Pope St. Alexander I: Bringing Catholic Culture Home to You!

Pope_Alexander_ISo we’ve had John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and Ignatius, which brings us now to Alexander, or rather Pope St. Alexander I. The traditions around St. Alexander are a bit hazy – he wasn’t the most well-known or popular pope in the history of the Church – but apparently, he was important enough at the time to find his way into our prayers! He was the 5th pope to succeed St. Peter the Apostle, and reigned from around 107 to 115, although that is somewhat disputed. He was Roman by birth, and became a priest of the diocese of Rome, until he became the Bishop of Rome under the Emperor Trajan.

St. Alexander is actually pretty important to the Church, as he is sneakily responsible for some of the practices that we use even today. One of these is the practice of using holy water fonts in the home. If you don’t have one of these, look it up at your local Catholic goods store. Blessing ourselves as we enter and leave our homes is a great way to keep our minds on Christ and protect our home and family against the influences of sin.

A related practice attributed to St. Alexander is the use of blessed salt in the home as well. This isn’t as common as holy water, but it is a traditional practice of the Church to remind us of Christ’s call to be the “salt of the earth” and to protect against the Evil One. Often times, the blessed salt is dissolved in the holy water fonts for double the blessings and protection! Let me know if you want some salt blessed…

St. Alexander is also credited with being the first to include the institution narrative (the Qui Pridie as it is called), which as you might recall, are the words commemorating and bringing about again the events of the Last Supper during Mass. This is the most important part of the Eucharistic Prayer, so this is quite a contribution to the Church from St. Alexander. Many scholars don’t really believe that he is responsible for this, but who cares, right? That’s what tradition says!

Tradition also tells us that St. Alexander (after bringing us holy water, blessed salt, and the Institution Narrative), suffered martyrdom alongside two of his priests, Eventius and Theodulus, on the Via Nomentana, northeast of Rome. The Roman Martyrology, which catalogs the martyrs for each day, says that he suffered “fetters, imprisonment, the rack (what is that?!?), and torture by hooks and fire” before he was slain with “sharp implements”, whatever that means. Needless to say, it wasn’t pleasant! In 1855, his body, along with Eventius and Theodulus, was discovered in a subterranean cemetery, supposedly on the site of his martyrdom. His relics were then translated to the ancient basilica St. Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome, where you can still see and venerate them today.

St. Ignatius of Antioch: First to Call the Church “Catholic”

Ignatius_of_Antioch_2Today’s saint, St. Ignatius of Antioch, is incredibly important for our Church. He converted to Christianity at an early age, and became a disciple of St. John the Apostle. After learning from John the ways of the Gospel, he became the third bishop of Antioch in Syria, which meant that he was also the second successor to St. Peter from his time in Antioch. Between St. John and St. Peter, talk about big sandals to fill! Still, St. Ignatius did well, and was a good and holy pastor, preparing his people well for the persecutions by inspiring them to devotion, prayer, and fasting.

Now, when you’re the bishop of an important place like Antioch, you’re going to attract a lot of attention, some of it unwanted. After helping his people through the persecutions of Domitian, Ignatius himself was arrested under the next wave of persecutions under Trajan. But it was during his travelling to Rome for trial that he provided some of his most important work.

St. Ignatius spent the time in transit to Rome writing letters to the various Churches, and he provided a number of important themes. His first notable contribution was that he was the first to use the term “Catholic” with reference to the Church. He used it to describe the Church as “universal” in two ways. First, the Church is universal in that it embraces people of all cultures and backgrounds. When we are Catholic, we extend the love of neighbor to all, just as Christ teaches us. But Ignatius also says the Church is universal in that it embraces all that Christ has revealed to us in our Scripture and Tradition. We can’t pick and choose what elements of Christianity we want to accept. If that were the case, we would be Gnostics, one of the very groups St. Ignatius fought so hard to defend the Church against!

The second notable contribution from St. Ignatius’s letters was his understanding of the Eucharist. Sometimes we can think that our belief of the Eucharist as the Body of Christ was some later development, and that early Christians didn’t think this way. But even in the 1st century, Ignatius was displaying a very strong belief of the Real Presence of Jesus in the host – not as a symbol or an idea, but the belief that Jesus truly is present in the Eucharist. Even this early, St. Ignatius understood that the Eucharist was a sacrifice connected to the Cross. This might not seem like a big deal, but it really is! Even 60 years after Jesus, Christians believed and professed many of the same things we do today!

St. Ignatius took that belief of the Eucharist to his martyrdom. He saw his life as a sacrifice – his way of living out the Eucharist for the good of the Church. Even as he was marched into the Coliseum to be eaten by wild beasts for the pleasure of the crowds, those words from his letter to the church in Rome returned: “I am God’s wheat, and I must be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius’s followers brought his body back to Antioch, where they buried him in a tomb outside the city. In the 600’s, Islam began to dominate the region culturally and in some cases, militarily, and so the relics of St. Ignatius were brought back to the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, which stands only about a mile from the spot of his martyrdom in the Coliseum. His relics are still present for veneration today, and serve as a reminder that all of us are called to live out the Eucharist each day!

St. Barnabas: First RCIA Sponsor

stbarnToday’s saint sends us back to the Acts of the Apostles. St. Barnabas was born in Cyprus of a Jewish family. He was of the Tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe of Israel, and thus, it sounds as though he spent a lot of time travelling to Jerusalem to assist in the Temple duties. He was the cousin of St. Mark the Evangelist, and worked frequently with him throughout his ministry. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that he converted to Christianity after Pentecost, and sold all his property, giving the money to the Church to help the poor. St. Barnabas is considered to be ranked among the Apostles, but not one of them, similar to St. Paul, and indeed, he was esteemed as the greatest Christian of the first generation aside from St. Paul and the Apostles. St. Luke, who is usually pretty reserved, gushed about him in the Acts of the Apostles, saying that he was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”

St. Barnabas spent much of his ministry as a companion to St. Paul, and in fact, when many people didn’t believe that St. Paul’s conversion was authentic, Barnabas stood as his sponsor. I guess that makes him the first RCIA sponsor or the first godparent! With Paul, he worked in preaching to the gentiles in Antioch, then moved on to Cyprus, then Asia Minor. His preaching was so eloquent that the Greek people in Asia Minor were trying to sacrifice bulls to him – they thought St. Paul was Hermes and St. Barnabas was Zeus! St. Barnabas was present at the Council of Jerusalem, where he lobbied for a dispensation from circumcision and dietary laws for the gentiles he was preaching to. So thank St. Barnabas the next time you eat bacon!

Not much is known about St. Barnabas after the Scriptural references in St. Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles. Some stories have him as the first Bishop of Milan. Others have him preaching in Alexandria, and others Rome, where he supposedly converted St. Clement, who as you recall from a previous article, was the fourth pope. Some Early Christian Fathers say that he wrote a document called the Epistle of Barnabas, but evidence suggests that it was written a century later by some quasi-Christian factions. The document is very harsh on Jews, which seems odd, given that he had been a Jew (and a Levite at that!), and it is no wonder this document was not included among the inspired texts of the New Testament.

Traditions hold that he was martyred in Cyprus, his native country. The story goes that he was attacked by Jewish leaders who were annoyed by and jealous of his success as he was preaching in their synagogues. He was stoned to death by the crowds, bearing witness to Christ. His cousin St. Mark was present for his martyrdom, and buried his body there. Today, St. Barnabas is considered the patron of Cyprus (of course), peacemakers, and of all things, is invoked against hailstorms. So there you go.

See you next week as we head back to the Early Church Fathers!