Mercy – My Column Full Text

Rome and Persecution

In this series of articles we have looked at how the early church began with practicing Jews who also met and offered sacrifice with bread and wine as Jesus had told them to. They thought of themselves as Jews. They carried on life as Jews, viewing Christ’s teaching as a continuation of what they already believed. For them Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jewish people. Paul even described himself as a Pharisee.

It was Paul who went to Rome as part of his mission to the pagans and brought Christianity to the heart of the Roman Empire which ruled much of the known world at that time. This gave the new religion a way to spread over the world. We all know that Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire and wonder how it survived.

The Romans were actually quite used to absorbing religions from places they conquered. It accommodated new cults and philosophies from different cultures, such as the Persian cult of Mithraism, the Egyptian cult of Isis and Neoplatonism, a Greek philosophical religion. These were tolerated as long as they posed no threat to order or conflicted with the worship of the emperor as a god.

Persecution of Christians began with Emperor Nero about the year 64AD. Historians believe Nero set fire to Rome and blamed the Christians to divert suspicion from himself. It was during this persecution that Peter and Paul were martyred. Nero’s brutal treatment of the Christians, he set fire to some and used them as human candles, prompted some sympathy for the persecuted people.

Historians record ten periods of persecution of Christians. There were long periods when there was no persecution and some periods of persecution were times when Christianity was illegal but did not involve searching out Christians to punish. Where Christians refused to recognise the Emperor as a deity and make sacrifices to him they were open to the suspicion of treason. Moreover, many believed that the gods protected Rome and that refusing to give sacrifice was to look for the destruction of Rome.

There were also misunderstandings about what Christians believed. Christians were often accused of cannibalism because the professed to eat Christ’s body. The practice of Agape, or love feast was thought to be about incest. Christian apologists tried to explain the true meaning of these practices and allay the fears of the Romans.

The final persecution was under Emperor Diocletian in the years 303 – 324. This is sometimes called the Great Persecution. It was extremely violent and resulted in the destruction of churches and the deaths of many Christians.

Persecution ended when the Emperor Constantine became a convert. Historians have problems with this conversion because Constantine did not rule in a particularly Christian way. He seemed to cling to some of the ways of the old religions while also being a Christian. Was he unaware of Christianity’s demand to be the only true religion or was he hedging his bets?

I remember visiting the home of a tribal chief in Ghana. The family had converted to Christianity but there was a peculiar structure at the entrance. On enquiring I was told that this was where animal sacrifices to the pagan gods were carried out. Apparently it was common for one member of the family to remain in the old religion and offer sacrifice, just in case. This was a bit of the best of both worlds I suspect. How easy is it to just throw away old beliefs? Many superstitions which still survive are rooted in old pagan beliefs.

However strong or otherwise Constantine’s Christian faith was he made it possible for Christians to exist and for the religion to grow and spread throughout the empire. Persecution seems to occur when Christian values seem to be opposed to the values of the ruling authorities. Some commentators would say that more Christians have died under persecution in the last decades than died under Roman persecutions. The current violence in the Middle East has resulted in many Christians being executed, some in a barbaric manner, and many more fleeing the persecution.

Those years of persecution didn’t stop the growth of the Church. Today we seem to be seeing a drop off in numbers of active Christians. This morning I listened to someone on the radio who wants to put a stop to Christian based assemblies in schools because less than 50% of people are believers. We might be forgiven for thinking the move away from Christian values is accelerating. After all, if we banned everything that less than 50% of the people were involved in there wouldn’t be much left, including democratic elections.

Why are people being put off religion? Perhaps it has been given an aura of negativism. Some may blame the media for inaccurate reporting others may look at the Church and hoe it projects itself. How many people grew up being told not to do this or that or they would go to the ‘Bad Fire’? Were many of us taught that our role here was to escape going to Hell? I think many people have the wrong idea about the Church. Just as the Romans did not understand what Christian teaching meant I think many Catholics today don’t understand what the Church is saying.

The Church’s message is really quite simple. Christ set up the Church to save mankind, not to condemn them. The guidelines the Church must follow were set by Jesus when he said “Love God and love your neighbour.” That can not be construed as being negative. The Church must work for the good of mankind. That means Christians and all those who are not Christians. It’s all about bringing everyone safely to Heaven, not Hell.

This month the Church has opened a new Holy Year. This is the Year of Mercy. That doesn’t seem difficult to accept but it might prove difficult to put into practice. We start by recognising God’s mercy towards us. When we look at the great gifts God has given us and recognise the mercy he shows to us sinners we see an example of what is expected of us.

That’s the difficult part. Not only do we need to give thanks for God’s mercy to us but we must be merciful to others. That’s not a problem with those we love or even just like a bit. The difficult part is being merciful and forgiving to those who harm us or even hate us. How can we forgive those who have hurt us? How can we bring ourselves to forgive those who mean us harm? That’s not normal human behaviour.

We will need to start trying to behave a bit more like God than man. It’s obviously impossible for us to do that unaided. Where can we look for that help? Our only recourse is in prayer. When we are faced with a difficult situation we can turn to God and try to explain our problem. Don’t expect a voice booming out of a bush, a phone call or even an email from God. God doesn’t work like that. But that is real prayer, not reciting words that we say without thinking but telling God what we are thinking. Since I’m not God I can’t explain how this works but that is our path to finding real mercy in our own hearts.

Mercy – My December Column

My December column will be published in the Scottish Catholic Observer in the Christmas and New Year edition. This will be available in a parish near you this weekend.

In this series we have had a look at the trials of the early Church and we conclude with a look at where we are today and the Year of Mercy.

Full text here next week.

Happy Christmas one and all.

The Trials of Paul Full Text of my Column

Saint Paul had a hard time.

Saint Paul had a hard time.

Last month we looked at how Paul was spreading the gospel to the pagans. When he arrived in a place he always spoke to the Jews in the Temple before talking to the pagans. This always caused problems. Some would listen to him and be converted while most opposed what he said and threatened him with violence.

Some people listened and thought about what he said while others were angered at him for attempting to bring about a change in their ways. We see a good example of this opposition when Paul reached Ephesus on his way back to Jerusalem. In Ephesus there was a thriving trade in silver shrines of the goddess Diana. A silversmith called Demetrius called a meeting of his employees and other silversmiths and warned them against Paul.

He told the meeting that Paul’s teaching discredited Diana, threatening to render her unimportant and, more importantly, destroying the trade that made them their fortunes. He whipped the crowd into a fury and the meeting ended in uproar. It seems obvious to us that these men objected to Paul for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. We would never behave like that, or would we?

We too can be resistant to change for reasons that are not based in the Gospel. Often people resist change in the Church because they are happy to be where they are and see no reason to change something they have always believed to be good. I remember debating with my grandfather who saw no reason to have the Mass in the vernacular. He argued that the Latin Mass allowed you to go to Mass anywhere in the world and it would always be the same. I argued that it allowed you to go anywhere in the world and still not understand what was being said.

When Paul eventually arrived in Jerusalem he went to the Temple to be purified. His seven days of purification were nearly over when some of the Jews from Asia recognized him and stirred up the crowd against him. The crowd seized Paul and a riot ensued. The Roman tribune heard there was a riot and sent soldiers to quell the riot. He arrested Paul and took him in chains to the fortress. Paul asked permission to address the crowd and explain who he was and how he had come to be a believer in Jesus.

When they heard his story the Jews demanded he be killed. The tribune ordered Paul to be questioned under the lash. As they strapped him down Paul asked if it was legal to flog a Roman citizen without a trial first. Realizing what he had done the tribune released Paul.

The next day Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin to state his case. He realized that the Sanhedrin was made up of Pharisees like himself and Sadducees. Paul claimed that the Sadducees opposed him for preaching resurrection which the Pharisees believed in but the Sadducees did not. This split the meeting and feelings were running high. The tribune, afraid the Paul would be harmed sent troops in to bring to the fortress.

The Jews plotted to kill Paul but the tribune learned of the plot. He sent Paul under guard to Caesarea to be examined by the Governor, Felix. Felix listened to both sides but did not come to a decision. He kept Paul for two years until he was replaced by a new governor, Porcius Festus.

Festus listened to the complaints against Paul and asked if he was willing to go to Jerusalem to be tried there. Paul asserted his right, as a Roman citizen, to be tried by Caesar. Festus had little choice but to send Paul to Rome. The journey to Rome was no simple affair. The best route was by ship.

These ships were not the large liners we might sail across the Mediterranean in. They were small and did not make the journey in one go. Paul had to sail from one port to another, each time finding another ship to take him nearer to Rome. On the third leg of this journey the ship was struck by a violent storm and was forced to drift before the wind. As the storm raged on the next day the crew were forced to jettison the cargo and on the third day they had to throw the boat’s gear overboard.

The ship was caught in the storm for fourteen days and they had been unable to take any food. Paul reassured them that God had promised they would all survive as Paul was destined to go before Caesar. They all ate some food and at daybreak the found themselves at Malta where the ship ran aground. The soldiers determined to kill Paul and his companions to stop them escaping but the centurion stopped them as he was determined to deliver Paul to Rome.

It was three months before better weather allowed them to continue their journey to Rome. Paul made contact with the Jews in Rome and continued to spread the Gospel message. Paul remained there for two years.

As we can see from his story, Paul faced trials in court and the dangers involved in travelling on long journeys in those early times. He faced both sorts of trials in the same way. He placed all his trust in God. God had chosen him to complete a mission and Paul knew that he would survive until his mission was completed. He was proved to be correct. Now we might think it was ok for Paul who had heard God speak directly to him and had appeared to him. God is unlikely to appear to any of us with a message of reassurance. How can we hope to behave like Paul with such confidence?

This is really because we do not understand God and how he deals with us. Each of us has a mission; it may not be as dramatic as Paul’s but it is why we are here. We find it difficult to recognise the important mission we have and distinguish it from the normal problems of everyday life. We worry about trivia and get dispirited when our plans don’t seem to work out. My plan to win the Euromillions and sort out poverty in Africa has come to nothing. I wonder why God doesn’t help out. The reason is that it is my plan, not God’s. It’s not my place to sort out world poverty single handed. That’s not in God’s plan.

I remember speaking to some primary school pupils about the work of Holy Childhood. One wee boy asked me what we would do when we sorted out all the poverty and there were no poor people any more. I can’t remember the daft answer I must have given him but he made me think. What would we do? How would we be able to live out our Christian calling to feed the hungry cloth the naked and help the sick if there were no poor? They are our road to salvation in God’s plan.

Paul was a great orator and converted many people with his preaching. He converted many more by his example of curing the sick, acting justly and devoting his life for the benefit of others. Surely we could all do a bit of that. We don’t need to be orators. We can lead the world to God by our good example.