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Saint Martin I and the Indestructibility of Catholicism


“It is to the Cross that the Christian is challenged to follow his Master: no path of redemption can make a detour around it."~ Hans Urs von Balthasar

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” These are the words of Jesus to Nicodemus at the tail end of today’s Gospel Passage (John 3:7-15), an uninterrupted continuation of their discourse from yesterday (John 3:1-8) as Jesus tackles a number of topics, most notably baptism and the mysterious ways of the Holy Spirit

These closing words contained in today’s Gospel are of course a nod to Numbers 21:4-9 wherein Moses, taking his instruction from God, mounted a bronze image of a serpent upon a pole and lifted it high in the air so that anyone who had been bitten by the slew of serpents that were cast upon the disobedient Israelites could gaze upon the bronze image and be spared death. You might recall that this Reading was last proclaimed back in late March during the Lenten Season, on the Memorial of Saint Turibius of Mongrovejo as a matter of fact

This Old Testament tale would be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ crucifixion, that day when Jesus too would be lifted up, lifted up and crucified upon the instrument of his execution, so that those who believed in him would be spared death and instead be placed squarely on the path to eternal life. Yes, it was on that fateful Friday afternoon that the Son of God would die so that we could live.

Today marks the Feast Day of Saint Martin I, who reigned as the 74th Pope from the year 649 until his martyrdom in 655. Pope Martin The First was in actuality a “last” of sorts. He was the last of the early popes to be venerated as a martyr. Of the first 31 men to serve as the Vicar of Christ, 28 were martyred. This grim and quite shocking reality is a testimony to the power of Christianity; to the power of the truth. This Friday in Acts (5:35-42), we will be introduced to Gamaliel, a well-respected and shrewd teacher of the law who warned the Sanhedrin to tread lightly with regard to their treatment of the disobedient Apostles who continued to evangelize and testify to Jesus despite being warned ~ flogged even ~ for doing so. He urged them to “have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”

That God continues to send men like Saint Pope Martin I, and Saint Pope Clement I before him, and John VIII, and Leo V after him (just to name a few) is proof that Catholicism is indeed from God, divinely inspired by He who lavishly and without measure pours out the Holy Spirit upon those who answer the divine evangelical call. They are proof that Catholicism is indestructible. Eleven of the Twelve Apostles were martyred, sentenced to die in the most excruciating ways imaginable. Skinned alive, crucified upside down, fed to the lions. The great Deacon of our our Church Saint Lawrence, when sentenced to be burned alive on a fiery grid, was said to have quipped “Turn me over. I’m quite done on this side.” Early next week we will revisit the tale of Saint Stephen, Protomartyr of our early Church His martyrdom would trigger the conversion of Saint Paul, the tireless prophet whose letters would essentially define the New Testament.

These men and many other men and women like them, so worthy of our veneration and imitation, lived the Christian life faithfully in word and in deed, their martyrdom serving as an exclamation point upon the truth of Christian doctrine. No one would willingly lay down their life for Christ unless they were convinced of the truth of the Resurrection. If Christ has not been raised, their deaths would have been in vain. The same can be said of our faith.

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Truth is truth. The truth is not, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once remarked, determined by majority vote. As large swaths of Catholics continue to abandon the church, continuing to walk away from the Eucharist, the divine power and splendor of Holy Communion with Jesus is in no way, shape or form diminished. That only one in three Catholics even believe that the Eucharist is unequivocally and undeniably the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ does not suddenly make it untrue. The truth is not determined by majority vote. Nor truth does the truth need to yell. Those who spread untruths do. The mainstream cable TV news networks are a testimony to that reality. That our society shuns the cross, offering pleasure and convenience in its place, does not change the words captured in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s quote that kicks off today’s reflection. “The cross reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, there is no gift of life without pain.” These too were the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who will turn 94 years old later this week.

The Catholic Church has been no stranger to scandal, this we know. And scandal of the highest degree I might add. Whenever the myopic of the cleric abuse tragedy rears its ugly head, my mind immediately goes to Matthew 18:6, when Jesus says “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Yet we know that there is no sin, no scandal, no atrocity, that is bigger than God. The same can be said for God’s willingness to forgive the perpetrators of these heinous acts. We of course reflected upon and celebrated the mercy of God this past Sunday.

Towards the tail-end of this week and well into next we will read from the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel, known as the Bread of Life discourse. It is only through a life rooted in the Eucharist that we too can die, die to ourselves, while picking up our crosses and embarking faithfully on the journey home. Through the Eucharist we come to encounter Jesus’ mercy too, as our minds hearken back to the eve of his passion. His final act before being handed over was to bestow this timeless and generational gift upon those who love and place their trust in Him, so that we could be fortified by this food for the journey. "When you approach the tabernacle,” said Saint Josemaria Escriva, ”remember that he has been waiting for you for twenty centuries."

Waiting to bestow upon you the gift that makes the Catholic Faith, for twenty centuries and counting, indestructible.

Saint Martin I, pray for us.

Saint Martin I, Pope & Martyr

Saint Martin I, Pope & Martyr

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