Stephen Redmond SJ has written a book about saints – from Peter and Paul, Felicity and Perpetua right through to contemporaries of our own, like King Bedouin of the Belgians and Tom Doyle of the Morning Star Hostel, both of whom died in the 1990s. He highlights bits and pieces from their lives that both challenge and encourage us.
175 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
PART I: FROM PETER TO THÉRESE
PART II: TWENTIETH-CENTURY TESTIMONY
THE ROCK PETER
‘Andrew first found his brother Simon and said to him, “we have found the Messiah” /which means Christ/. He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “so you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Kephas” [which means Rock]’.
So it was, according to the Gospel of John, that Christ and Peter met for the first time. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke show Peter being called to discipleship with his brother Andrew at the Sea of Galilee. It seems that John was recording a preliminary call and the other gospels recorded the definitive one.
John also tells us that Peter, along with Andrew and Philip, came from Bethsaida, ‘The House of the Fishermen’. Matthew, Mark and Luke mention Peter and his mother-in-law at Capernaum, another lake-side town. Luke says that he and Andrew fished in partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
The relationship between Christ and Peter is one of the most amazing features of the gospels. Each is, as it were, a foil to the other, bringing out the other’s reality, the other’s ‘heart’. Quite clearly the gospel-forming Church of the very early years realised that Simon the Rock was a Very Important Person in the Christ-event. He is always named first in lists of the Twelve and appears in one unforgettable scene after another, scenes which, when put together, make a sort of fifth gospel: the Gospel of Peter -Peter searching for Jesus at prayer, in the storm on the lake, protesting to and admonished by Jesus, accepted by Jesus as the spokesman of the Twelve, given a unique stewardship in the Church, first-named of the privileged trio with Jesus on certain occasions and the only individual recorded in the gospels as prayed for by Jesus.
In the Passion the relationship is sheer drama: the feet-washing scene at the Last Supper, ‘I will never fall away … you will deny me’; sleeper and swordsman in Gethsemane; and most dramatic of all, his denials (given in all four gospels – no cover-ups here): ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke), ‘and he broke down and wept’ (Mark).
John provides a graphic picture of him on Easter morning running to the tomb with the beloved disciple and going in and viewing the graveclothes. Luke briefly reports an appearance of the risen Lord to him. He is highlighted in great detail in the last chapter of John: splashing ashore to meet Jesus, attesting his love, being made pastor of the people of God, promised martyrdom and told, as before, to ‘follow me’. Even at this ecstatic Easter moment the ever-human Peter is curious to know what will happen to the beloved disciples and is (surely, serenely and gently) told to mind his own business, which is to say ‘follow me’.
Some great gospel lines of Peter’s are part of the rich Christian heritage of prayer: ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man’; ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’; ‘You have the words of eternal life … You are the Holy One of God’; ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’; ‘Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.’
In the first half of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is the leading figure of the infant Church. He initiates the election of Matthias as one of the Twelve, gives the Pentecost proclamation and confronts the religious establishment with the Easter Good News. He gains a reputation as a miracle-worker, is imprisoned and scourged with his colleagues and preaches with John in Samaria. He welcomes the new and alarming convert Paul of Tarsus. ‘I remained with Kephas fifteen days,’ Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. An intriguing interlude in which, surely, Peter poured out his memories of Jesus, Paul linked these memories with his own revelation of the risen Lord and each became acquainted with the other while they discussed the prospects of the Church.
At Joppa (modern Jaffa), Peter had a spiritual experience comparable to that of Paul on the road to Damascus. It convinced him that Christ was meant for Gentiles as well as for Jews, and it was immediately followed by his reception of the centurion Cornelius and his relatives and close friends into the Church.
Back in Jerusalem, he defended his pro-Gentile stance and was imprisoned by King Herod Agrippa. After his escape he went ‘to another place’ – this was perhaps Antioch, where an important Christian community was developing. We know on the evidence of Paul that he was in Antioch at some stage, where Paul rebuked him for holding aloof from Gentile Christians out of fear of what Paul called ‘the circumcision party’. The rebuke can be read as a recognition of Peter’s importance and influence. He was in Jerusalem for the debate regarding whether Gentile converts were bound by the law of Moses, especially with reference to circumcision. Peter strongly and effectively said no, thus helping to liberate the Church for its mission to the nations.
There is a very ancient and very strong tradition that Peter was martyred in Rome during Nero’s persecution, 64-68 AD. This tradition is confirmed by early Roman ‘Peter-cult’ and the fact that no other local church claimed him as its ‘own’ martyr. Therefore, it can be safely accepted.
And so the Easter promise of John 21 was fulfilled: the old man Peter held out his hands and was bound fast and taken to death. Saint of companionship with Christ, of mission from Christ, of return to Christ after failure and prayed for by Christ – pray for us.
THE LIGHT ON THE ROAD:PAUL
Tarsus in southern Turkey is an ancient city, dating back at least nine centuries before Christ. It became a busy port and a centre of education, part of the Greek culture-zone of the eastern Mediterranean. Extending Roman power eastwards, Pompey – Julius Caesar’s rival – made it the capital of the new province of Cilicia. It was at Tarsus that Cleopatra first dazzled Mark Antony; so began the famous and fateful relationship that ended so tragically. Antony gave Tarsians the privilege of Roman citizenship, a status confirmed by the man who defeated him and Cleopatra and became the master of the Roman world: Caesar Augustus.
It was in the reign of Augustus, possibly in the first decade of the Christian era, that the most famous citizen of Tarsus in its long history was born. He was a member of the Jewish community there. His name was Saul. Like many Jews of that period, he also had a Greek or Roman name: Paul. (Names of similar sound were often chosen.)
His double name reflected the double world in which he lived. He was, as he insisted, ‘of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law [of Moses] a Pharisee.’ (Phil 3:5) But his Gentile environment affected him too: we see it in his references to Greek sport, in his attitude to Roman authority, in his taking advantage of his Roman citizenship, in the vibrant Greek of his epistles.
In due course, Saul-Paul went to Jerusalem to study under the famous rabbi Gamaliel (mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as advising the religious leaders to be cautious in their treatment of Jesus’ followers) to become a rabbi himself. Rabbis needed a trade as they were forbidden to make money by their teaching; Saul-Paul took up tent-making.
We do not know whether the tent-maker of Tarsus ever met the carpenter of Nazareth. We do know from his first appearances in the Acts of the Apostles that he regarded the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah and Risen One as an intolerable blasphemy and a major menace to the faith of his people. Luke’s first picture of his future hero shows him guarding the clothes of the stoners of Stephen and approving of the killing – the angry young man was on fire against the new creed. Years later he told King Herod Agrippa and the Governor Festus: ‘I was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth … In raging fury I persecuted them even to foreign cities.’ Luke set out for Damascus on his anti-Jesus crusade, and so to the great U-turn, the most famous conversion in the history of the Church.
We have three accounts in the Acts of the Apostles of this moment of truth’. The last of them is in Paul’s address to Herod Agrippa and Festus: ‘I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun … I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goad”. And I said, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord said “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”‘. This experience of Jesus as Lord and the realisation of the union between Jesus and his people transformed Paul’s whole life and thought.
The next decade or so of his life is a tale of four cities: Damascus, where he was baptised and preached his first Christian homilies; Jerusalem, where he met the community he had tried to destroy; his native Tarsus; and Antioch, where he joined a community of both Jews and Gentiles. Barnabas from Cyprus was his stand-by and intermediary in this period, making him acceptable to the Jerusalem believers and bringing him from Tarsus to Antioch where, Luke tells us, ‘the disciples were for the first time called Christians’.
This splendid capital of Syria was symbolic of the cosmopolitan world to which Paul was called to preach the gospel. Mission One took him to Barnabas’ native Cyprus and to part of what is now southern Turkey. He moved from one synagogue to another in a flux of conversion and opposition. He took part in the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, helping it to its momentous and Church-liberating decision that Gentile converts should not be subject to Jewish observance, especially circumcision. Thus encouraged, he plunged into Mission Two, which brought him across what is now Turkey into Macedonia and Greece. Names of new communities appear, to which he afterwards wrote epistles: Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica and, best known of all, Corinth, where he found better gospel ground than in its more sceptical neighbour Athens.
Ephesus, the capital of Asia (the Roman name for much of what is now western Turkey), which housed the great temple of Artemis (Diana), was the centre of Mission Three. His long stay there climaxed in the riot of the silversmiths, who felt that he was damaging their trade in Artemis shrines. Then back to Jerusalem where he ran into more trouble which came in the shape of Asian Jews who incited a riot against him. He was rescued by the Roman commandant who sent him for safety and trial to the governor Felix at Caesarea, who detained him for two years without trial. Felix’s successor Festus commenced his trial in Caesarea but suggested transferring it to Jerusalem. But Paul, as a Roman citizen, ‘appealed to Caesar’. And so to sea, under military guard.
Chapter 27 of Acts is a classic of ‘voyage narrative’: Luke at his best, writing as an eye-witness and focusing on Paul as the most important passenger. The voyage ends in shipwreck off Malta. After a stay there it was north to Rome, where Paul begins his house arrest: ‘He lived there two whole years at his own expense, welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered’. So ends the Acts. Paul probably went east again and may have gone to Spain. According to reliable tradition in the early church, he died a martyr in Rome in the persecution of Nero, AD 64-68.
His epistles, accepted by all Christians as inspired scripture, are of course a treasury of doctrine – personally, passionately, intuitively expressed. All is centred on Christ: the crucified and risen Lord; Head of his Body the Church; liberator from sin; trail-blazer of his people into glory; and embodiment of a divine love that will ultimately transform the cosmos. Christian living is commitment to Christ. Its heart is love and its special bond is the Eucharist.
The epistles also provide us with precious pieces of autobiography, for example, 2 Corinthians and Galatians. With the Acts of the Apostles they admit to us the Pauline portrait gallery: men and women whose lives touched his: fellow-missionaries Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy and Titus; fellow-tentmaker Aquila and his wife Priscilla; Luke the physician, Claudius the commandant, Julius the centurion, Demetrios the silversmith and Lydia the fabric-dealer; Onesimus the slave and Philemon his master; the jailer of Philippi and the town-clerk of Ephesus, among others.
Paul of Tarsus, and of so many other places, moved in a world which in some ways was very like our own. He presented this world with a challenge and hope: Christ is Lord and his lordship is truly person-to-person and cosmic. It is clear that his heart went out to the communities he founded; points of light in the pagan darkness of the Greco-Roman world, with their faith, we may suppose, flickering from time to time. We may also suppose that in the communion of saints he prays for communities in similar circumstances today.
It is also clear that he was very convinced of God’s grace in him. For him God was present and active. In this he is a saint for all of us as we travel along our own roads of life.
I thought I was so right:
stamp out, destroy.
And then a blinding light:
a voice, a mission
new life, new joy.
WOMEN TOGETHER: PERPETUA AND FELICITY
In the ninth century before Christ, voyagers from Tyre in the present Lebanon founded a colony on the North African coast in what is now Tunisia. They called it ‘Quart Hadasht’ – ‘New City’, Carthage. It became the centre of a great commercial empire in the western Mediterranean. Across the sea in Italy another power was developing: Rome. Carthage and Rome clashed in three wars spanning more than a century. Even after winning two wars the Romans feared Carthage and provoked their enemies into a third. The end came in 146 BC when the Romans captured the great city after a three-year siege, razed it to the ground and salted the site. The Carthaginian territory became the Roman province of ‘Africa’.
In the following century, by favour of Julius Caesar and Augustus, Carthage was re-founded. It became the centre of Roman rule in that part of the empire, and one of the finest cities of the empire with its temples, pro-consul’s palace, elegant houses, aqueduct, public baths and amphitheatre. And so on to ‘Women Together’.
The first definite picture we have of Christians in Carthage is a martyrdom in July 180 AD. The martyrs came from Scillium (the exact location of which is not known with certainty) but their trial was in Carthage. Their Acts is the oldest extant document of the Church in that part of Africa. About twenty years later the Church in Carthage and other Christian communities faced another persecution when the emperor Septimius Severus forbade conversion to Judaism and Christianity.
Among those arrested were the catechumens Vibia Perpetua, a young wife and mother of upper-class family, wife family, and Felicity, a slave girl (probably of Perpetua’s household) and Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus. They were joined by Saturus, who was probably their catechist.
We have a remarkable account of the ‘Carthage Six’ in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. About one half of it is attributed to Perpetua herself and smaller segments to Saturus and an eye witness, perhaps the great Tertullian, who was a leading light of the Carthage community. It was circulated widely in the early Church. It can be considered as ‘instant reportage’.
The ‘Passio’ is very detailed. It described Perpetua’s father’s attempts to get her to change her mind, her imprisonment, her mystical experiences, her joy at having her baby boy with her, the baptism of the five, the public trial with appeals to renounce the faith from both governor and father and the unspeakable sentence: exposure to the beasts in the amphitheatre as part of the celebration of the Caesar Geta’s birthday.
Felicity had her special crisis and expression of faith. She was pregnant and because the law forbade the execution of pregnant women, she feared that her death would be postponed and so she would die with criminals. Her companions prayed and shortly before the amphitheatre day she gave birth to a son. When she was in labour, a guard asked her how she would endure the ravaging of the beasts, she replied: ‘Now I suffer what I suffer. Then another will suffer for me because I shall be suffering Him’ – a statement of the mysticism of martyrdom.
And so to the amphitheatre. At Perpetua’s insistence the five companions (Secundulus had died in prison) entered the arena in their own dress and not in the dress of pagan ritual. She and Felicity were exposed to a wild heifer: Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back … She got up, saw that Felicity had been knocked down and went over to her, gave her her hand and lifted her up and the two of them stood together.’
In a brief interval, Perpetua exhorted her catechumen brother to ‘stand in the faith’ and Saturus said to a soldier, ‘Let these things strengthen, not disturb you,’ soaked the man’s finger-loop in his blood and gave it to him as a memento and a pledge.
Then the final scene came: the five sealing their martyrdom with a kiss of peace and accepting the sweep of the dagger, with Saturus dying first and Perpetua, having lamented over the broken bodies, guiding the unsteady hand of the young, inexperienced gladiator to her throat.
Today visitors to Carthage see what has been uncovered of the ancient city. Like Perpetua’s father, they climb the hill to the citadel area where the prison was located. They read the names of the ‘Carthage Six’ on an ancient memorial stone, discovered in 1907. They stand in the arena where two brave women stood together in love unto death for Christ. If they are pilgrims they pray to them and give thanks for them – as we can too.
They stand together, pray and wait
in horror world of pain and hate
and then in glory, swift and free
their Lover comes eternally.