Tag Archives: Nero

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.

Reading Mark’s Gospel

Mark

After the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus until Ash Wednesday we read at Mass from the first 8 chapters of the Gospel of Mark, describing Jesus ministry in Galilee. This year Mark’s Gospel is also read most Sundays.

Mark’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem or events surrounding it but begins the story of Jesus with his baptism in the Jordan River by John. As Jesus comes from the waters, the heavens open; the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and “A voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” 

Others after being baptized in the Jordan continued up the road to Jerusalem and its temple, but in Mark’s Gospel Jesus does not. Led by the Spirit, he remains in the Judean desert and is tempted by the devil for 40 days– a prelude to what he faces in Galilee and later in Jerusalem. After 40 days, Jesus takes the road north along the Jordan River to the Sea of Galilee and the rich farmlands that surround it. 

For the first 8 chapters of his gospel, Mark describes Jesus teaching and performing miracles in the heavily populated towns around the lake, in the Jewish towns first, then in the gentile region. 

Over the centuries, Mark’s gospel never received the attention given to the gospels of  Matthew, John or Luke. Mark was a simple synopsis of Matthew’s gospel, earlier commentators thought. Commentators today recognize Mark as the first gospel to be written and a gospel that tells the story of Jesus through simple, powerful symbols.  

Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins the story of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River, where he is revealed as God’s beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. The Jordan is a sacred river. Water, blessed by the Spirit, is a recurring image throughout the 8 chapters of Mark’s gospel. It marks the progress of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.

“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,” Jesus calls some fishermen, Simon, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, to come after him, “and I will make you fishers of men.” They are witnesses who will draw others to Jesus. (Mark 1, 16-19)

After two exciting days in Capernaum, Jesus’ ministry expands:  ‘Once again he went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.” (Mark 2:13-14) Growing numbers gather, by the sea, and Jesus adds Matthew, an outsider, to be among his immediate followers.  

Ever growing crowds, now from gentile areas as well as Jewish, come to him by the sea. “Jesus withdrew toward the sea with his disciples. A large number of people [followed] from Galilee and from Judea. Hearing what he was doing, a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.” (Matthew 3, 7-9)  

He teaches in parables, by the sea. “On another occasion he began to teach by the sea. A very large crowd gathered around him so that he got into a boat on the sea and sat down. And the whole crowd was beside the sea on land. And he taught them at length in parables.” (Matthew 4, 1-2 ) 

The sea is more than a geographic reference in Mark’s Gospel. The Spirit is moving in its waters, drawing more and more to Jesus, God’s Son. John Donahue SJ,  in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press, 2002) sees the various crossings of the Sea of Galilee by Jesus and his disciples as symbolic. Sailing from the western side of the sea, largely Jewish, to the eastern side, largely gentile, they bring the gospel to gentiles and well as Jews. The storms at sea are more than historic storms; one sees in them the fear and challenges that inevitably must be faced if the gospel is to be brought to others.(Mark 6:45-52)

The journeys Jesus takes with his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, seaports on the Mediterranean Sea, are more than historical markers. Healing the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man there, both gentiles, Jesus indicates that the gospel must be brought over the seas to the gentiles at ends of the earth. ( Mark 7:24-37) 

Jesus multiplies bread on both sides of the sea in Mark’s Gospel. The gentiles are to be fed and blessed as well as Jews. (Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10)

In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples cross the Jordan to go up to Judea and Jerusalem. (Mark 10:1) They cross the sacred river marking the boundary to the Promised Land, where Jesus will suffer and die and rise again.

Beginning his gospel with the Baptism of Jesus, Mark reminds us that Jesus comes into our world as God’s beloved Son, led and accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. Water is a significant sign of God’s presence. Entering the waters of the world, Jesus blessed them. We who are baptized in water are called to follow him and listen to him.

Mark’s Gospel reminds us through the symbol of water that we grow in faith, as individuals and as a world. The Spirit is poured out, gradually but surely. We grow in understanding, gradually but surely. The world itself receives the message, gradually but surely. 

Mark’s Gospel reveals the power of God, but more than the other gospels the weakness and incomprehension of his followers. Over and over, Mark notes they did not understand. Not only do Pharisees, scribes and Herodians, the followers of Herod Antiphas, not understand, but his own disciples, members of his family do not understand. And neither do we. But still, the water flows, softening, cleansing, strengthening, giving new life. 

Mark’s Gospel has been called an extended story of the Passion of Jesus. It was written, many commentators says, to support Roman Christians caught in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early church without warning, causing many to be betrayed and killed. Mark depicts the absurd suffering Jesus experienced and his betrayal by his own followers, especially Peter, the apostle. 

Our readings from Mark end before Ash Wednesday.  

The Feast of St. Mark

Mark
May 25th is the Feast of St. Mark, author of one of the gospels. We can forget real people wrote the gospels, but the medieval portrait above shows the evangelist real enough as he adjusts his spectacles and pours over a book, surely his gospel. A lion looks up at him, the powerful voice of God.

He’s an old man, his eyes are going,  He has to be old if he’s a disciple of Peter, as tradition claims. Mark’s gospel appears shortly before or after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. If he’s the author of the gospel, as it’s said,  he’s in his 70s at least.

He may have written his account in Rome, where he came with Peter, who calls Mark in his 1st Letter “my son.”  In 64 AD, the Christians of the city experienced a vicious persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero. Peter and Paul died in that persecution. For years afterwards, Christian survivors were still asking themselves, no doubt, why it happened.

They say Mark wrote his gospel in answer to that dreadful experience. He would have heard Peter’s witness to Jesus many times; he knows his story.

Mark was not just a stenographer repeating Peter’s eyewitness account; he’s adapted the apostle’s story, adding material and insights of his own. For a long time Mark’s gospel was neglected, but scholars today admire it for its simplicity and masterful story telling. It’s the first gospel written and Matthew and Luke derive much of their material from it.

I like the wonderful commentary: The Gospel of Mark, in the Sacra Pagina series from Liturgical Press, by John Donohue,SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Collegeville, Min. 2002). A great guide to this gospel and its rich message.

It offers a unique wisdom. It does not flinch before the mystery of suffering. We can’t understand it. There’s a darkness about this gospel that makes it applicable to times like ours. We’re disciples of Jesus.We must follow him, no matter what.

Father,
You gave St. Mark the privilege of proclaiming your gospel. May we profit by his wisdom and follow Christ more faithfully. Grant this, through Christ, your Son.

Stations of the Cross

 

 

 

 

 

See also Stations of the Cross by young people at: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2018/documents/ns_lit_doc_20180330_via-crucis-meditazioni_en.html

Reading the Gospel of Mark

MarkThe Gospel of Mark, the first of the four gospels, written sometime between the year 65 to 70 AD. Each year it’s read on weekdays, from chapter 1-9, following the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus until Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. This year it’s also read on Sundays through the year.

Mark’s gospel begins. not with Jesus’ birth, but with his Baptism, announced by John the Baptist.After his temptation in the desert, Jesus immediately goes into Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God is at hand.

In each weekday reading Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, by miracles and powerful signs. He also faces growing opposition that eventually brings him to death.

From its very beginning, Mark’s Gospel offers intimations of the tragic mystery of the Passion of Jesus. Coming from the Jordan River where he is baptized by John, Jesus is led “at once” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. “ He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1,13) In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus constantly faces the forces of evil and death.

Almost half of Mark’s 16 chapters describe the final period of Jesus life, when he went up to Jerusalem and suffered, died and rose again. As chapter 8 ends, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. “You are the Messiah,” Peter answers, but Jesus announces he must go up to Jerusalem and be rejected and killed and raised up. Peter will have nothing to do with it. In response, Jesus calls him “Satan” and tells him he’s thinking as man thinks and not as God does.

In God’s thinking, Jesus, his Son, must die and rise again. All who follow him must do the same. Peter’s not alone in not understanding God’s thinking; all the disciples, including us, are slow to understand. Our lack of understanding is emphasized in Mark’s gospel, which some have called “A passion narrative with an extended introduction,”

Many commentators say that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome for the Christians of that city who suffered in the first great persecution of the church by Nero after a fire consumed the city in 64 AD.

I lived in Rome for a few years in the Monastery of Saints John and Paul on the Celian Hill. The monastery was built over the Temple of Claudius; its gardens were once part of Nero’s gardens. From its heights you could see the Circus Maximus a short distance away where the great fire of 64 AD started and the extensive area that burned in the fire, up to Tiber River. Probably over a million people were affected by it.

The Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and had many of them arrested and put to death in his gardens and at the Vatican circus across the city.

I was living in the gardens where some of those early Christians were put to death, I believe. On the other side of the Colosseum, a short distance away, was the Roman prefecture and prison were many of them would likely have been held and sentenced. The Church of St. Peter in Chains stands there today.

I narrated a video about that church and the early persecution which may help you understand the church Mark wrote for. The persecution must have had a devastating affect on the Christians of Rome at the time, innocent people completely taken by surprise by this brutal injustice. They didn’t understand it at all. Neither did his first disciples understand, Mark’s gospel says.

Evil Doesn’t Have Its Way

Beheading JohnToday we read a long narrative from Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 6) describing the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. It’s been called a “Passion Account before the Passion of Jesus.”

Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had his capitol in Tiberias a short distance from Capernaum where much of Jesus’ ministry took place. He certainly knew what Jesus was doing and what people were saying about him. Some said he was Elijah, or a prophet. But what caught Herod’s attention especially was talk that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.

Herod had arrested John and imprisoned him, probably in his fortress at Macherius near the Dead Sea. Then, influenced by his wife Herodias, who resented John’s criticism of their marriage– which violated Jewish law– Herod had John put to death.

The story told in great detail in Mark’s Gospel is an example of evil, oppressive power at its worst. Herodias’ daughter Salome dances at one of Herod’s bloated banquets and elicits his promise to do anything she asks for. “What shall I ask?” Salome asks her mother. “The head of John the Baptist,” is her answer.

Later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah. “I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9, 13) Like Jesus, John suffers and is treated with contempt.

The story of John’s beheading by Herod prepares Mark’s readers for the story of the Passion of Jesus. Both stories were meant to help Mark’s first audience, Roman Christians, face the sudden, absurd persecution inflicted on them by the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s. Like Herod, Nero seemed supremely powerful. They could not see it yet, but evil would not have its way. The Son of Man would rise from the dead and be glorified. So would they.

That’s the lesson we should take from this story too. Evil doesn’t have its way.

June 30th

June 30th, following the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we celebrate the early Christian martyrs put to death by Nero after the disastrous fire that burned down much of the city July 19, 64 AD. If I were in Rome today I would go to the church of Saint Peter in Chains or to the gardens of Saints John and Paul on the Celian Hiill to remember them.

The two apostles were put to death around this time and many (we don’t know how many) followed them.

There’s a blog and a video on the church of St. Peter in Chains here and here.And a video on the Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Saints John and Paul here. There’s also a video on the Quo Vadis story here.

The persecution and martyrdom  in 64 throws light on the creation of the Gospel of Mark, which many think was written in Rome afterwards.

One thing I think this feast and the Gospel of Mark suggests: the Church of Rome did not flee from the uncertainty and persecution it faced then. I think the Quo Vadis story indicates that. It didn’t give up.

We pray today:

Father,

you sanctified the Church of Rome

with the blood of its first martyrs.

May we find strength from their courage

and rejoice in their triumph.

We ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son.

The First Christian Martyrs of Rome

The old churches of Rome are wonderful guides to its Christian past. As a student almost 50 years ago I went through them with books like Hertling and Kirschbaum’s The Roman Catacombs and Their Martrys, a book I still keep at hand along with newer ones.

The 5th century church of Saint Peter in Chains is a church I’ve always associated with the First Marytrs of the Church of Rome, a feast we celebrate today, right after the feast of the apostles, Peter and Paul.

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It was built near the Roman Prefecture, where people were dragged in chains to be interrogated, tortured, and made to face Roman justice. The Romans were sticklers for procedure. You had to be tried in court. Many Christians–we are not sure how many–were brought to justice near this church. Those chains above may actually come from the nearby Roman jail.

I wrote about it here , and I have a video you can see here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “untitled“, posted with vodpod

Start Somewhere

I was happy to see the Vatican launch out onto Youtube.  The digital generation spends a lot a time there, so why not reach out to them? Maybe we don’t have all the whistles and bells, but let’s start somewhere.

At the Travel Show in the Javits Center in New York City last Sunday, crowds of people were looking for places to go and see around the world. Some of them may end up in churches and shrines, which have wonderful stories to tell.

Here’s a church in Rome I’ve always liked, and it tells a powerful story.  Saint Peter in Chains.

I have other clips on Youtube. Type vhoagland into the search box and see for yourself.

St. Peter’s Basilica Rome November 15

Tradition says that Peter, whom Jesus made the rock on whom he built his church, came to Rome and died there during a persecution by the Emperor Nero about 64 AD. He was buried in a cemetery on Vatican Hill after being crucified nearby. Tradition also says the apostle was crucified with his head to the ground, because he saw himself unworthy of dying like Jesus.

The Emperor Constantine built a majestic church over the apostle’s grave in the 4th century, one of the first he built for the Christians of the city.

From the beginning Christians honored the apostle’s grave and esteem for him grew as Christianity grew. He was an apostle of Jesus, along with Paul who also died in the same persecution. Like Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, they are considered twin founders of the Roman church.

Besides being honored at the Vatican, Peter is honored elsewhere in the city.  His seizure and imprisonment are recalled at the Church of St.Peter in Chains near the Coliseum and at the Mamertime Prison in the Roman Forum. The small Quo Vadis  chapel along the Via Antica recalls the poignant legend of the apostle fleeing from prison, only to meet Jesus going into the city to join his followers condemned by Nero. Turning back, Peter followed  his Lord to martyrdom on Vatican Hill.

Christians cherish his memory. The popes resided at the Lateran from the 4th to the 14th century but moved to the Vatican, not only because the Lateran area had become unsafe, but also to be near Peter’s grave on Vatican hill, where great numbers of Christian pilgrims congregated.

What draws so many to Peter?

He was ordinary enough. Paul boasted that he was a citizen of Tarsus, no mean city. Peter came from Capernaum, an unimportant fishing village along the Sea of Galilee.

Paul had a fine educational and religious training.  A fluent teacher and trained scholar, he dealt with the religious establishment of his day and spoke its language. Peter was unpolished, with little formal education; he spoke like a Galilean peasant. Whatever religious knowledge he had before he met Jesus came from the local rabbis in his synagogue. He was a fisherman at home on the sea.

Why did Jesus make him first among his followers?  It wasn’t brains or talents that won him the place.  Nor his loyalty. The simple explanation may be that God chooses the weak things of this world.

We know more about Peter than about any of the other early disciples of Jesus. He was a Jew who moved to Capernaum from Bethsaida, another village along the Sea of Galilee, where he fished with others. Historians say that fishing then offered a good enough living. Archeologists today think they can point out in Capernaum’s ancient ruins the house where Peter lived, along with his wife, his mother-in-law and whoever else belonged to his family.

He was forthright, direct and practical, not afraid to speak up or tell you what was on his mind. He wasn’t afraid  to draw a sword or face prison. He saw his own faults and acknowledged them. An observant Jew, but not a professional religious man.

He met Jesus on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when he stopped at the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preaching. His brother Andrew brought him to Jesus, after John had pointed him out.

The gospels say that he was a friend of Jesus as well as a disciple. Peter welcomed him to his house in Capernaum.  He became Jesus’ companion as he preached in Galilee and journeyed to Jerusalem. He witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching and was intimately involved in the events of his death and resurrection. When Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times that he knew him and fled into the night.

Peter saw and heard what Jesus did. He was an eyewitness. After he rose from the dead, Jesus chose him again to shepherd his flock, even though Peter had denied him.

As an eyewitness, he was the first to testify at Pentecost that Jesus had risen from the dead and was indeed the promised Messiah. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem dismissed him and the rest of the disciples as unlearned men. From Jerusalem, Peter went to the coastal cities of Joffa and Caesarea, then to the main Syrian city of Antioch, and finally to Rome with his message.

When he reached the capital of the empire, he was probably in his 60s. Scientists who examined bones found at his gravesite underneath St. Peter’s in the late 1940s said they belonged to a man of rugged build about that age.

We don’t know what precisely brought Peter to Rome sometime in the 60s AD. Probably it had something to do with the Jewish-Christian controversies going on at the time in the city.  Some twenty years earlier, the Emperor Claudius expelled Jewish dissidents–likely Jewish Christians– because of bitter disturbances in the synagogues of the city. Paul’s letters tell of similar disputes in places where he traveled.

There were about 60,000 Jews in Rome then, among a population of almost one million. Did Peter come to mediate between various Jewish factions? Was he invited as a peacemaker who valued his Jewish roots, yet saw that God had revealed something new in Jesus of Nazareth? Did some who heard him speak in Jerusalem at Pentecost while on pilgrimage from Rome persuade him to come to his people here and tell them what he saw and heard?

From what we know of Peter it was not an easy mission. Not only was he older now, but he was always more at home in his own land, among his own people, than he was in gentile cities. He was limited in his ability to speak their language and understand their customs. He would always be a simple man.

Most likely, he planned to return home before too long, or go to another place where he was needed. We don’t know how long he was there. But he was an apostle, one sent by Jesus to the whole world, and so he would speak of what he had seen and heard, as he had done many times before.

In Rome his memoirs were gathered by Mark and later formalized in one of the gospels. He also wrote a letter from here to other churches he had known, urging them in the face of persecution and alienation to hold fast to the hope they had as God’s people. (1 Peter)

But then, a fire swept through Rome in the early morning of July 19, 64 AD. Peter was among those  identified as Christians caught in Nero’s dragnet and blamed for starting it. Probably his executioners  never knew or cared who he was when they brought him to the Vatican hill and crucified him– one of the ways the Romans executed foreigners.

Some Christian women possibly arranged to bury him in a shallow grave in a cemetery nearby. Women often made sure even those condemned as criminals were buried. As time passed they put up a simple monument to mark the place and Christians came to honor him there. Around the year 200, a Roman priest named Gaius, writes that he has seen the gravesite and can take others to it.

A little over a hundred years later, the Emperor Constantine ordered a massive church built over the apostle’s grave; its main altar situated exactly above the grave itself. The emperor, they say, carried twelve loads of dirt to the building site to honor the twelve apostles.

By the 15th century, Constantine’s church was near collapse, so the popes of the time began building another in its place, which took over a hundred years to build. This is the church we enter today, honoring Peter, the fisherman from Galilee and a disciple of Jesus.

Website:  http://www.stpetersbasilica.org/

Reading:

The Bones of St. Peter, ,John Evangelist Walsh,  Garden City, NY  1982

An Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown, NY, NY  1997  pp 705-725

From Apostles to Bishops, Francis Sullivan, SJ, Mawah, NJ  2001

Antioch and Rome, Raymond Brown and John Meier, Ramsy, NJ  1982

The Petrine Ministry, Walter Kasper,ed.  Ramsey, NJ 2006