In the Christian liturgy, Wednesday, September 16 was celebrated as the feast of two early martyrs: Saints Cornelius and Cyprian. Men persecuted by the Roman Empire for their Christian faith…fourth century Rome and therefore irrelevant to us seventeen hundred centuries later.
But that is because I never bothered to learn anything about these two men. Father Mitch Pacwa celebrated the daily televised mass on EWTN and delivered a riveting homily on these two saints. The polyglot Father Pacwa (he fluently speaks thirteen languages) is a bit of an oxymoron in that he is both Jesuit and orthodox.
Okay- but riveting?
A riveting homily?
Yes, for two reasons: the contemporary reality of persecution and the priest’s ability to portray fourth-century-Roman Christians with sufficient depth and tenderness to make me wonder how I would/will react when my obedience to the Commandments and my Catholic faith is threatened.
Daily, eight Christians in the world are killed for their faith, each week, 182 Christian buildings are attacked and each month, 309 Christians are jailed. Because they are Christians. That’s one out of every Christian in the world. Even those of us who avoid the news have watched the rising animosity toward all things Christian in our schools, governments, and population, aided by government officials. Those of us prohibited from attending mass and religious services in certain states like California have joined them.
The two saints that have galvanized this reflection could not have started their lives more differently. While the Bishop of Rome, Cornelius was born of poor parents and therefore unlettered, the Bishop of Carthage Cyprian, was born into wealth and privilege, receiving the best possible education of the times.
Cornelius was a devout Catholic from boyhood while Cyprian grew up in a pagan family and did not give up his “dissipated life” until his Christian Baptism at thirty-five. Almost immediately following Cyprian’s entrance into the faith, he was elected Bishop because of his oratorical and writing skills. When he accepted the post, most likely, he had no idea of what he was signing up for.
Just prior to Emperor Decius, Rome had celebrated her 1000th year anniversary and all persecutions had ceased. But after killing his predecessor, the new emperor Decius issued a proclamation: (the wording is eerily contemporary) it’s just a little incense…
All the inhabitants of the empire were required to sacrifice before the magistrates of their community ‘for the safety of the empire’ by a certain day (the date would vary from place to place and the order may have been that the sacrifice had to be completed within a specified period after a community received the edict). When they sacrificed they would obtain a certificate (libellus) recording the fact that they had complied with the order. That is, the certificate would testify the sacrificant’s loyalty to the ancestral gods and to the consumption of sacrificial food and drink as well as the names of the officials who were overseeing the sacrifice.
Ever since I heard Fr. Pacwa say those words about how the many thousands of Roman Christians rationalized their apostasy, they have been echoing in my head. Is there any one of us who is confident of her courage and fortitude against the slightest of sacrifices made necessary by the ten commandments?
These folks were faced with excruciating torture, beheading, crucifixion. Note that the Decius and his Roman officials didn’t care what they believed, they just needed a sign of public obeisance to demonstrate that they were not enemies of the state through worship of a Supreme God and His Law who supercedes the government.
Just as were twelve centuries later, those who refused to sign King Henry III’s Act of Supremacy.
When the vaccine made from fetal tissue-from a discarded human person- is approved, and I must agree to receive it or be prohibited from entering stores or traveling, or buying food, what will I do? After all, it’s just a little incense.
Will I justify myself just like the daughter of St Tomas More begs her father to do?
Thomas More- A Man For All Seasons
MARGARET “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth.” Or so you’ve always told me.
MARGARET “Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.”
MORE “What is an oath then but words we say to God?”
MARGARET “That’s very neat.”
MORE “Do you mean it isn’t true?”
MARGARET “No, it’s true.”
MORE “Then it’s a poor argument to call it “neat,” Meg. When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then-he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.”
I look to a couple of paradoxical sources for my answer: Harrison Ford and St. John Henry Newman.
This image of Harrison Ford has depicted precisely what my leap into faith, specifically my Roman Catholic faith, felt like.
I saw that film as soon as it was released in 1989, years before I knew-even suspected that I would become a Catholic. And yet, watching it back then, stirred something in me and countless others because this section of film has become known as the Leap of Faith.
My other source if St. John Henry Newman. Another friend up there.
He writes this to us 21st-century Christians as admonition and counsel:
We live in an educated age. The false gloss of a mere worldly refinement makes us decent and amiable. We all know and profess. We think ourselves wise; we flatter each other; we make excuses for ourselves when we are conscious we sin, and thus we gradually lose the consciousness that we are sinning. We think out own times superior to all others. “Thou blind Pharisees!” This was the final charge brought by our blessed Lord against the falsely enlightened teachers of His day. As then, we desire to enter into life, let us come to Christ continually for the two foundations of the Christian faith—humbleness of mind and earnestness.
It’s just a little incense…