This Sunday, November 24th the Year of faith will officially come to a close and for the first time ever Saint Peter’s bone will be displayed in the Vatican. It is also the feast of the Vietnamese martyrs and the same day that Mission San Juan Capistrano will celebrate the 300th anniversary of Fr. Junipero Serra’s birth. I came to Rome this same week to visit with some friends/professors and to spend time pondering what faith meant to the early church.
As this Year of faith comes to a close some might ask the question: “Where do we go from here?” I’m sure that this question has arisen frequently throughout the history of the Church, especially in the first few generations, so I decided to make a pilgrimage to some of Rome’s most ancient sites pondering how the early church may have wrestled with the same question.
My first stop was to the Basilica known as Saint Paul’s outside the walls, the place where Saint Paul is actually buried. Located just outside the walls of the city, Saint Paul’s has less traffic than the other three major basilicas; hence there are plenty of quite places for contemplation and prayer. Saint Paul is the evangelist that God personally selected to bring the gospel to all nations (Cf. Acts 9:11-15). Under the main altar are the bones of Saint Paul in a marble sarcophagus. I waited for the area to clear out so I could spend some time reflecting on the mission and preaching of Paul. Hanging just above the tomb are the chains that once held Paul…I reflected for a moment and some of the sayings of Paul came to mind. The first is that Paul tells us that the Word of God is not chained (1Tim 2:9). Even though Paul wore chains, no one could chain the gospel in the sense that we must with a humble confidence share these truths about Christ’s death and resurrection with all people. To do otherwise is likened to one trying to chain up the will of God!
In our modern age we need to make a decision to walk against our culture and even break the biggest chain/taboo of our own culture by bringing God into every conversation. I reflected on the many times that Paul preached the gospel to others who would not listen, yet with charity he continued to preach knowing that he would suffer persecution on account of the gospel. Even though the year of faith will soon come to an end, the work of sharing and proclaiming the gospel continues for all the faithful. Secondly, Paul speaks of his own suffering and even tells the Colossians “Remember my chains” (4:18). Here, Paul wants us to understand that there is a price that one must pay if they are willing to follow Christ. The grace of God is free and faith is a true gift, however if we are to accept the call to serve Christ then we too must be willing to make the greatest sacrifices out of our own gratitude! Paul wanted the other faithful to know the price of his own service, so that they could have the benefit of receiving this free gift. These chains must inspire us to continue this work as we reflect on how the faith has been transmitted from one generation to another throughout the centuries.
Next I stopped to visit the Basilica of Saint Augustine which also fittingly contains Saint Monica’s Tomb. Monica spent years praying for the conversion of her pagan son Augustine, who had chosen instead a lifestyle of partying and pleasure. Many young people today, without reflection, are often swayed into a similar superficial path. However, after many years Augustine discovered that his godless lifestyle had left him empty and without a real purpose in his own life. He discovered for the first time that only the eternal love of God, which he had misunderstood and always tried to avoid, could make life fulfilling and meaningful. Christ came into the world to reveal this love to the human race. His mother’s prayers were finally answered after many years of perseverance. In front of Monica’s tomb I also prayed for many parents who at times feel like giving up on their children. Monica realized something that ever parent should know:
Christ never gives up on us! In the same way every parent should, with prayer and encouraging words, always hold out hope that their own children, no matter how wayward their manner of life may seem to be, will someday repent of their own sinfulness and discover God’s love. My advice to parents is, “Don’t ever give up!” No matter how you are rejected do not fall into despair because the Gospel is a message of hope and our faith must be filled with this same hope. This is what it means to preach a savior who is both crucified and resurrected from the dead. It sounded like a contradiction to those who first heard and even today many are puzzled, yet our faith is based in this great hope that Christ is victorious even over death!
My last visit was to Saint Peter’s Basilica. I love the entrance! One must pass over the image of the keys and looking from the doorway to the back of the Basilica they will see a window with an image of the Holy Spirit. It reminds me that only with the help of the Holy Spirit will the Church endure the trials and the challenged that it must face in each generation. When Christ comes again, we will reflect back on what has happened throughout history and we will realize how the Holy Spirit was present and at work in our own individual lives, especially guiding the Church. A priest once told me that “the most important thing in life is not how you have fallen, but instead how you have gotten back up.” In all of his weakness Peter fell and denied Christ three times while he was being taken away to be crucified. However, we often forget to contrast this fall with the transformation that toke place when the Church finally received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Acts of the Apostles recounts to us the role of leadership that Peter took especially when it came to publicly preaching the gospel. Read through the first 15 chapters of Acts and just note the change in Peter’s life! Filled with the Holy Spirit, he was no longer afraid to suffer. In Luke’s gospel we find our Lord speaking to Peter telling him that he must go and “strengthen his brethren” (Luke 22:31-32). The way that Peter lived his life certainly strengthened the faith of the others who knew him. This is what happens when we live the faith with all of our hearts; it strengthens the faith of others. As we conclude this year of faith lest us reflect on the beautiful examples of faith that we have received through the holy people that we have personally know as well as the heritage of examples that we have received from the many holy men and women throughout church history. May these examples inspire us to become participants in the New Evangelization.
Rev. Tim Peters
Mission San Juan Capistrano