512 years ago today, on 18th April 1506, the cornerstone of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was laid. The Basilica was designed to be an awe-inspiring edifice representing the coming together of heaven and earth. Its massive dome sits atop a cruciform structure whose arms reach out in four directions. Think of heaven hovering over the four corners of the earth. The Basilica can hold a staggering 20,000 people. This monument to our first pope has withstood wars, earthquakes, invasions, and the inevitable erosion of time.
Of course, St. Peter’s won’t last forever. In fact it’s constructed on the site of a much older basilica—a nod to the current building’s finite existence.
For all the splendour of St. Peter’s, there is another structure that is far more magnificent. It’s the Church, a spiritual edifice built on the foundation of the Apostles, with Jesus as its cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). You and I are part of that Church.
And the Church is more than just a symbol, the Church really does connect heaven and earth. And that’s why Our Lord promised that it would endure. The Church has already endured for two millennia, despite persecutions, corruption, and painful divisions.
Our Lord has promised that everyone who is baptized into him is also baptized into his Church. We have all been swept up into this magnificent construction project. We are the “living stones” that Our Lord has formed, shaped, and cemented into his Church (1 Peter 2:5).
On the last day, when this great project is finally complete, Our Lord will raise us up with all the other saints. We will be among that “great multitude” of worshippers coming from every tribe, nation, and tongue, that the Book of Revelation speaks about.
The world in which we live may seem dark at times, but one day we will bask in Christ’s glorious light that fills his Temple forever. Our Lord has welcomed us into his Church with open arms, and he has a perfect place waiting for us in his heavenly home.
According to St. Robert Bellarmine, “The secret to dying well is living well.” It’s a simple formula: those who “live well” by trying their best to keep the commandments and embody the beatitudes will feel more prepared to meet Our Lord at the end of their lives. They will be more peaceful, less fearful, and more concerned about the people they are leaving behind.
Of all the deaths we read about in Scripture (apart from Our Lord’s death, of course), it would be hard to find one more inspiring than St. Stephen’s. St. Luke tells us that at the beginning of Stephen’s trial, “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). And today, we read how his last words were words of forgiveness: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60). Now that’s what dying well looks like.
St. Stephen’s faith-filled death can seem very heroic to us. And to a degree it is—St. Stephen even had a vision of heaven just before he died. But let’s take St. Robert Bellarmine’s words and apply them to Stephen. Clearly, Stephen was a man who lived well. The grace that he showed at his death was just a continuation of the grace he had experienced throughout his life. Stephen was already in the habit of looking to heaven. He was already in the habit of praying and of being close to Our Lord. He was already in the habit of forgiving his persecutors and surrendering his life to God. So, his death was nothing more—and nothing less—than an extension of his life of discipleship.
Now, it’s only natural to have some fear of death; after all, it’s the biggest unknown of our existence. We have so many questions about death, but we shouldn’t let them control us. Thank God we have people like St. Stephen who can show us how to “live well” and who can help us learn how to “die well”.
Saint Stephen was chosen by the Apostles to take care of the distribution of material goods among the poor, because this task was taking up too much of the Apostles’ time. The Apostles were supposed to be praying, preaching, and teaching, but they also knew that practical ministries like food distribution were just as important. So they took extra care to choose deacons of exemplary character and holiness as well as the ability to serve.
But what do we see Saint Stephen doing? He worked miracles, he countered opponents’ objections, and he was the very first to suffer martyrdom.
Some of us may like to take centre stage and perform more visible ministries instead of the humble, hidden tasks that may come our way. But far more important than what we do is how we do it. Anything, from preaching and teaching to cleaning the community toilets, can be done either in our own strength or with God’s grace. What counts with God is not that we get our name in the headlines, but rather the attitude with which we do whatever job we have been assigned by our superior. Saint Teresa of Calcutta said that greatness consists in doing small things with great love.
Many saints have followed in Saint Stephen’s footsteps. I’ve been reading about the Canadian Holy Cross brother Saint André Bessette, who wasn’t considered clever enough to become a priest, and so he spent his life scrubbing the floors, cleaning toilets and answering the priory door. He gave all the credit to Saint Joseph when people began to experience miraculous healings when he prayed for them. Saint John Vianney struggled to become a priest and spent most of his ministry hidden in the confessional—and yet people flocked from all over Europe to find their faith resurrected in his presence.
Let us ask all these saints to help us accept whatever we are asked to do, and to do it in the power, not of our own strength, but of the Holy Spirit.
The Season of Lent is well and truly over, and we are now deeply immersed in the joy of the Easter season, as we celebrate Christ’s victory over death. And yet St. Paul reminds us to focus on the continued necessity of repentance, conversion and the avoidance of sin. As Christians we need to remember this, because in order to share in the life of the Risen Christ, we first of all have to share in the life of the Crucified Christ. There are no shortcuts to eternal life: every year at some point I reinforce the truth that if there is no cross in our lives then there can be no crown. Death and resurrection must take place in each of our lives: we have to die to self in order to live for God, and indeed for others. And so sin must be avoided, because it’s sin that separates us from the love of God and the glory he has won for us.
As Christians we all know that Our Lord’s Resurrection can’t be limited to a mere historical fact, to an event that happened to a man called Jesus two thousand years ago. Rather the Resurrection is a present reality whose light and warmth we should already be experiencing. Resurrection must take place right here and now in the life of all of us. And if we are not experiencing this light and warmth, then we should take some time out to reflect on our motives and intentions. If there is sin in our hearts, especially serious sin, how can God be there also?
We will never know what true life means until we live it in the footsteps of Christ. Now obviously this isn’t something we can achieve overnight, even the saints have to struggle with that gradual transformation that takes place in our lives, as we deliberately and consciously turn away from sin and darkness and turn towards the light and life of God. Only if we persevere in this struggle will we come to view the world, not with our own eyes, but through the eyes of God.
Today’s gospel tells us how Our Lord opened the minds of his disciples to the understanding of the Scriptures. He explained why he had to suffer and die and rise from the dead. Moreover, they were to be his witnesses – they were to be his apostles – preaching to all the nations penance for the remission of sins. This morning our prayer is an invitation to Our Lord to come into our lives, so that our minds and hearts may be opened to let in God’s word. It is now OUR turn to be witnesses to the Gospel – it is our turn to be apostles – and to reveal to the people with whom we share our lives the resurrection that is within us. And if we don’t have it ourselves, how can we share it with others? We have nothing to give. And as the saying goes: You will know a tree by the fruit it bears.
The first disciples couldn’t keep this Good News to themselves but hurried off to share their great joy with anyone who would listen to them. In the same way, our relationship with the Risen Lord requires us to communicate the Good News by our words and actions, in particular our attitudes, our values and our lifestyle.
The Christian message is never fully ours until we have shared it; shared it with our family, with our friends, and with all the different people we meet in life. If we are to fulfil our vocation to be an ‘other Christ’ and be faithful to the Gospel we must stop living in a half-hearted manner and reveal the Resurrection in our lives. Drawing close to Christ implies truly Christian behaviour and being of one mind and heart with him. The Risen Lord can only make an impact on the world if our words and actions combine to reveal his power. It’s not just the role and responsibility of bishops, priests, deacons and religious to do this. No matter what our role is in the Church, we are all called upon to spend our lives, without reserve, in his service.
In yesterday’s gospel we witnessed Our Lord miraculously feed more than 5,000 hungry people. It was a miracle of compassion, not unlike the concern of the Apostles mentioned in the first reading today, but it was also much more. It was a sign of the power that Our Lord has over material elements; bread in particular, a power that he exercises in the Eucharist. Today we see Our Lord perform another miracle as he walks on water.
In the Old Testament power over water was seen as a sign of divinity. We recall the mighty power of God that parted the waters of the Red Sea for the safe passage of the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt. Our Lord ‘conquered’ the waters not only by walking over the waves but also by calming the storm. This miracle was another step in the gradual revelation of his true identity as the Son of God.
The multiplication of the bread and the walking on water fit together as one sign concerning the Eucharist. They show that Our Lord has the power to multiply the presence of his Body under the appearance of bread. Our Lord is concerned about our physical welfare, but he is even more concerned about our spiritual welfare. These two events in Saint John’s Gospel are an invitation for us to have faith in the Eucharist, to believe that Jesus is so powerful that he can nourish us with his Body; and that he loves us so much that he is eager to give us the gift of himself in this most extraordinary way.
Gamaliel’s advice is that of a wise and cautious man of the world. He tells the Sanhedrin, “If their purpose or activity is human in its origins, it will destroy itself. If, on the other hand, it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them without fighting God himself.” It’s also the advice of a devoutly religious man who may sense that some greater power may indeed be at work here.
We often overlook something in the accounts of the tension between the leaders of the Jewish people and Our Lord and his followers. We forget that these were religious leaders. They were people who were knowledgeable about Scripture and who had a deep and abiding love for God. We admire the Apostles for their fearless witness to the Risen Lord. We marvel that in the face of all their adversities, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus the Messiah. But the Acts of the Apostles, for all its drama, is not a Hollywood production, with good guys and bad guys clearly defined. The Sanhedrin was most likely not a corrupt power structure, filled with evil men serving their own selfish purposes. They may have had genuine concerns about their traditions and heritage in the face of this extraordinary challenge.
It’s all too easy to miss the deeper issues of faith that should motivate all of us who call ourselves Christians. We all need to remember who we are and who we follow. We profess one faith in one God. This is ultimately far more important than any differences of opinion of religious beliefs and traditions. If those traditions are merely human constructs, they will collapse or fade away when they no longer serve any real purpose. But if they are of God, they will endure far beyond our lifetime and the lifetimes of those who oppose them. Our task, then, is to be faithful to the Gospel and to call others to that faith. Our task is not to determine unequivocally whether our way is the right way.