Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 21, 2018 by Monsignor Perez
Monsignor began the sermon by reciting the Hail Mary.
The Lost Tribe of San Francisco
First of all I want to mention I went to Northern California, to San Francisco to visit my mom, my sister and her family and I am so glad to be back. Everybody says that, but until you really go up there, the difference between things is just palpable. So many people are just pagan; the looks and the comments you get from them – the evil tattoos. I don’t mean everybody who has a tattoo is evil but I mean the pentagram tattoos and specifically the upside down cross tattoos and these types of things, and those gauge earrings, the ones that make your ear look like you’re part of the Ashante Tribe or something like that, along with piercings all over the place. From what I see there are a lot of people in Southern California with tattoos and that same kind of thing but somehow it’s different. The people down here who do that are like sheep without a shepherd, but up there they are people who have actively turned against God. These things figure into one thing I want to talk about this morning.
I like to take my cue for what to say on Sunday either from the liturgy of the day or from what’s going on in the week and so today I am doing it because of both actually. Some of you in the past enjoyed the Discovery Channel, right? And every year they have shark week – every day is a different interesting thing about sharks and how they eat people and all kinds of fun things that are informative about sharks. Well, I was looking at the liturgical calendar for this week and seven of the eight days between now and including next Sunday (so Sunday to Sunday) seven of eight days are martyrs’ days, martyrs’ feast days. That’s about as many as I could come up with as I looked at other months. I’ve hardly ever seen a week like this. The closest was like five of the seven were martyrs’ feast days. So I thought it would be a good thing to address the subject of martyrdom especially because of what I experienced up in the San Francisco area.
On the Warpath for Early Christians
That’s how it was with the pagans in the Roman Empire who turned on the Christians. Of course, the government issued decrees and things like that but it was not only the pagans but some of our own people, Christians, in that era who turned on their fellow Christians and persecuted and in fact killed them, martyred them. So I am going to say a few words about martyrdom although you probably know most things about martyrdom there are probably a lot of things you don’t know too.
History of martyrdom in the Church: In the very early years, well before the end of the first hundred years of the Church, anyone who witnessed to Christ and suffered for Him was called a martyr. In fact, the word martyr means “witness”. In a court of law in Roman times if they were having a trial they summoned the “martyrs” –the witnesses– forward to testify, a totally different use of the word than today. It means a witness. And in fact I was reading something really fascinating. The grandsons of St. Jude – you always think like grandsons of St. Jude, are you kidding? The grandsons of St. Jude were termed martyrs in the early years because they were arrested and tortured and whatnot but they didn’t actually die for Christ. It was worth reading and studying for the sermon just to find out that St. Jude had grandsons. It’s like we could start a new DNA service you know – Are you related to an apostle? Oh, yes, oops, Judas! Okay, well forget about that! (Monsignor laughing)
Well anyway, early on a distinction began to be made between those who suffered and those who actually died. So I wanted to give you the definition that counts for martyrdom. When we speak of a martyr from near the end of the first century onwards, we are talking about a person who fulfilled certain conditions. One was they had to die, a distinction from the earlier martyrs where everybody was called a martyr. The death had to be specifically for Christ and the Faith. Thirdly, you had to accept the martyrdom voluntarily. Now really a fourth condition which is sort of the first condition is that you had to be a Catholic, you had to be a Christian. (All Christians were Catholics for 1500 years basically) You had to be part of the Church that Christ founded. So you had to die; it had to be for Christ or the Faith, and you had to accept the martyrdom.
St. Agnes – Martyr Extraodinaire
Now what brought this all to mind is today’s feast. Besides the Sunday after Epiphany, it’s the feast of St. Agnes and such an astounding example of heroic sanctity and of fortitude and of strength and chastity and all good things. St. Agnes was in fact lauded by the early Church; she was their number one saint besides the apostles for centuries and centuries. Now to us she is one of many but it doesn’t change the fact that she is an extraordinary saint. She lived around the end of the 200’s into the early 300’s. From the beginning of Christianity until fairly on in the Roman Empire, the attitude of the Roman Emperors was one kind of don’t ask don’t tell. You’ve heard that term recently. They didn’t want big problems, and they certainly didn’t want to put a lot of people to death, so they said, Well, yes, if these people make trouble then you have to arrest them. But if they’re not making any trouble then kind of leave them alone. As history went on of course, the devil’s wrath against the Church of Christ grew and so the decrees became more and more specific and more and more narrow so that Christians could not escape.
Finally under one Emperor whose name is infamous of course, Diocletian, probably the worst persecution that had happened ever or at least to date, occurred, and a decree was issued whereby not only did anybody who was suspected of being a Christian had to be reported but it went beyond that. They would go basically door to door, person to person, workplace to workplace. You had to make some sort of oath or action of fealty to the pagan idols, the religion of state. So they did this and there were different options. One was you could sign a paper that said you would do it; another was you could just sign a paper that said you offered incense even if you didn’t, this kind of thing, or to actually abjure Christianity and take the oath of fealty to the pagan gods and worship the pagan gods.
What this resulted in of course was a mass execution and for those Christians who would not do any of these things, the automatic penalty was death. One such person who refused to do any of these things was our dear St. Agnes, twelve or thirteen years old and she had espoused herself to Christ. They brought her to a pagan temple, they basically told her you have to get married -- you have to have a man now. She said I am a virgin; I am consecrated to My Lord. One thing led to another. Many suitors came forth to marry her and the records show that some of them were out of pity just to give her an out from being killed and she would have none of that. So in the year 304 she was put to different tortures. They tied her to the stake and tried to burn her. At first the wood wouldn’t ignite but later when it did the flames parted and went around her and wouldn’t actually touch her. They tried various things but in the end they told her she had to renounce Christ and she wouldn’t, so one of the people there took a sword and just cut her head off. From that time she was venerated as one of the greatest martyrs to date. She is the patroness of those who are betrothed, engaged; patroness of purity, of all things pure and virginal that you can think of.
St. Emerentiana, Martyr
Interestingly enough on the same week Agnes was martyred, January 21, 304 AD, only two days later, January 23, her co-religionist was martyred. I won’t say a relative. It’s kind of a relative but I’ll have to explain because in these days of baby formula and bottles the practice isn’t known as much. In the old days there was something called a wet nurse for when a mother didn’t have enough milk to give her babies. They would get a lady who had excess milk and she would nurse the babies for you. But it was much more than just a job; it was almost like a relationship, it was much closer than that. In fact, if your wet nurse had children of her own then her children and your children were called milk siblings. St. Agnes’ mother was like this, didn’t have enough milk, so she got another lady to be a wet nurse and the daughter of the wet nurse was St. Agnes’ milk sister as they would call her – her name was Emerentiana and she grieved so much for St. Agnes that two days later she went to her tomb to pray. Of course, those watching knew that she went there and she was a Christian like Agnes and on the spot she was arrested, she was told to give up her virginity, to denounce Christ. Not only would she not do that, she must have been a little fireball too. She let them have it for martyring her milk sister, that they should be ashamed of themselves. So they killed her on the spot too.
There are many other martyrs that are celebrated this week, but one reason I wanted to mention St. Emerentiana in particular, she is a very interesting case in the annals of saints that we find in the universal calendar of the Roman Missal. If you look in your hand missals for January 23, St. Emerentiana is one of the saints celebrated on that day.
Fr. Leonard Feeney, S.J.
You know we have these people around, they call themselves Feeneyites right? Thankfully maybe some of you have never heard of them, thank God. If you don’t know what a Feeneyite is, so much the better. They’re this little branch of Catholics and their big deal is they say there is no such thing as baptism by blood or baptism of desire and in fact they get really obnoxious if you think there is. If they say, What do you think of baptism of blood? And you go, Well, yeah, I believe in that. They think you are just worse than Luther, this kind of thing. The interesting thing is the Church has pretty much always believed in baptism of blood and baptism of desire and these Feeneyite people are wrong. Witness St. Emerentiana who was a catechumen, she was studying to be baptized when she was martyred. She died for Christ and even though she had not been baptized with water she was hailed as one of the other great martyrs of the early church.
Is Martyrdom for Me?
The thing I’d like to leave you with as maybe part of your Lenten meditation, or just part of your daily meditation – you know we often think, wow, I’d loved to be martyred. It almost sounds silly but to a Catholic it makes sense because we know our faults, we know our sins and we start to think, well, yeah, martyrdom would kind of take care of all that. I would actually just go right to heaven and not have to work at it anymore. But you know there were problems with that that I want to mention. Yes, if you die under the conditions of martyrdom that would be the effect, you would pretty much go straight to heaven. In fact, it has been the practice of the Church from the beginning not to pray for martyrs but to pray to martyrs. We never pray for martyrs. If somebody dies for the Faith – and that’s all the way up to modern times, we pray to them and not for them, unlike we do for other souls. But the fact of it is, and we have this from the records of the earliest Church, that when presented with a situation where you could be martyred where you have to stand up for Christ or die, most Christians – most – the majority caved in. It wasn’t like this big valiant army that stood up for Christ, it was the few and the proud – the Marines kind of thing. It was a few who stood up for Christ to the end. And unfortunately, my dear faithful, this is human nature. This is human nature that is conquered only by super-nature that comes from Christ. The supernatural is the only thing that can fortify your soul to endure martyrdom. And it is something that we have to beg for. When I was up in Northern California I saw people who could be killing us someday and the only reason they’re not killing us is it’s illegal. That’s basically it! Look at these women’s march people – a bunch of witches. They would love all of us dead. We’d say, well, who are the terrorists? And they would say, Oh, traditional Catholics, especially those with more than 1.2 children. They’re ruining the environment and they’re evil. You know these people would want to martyr us. So we need to beg God for the strength that if it ever came down to it we would be able to hold out until the end and actually die for Him without wavering and it’s not nearly as easy as most people put it.
The Vatican Martyr Mill
One thing I want to mention in finishing up – Modern martyrs. I wouldn’t get too much more modern than maybe St. Isaac Jogues and Companions and things like that when I consider things safely. Paul VI whose name is not mentioned in polite circles, did canonize some supposed martyrs. But unbelievable and true to his character, there was for example one group of martyrs he “canonized”, Charles Lwanga and Companions. Well, Paul VI neglected to say that except for Charles Lwanga, his companions were Protestants and don’t qualify for martyrdom. A Protestant can’t be a martyr. And in fact one of the popes – sounds severe but this is the truth of it – one of the popes said even if a Protestant should die for Christ he would not go to heaven because the first condition is that you be part of the Church that Christ founded.
So my dear faithful we pray that we are never put to this test, but if we are, we need to pave the way now; we need to prepare our souls with many spiritual and corporal works of mercy to get the grace for that moment should it happen. How better to start the week of “martyr week”, you might call it, right before Septuagesima Sunday, when so many of the glorious early martyrs are venerated. Also on this day, I don’t know if Francis is doing it, but the symbol of St. Agnes is the lamb, the pure little white baby lamb, and on this day usually there were two lambs brought to her church in Rome, St. Agnes Outside the Walls, where they were blessed and the wool from them used to make what they call the pallium. The pallium if you see a picture of an archbishop or the pope it’s like a collar thing and it has patches of black on the white, it goes around your neck and comes down the front and then it has these nails stuck through it. That’s called the pallium. That’s the symbol of an archbishop. Well the lambs blessed today were, and are I guess, what is used to make those palliums to remind each and every archbishop not only of his jurisdiction but of the example that a bishop should give in defending the faith and dying for it if necessary.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.