Being a Roman emperor the middle of the Third Century wasn’t exactly easy. There were barbarians attacking the Roman empire from the north, peasant uprisings and civil wars, political instability and assassinations, unemployment and economic depression, and the devaluation of the denarius, the Roman currency. And then there were those confounded Christians to deal with. They just wouldn’t go away! Chop off one of their heads and another dozen are converted. Feed that dozen to the lions and then there would be a hundred more in their place. Boil a bishop in oil and they add another thousand to their ranks. Track down one of their popes celebrating Mass underground in the catacombs amidst the bones of the martyrs, cut off his head… then demand that the ranking deacon, Lawrence, hand over the treasures of the Church. And what does he do? He mocks the emperor by publicly bringing forward all the blind, infirm, and poor to whom he had given the Church property and says that they are the treasures of the Church. The audacity!
The only thing more pervasive than the Christians is the maddening plague sweeping the empire. Vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding from the eyes, blindness, deafness, sores on the hands and feet… and it kept getting worse. The sorcerers all agreed that the plague was because the gods were angry. They said the gods were angry because the Christians wouldn’t worship them. So the sorcerers offered one solution after the other: potions, incense offerings, live sacrifices of every sort, but nothing worked. Not one of the religious experts or witch doctors could do a thing stop the plague. As five thousand people a day were dying in Rome, Christian persecutions were increased to appease the gods, but even these didn’t stop the plague. To make matters worse, the Christians were winning more converts to their religion by simply living their faith, by tending to the sick and the dying, even when some of them would die while in service to others, even non-Christians. The Christians didn’t seem to fear death at all! And their bishop, Cyprian, over in Carthage… he sure knew how to fire up the faithful:
“I observe that among the people, some, either through weakness of mind, or through decay of faith, or through the sweetness of this worldly life … are standing less steadily, and are not exerting the divine and unvanquished vigor of their heart… What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude? Who, in the midst of these things, is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is not willing to go to Christ. … what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred … Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown. … How preposterous and absurd it is, that while we ask that the will of God should be done, yet when God calls and summons us from this world, we should not at once obey the command of His will! … Why, then, do we pray and ask that the kingdom of heaven may come, if the captivity of earth delights us? Why with frequently repeated prayers do we entreat and beg that the day of His kingdom may hasten, if our greater desires and stronger wishes are to obey the devil here, rather than to reign with Christ?”
It was words like this that set the hearts and souls of the early Catholic Church on fire for the faith. Our forefathers had their faith, and their faith was greater than their fear of death. It was their faith that inspired the conversion of pagans. It was their faith that led them through persecutions, plagues, and martyrdom. All they had were the Sacraments and the Eucharist and the sacred liturgy. But that was more than the pagans had.
Of course, that was then, right? That was a different time. They didn’t have what we have. That was before we had science and medicine and vaccines and research labs and antibody tests and disinfectants. That was when Christians had to worry about being persecuted for their faith. That was when bishops and popes were almost certain to die a martyr’s death. Yes. It was a certainly different time. Bishops are no longer living in hiding. Popes are no longer hunted in the catacombs. And because of how easy we have it, we have forgotten what it means to call ourselves Catholic Christians.
For starters, we have taken for granted the Sacraments and the Holy Mass. In our world of 24/7/365 convenience stores, we have forgotten that the Sacraments are not ours, nor are they even the bishops’. The Sacraments are gifts from God. As Fr. George Haydock wrote in his Biblical commentary in 1811, “All religious rites are designed for God’s glory and man’s welfare.” Are we glorifying God with how we practice our religious rites today? Is Mass still a place of reverence and holiness, or are we slowly turning it into a theatrical production centered on the performers? “All religious rites are designed for God’s glory and man’s welfare.” Is Baptism an urgent rite of regeneration by water and the Holy Spirit, or is it more of a checkbox that can be postponed till everyone can make it to the party? “All religious rites are designed for God’s glory and man’s welfare.” Is Reconciliation a necessary part of Catholic life, or is it optional as long as you feel like you’re good with God? “All religious rites are designed for God’s glory and man’s welfare.” Is the Eucharist the source and summit of our faith, to be received reverently by those in a state of grace, or is it as meaningful as a breath mint on the way out the door of a restaurant? “All religious rites are designed for God’s glory and man’s welfare.” What are we to expect from the all-holy God after we treat Him this way? Are we to expect that He will suffer forever being mocked by those who take Him for granted and presuppose their salvation? Fr. Haydock gives us the answer: “when they cease to serve God, the holy things are destroyed or taken away.” Taken away indeed.
Maybe in a way it’s fitting for us, since so many people are already dead. A recent online poll showed that only 10% of Columbus residents looked forward to returning to their house of worship after the coronavirus stay-at-home orders are lifted. Ten percent. And that’s people of all religions, not just Catholics. Another nationwide poll showed that 48% of Americans said that in-person religious services shouldn’t be allowed at all until there is a vaccine. Forty-eight percent.
And where are our leaders of today leading us, exactly? How many of them try to tell us how Catholic they are when times are good and they seek support for office, but when times get tough their Godly faith turns to secular fear? Why do our leaders lose the faith they claimed to have when they come face-to-face with making decisions that affect the faithful? Why do they forget the teachings of our faith that we should not fear what kills the body but instead fear what kills the soul? Why does our leaders’ fear push us into the catacombs of our homes where they encourage us to embrace our tombs so that we might live to see tomorrow?
We, brothers, have allowed our fear of death to become greater than our faith in God. In that regard, we as a society are not much different from the Romans. Our society isn’t just secular. It’s outright pagan. We put our faith and our belief in masks and potions and magic pills and shots and witch doctors. The smell of disinfectant is our incense to the pagan gods of this world. Where are the St. Lawrences of our day, who, when enduring the suffering and pain of being roasted alive on an iron grate, did not shrink from his faith, but instead had the audacity to continue to mock the Roman emperor by shouting out “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”? Where are the St. Cyprians to encourage the faithful to not just believe in the truths of their faith, but to boldly live it and trust it when confronting the death of the body? Where are our leaders who, with holy boldness, cry out, “We do not fear your sting, oh death, for our risen Lord has conquered you!”
In the catacombs of our homes, each of us is faced with this decision: is our faith greater than our fear? Who among us is willing to be persecuted for boldly living their faith and accept God’s will, regardless what it is, and to not fear what might kill the body? Who among us is brave enough to step out from the catacombs, to step out from the tombs in which we have been told to place our faith?
We need to pray, brothers. We need to pray for all those who lead us. The Pope and the President, the bishops and lawmakers, the priests of parishes and the patriarchs of families. And we need to pray for each other, so that we all may find the courage to lead others out of the darkness of this age.
As the angel said on that Easter morning: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!” And we too will rise, so long as we have faith. And we live it without fear.