weekday [St Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church]

Am 2:6-10, 13-16/Mt 8:18-22 

28 Tue St Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr Memorial Am 3:1-8; 4:11-12/Mt 8:23-27 

29 Wed St PETER AND PAUL, Solemnity

Acts 12:1-11/2 Tm 4:6-8, 17-18/Mt 16:13-19 

30 Thu Weekday ( First Martyrs of the Roman Church] Am 7:10-17/Mt 9:1-8

Feast of the Precious Blood, Heb 7: 11-17/Mk 14:12-24 

1 Fri Weekday [USA: St Junípero Serra, Priest] Am 8:4-6, 9-12/Mt 9:9-13

2 Sat Weekday Am 9:11-15/Mt 9:14-17 

JULY 3 SUN FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Is 66:10-14c/Gal 6:14-18/Lk 10:1-12, 17-20 or 10:1-9 

We’re reading from the Book of Amos this week, the farmer who became a prophet.

Cyril of Alexandria (Monday) and Irenaeus ( Tuesday) were early saints who helped define the faith we believe in as Christians. On Wednesday we celebrate the founders of our church, Peter and Paul, who were put to death in Rome during Nero’s persecution. That feast is followed onThursday by the remembrance of the unknown number of martyrs who died in the same persecution

On Saturday we celebrate one of the founders of the church in America, Juniper Serra.

The weekday gospel readings from Matthew describe Jesus gathering disciples after preaching on the mount, and the beginning of the opposition to him. 

My Passionist Reflections on the Sacred Heart

                                                                                          By Orlando Hernandez

     The other day I came across an article that said that the Traditional Passionist Mission Prayer was actually written by the beloved St. Gabriel Possenti.

I was glad to read that. This prayer alludes to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and His incredible mercy upon us sinners:

     “You (Jesus) have loved me with an infinite love, and I have taken advantage of that Love to sin the more against You. Yet my ingratitude has but pierced Your Sacred Heart, and upon me has flowed Your Precious Blood. Lord Jesus, let Your Blood be upon me, not for a curse, but for a blessing. Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. Amen.”

     It always leaves me feeling somewhat guilty, and rightfully so, but I must not forget the incredible beauty, goodness, and absolute Life that is contained in that Saving Blood. 

     This Monday I was pruning some vines in my garden with a hand clipper and accidentally cut into my index finger. I went to the door of the house to stop the bleeding with some paper towels but the door was locked and I had to wait for my wife to open it for me. During those long seconds I marveled at the amount of the precious red stuff that I was shedding. It was running down my fingers and hand. There were blood stains all over the concrete floor, and running down the door. Wow! This was part of me flowing out of my body; it was alive, being pumped by my accelerated heart. Suddenly the memory of the Passionist Prayer came to me. Our Lord bled so much more for us. His Blood was alive, holy, powerful, healing and saving. And yet, His was also human blood (the plasma, the cells) like mine! I actually smiled, bemused, in gratitude to our Beloved Jesus, giver of life. All anxiety was gone. I went into the house and stopped the bleeding with some paper towels. My Lord never had that chance. This incident led me to pray upon and meditate on the devotion to Jesus’ Sacred Heart.

     It seems that my patron saint, St. Paul of the Cross, was well acquainted with the story of Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque and her devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He often referred to this in his writings as a way into deep prayer and mystical experience, which eventually leads to the practice of love of neighbor: 

     “ Never stop placing yourself in the Holy of Holies, which is the most pure Heart of Jesus. Love Him with the love of His own heart.” And, “Continually drink in the love of Jesus at the fountain of His most sweet Heart. You cannot pass on to the contemplation of the Infinite and Immense Divinity, without entering through the door of the Divine humanity of Jesus, especially by imitating His most sublime virtues.”

     These encouragements led me into different prayers throughout the week. But the devotion that most touched me was this: “Above all I recommend interior solitude, and I pray you to fly in spirit to the dear Heart of Jesus. Once there lock yourself inside with the Gold Key of God’s love, placing that precious key on the most pure Heart of Mary most holy, Mother of Sorrows.”

     Upon reading this I fell into a meditation where I stood next to the Blessed Mother before the Cross of Jesus, immediately after the spear had been thrust into His side. “In spirit”, as St. Paul had said, Mary takes me by the hand up the still living stream of blood and water flowing from the ghastly wound, towards the cut on His Heart. She hands me the flaming Key of the Spirit of Love so I may enter within. There’s no time to feel unworthy or afraid. Inside this vast “Holy of Holies” a multitude of images flow: the warm endless sea of Papa’s love surrounds me, the infinite life and mercy of the Divine, sheltering the whole planet Earth, every living and non-living thing, every atom, every particle, the planets, the galaxies, billions of them, all within the Heart of Love of the unfathomable God. Everything else is beyond words. All I know is that He loves me, and man, I love Him back! Thank You, thank You, Beloved! Grant me the will, the strength, and the wisdom to share Your Love with the world.

     More advice from St. Paul of the Cross: “Plunge yourself completely into the bottomless abyss of Divine Love and into the red sea of the Most Holy Passion of Jesus. This sea is born of the infinite Love of God. Walk always in greater simplicity, humility, hiddenness , leaving yourself in holy freedom to walk towards God as He draws you in prayer.”