Thursday, June 25, 2015

Saints John and Paul: Remembering the Martyrs

For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
—Wisdom 3:4-5

The Roman martyrs simply known as John and Paul are among those early Christian saints whose stories have been somewhat obscured by time and myth, but they are among the most beloved saints of the early Church. Their names are included in the Roman Canon (the “First Eucharistic Prayer”) of the Mass and the Litany of the Saints, as well as in the liturgies of many of the Eastern churches. Their memory is celebrated on June 26.

According to the accounts of their lives that have been handed down to us, John and Paul were Christian brothers and both served as soldiers in the Roman Army under the emperor Constantine. The brothers were assigned to serve in the household of Constantine’s daughter, Constantia. She held them in high esteem and even named one of them her steward, while the other served as majordomo. The two were eventually sent to serve in Thrace (an area that now includes parts of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) in a military campaign against the Scythians. When the army was in danger of defeat, John and Paul convinced their commander, Gallicanus, that if he were to accept the Christian Faith, they would be assured victory. The legend relates that as soon as he agreed to become Christian, an army of angels appeared and the frightened Scythians ran away.
"Martirio dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo"
by Guercino (1630-1632)

John and Paul continued to serve in the army until Constantine died and his nephew, Julian, became Emperor. Now known as Julian “the Apostate,” this emperor rejected Christianity and tried to reinstitute the worship of the old Roman gods; anyone who did not obey would face torture and death. John and Paul refused to reject Christ and were given ten days to reconsider. Still unwilling to deny their beliefs, they were executed on the Coelian Hill in Rome, around the year 362. This story is said to have been recounted by Terentius, the captain of the soldiers who executed the two brothers. Less than a century later, a church was built over their graves and the Basilica of Saints John and Paul remains a place of pilgrimage.

Our commitment to our faith demands something of us. The annual commemoration of Saints John and Paul, like that of the commemoration of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome on June 30, reminds us that the Christians who face torture, exile, and death today are part of a great procession of heroic witnesses that goes back to the time of the New Testament. While many of us will not face the prospect of martyrdom, we are challenged to make daily sacrifices for the benefit of others and the good of all creation. These daily experiences of self-denial aren’t an end in themselves. They are opportunities for us to become more free to give of our time, our material resources, our gifts, and our prayers.

These are the values that are at play in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. Although too many critics have tried to limit this dynamic document to a few sound bites about environmental challenges (such as climate change), the Holy Father is actually challenging us—as believers—to live out the faith we profess in concrete ways: “Believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions. They need to be encouraged to be ever open to God’s grace and to draw constantly from their deepest convictions about love, justice and peace” (§200).  

As we honor Saints John and Paul, take a few moments to offer a prayer for those Christians of our time who are suffering because of their faith in Christ. But also ask these two saints to help you recognize those places in your life in which you can make small sacrifices that will help you become more free to relieve the sufferings of others and to become a better steward of this world that has been entrusted to us: “By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth, the martyrs light up every period of history by reawakening our moral sense” (Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 93)

A Prayer in Honor of Saints John and Paul +
We beseech you, almighty God, that on this day’s feast we may receive a twofold joy in the triumph of Blessed John and Paul, whom the same faith and suffering truly united as brothers. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Saint Joseph Daily Missal, New Edition [1964])

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