Obscure saints, fine — but feasts for buildings, really?

Yes, this month we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (November 9). In a real sense, the cathedral church of Rome is a mother who has been teaching us what it means to be church for more than 1,700 years. It is worth listening to the lessons this church has to offer us in the Pacific Northwest today.

The first lesson is in her sheer size. When Constantine legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, he made it possible for Christians to worship publicly for the first time. Temples in the ancient world were small, because the people did not participate in worship. Only the priest would enter the sanctuary to offer sacrifice. The people stood outside while the priest worshipped for them.

So you can imagine Constantine’s surprise when he asked Pope Sylvester, “How big of a temple do you want?” and the pope replied, “How big can you build it?” The lesson: Mass is never something we watch like spectators but always something in which we participate. No one can do our prayer for us. If we are truly participants, every reading of Scripture will speak to our heart and every Eucharist will be a life-changing encounter with Jesus.

The second lesson of St. John Lateran is in the red columns and beautifully carved pilasters of the baptistery. These were taken from imperial monuments in Rome. The builders could have used new materials, but they drew from other buildings to teach a truth of faith: In baptism, that which was secular becomes sacred; that which was profane is profoundly incorporated into the body of Christ.

Those pieces of marble and porphyry used to adorn the monuments of murderous pagan emperors. They were symbols of all the forces of sin and death that tried to destroy Christianity — but through the grace of baptism, they became a beautiful part of the church. That is the power of baptism: It changes people and makes them new in Christ. The baptistery of St. John Lateran reminds us that no sin is greater than God’s mercy.

The final lesson is in the gilded bronze pillars near the altar of repose for the Blessed Sacrament. In 30 B.C., when Augustus conquered the Egyptian navy of Cleopatra, he confiscated the ships and removed their prows — the bronze decorations on the bow. He melted the bronze and molded it into four pillars for the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. They were a symbol that a new era had begun — the Roman Empire had been formed.

Constantine gave those pillars to the basilica to make a similar statement: A new day has dawned, a new era has begun, a new chapter in world history is now opened. Christianity is no longer private; it is now a public witness that forms societies and transforms cultures. Those pillars remind us that we are to be courageously prophetic in our witness of faith, that the church has a necessary voice in world affairs. We need to remember that — today more than ever — lest we become silent and the bronze columns of St. John Lateran become nothing but interesting artifacts from the past.

Northwest Catholic - November 2020

Am I really called to be a saint? I’m just an ordinary person!

Holiness is God’s invitation for every human being. The Lord created us to know, love and serve him in this life and to be with him forever in eternal life. Accepting the invitation to holiness means letting go of anything that holds us back from giving ourselves to him in loving obedience. Holiness is not just a possibility — it is even an expectation for the Christian disciple.

The saints help us by offering examples of how to say yes to God’s will in practical ways. The church lifts up holy men and women as patron saints to inspire and guide us in our individual situations. There are patron saints for doctors, lawyers, parents, athletes, carpenters, teachers, priests and virtually every other profession or vocation. I encourage you to find out who your patron saints are (start with an internet search), learn about how they fulfilled the call to holiness, and pray for their intercession.

Personally, I have been inspired and encouraged by the example of Blessed Stanley Rother, a contemporary model of holiness, sacrificial love, pastoral commitment and missionary zeal who just happened to be from my small hometown in Oklahoma. In so many ways, he was also an ordinary person. For a summary of his life and ministry, visit blessedstanleyrother.org and watch a video called “An Ordinary Martyr,” which was prepared for his beautification Mass in September 2017.

Blessed Stanley Rother is recognized as America’s first native-born martyr; he gave his life while serving the indigenous peoples of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, on July 28, 1981. He was a diocesan priest who served for 13 years as a missionary and cared for his parishioners during the harshest times of their country’s civil war.

From the time he arrived in Guatemala in 1968, he began working for the integral salvation of the Tz’utujil people. He learned their unwritten language, carried out works of corporal and spiritual mercy, and rebuilt the faith of a community that had been without a resident priest for nearly a century. When his name appeared on a death list, he returned to the safety of the United States.

During his three months home, he discerned God’s will to return to his community lest they be abandoned in the midst of distress. As he wrote in a letter just a few months before his death, “The Shepherd cannot run.” In the face of danger, he desired to be the image of Christ the Good Shepherd for his people.

I encourage you to take time this summer to learn about your patron saints — especially those who lived in the 20th century. They are women and men of heroic faith who were filled with the Holy Spirit and allowed nothing to keep them from the love of Christ.

On July 28 especially, I ask you to seek the intercession of Blessed Stanley Rother for all priests (and bishops) in Western Washington, that we too may allow nothing to separate us from the love of Christ.

Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us. All our patron saints, pray for us.

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic –  July/August 2020

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