Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Chrysogonus

"San Crisógono a Caballo" by Michele Giambono
“San Crisógono a Caballo” by Michele Giambono

Many times when I’m praying through the saints in the Roman Canon, I can just fire them off left and right.  There are the apostles, which we all know, then guys like Cornelius and Lawrence, both of which are pretty normal names.  And then we get to this guy…Chrysogonus.  What a name!  It doesn’t really mix too well, right?  But if you’re like me, and you stumble over his elaborate name, you probably wonder, “Well who is this guy?”

Actually, very little is known about him – much less than the other saints we’ve been talking about, at least.  Most of what we do know comes from legends about his life.  Apparently, Chrysogonus served as a functionary of the vice-prefect of Rome – basically as an official who helped the guy…who helped the guy…who ran the city of Rome.  So by day, Chrysogonus was a civil servant.

But by night (and on Sundays), he was a catechist, particularly known in the legend for teaching the ways of the faith to Anastasia, the daughter of a Roman noble named Praetextatus.  When the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian broke out in 303, Chrysogonus was discovered and thrown into prison.  Anastasia cared for her teacher a great deal, and felt guilty for his being caught, so Chrysogonus wrote letters to her to comfort her and give her courage.

Eventually, he was brought before the Emperor (or at least the Emperor’s men) at Aquileia, in the northeast part of Italy.  He was condemned to death and beheaded, and his body was thrown into the sea.  Eventually, it washed ashore, where it was claimed and buried by an old priest named Zoilus (Seriously, what’s with the weird names this week?).

So why was this obscure saint, who’s name is very difficult to pronounce, in the Roman Canon?  Well, one thing is for sure: it definitely shows how old this prayer of ours is.  There is a very old church in Rome dedicated to St. Chrysogonus.  The present church there is from the 12th century and had been added onto in the 17th century, but it is actually built on an older church from the 4th century, probably built by Pope Sylvester I.  That church dates to between 314 and 335, which is only 10 years after when his death probably was.  This ancient church was certainly very well known, and was one of the tituli, the first parish churches in the city of Rome.

So we have one of the first parishes in Rome, built only 10 years after the death of some guy in the outlying city of Aquileia?  It was probably there because people personally knew him and remembered him.  Think of our own Blessed Theresa of Calcutta Parish, built a short time after the soon-to-be-saint’s death.  We know and respect her as one of our own, and find special inspiration from her life.  The same was probably true for the people of the 4th century, who named their church after St. Chrysogonus.  They loved and respected him so much, that they also added his name to their prayers at the time, which eventually found their way into our prayers for today.  And that’s why we stumble over his name every time we pray it!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Lawrence of Rome

lawrenceWe’re still trekking through the saints of the early Church, and today brings us to St. Lawrence of Rome.  He was born in Huesca, Spain around the year 225.  As a young man, he travelled to Zaragoza, where he met Sixtus II (can you believe it’s this guy again?), and went with him to Rome.  Lawrence was ordained by Sixtus as the first of seven deacons in Rome, given the title of “archdeacon.”  At this time, the deacon’s job was a very practical one, as they were in charge of the material needs of the seven regions in Rome and cared for the treasury of the Church.  They would use this treasury for the distribution of alms and food among the poor of the city.

After Pope Sixtus II was killed in August of 258 by the decree of Emperor Valerian, the prefect of the city captured Lawrence and demanded that as archdeacon and caretaker of the treasury, he would hand over the riches of the Church.  Lawrence asked that he would have three days to gather the wealth, which he promptly used to distribute as much property and riches to the poor as he could to prevent it from being seized (C’mon, prefect!  You should have seen that one coming!).

On the 3rd day, Lawrence gathered together a group of Christians from the streets of the city – poor, crippled, blind, sick and suffering – and led them to the prefect.  He presented them saying, “These are the treasures of the Church.  The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”

"The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence" by Giacomo dall'Orio
“The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” by
Giacomo dall’Orio

Clearly, the prefect didn’t really find this to be funny, and had his men prepare a gridiron with hot coals beneath it.  Lawrence was then bound and placed on the grill!  As you can already see, Lawrence is known for his sense of humor, and after being left on the gridiron for a while, he made the famous cheerful remark: “I’m well done on this side.  Turn me over!”  Hence, St. Lawrence is the patron of cooks, chefs, and in particular, grillmasters.

St. Lawrence’s body was buried outside the walls of Rome, and to this very day, it has never been moved.  Over the tomb was built the minor basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, which is considered one of the seven major basilicas in Rome, alongside St. Peter’s and St. Paul Outside the Walls.  He was clearly held in high esteem in the early Roman Church, and even today, we celebrate his feast with a higher solemnity than most other saints.

Oh yeah, and the gridiron used in his martyrdom was preserved in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, also in Rome.  Sounds like a new place just made it onto my Roman itinerary!

Homily from the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Thanks.  Thank you.  Thank God!  Thank heavens.  Thank you, Jesus.

These are phrases that I’m sure each of us has used many, many times.  Lots of times, it is in occasions that were right in front of us.  When we’ve been given a birthday or graduation or really any type of gift, we say, “thanks,” or you send a thank-you note.   When we see something incredible and awe-inspiring in nature, like looking at the leaves turning of the trees on the side of the mountains, or a clear blue sky, or a nice 85 degree day in mid-October, we say, “Thank you, Lord.”  Sometimes when we experience feelings of great joy such as at the wedding of a family member or friend, we say “Thank you, God.”  I know I said “thank you” quite a bit the other night – first to Carlos Beltran when he hit that ball into the corner to win the game, and then “Thank God, I can go to bed.”  All these are occasions of us saying thank-you to someone, whether we mean it or not.  But what about those things that we don’t notice, or the miracles of God in our own lives?

In today’s readings, we have a theme of thanksgiving.  The characters in our readings, Naaman the great Syrian General, or the men exiled in the Gospel, suffer from leprosy, they go to seek God’s help, and they are cured of their illness.  Now to all of us, we would say, of course they should be thankful!  But this story isn’t just about physical healing, but it’s about us and our spiritual healing as well.  You see, each of us suffers like the lepers in the Gospel, but ours is more of a spiritual leprosy most of the time.

Leprosy, as most of us know, is a terrible and deadly disease, that is still incurable, even today.  It causes the extremities of our body (the hands, feet, ears, nose) to slowly disintigrate.  It is a horrible, disfiguring disease with prolonged agony throughout.  It takes those things about us which are beautiful, and slowly rots them away.  And as a result, this disease can be isolating, not just because it is incredibly contagious, but because it is horrifying to others.  In the same way, we can suffer from the spiritual leprosy of sin, whether it be selfishness, sins of omission, or addictions to sinful habits.  And this disease takes those things which are beautiful about us (our generosity, our love for others) and slowly and painfully disintegrates them.  It transforms us from who we were made by God to be into an ugly, disfigured, and agonizing version of ourselves.  We become turned in on ourselves, selfish, and isolated from others because of our attachment to these sins.  And as a result, we lose that virtue of charity that has been placed in our hearts by God, and we can’t love ourselves, other people, or God as well.

To be healed of this terrible condition of sin, we need to turn to someone who can help us, cleanse us.  We don’t look for a filler of that condition, something to make us feel better, like money, more sinful habits, possessions, but instead we seek a real cure.  The only way that we can be cleansed of our sin, the only cure for it, is in our relationship with God.  We have to turn back to God and ask for his gift of healing.  Often times, God uses the more ordinary things to heal us, things we wont expect.  For the lepers in the readings, it was washing in the waters of a river, or going to see the priests.  And the characters in the readings see this as well, and are confused, because they think they know better.  Why would these things do anything?  Naaman got pretty frustrated because he had come all the way to Israel to be told to wash in a river.  And the lepers in the Gospel had likely spent several years in the leper colonies outside of the city, only to be told to go to the Temple in the middle of the city?  These things seem so ordinary, too ordinary, to be able to do much.  For us, the cures are simple things like sitting down and speaking to a priest of our sins, or eating what appear to be bread and wine.  But in reality, the Lord takes these things, as he took the river or the trip to see the priests, and transforms them into something that can bring our health back to us.  In the meeting of those two simple people in the Sacrament of Confession, God is present and gives the power to the priest to forgive sins.  The bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ!  All these things can heal and cleanse us more than anything else in the world can.

So how do we respond to this gift?  We have to respond in thanks!  Now we might ask why Jesus would want us to thank him.  Is he that needy?  Is he going to feel bad if we don’t?  Of course not.  But he knows how good it is for us.  Being thankful to God stirs in us a spirit of gratitude that we can carry with us all the time.  And that spirit of gratitude recognizes something that the Gospels keep repeating over and over, and that our stewardship appeal repeats over and over – that everything we have is a gift from God.  And again, when people give us gifts, we should thank them.

Part of giving thanks to God is worship.  In the first reading, Naaman asked for two huge mounds of dirt to take with him so that he could continue to worship the God of Israel on Israel’s own soil, even as he returned home.  And the leper in the Gospel returned praising God and thanking him with shouts of joy.  We do the same here at this holy Mass.  Its interesting to know that the Mass is the means by which we are healed of our sins and sustained, but at the same time, it is our means of giving thanks and praise to God.  That’s why we sing, why we wear colorful vestments, why we keep saying “thanks be to God” after the readings.  All of this, all of these external signs, are part of our human effort to give total glory to God.

Do we ever give thanks to God for what he has done for us?  Do we ever reflect on those things that we’ve received from God, and if so, do we ever give thanks for them, directly to God?  One practical way that we can do this, and an easy way, is the act of thanksgiving after Mass.  When family and guests used to come to the seminary, they always get very uncomfortable after Mass because none of the seminarian leave right away!  But why not make a commitment, and I’ll do it with you, of taking one or two minutes after Mass to kneel or sit down and pause quietly to give thanks to God for the gifts he’s given us in the Eucharist, and for all he has done in your life.  I know it can be distracting or difficult to do.  For me, sometimes I get caught up greeting people after Mass or setting up for the next Mass that I forget to take a moment in thanks.  But its only one or two minutes of thanks that we can use to express to God how grateful we are.  And so as we come before the Eucharist today, what is the spiritual leprosy that we carry with us that isolates us, that disease that we need to bring to the Lord?  What things has God done in your life that you should thank God for?  May we be people with grateful and thankful hearts, and after receiving the Lord’s sacred body and blood, let us go forth praising and thanking God for all that he has done for us.  Amen.

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Cyprian of Carthage

St Cyprian of CarthageMany of the saints that we’ve discussed so far have been from the Holy Land or Europe, and we can get into the habit of thinking that the Church in turn was Roman, Greek, and a little Middle Eastern.  It’s easy to forget that some of the most important Christian communities were in Africa.  North Africa especially was predominantly and very enthusiastically Christian until the rise of Islam and the conquest of Africa between 647 and 709.  Egypt saw the first monastic communities formed in its deserts.  Huge centers of Christianity formed in Alexandria and Carthage, which is where our saint for today, St. Cyprian, became well known.

Cyprian was born around 200 AD and was very highly educated.  He knew philosophy and became a great orator.  Cyprian didn’t experience his Christian conversion until he was an adult.  In his preparations for baptism, he pledged his life to chastity and gave his material possessions away to the poor.  This left a pretty good impression on his people, and only two years after his baptism, he was ordained a priest, and then was chosen (against his will) to be the bishop of Carthage!  It was at this time that he became the friend and companion of Pope St. Cornelius (remember him?) as they worked together to unify the Church.

Cyprian had to deal with the persecutions later, but one of his biggest struggles came about in the time of peace before the persecutions.  He was concerned that the period of relative peace had caused people to forget the meaning of their faith.  People had become too content to live their lives in the culture, only to compartmentalize their faith to worshipping on Sundays.  Cyprian said that one of the things the persecutions taught them was how central living as a Christian had to be.  He wrote letters about the virtue of modesty and trying to teach people Scripture.  He even wrote against the gladiatorial games held in the arenas in Carthage.  His point was that the only refuge from temptations is to live an authentically prayerful life in relationship with God.

In 256, persecutions flared up again under Valerian (who you might remember martyred St. Sixtus II).  Cyprian wrote a letter anticipating the decree, encouraging his people to hold fast to their beloved faith, even if it meant martyrdom.  When he himself was discovered, he was banished for a year, then recalled and kept prisoner in his own villa.  Eventually the order came for his execution, and Cyprian voluntarily paid the executioner 25 gold pieces for his service.  He removed his garments, knelt down, prayed, and blindfolded himself to face his martyrdom by the sword.  Cyprian’s body was buried in Carthage, until in the 800’s, it was moved by Charlemagne to France, where he was placed alongside some of the remains of his friend, St. Cornelius.

See you next week for the patron saint of cooking – specifically barbecues!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Cornelius

StCorneliusThe next saint on our list is Pope St. Cornelius.  He was born of a middle class family and was given a poor education, but rose to be an incredibly influential priest of Rome.  (Strangely, his name means “battle horn”, and he is usually pictured holding a bull’s horn or with a cow close by.  Crazy!)  As he was doing his ministry, the persecutions under the Emperor Decius were so fierce that there was a 14 month gap after the martyrdom of Pope Fabian, Cornelius’ predecessor.  It was only in March of 251 when enough clergy could be gathered to have an election!

The main issue that Cornelius had to deal with was what to do with those who had apostatized, an issue we mentioned last week with Pope Sixtus II.  Apostasy is the formal and public abandonment of the faith.  This might not seem to happen too much, but it had become a real problem in this time period.  Emperor Decius had decreed that anyone accused of being a Christian would be placed before a commissioner and required to offer a sacrifice of burnt incense before the Roman gods and the Emperor.  Now, compared to torture and death, a little pinch of incense might not seem so bad, but beneath it all, it was a fundamental choice against God and toward the worship of idols – a.k.a, apostasy.

So what do we do with these apostates?  That was the question.  In those times, confession happened only once, so between baptism and confession, you pretty much had two chances to get it right.  Some confessors at the time weren’t really counting sins of apostasy as that big a deal, and told their penitents that they were merely victims of circumstances.  On the other hand, rigorists led by the Roman priest Novatian declared that these lapsed Christians could never be forgiven.  Oh yeah…then he declared himself pope.  Pope St. Cornelius declared that while apostasy was a serious sin (yep!), it could be forgiven (hooray!), with the sacraments and appropriate penance.

All this theorizing was put to the test again in the year 252, when Decius was killed in battle and Gallus became emperor.  The persecutions roared back to life.  Cornelius was put to the test, and as an example of courage to those who might consider apostatizing, he proclaimed the truth of his faith boldly, and earned exile to what is now Civitavecchia, Italy.  Ultimately, Cornelius died in 253, under the hardships of exile, but the Church considers him a martyr.  After things calmed down in Rome, his body was brought back and laid in the catacombs.  Incidentally, the inscription on his tomb was the earliest known papal tomb to have been inscribed in Latin.

Once again, a brave example of faith.  Tune in next week to hear about St. Cornelius’ dear friend, St. Cyprian of Carthage!

Homily From the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Potholes...evil, evil potholes
Potholes…evil, evil potholes

It may not feel like it outside, but we are slowly making our way to fall.  And as most people who live in St. Louis or have lived in St. Louis know, each season brings something new.  The summer brings excruciating heat and humidity, along with Cardinal baseball.  Fall brings some chills, but also playoff baseball.  Winter comes along and brings ice, snow, and frigid temperatures.  And then as a result, spring brings potholes and construction!  Potholes are rough, because although it might not seem like much when you drive through one on your way to church, they can mess up the alignment of the wheels on your car.  To be honest, I’m not a car person, and I never realized how important getting wheels aligned was!  Uneven alignment causes tires to wear down quicker, and all of us know how expensive tires are these days.  It can also cause issues with the steering, the brake shaft, the suspension, and can even reduce your fuel efficiency.  All that because of a few potholes and the alignment issues that follow!

Alignment is important for us as Catholics as well, although the alignment that I’m speaking about is our alignment to Christ.  We might take it a little for granted, or think that we’re close enough, but like the alignment of wheels on a car, our alignment with Christ can have a number of important implications.  Our alignment with Christ drives our daily actions – if we are aligned with Christ, our actions will be Christlike as well.  But if we’re not, or even if we’re a little off, so will our actions be.

You might have heard recently of an interview that Pope Francis gave to an Italian Jesuit magazine.  It was all over the news, and was met with a lot of controversy and mixed reviews.  the New York Times reported:

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.

 Meanwhile, LifeSiteNews.com, a popular Catholic pro-life website reported:

In comments rocking the Catholic world today, Pope Francis’ has recommended that the Church pull back from her perceived emphasis on “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.

 The problem was, Pope Francis didn’t say any of that!  He never said that the Church should pull back from speaking about these topics or any of our public social justice stances.  What he did propose was how we should engage with other people about these issues.  We can’t simply turn into moralists, yelling at our culture until it listens.  What we need to be first and foremost are disciples of Christ, motivated by the love of Jesus and the love of those in our culture that have been caught up in the web of lies of the culture of death.

"The Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus" by Hendrick ter Brugghen
“The Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus”
by Hendrick ter Brugghen

That’s the message of the Gospel today as well.  I think there are two big things that we can learn from the Gospel: when we aren’t in alignment with Christ, we can be blind to others in need, and we truly are our brother’s keeper.  The greatest sin of the rich man in the Gospel wasn’t that he didn’t give Lazarus anything, it was that he didn’t love Lazarus.  He didn’t give him the dignity that he deserved as a human being.  Pope Francis said, “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, and radiant.  It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”  In other words, we have to first be aligned to Christ, and then our action follows.

This should apply to every issue that we as Catholics embrance in the public sphere, including life, marriage, and religious freedom.  But it’s just as true about the issue of immigration.  Sure, it may not be as publicized or outspoken within the Church, and maybe it’s not as morally clear-cut as some other teachings that we hold to.  But it’s an extremely important issue in our times.  The primary concern at the heart of this issue, that we as Catholics are called to embrace is not a political or economic one, but ultimately motivated by love and compassion for those in need, and in this case, immigrants.  The Church believes that our present situation is not just for anyone.  Laws are being bypassed, the human dignity of immigrants is being compromised, and families are being torn apart.  I saw this first-hand in my time at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson, Missouri, one of our diocese’s primarily Hispanic parishes.  Families would be afraid to register with the parish, send their children to youth group, or participate in some of the parish activities out of fear of being torn apart as a family.  I found myself face-to-face with human suffering in a place I didn’t expect to find it.

This is not to say that our Church condones unlawful entry in to the country, or circumventing the immigration laws, or even an amnesty solution, but to provide a period of opportunity for undocumented immigrants to follow a legal path to citizenship and preserve their family unity.  It’s true to say that this is a complicated issue, and there’s no possible way I could completely explain away every concern that we might have (not in 12 minutes!), but I would put forth this: If we really believe in Christ’s undeserved and unearned love for us, and if we believe in his call to share that love with others, and if we really value the dignity of all human life an the family as the image and presence of God in our midst, and if we truly seek to be in alignment with Christ – then shouldn’t we do something about it?  I saw a Japanese proverb recently that I think is important here: “Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare.”

Today we come to this Mass to receive the Lord in Word and Sacrament.  We come to have our hearts aligned with the Heart of Christ.  May his love for us bring our hearts closer to his, and may we be inspired to bring that love to those in our world and in our nation who need it most.

Saints of the Roman Canon: Pope St. Sixtus II

Pope St. Sixtus II
Pope St. Sixtus II

The next saint as we work through our list in the Roman Canon is St. Sixtus.  Now there’s some uncertainty who this is because there’s a bunch of them (There are, thankfully, only five.  I guess everybody thought “Sixtus the Sixth” would sound weird.)!

One opinion is that the name in the Eucharistic Prayer refers to Pope St. Sixtus I, who was the 7th pope of the Church, and ruled from 115 to 124 under the persecution of the Emperor Hadrian.  He is credited with adding the “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the Mass, along with a few other liturgical practices.

However, most of the commentaries say that the name refers to Pope St. Sixtus II, who ruled from 257 to 258 under Emperor Valerian.  He’s a little out of chronological order (the next saint, Cornelius, is a few years before), but his importance to Rome and his example give him pride of place here.

He was known as a great pastoral pope, having repaired a rift in the Church between the understanding of baptism in the Churches of Carthage and Rome.  Pope Sixtus believed, as we do today, that baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Baptism bestows on our hearts a seal that can never be removed, no matter how severe our sins, and we can’t be “rebaptized”.  The Church in Carthage said the opposite, but Sixtus worked with them to repair the argument and restore unity to the Church.

When Pope Sixtus II took over as Bishop of Rome in 257, Christianity was still illegal throughout the Roman Empire, but it was somewhat tolerated, and the penalty was exile rather than death.  But the following year, the Emperor Valerian ordered the execution of Christian leaders and worshipping Christians.  Sixtus was among the first to be executed in this new wave of persecutions, along with 6 of his deacons.  The pope was hiding from the persecution in the catacombs, and one day, while celebrating Mass there in secret, a group of soldiers broke into the place where he and his deacons were to arrest and execute them on the spot.  Sixtus bravely volunteered himself to be beheaded first, saving the worshipping lay faithful and inspiring courage in his fellow martyrs.

The martyrs were secretly buried in the catacombs in Rome, and Sixtus was laid to rest among the tombs of many other popes from the 1st and 2nd centuries.  In the mid-1800’s, an engraved plaque detailing his martyrdom was discovered in the abandoned catacombs.  Centuries before, the remains of St. Sixtus II had been moved to the church of San Sisto Vecchio, named in his honor.  The relics remain in the rebuilt church today.

St. Sixtus is just one example among many of the courage and selflessness of the early martyrs as they faced persecution.  But stay tuned, because there are many more courageous martyrs to come!