There was a side to my Latin teacher that I never knew existed. He loved Cicero. We translated some Virgil together. He love the style, the poetry of it. Awe and appreciation were his characteristic attitude when dealing with our translations. Then one day he really caught us off guard. It was just after super bowl weekend, February of 2008. We had seen the game and it was a thriller. The Patriots were riding an undefeated season and the Brady-Belichick combo was was after its fourth super bowl ring in seven years. It was a game for the ages. The Patriots drove down and took the lead with under two minutes left, only to let the Giants score, capping an epic drive and leaving the Patriots with the bitter taste of defeat, something they had not experienced during the entirety of that season. I believe that game had the second highest television rating of all time (at least to date).
the helmet catch
In Latin class the following week, one of the seminarians jokingly asked the professor if he had enjoyed the game. We did not know what to expect- for all we knew, he may not even have watched the game! He almost did not know how to answer. He paused and reflected. He had an aura about him almost like one about to touch or speak about something so profound, so sacred... he fumbled for words. What he finally found and shared went something like "that was probably the most extraordinary sporting event I have ever seen, possibly of all time." He communicated to us the most profound respect, an awe, an incredible value- we had never even heard him speak of Latin or Cicero this way. It was shocking.
Ignatius of Antioch
Yesterday we celebrated the memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch who died a martyr in the very early Church. Before leaving for Rome, St. Peter had been bishop in Antioch- Ignatius was his immediate successor there. Tomorrow we celebrate the North-american martyrs Isaac Jogues and John de Brebeuf. The word "martyr" can become so cliche for us. We celebrate their feasts, we talk about how they died for the faith. At times we even visit Churches where we are reminded of how these saints gave their lives (burned alive, tortured, given to wild beasts...) because they would not deny their faith in Jesus Christ. During his trip to Rome, Ignatius would write, "let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God's wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ's pure bread... He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire... Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God." We are dealing with something else here. This is not a pragmatic leader interested in furthering the interests of his "corporation." Think about it, he could easily have told the Romans that, sure, he will burn some incense to their gods. His heart would not have been in it- would we have held it against him? It would have been a way to ensure some measure of peace and allow him to continue leading the budding Christian community at Antioch. Christianity was nothing at the time and it seems that this bishop of an important city is throwing his life away. When we stop to think about it, it seems like a helplessly poor, impulsive decision to go to his death willingly like this. Yet he approaches his imminent death rejoicing.
Similarly, Isaac Jogues, even after returning to France from the missions, could not resist returning to America to preach the Gospel in those lands. I trust you are familiar with the story. These men's lives, and particularly their deaths, are too frequently grossly under-esteemed by us. Often their truly incredible witness and their consuming passion for Jesus Christ and their christian faith is lost on us and does not move us as it ought. It should mean much, much more to us than an incredible sporting event and so many other entertainments to which we are so devoted.
In his book On the Way to Jesus Christ, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "I have often said that I am convinced that the true apologetics for the Christian message, the most persuasive proof of its truth, offsetting everything that may appear negative, are the saints, on the one hand, and the beauty that the faith has generated, on the other." I pray that this may be true in each of our lives as well.