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Welcoming back wayward sheep into the fold (1st of 2)

August 11, 2015

St Lawrence, Deacon, Martyr                             Monday 10th August 2015

We can mistakenly think that the early Christians were all willing to die for the faith. Not true. What would you do if you saw the prospect of your children being taken away because you were a Christian? The threat of having to watch your husband or wife being cruelly tortured and executed in front of you, before it was your turn? Many, many Christians in the early days succumbed to the terrifying blackmail and to greater or lesser degrees complied with the diktats of the Roman authorities. Honestly, who can blame them?

But when they received the dreaded order to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, the Christians did try various tactics to avoid a premature and grisly death:

  • One way was to surrender the Church’s books – this was often enough to satisfy the authorities that they had given up Christian worship. In fact, they hadn’t stopped worshipping – to this day the Church has ‘The Office’, the ancient four-week cycle, five times a day, of prayers and psalms and Scriptures readings. The idea was that if you were imprisoned or lost the church books, Christians wouldn’t need their books – they knew their prayers by heart and could continue worshipping.
  • Another thing the Christians used to do was to use their contacts, bribe officials or forge documents so that they could claim to have an official certificate that said they had satisfied the authorities by making the sacrifices to pagan gods that were required by the law.

During the periodic waves of brutal persecution in the Third Century (the 200s) controversy was raging amongst Christians about baptism. How was the Church to deal with Christians who, terrorized by Roman purges, had co-operated with the Roman state, and then, after the persecution had ended, wanted to come back into the Church? Should they be re-baptised? The answer was ‘No’. Baptism is a one-off event.

However, what did emerge from this terrible period of suffering was the Sacrament of Reconciliation, forgiveness of past sins and restoration of penitents to full communion. Those seeking readmission would acknowledge that they had sinned before the assembled Christian community; they would then enter into a period of sorrowful penitence (very similar to our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving), and the whole church would pray for them too. After varying periods of times in this state of penitence, the bishop would then decide when they were ready to return to full communion. The length of time depended on what they had done during the persecution: surrendering of books and forged documentation usually meant fairly quick readmission to the Christian community; publicly worshipping false gods, however, was a much more serious – usually these people would only be allowed return to full communion when they were dying.

Now you might think that openly denying people Holy Communion for their past mistakes and sins is humiliating and cruel. But in previous centuries it would not have been seen that way. Sadly, our modern society is plagued by relativism – you could call it ‘make up your own morals as you go’. Everything is relative. And again, these attitudes are aggravated by individualism. People operate privately without interacting with their community (the number of cars with darkened windows is almost a symbol of this in our society – people don’t even want to be seen by other people when they are outside their own homes in public space. This can be summed up in the expression ‘Private wealth, public squalor’ – our society places far more importance on the rights of the individual over the Common Good; and our society is very, very suspicious of institutional authority.

So was the denial of Holy Communion to penitents for past mistakes uncaring and demeaning? No. The fact is that until very recently the vast majority of Christians did not take Holy Communion at Mass. This would be for two reasons: firstly, a lot of Christians would only take Holy Communion for first time when they were on their deathbed, immediately after a deathbed baptism; they would deliberately delay their baptism until the last because the sacrament of baptism washes us clean of all previous sins, and for the person being baptised there was then little risk of sinning before dying. And secondly it’s worth noting that frequent Holy Communion was much, much rarer in those days; being able to take daily Communion is something that only became widespread in the early 20th century – before that it was usually once a year, at Easter.

So, you may be interested to know that one of the ideas being made for the forthcoming Synod on Marriage and Evangelisation, is for the Church to consider, once again, receiving back into full communion, those who find themselves faced with dreadful dilemmas in their married lives, but seeking reconciliation with the Church, through the re-introduction of the so-called ‘Order of Penitents’ that echoes early Church practice.

Indeed, only last Wednesday Pope Francis talked about how the Church should respond to those who have failed to abide by their Christian marriage vows, people who have divorced and remarried without an annulment of their first marriage. This situation at present usually excludes such couples from receiving Holy Communion. Can you see that this is the same, very ancient response to a difficult situation where people have somehow found themselves in an impossible bind – despite their best efforts they find themselves unable to do what the Church teaches. Yet this latter day response somehow seems even harsher than what happened in the Third Century, with remarried divorcees facing little or no hope of a return to the Sacraments. Pope Francis said that the Church must have “the heart of a mother, a heart that, animated by the Holy Spirit, always seeks the good and the salvation of persons”. The Pope reminded us that such individuals are NOT excommunicated from the Church, and that we should try not to distance them from the life of the Christian community. Note that this is very similar to the Church response to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties facing people in the Third Century. Then the Church reached out to them, embraced them, and showed compassion and understanding that brought them back to the Sacraments.

So what about Saint Lawrence, who did pay the ultimate price for being a Christian? At the beginning of this month, August, in 258AD Pope Sixtus had been Pope for just a year when the Roman Emperor Valerian issued the order that all bishops, priests and deacons were to be summarily executed. So it was that last week the Church marked the martyrdom of Pope Sixtus and six of his deacons (Agapitus, Felicissimus, Januarius, Magnus, Stephanus, Vincentius)

The Romans did catch Deacon Lawrence, but he was spared immediate execution if he would hand over the Church’s treasures. It is said that after a couple of days Deacon Lawrence agreed to his persecutors’ demands, and led them through the streets of Rome: coming to a house, he introduced them to some of the sick and poor people of the City, saying, “Behold the riches of the Church”. No doubt this did not amuse his tormentors, and later they put him to death in a horrible way – tied up and roasted over a fire. How cruel can you get? Still conscious, Lawrence apparently cried out that they could turn him over as he was done on one side!

So it was that Saint Lawrence died. As we heard from our Lord in today’s gospel, it is only when a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies that it yields a rich harvest. There is no doubt that Lawrence’s death made a tremendous impression on the Church, yielding a rich spiritual harvest. Together with Pope Sixtus, you will hear the name of Lawrence invoked in the Mass when we pray the first Eucharistic Prayer – the Roman Canon (which is the oldest of our Eucharistic Prayers).

That rich spiritual harvest was not just for St Lawrence himself, but also as an inspiration to the Church – through his life of service to the people as a deacon and through his valiant, happy death. That inspiration remains just as valid today.

For the rest of us, we might not prove to be so valiant were we to be put to this ultimate test. In a few moments we will pray together the words, ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’. The original Greek word πειρασμός (peirasmos) in the Lord’s Prayer was translated into Latin as ‘temptatio’, hence the English word ‘temptation’; but it also carries the idea of being tested or put on trial, suffering calamity or affliction. This is certainly what faced Saint Lawrence – he was put to the test…. and he passed with flying colours. A good Christian, a very brave man, and an inspiration to us all. We honour him today.

Saint Lawrence, pray for us.

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