Saints of the Roman Canon: Pope St. Alexander I

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 in the succession from 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.

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Ignatius of Antioch

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 time 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 provides a number of important themes.  The first notable contribution was that St. Ignatius was one of 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 already 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.”

His 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!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Barnabas

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.  It seems that 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 of 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 is that he was attacked by Jewish leaders who were annoyed 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 Mark was present for his martyrdom, and buried his body there.  Today, St. Barnabas is considered the patron of Cyprus (of course), peacemakers, and is invoked against hailstorms.  So there you go.

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

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Matthias

MatthiasPoor St. Matthias.  Unfortunately, it seems he will forever be known as “the guy who replaced Judas”.  My goal this week, however, is to show you that he actually offered quite a bit in service to the Church!

Not a whole lot is known about St. Matthias before he was chosen as an apostle.  St. Matthias was probably one of the seventy-two disciples of Jesus who had been with him from the Baptism by John the Baptist all the way to the Ascension.  Thus, it seems pretty clear he had heard first-hand much of the public teaching of Jesus, and was familiar with what it meant to be an apostle.

Of course, St. Matthias is known for replacing Judas as the twelfth apostle.  In the Acts of the Apostles 1:15-26, he is chosen to assume that ministry and be a coworker of St. Peter.  The choice came down to being between him and a certain Joseph, called Barsabas.  Both were chosen as candidates because they had accompanied Jesus most of the time, but also because they were superior examples of holiness of life.  The choice was drawn by lot, so as to be entrusted to the Holy Spirit, and what do you know, St. Matthias won!

Not much else is known about him, other than from legends and stories.  Unfortunately, not too many of these are reliable in his case, as they are sometimes contradictory or far-fetched.  Still, some are rather interesting, and probably have a basis in the truth.  St. Matthias is said to have begun his preaching in Judea, but as with most of the apostles, he expanded further out.  Some traditions suggest that he went to the area called “Ethiopia” (not that one, the other one) in present day Georgia (also not that one, the other one) in the Caucasus region.  One story says he was crucified, while another says he preached to the barbarians and cannibals there (yikes!) before travelling to Armenia and dying of old age.  Still another tradition holds that he never left Judea, and was stoned to death in Jerusalem before being beheaded.  Despite these seemingly contradicting traditions, the Church continues to celebrate St. Matthias as a martyr, and I suppose that’s what matters.

Little remains of the words or writings of St. Matthias, other than some quotations taken from his work by some of the early Church Fathers.  One old traditions remains, however, which is to say that the Feast of St. Matthias on May 14 is the luckiest day of the year, because…you know…Matthias was chosen by lot… (those Church Fathers are so witty).  So go buy a lottery ticket on May 14 –  just remember your 10%!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Stephen the Protomartyr

"The Martyrdom of St. Stephen" by Giorgio Vasari
“The Martyrdom of St. Stephen” by Giorgio Vasari

This week, we’re focusing on St. Stephen, the Protomartyr (first martyr), who, like St. John the Baptist, we know from the New Testament.  Everything we hear about his life comes from the Acts of the Apostles.

The name Stephanos is Greek, which might mean two things: either 1) he was a Hellenist, a Jew born in a foreign land who spoke Greek as his first language, or 2) that was a Greek name equivalent to his Aramaic name, Kelil, which means “crown” – appropriate, as he was the first to obtain he crown of martyrdom in the name of Jesus.  In either case, it’s safe to say he was pretty Greek-minded.

Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, named in the Acts of the Apostles.  At the time, the Christian community was sharing what they had to care for the poor and widowed of their community (much like we do today!), but as the community got larger, it was more difficult for the apostles to take care of everyone.  There was dissatisfaction with the distributions of alms, claims of favoritism of Jews over Greeks, and a general lack of organization.  The deacons were named to assist in the distribution and in the leadership of the infant Church.  Stephan worked with the Greek-speaking Christians, who maybe were less familiar to the predominantly Jewish apostles.

Stephen was chosen as a deacon for good reason.  The author of Acts (traditionally St. Luke), speaks very highly of him, claiming that he was a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and praising his grace, fortitude, and wisdom.

Obviously, Stephen was a good guy, but as with most good guys, some people didn’t like him.  He came into conflict with the Jewish Synagogue of Freedmen, or the Libertines, who were descendents of Jews taken captive to Rome by Pompey the Great in 63 BC.  His teachings and fearless proclamation of Jesus was too much for them, and they dragged him to the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish elders.

But these guys clearly didn’t know who they were messing with – Stephen was a great orator!  He was able to speak with great authority and logic that was very convincing.  In Acts 7, we have his entire speech to the Sanhedrin – or at least the Cliffs Notes version!  He defended his faith to the elders, and called them out on their hardness of heart that ultimately had led Jesus to his death.  Obviously, the Sanhedrin didn’t like this, and they condemned him to death by stoning.  As he was being pelted by hundreds of rocks, he imitated Jesus last words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60)

According to tradition, he was laid to rest north of Jerusalem, but the tomb was lost for a few hundred years.  Thankfully, a Palestinian priest named Lucian reportedly had a vision as to the location of Stephen’s tomb.  Incidentally, the Church celebrated this dream as a feast day in the liturgical calendar all the way up to the Second Vatican Council!  The relics of St. Stephen were moved around the 5th century to a church built in his honor on the site of his martyrdom outside Jerusalem.  It was a huge monastery, and at one time, held close to 10,000 monks!  It was destroyed in the crusades, but was recently rebuilt and rededicated in 1900.

Stay tuned next week for another saint mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. John the Baptist

Mosaic of St. John the Baptist from the Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem
Mosaic of St. John the Baptist from the Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

The next list of saints in the Roman Canon begins with St. John the Baptist.  Now, at first, I was thinking, that this article might be a little boring.  Everyone knows pretty much everything about him.  We hear about his whole life, from birth to death, in the Gospels.  There aren’t too many Christian legends about him, as there were about the apostles.  Frankly, I was going to skip St. John, but actually, I discovered that there are quite a few interesting things that make him as interesting as he is!

Needless to say, St. John the Baptist is incredibly important for our Christian faith.  His life is woven together by all four Gospels, although most of it is gathered from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).  He was the son of Zechariah, a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary.  We all know the story surrounding John’s birth (Luke 1:5-25, if you forgot!) and that he went off to live as a hermit in the Judean Desert until around 27 AD, when he returned to begin his ministry of baptizing, a new thing at the time.

It is interesting that St. John the Baptist is known from other non-Christian sources as well.  He is mentioned prominently as the son of Zechariah in the Qur’an, but also in the secular writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.  Writing around 93 AD, Josephus emphasized John as a good man who encouraged virtue and righteousness among the people.  While the Gospels tell us that he was executed by Herod because of his wife Herodias (and her being put on the spot by John for marrying against the Jewish Law), Josephus takes a more political route as to the reasons of John’s death.  He claims that John had so many zealous disciples gathered to him that Herod feared him inciting rebellion, and so executed him in the palace at Machaerus, fifteen miles southeast of the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.

St. John the Baptist wasn’t simply important from a historical perspective, but from a spiritual one as well.  He is commonly known as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus.  He was the last of the prophets, and in fact, was foretold in the Old Testament as the greatest of the prophets, the returning Elijah:

Isaiah 40:3 – “A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!  Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”

Malachi 3:1 (the last book of the Old Testament!) – “Now I am sending my messenger – he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; the messenger of the covenant whom you desire – see, he is coming! says the Lord of hosts.”

We will hear each of these readings in a few weeks as we begin the season of Advent, the time preparing for the Lord’s coming at Christmas.

St. John the Baptist is so important in the Church that he has two feast days to commemorate the two most important events of his life.  We celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24, and the Beheading of John on August 29.  I guess if your patron saint is St. John, you are owed twice the presents!  Even though he didn’t see the salvation that Jesus brought in his own lifetime, St. John is an ideal for us to follow – in the way he lived his life, proclaiming tirelessly the Word of God, and in the way that he died, for the truth and love of God.  St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

Saints of the Roman Canon: Sts. Cosmas and Damian

Last week’s saints, Sts. John and Paul, were paired together in the Roman Canon, and we remember their accomplishments together.  Today too, our saints are paired together because they were brothers.  Sts. Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers who were born in Cilicia, in modern-day Turkey.

Unfortunately, we know very little about their lives, but the most notable part of their background is that they were physicians.  Apparently, they were quite popular and skilled, but they also used their work as an opportunity to spread the Gospel by their words and examples.  They routinely included prayer in their treatment, and accepted no payment for their services, earning them the nicknames “the Unmercenaries” (not really that creative) or “the Silverless”.  One of their miraculous healings occurred when, assisted by the angels, they supposedly grafted a leg from a recently deceased Ethiopian man to replace the cancerous leg of a deacon they were acquainted with.  Nobody knows if these legends are accurate, but often times, Sts. Cosmas and Damian are pictured in the process of performing this procedure or actually holding the leg in their arms!

"The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian" by Fra Angelico
“The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian” by Fra Angelico

Because they were so outspoken about their faith, Cosmas and Damian, along with their three younger brothers, were rounded up in Cyrus of Syria during the Great Persecution of Diocletian.  Despite the tortures inflicted on them, they stayed true to their faith.  Not only that, but they survived being hung on a cross and exposed to the elements, being pelted with stones, and being shot with arrows!  Eventually, they were given the crown of martyrdom by being beheaded, and were buried there in Cyrus.  Years later, the Emperor Justinian, who himself was cured of illness through the intercession of the martyrs, rebuilt and fortified the lowly city of Cyrus, building a great basilica over their tomb.

These twin brothers are a great example of living their faith even as they carried out their secular professions as doctors.