ROME -- On the way to Mass the week 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 Celio, which the top “review” on TripAdvisor that same morning declared as a “Slightly off the beaten track ... lovely, quiet church full of horror.” The “horror” no doubt refers to the frescoes of Christian martyrdom that line the ancient circular structure. Does it become less horrific when you see the serene smiles if not outright joy on some of the faces of the martyrs? It depends if you believe the martyr is in for a new beginning or not.
Santo Stefano is a station church for the fifth week of Lent, part of a tradition that dates back to the fourth century. Though, I confess, when you don’t walk the whole path like 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 to do so before the tourists are awake. It’s a way to drink in the breadth and depth of the martyrs, remembering the importance of faith -- what that faith may call for, if one truly believes, and is truly 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 there can be had. While over here, the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, has had some thoughts published on the origins and solutions for the sex scandals in the Church. It makes a whole lot of sense that he would do so, given his lifetime of service and deep wells of wisdom. It’s subject rife with all kinds of controversy and spin. But the most important line of his comments is this: “Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way.” Those seem the most appropriate words to highlight as we are set to mark the holiest season on the Christian calendar yet again.
Benedict wrote: “Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence.” So, it would further follow that “the very essence of Christianity is at stake here” if martyrdom is not a part of our lives. And martyrs do, of course, 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.
“A world without God,” Benedict writes, “can only be a world without meaning. ... 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." He says that if we “look around and listen with an attentive heart," we can find witnesses of God everywhere, from the lowest ranks of the society to the highest echelons of the church. Our job is to recognize them, and, more than that, to help them in their struggle to make the world a better, kinder place, to enact God's will in the world.
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 will suffocate us without the gift of clarity that 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.