Rome — On the way to Mass on the Friday before Good Friday, I passed the Roman Colosseum. It’s hard to have things put in better perspective. Christians were once fed to the lions there, and now it’s the background to many a tourist selfie. Mass that morning was at the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo al Monte Celi. TripAdvisor’s top “review” on it that same morning offered this description: “Slightly off the beaten track, Santo Stefano is a lovely, quiet church full of horror.” The “horror” no doubt refers to the frescoes of Christian martyrdom that line the ancient circular basilica. Does it become less horrific when you see the serene smiles if not outright joy on some of the faces as these people approach their end? It depends on whether you believe that the martyr is in for a new beginning.
Santo Stefano is a Station Church for the Fifth Week of Lent, part of a tradition that dates back to the fourth century for the penitential season. Though, I confess, when you don’t walk the whole path as the Millennial seminarians at the Pontifical North American College do, but take a taxi, it’s also a tremendous way to visit some of the churches of Rome — and before the tourists are awake. It’s a way to drink in the breadth and depth of the martyrs, remembering the import of faith — what that faith may call for, if one truly believes and truly is tested. If we are really paying attention, it is a reminder that testing takes many forms.
I’m in the Eternal City for friendship, fellowship, prayer, and what research and reporting that can be had. While I’m over here, the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, has had some thoughts published on the origins of and solutions for the sex scandals in the Church. It makes a whole lot of sense that he would, given his lifetime of service and deep wells of wisdom. His comments are subject to all kinds of controversy and spin. But the most important line is this: “Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way.” That seemed the most appropriate line to highlight as we are set to mark the holiest season on the Christian calendar yet again. He also writes:
There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is (about) more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life.
He notes that “martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence.” So it would follow that “the very essence of Christianity is at stake here” if martyrdom is not a part of our lives. Of course, martyrs exist in the world today. A priest killed while celebrating Mass in France comes to mind. As do Coptic Christians and Iraqi Christians slaughtered by the so-called Islamic State.
He explains the importance of “the authority of the Church in matters of morality”: “Those who deny the Church a final teaching competence in this area force her to remain silent precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.”
And what if the world were without God? That could only be a “a world without meaning,” he tells us.
For where, then, does everything that is come from? In any case, it has no spiritual purpose. It is somehow simply there and has neither any goal nor any sense. Then there are no standards of good or evil. Then only what is stronger than the other can assert itself. Power is then the only principle. Truth does not count, it actually does not exist. Only if things have a spiritual reason, are intended and conceived — only if there is a Creator God who is good and wants the good — can the life of man also have meaning.
He states the all-important obvious:
Yes, there is sin in the Church and evil. But even today there is the Holy Church. . . . There are many people who humbly believe, suffer and love, in whom the real God, the loving God, shows Himself to us. Today God also has His witnesses (martyres) in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them. . . . If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering. It is an inertia of the heart that leads us to not wish to recognize them. One of the great and essential tasks of our evangelization is, as far as we can, to establish habitats of Faith and, above all, to find and recognize them.
As I joined seminarians at the North American Pontifical College and others in the 7 a.m. Masses around Rome for the penultimate week of Lent, I prayed I was among martyrs — people willing to sacrifice with joy for the love of God. They are the antidote to the evil and confusion in the world, which would suffocate us without the gift of clarity the martyrs demonstrate. They give their lives to God, even when they are not subject to the sword — they seek to be poured out in love to others for love of Him. It doesn’t get more counter-selfie-culture than that.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.