The Dogma of Sufficient Grace, Part Two, and the Martyrdom of Pope-Emeritus Benedict.
The Third Sunday of the Great Fast, known as the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy & Life-Creating Cross.
The Holy Martyr Eutropius & His Companions, Cleonicus & Basiliscus.
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12:40 PM 3/3/2013 — About twenty years ago I enjoyed a rare privilege for any priest, and that was to offer the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, just outside of Rome. I was still serving as a priest of the Latin Church at that time, and had been asked to lead a group of college students on a pilgrimage to various holy sites in Italy and France; and, due to the generosity of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology which has custody and care of the catacombs of Rome, I had permission to take the students down there and offer Holy Mass in the very chamber in which Pope Sixtus II was martyred.* He was offering Holy Mass, just as I was, when he was told the soldiers were coming. He could have saved himself. He could have hidden himself in the many passageways of the catacombs;—it would have been easy; we almost got lost ourselves—but, he refused to interrupt the service. The Eucharist, he thought, was much more important than his life. He finished the Liturgy and, 20 minutes later, he and the two deacons who were with him had their heads cut off. They buried him right in that room, and we offered the Liturgy using his tomb as our altar.
One of the characteristics of true martyrdom is that it defies the logic and reason of the worldly. I was reminded of this most recently in the days that followed our Holy Father's announcement that we was resigning his office and abdicating the chair of St. Peter. He's not, after all, a naive man; he certainly knew what would be said in the secular press, which wasted no time digging up conspiracy theories about in-fighting at the Holy See. It was a foregone conclusion that the reason he gave for his decision would not be accepted: that his declining health—which we know now is a lot worse than anyone had previously known—made it impossible for him to continue in a way that served the best interests of the Church. But one of the most hurtful comments that I heard came not from outside the Church, but from some people within, who tried to force a comparison between Pope Benedict's manner of ending his pontificate with that of Blessed John Paul II, who hung on until he was dead even though completely crippled with Parkinson’s disease. What they are ignoring is the fact that Pope Benedict, in the eight short years of his time at the helm of the Bark of Peter, had initiated a sweeping reform of the Church in which a false Vatican II—which most people unfortunately believe to be the real Vatican II—is being replaced by the authentic Vatican II, which most people know nothing about, and which, far from breaking with Tradition, actually enforces and builds upon it.
No one denies the edifying example of Blessed John Paul in enduring his illness with such uncomplaining patience until the very end, but he was not in the middle of an important and sweeping reform. Pope Benedict could have followed that same example and, had he done so, he would probably be regarded as a great saint as well; but, the reform he initiated, and which he knew was so important to the future life of the Church, would have ground to a halt along with his own physical abilities. So, what did he do when his age suddenly and unexpectedly caught up with him? He made the difficult and courageous decision to give up the See of Peter—the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years—and leave it to a younger man with the energy to see it through, fully cognizant of the fact that he would be criticized for doing so. And it is my personal opinion—so you take it for what it's worth—that those within the Church who have criticized his decision have done so because they are either simple-minded and don't understand the nature of the reform the Holy Father initiated, or—and I think this more likely—they don't want that reform; they disagree with it, and were hoping to see it grind to a halt as the Holy Father's life slowly ebbed away.
It would have been so easy for Pope Benedict to do what Blessed John Paul did, and to suffer his illness in office, receiving the accolades of the whole Catholic world, perhaps even being beatified soon after his death as his predecessor was. Doing that would have served his memory and legacy very well; but, would it have served the Church? I don't know how much you ever sought to learn about the life of our Pope-emeritus; but, if you had you would have noticed that throughout his whole life—as a young man growing up, as a priest, as a professor of theology, as a bishop, as a Vatican official responsible for defending the doctrine of the Faith, and finally as the Vicar of Christ, the man never took a breath that did not serve the Church, even when it meant he would be despised for it; and, he often was. One of the highest forms of martyrdom is to allow oneself to be misunderstood for the greater good; and, this past week, our Holy Father did it without blinking an eye.
"If you would be my disciple," says our Lord, "you must deny yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me." Pope St. Sixtus II obviously took our Lord's words literally; so did Pope Blessed John Paul II, as did our Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI; and, each one of these Holy popes did it in his own unique way: Pope Sixtus didn't even flinch when they bent him over to chop his head off, giving courage and witness to countless Christians who would die in the Roman circus over the next 300 years; Pope John Paul endured a long and painful illness without one word of complaint, giving example and inspiration to millions of critically and chronically ill people; and, Pope Benedict sacrificed himself in the most unique way of all: by stepping aside so that someone else could complete the work, and probably receive all the credit for restoring the Church to its former glory and moral authority.
Ever since Christ died on the cross there have been Christians who have tried to live life as if the cross did not exist. Judas was the first. He was scandalized by the fact that Jesus was so obviously setting himself up for death. But you can’t have Christ without his cross. To attempt to have Christ without his cross is to seek after a Christ who did not exist. Every day, in a thousand different ways, we have to choose between playing it safe and carrying the cross of Jesus Christ. Most of the time the cross is not that heavy, and we can handle it. Once in a while, the cross is very heavy, when we are asked by our Lord to make a choice that could cause us to change the way we live or perhaps even alienate those we love. Last week, we spoke of the Dogma of Sufficient Grace; well, here is a prime example of it, given to us by the Pope. He shows us how to carry the Cross of Christ with grace. And when you think about it, that's the number one item on the job description of the Vicar of Christ.
* The St. Callixtus complex, between the second and third mile of the ancient Appian Way, is made up by above ground cemetery areas with annexed hypogea that can be dated to the end of the second century A.D. These were originally independent from one another and were later connected to form one vast network of community catacombs. The complex owes its name to the pope and martyr St. Callixtus (217-222) who before his papacy, was entrusted by Pope Zephyrn (199-217) with the administration of the cemetery which was considered the pre-eminent cemetery of the Roman Church, the burial place of many pontiffs and martyrs. Of the many structures that occupied the part above ground only two apsed funeral edifices are still visible: the eastern and the western trichorae. The latter probably housed the tombs of Pope Zephyrn and the martyr Tarsisius.
One of the most ancient and important regions of the catacombs is that of the Popes and of St. Cecilia. Along one gallery of this region the cubicula called “of the Sacraments” developed (first decades of the third century A.D.), which preserve some of the most ancient paintings in the catacombs. In one crypt of the region, almost all the pontiffs of the third century were buried: Pontain, Anterus, Fabian, Lucius, Stephen, Sixtus II, Dionysius, Felix and Eutychian. Next to the crypt of the Popes, the crypt of St. Cecilia is found to whom a cult was attributed especially in the high middle ages. Some other regions with catacombs of importance are those of: Pope St. Cornelius (251-253), who died in exile in Civitavecchia; Pope St. Miltiades (311-314); Popes Sts. Gaius (283-296) and Eusebius (309), and the so-called “Liberian” catacomb because of the many inscriptions from the era of Pope St. Liberius (352-366).