Decision after Nain

The Lord Jesus worked a lot of miracles. By the time He raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, Christ had performed exorcisms, cured lepers and paralytics, and, of course, the miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee.

Nain in Galilee
Nain in Galilee

But He had worked these miracles in and around the city of Capernaum, a good distance from where He grew up. The people of His hometown of Nazareth likely had not heard about these miracles, or, if they had, they were not inclined to believe that the young man they knew could actually be the Messiah. After all, He looked like them, had a beard like all the men did, wore the same tunic, robe, and sandals. He ate the same food, drank the same wine at weddings. Sure, He had a serenity and prayerfulness that certainly impressed you. But–a divine man with dusty feet? Come on.

The little town of Nain, however, sat just across the valley from Nazareth. If you climbed the tallest hill in Nazareth, you could see Nain in the distance.

So when the widow’s son got up from his funeral pallet, the townspeople of Nazareth had all certainly heard about it by sundown. They now had to confront this question: Is Jesus the Messiah? Is He the Son of God, come to save us from sin and death? Is He God made man, revealing the loving face of the heavenly Father and giving us hope for the Kingdom of God?

Well… Is He??

The Roman emperors did not make things easy on Christians during the 200’s. The Emperors kept going back and forth about whether or not you could practice the Christian faith without fines or imprisonment. Years, decades passed when you could go about your business and live openly as a Christian, and no one would bother you about it.

Then something bad would happen in Rome, and the emperor would blame the Christians–since we Christians do not offer pagan sacrifices, like the kind the Romans believed you had to offer to propitiate the gods.

So then the Christians of the Roman Empire faced a choice, not unlike the Nazerenes had faced two hundred years earlier. Is Jesus the Christ or isn’t He? Has He conquered death? Does He reign supreme in heaven? And if He does, can I betray Him?

Well?

Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian and countless other martyrs in Italy and North Africa knew the truth about Christ and chose to die rather than betray Him.

Now, chances are pretty good that, at least for today, we won’t have to choose whether or not to remain faithful to Christ in the face of certain death. But every day we face situations where we have to answer the question about who Jesus is and act in a way that reflects what we believe. May the martyrs give us grace and courage to be faithful.

bartolome de las casas
Bishop de las Casas

[…And here is last week’s school-Mass homily, dear reader, which I neglected to publish:]

Five hundred years ago, European people began to move here to America, and also to Africa. Of course, they met the people who already lived here, and in Africa. Some of the Europeans began to say, these natives are so backwards that they don’t count as human beings. It’s okay for us to enslave them.

A bishop in Spain named Bartolome de las Casas said, ‘Oh, no! What we need to do is to try to teach these fellow human beings about Jesus Christ, the gospel, and the sacraments.’ The Pope backed up this position and decreed that the idea that the native peoples don’t count as human beings–this idea comes straight from the…Devil.

Unfortunately, a lot of rich traders did not listen to Bishop de las Casas or the pope. But one person who did listen was a young Catalonian Spaniard named Peter Claver.

He came to America to become a priest for the Africans who were being brought here as slaves. He called himself the ‘slave of the Africans,’ the slave of the slaves.

St. Peter Claver made picture books to teach the Africans about Jesus. Then he learned their language. He organized people to meet the over-crowded slave ships coming in from Africa and bring food and medicine to the people. St. Peter taught them how to participate in the Mass and how to go to Confession. After doing this tirelessly for decades, after baptizing more than 300,000 African people, St. Peter Claver died on September 8, exactly 360 years ago.

In the gospel we read about how power emanated from Christ. It still does–the power of true love and respect for our fellow man. Let’s draw close to the Lord like St. Peter Claver did, so that we can live with true compassion.

The Lapsed

During the third century A.D., the Roman emperors repeatedly persecuted the Church. The Emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian ordered that all Christians must renounce the faith and offer pagan sacrifices. Registries of compliance were to be kept in all provinces. Recusants could be punished by forfeiture of property or death.

Human beings being human beings, a mad whirlwind of attempted scams ensued.

By the third century, the Empire was home to many well-to-do Christians. These did not relish the prospect of offending God. But neither did they want to be impoverished or executed.

So they paid their slaves to offer pagan sacrifices on their behalf. Or they bribed officials to produce false certificates, saying they had sacrificed, even though they really hadn’t. Or they lent their identification documents to a pagan, who would then offer sacrifices under the assumed name.

The Christians who employed these stratagems to save their hides came to be known as “the Lapsed.”

The persecutions of the third century came in fits and starts; they lasted for a time, but then the Church would enjoy a few years of peace. St. Cornelius was Pope, and St. Cyprian a prominent bishop, through a couple of these cycles.

During the intervals of peace, a question inevitably arose: Could the Lapsed be forgiven? They had failed to exercise the heroic faith and courage of the martyrs. But, at the same time, they had never stopped believing in the Trinity and in Christ.

Now, of course, neither Cornelius nor Cyprian ever lapsed. Both of them eventually went to their deaths as martyrs. But, before they themselves were killed, they had to deal with the question of what to do with the conniving Lapsed who wanted to go to communion.

Perhaps we might think that, since Cornelius and Cyprian proved to be heroic martyrs themselves, that they would have insisted on Christian heroism. But the opposite is the case. Both of them were roundly criticized by other bishops for being too lax.

Cornelius and Cyprian both taught: We believe in the forgiveness of sins. Let the Lapsed confess their sins, do penance, and be reconciled. The martyrs are our heroes. The Lapsed do not pretend to have been heroes. But they are our brothers nonetheless. Let’s gather around the altar together, so that we can all learn to be heroes next time.