Tag Archives: early church

Saint Stephen, the Deacon

Stephen martry
Our readings from the  Acts of the Apostles this week  tell us one thing about the early church: it doesn’t evolve through human planning but from God’s plan. The disciples  certainly didn’t expect Stephen.

The church was pretty settled in Jerusalem after Jesus rose from the dead, according to Acts. The followers of Jesus, good Jews, continued to worship in the temple. Yes, there  were occasional squabbles with the Jewish leaders, but they worshipped and preached in Jerusalem. It was their world. Besides praying in the temple, they met together, probably on Mount Sion where the Last Supper was celebrated. They broke bread and prayed there.

They were mostly Galileans at first, then others joined them from elsewhere. One of them was Stephen.

Stephen was a new-comer. He may have been a Samaritan, which may explain his polemic against the Judaism of the day.  The scriptures see him as one who follows Jesus in his passion. So many of his sufferings are like those Jesus endured. But he was also the cause of the first scattering of believers to other places. He was brash and undiplomatic. I would guess some of the Galileans didn’t like him.

Yes, he was a saint, but a hard-nosed saint.

He brought  change, or better, God did.

Readings here.

Morning and evening prayers, 3rd week,  here.  

Saints Cornelius and Cyprian


Today the church celebrates two early saints and martyrs, Cornelius, a pope who died in 253, and Cyprian, a bishop who was martyred in Roman Africa shortly after in 258.

At the time barbarian tribes in the west and the Persians in the east were invading Roman territory; the Roman emperors Decius and Valerian called for absolute loyalty from their people. The empire was imperiled.

To prove their loyalty, Roman citizens lined to offer sacrifice in honor of the emperor. Christians refused, and so at first church leaders were executed or imprisoned, wealthy, influential Christians lost their property, their positions and possibly their lives. Finally, all Christians could expect punishment for not performing the rites of sacrifice.

Not every Christian remained loyal to the faith at the time. Many offered sacrifice, betraying their faith, then afterwards sought to return to the church. Hard liners called for them to be banned for life for their lack of loyalty. Let God judge them when they die, they said. Others, like Cornelius and Cyprian, called to reconcile them after a time of penance, since God is all merciful.

Mercy and justice are always hard to reconcile. The gospels come down on the side of mercy. So should we.

In the persecution, Cornelius, bishop of Rome, was executed first, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in Africa, was executed a few years later. The two men were from different social backgrounds and not always on good terms, historians say, but they found support in their common faith, as this letter of Cyprian to Cornelius, written shortly before Cornelius’ death, reveals:

“Cyprian to my brother Cornelius,

Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle praised in your community. He foresaw in spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that can not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons.

Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of us. Divine providence has now prepared us. God’s merciful design has warned us that the day of our own struggle, our own contest, is at hand. By that shared love which binds us close together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils and prayers in common. These are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure; they are the spiritual defences, the God-given armaments that protect us.  

Let us then remember one another, united in mind and heart. Let us pray without ceasing, you for us, we for you; by the love we share we shall thus relieve the strain of these great trials.”

Love shared relieves the strain of trials.

Saints John and Paul, excavations

I just finished showing some friends of mine our church of Saints John and Paul here in Rome and realized once again what a wonderful place it is to describe some history of the Catholic Church.

Underneath the present church are excavations that are among the most important in Rome–houses from the second century, about 20 rooms in all– which reveal a great deal about daily life in the ancient city. The excavations are now the responsibility of a government sponsored agency, the “Fondo Edifici di Culto – Ministero dell’Interno.” You can get to them through a side entrance along the Clivus Scauri.

I’m interested especially in the ancient house church found in the excavations, which goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when, as the Acts of the Apostles is the first to indicate, believers throughout the empire met in homes or small, inconspicuous buildings for worship. The house church developed in a complex of 2nd century apartment buildings and a wealthy home along the Clivus Scauri, an ancient street that winds down the Celian Hill towards the Palatine.

The wealthy home became a Christian center, decorated with Christian paintings and a mosaic floor. So before Constantine brought freedom of worship to them in the early 4th century, Christians from the Celian Hill, most likely influential Romans for the most part, worshipped here, just a short distance away from the imperial palaces and buildings at the heart of official Rome.

Here they baptized new members and celebrated the Eucharist much like St. Justin, a second-century Roman writer, describes in his Apology, a letter addressed to the emperor, but really intended for the Roman public with mistaken ideas about Christianity:

“No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.

We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: Do this in memory of me. This is my body. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: This is my blood. The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.

On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give assent by saying, “Amen”. The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.

The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need.

We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.”

That’s a rather complete description of what went on in this house church in the 2nd century. Think about it– Justin says a lot in those few paragraphs.

I noticed the agency controlling the excavations offers the opportunity to come on certain evenings to hear archeologists describe what happened in these old Roman houses. I wonder if they make use of Justin’s description of 2nd second Christian worship. Hope so.

The story of this complex gets even more interesting. According to tradition, John and Paul, officers of the Emperor Constantine (312-37), suffered martyrdom by execution in the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363), and were buried here in their own house. So this is also a site where Christian martyrs are honored. Another dimension is added to the story of this place.

Early fifth century Pammachius, a Roman senator, who evidently own the complex (it’s called in early documents the “titulus Pammachii”–he has the deed) built a church over the complex of buildings. Now freed from second class status by Constantine’s efforts, the Christian communities of Rome began to build fine churches.  Eventually, Pammachius’ church was called the Basilica of Saints John and Paul.

My hypothesis, which I’ve developed in an earlier blog, is that Pammachius’ church, built in the “show area” of Rome, as Krautheimer calls it,  is part of a Christian effort to influence Romans still resistant to Christianity by offering them a vital spirituality that is both biblical and monastic.

Then the barbarians and earthquakes came, and those dreams seem to have come to an end. But the old church is still there. Who knows how God works?
I’d like to make a video presentation about this. Mauro is coming to Rome next week.
Help me, Mauro.