Real Heroism: No Dragons Required

As I watch my social media feeds, I confess I’m a tad jealous of two friends of mine who just so happen to be visiting Barcelona.  Today is the Feast of St. George – “Sant Jordi” in Catalan – and he is the patron saint of both the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. My friends really lucked out on their trip corresponding with the celebration of local traditions about the city’s favorite hero.

Of course, old stories about St. George fighting a dragon are not to be taken literally.  Most scholars believe that George was born in what is today Palestine to Greek Christian parents sometime around 275 A.D.; his father was a well-respected and wealthy army officer, but both George’s parents died when he was in his teens.  Like his father before him, George decided to join the army, and eventually rose through the ranks to become an officer.  He was later imprisoned, tried, and finally executed on April 23, 303 A.D., under the mass persecutions and purges of Christians carried out by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Even though he was never in Catalonia – whatever the charming old medieval legends may say – St. George does have a more important, spiritual connection to the Christian community in Barcelona.  St. George was part of a huge wave of martyrs, created just before Christianity was finally legalized under Diocletian’s successor Constantine.  In Barcelona, within 12 months of St. George’s execution in what is now Turkey, the city had a number of its own Christian martyrs, as a result of Diocletian’s murderous paranoia.

St. Eulalia, a young girl martyred as part of this persecution near Barcelona’s old Roman Forum, is now entombed in a magnificent shrine beneath the equally magnificent Barcelona Cathedral, just a few hundred feet from where she met her untimely end. St. Severus, Bishop of Barcelona during Diocletian’s reign, was also executed during the same time; today his remains lie in the only perfectly preserved Baroque church in the city, a beautiful, peaceful spot for contemplation.  And the ancient Basilica of Sants Just i Pastor, which served as the Pro-Cathedral in the Middle Ages while Barcelona’s present Cathedral was being built, was constructed over the catacombs containing the remains of two Christian schoolboys, Justus and Pastor.  They were beheaded near the spot where the beautiful church named for them now stands, during the same period, for refusing to recant their faith.

This gives us a sense not only of how the Church attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, but also how quickly and widely it spread from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem.  George serving in the army out in Turkey would never have known or heard about Eulalia, Severus, Justus, and Pastor living in a small colonial town on the Iberian Peninsula.  However all of them, as well as the many others who met their end for their Christian faith, knew that they were part of something much larger than themselves, and chose to act heroically, when faced with either confessing the truth or saving their own skin.

In the present age, examples like that of St. George are good ones for us to keep in mind.  Here was a real hero, dragon or no dragon.  He chose the fork in the road that lead to his death, but which also led him to life, and to the respect of thousands of Christians down the centuries who have named their children in his honor.  Would that if and when our time comes, we would be heroic enough to make the same choice that he did.

Detail of St. George from "The St. George Triptych" by Jaume Huguet (1460) Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Detail of St. George from “The St. George Triptych” by Jaume Huguet (1460)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

 

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The Portals of Heaven

Although there is still a little bit of work to do with lighting and one or two other details, the new front doors at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in Washington, D.C. are now in place. The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl, will be coming to dedicate the new doors on Sunday, November 20, 2011 at the 11:00 am mass for the Feast of Christ the King, and I have been fortunate enough to be selected to serve as one of the lectors for the mass and dedication. The process of commissioning, fundraising, and installing these beautiful doors has been several years in the making, but they are already doing precisely what it was hoped they would: attract attention from those passing by the church, inviting them to linger.  Yet I also hope that they will call people to reflect on what makes a Catholic a Catholic, particularly for those of us who choose to pass through these portals every Sunday on our way to mass.

The bronze panels inset into the doors are the work of Philadelphia-based artist Anthony Visco, and depict scenes from the life of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose life and death are recounted in The Acts of the Apostles. I took some photographs [N.B. apologies for the somewhat poor quality] yesterday morning before mass, and present them to you below. The large, central double doors showing the panels with the martyrdom of St. Stephen and his vision of Christ in Heaven will only be opened for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or visits from the Archbishop. The two smaller doors on either side, which feature panels showing scenes from the life of St. Stephen and the early community of Christians under the Apostles, serve as the main points of entry into the church.

As you can see St. Stephen’s is not, on the outside anyway, a particularly inviting building. The interior of the present church is a wonderful mix of architectural ideas from people like Gaudi and Saarinen, all parabolic arches and cool spaces. The exterior however, presents something of a blank wall to the passerby, which unfortunately is the case with many buildings built during the Eisenhower-Kennedy years.

So it was interesting while taking these pictures yesterday, and then standing far back for several minutes and thinking about the doors, that a significant number of passersby did exactly what I recall our previous pastor, Msgr. Filardi, hoped they would do. The doors would catch someone’s eye, and they would stop and look at them. Sometimes they would just pause for a minute or two, but some people did so for several minutes.  Others went up to the bronze panels to examine them more closely, and to touch them. Some people even then took the opportunity to open one of the doors and step into the church for a few minutes, and came out holding a copy of the parish bulletin.

Clearly this is an example of church art that appears to be serving its purpose very well, and well-designed doors can certainly make a difference, particularly compared to the somewhat dark and dingy, unadorned doors that used to mark the entrance to St. Stephen’s. Of course, probably the most famous ecclesiastical doors in the world are those with the 24 magnificent bronze door panels made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Cathedral Baptistery in Florence, and which Michelangelo himself once called “The Gates of Paradise”. Beautiful as our new doors at St. Stephen’s are, I do not mean to suggest that they are equal to Ghiberti’s masterpiece. Yet in showing the death of St. Stephen, these doors do provide something more than simply a decorative entrance to our church building: they are a reminder that being a Christian means being prepared to sacrifice everything for Christ and His Church, as St. Stephen did, to gain access to the portals of Heaven.

Frankly, it was a bold decision to portray the martyrdom of St. Stephen so publicly, on such a large scale, in an age and in a city where so many in the press, in public office, and the commentariat would prefer that Catholics would keep their mouths shut, or at least keep to themselves and “play nice”. These doors tell those who reject and fight against the Church that we are not prepared to capitulate to the false philosophies of moral relativism and materialism, merely because public opinion happens to be heading in one direction or another. Rather, we believe we have something better, and something infinitely more permanent than public opinion, to guide us in how we live our lives – something which those outside of the Church can be a part of as well, if only they would choose to come in.

At the same time, these doors are a reminder to those of us within the Church that the call to holiness may very well require us to reject what the world tells we must accept or do. To be a Christian is not simply about being nice to people for the sake of being nice. If you want to be nice, there are plenty of religions or non-religions where you can go be nice to people without the burden of having to carry a cross.

We have grown too comfortable with the idea of a laid-back, Baby Boomer concept of Christ, going about acting like some sort of perennially smiling 1970′s guru, spreading peace, love, and hash about the Judean countryside.  The truth of the matter is that Christ speaks far more about the wages of sin, God’s judgement, and the redemptive power of suffering and sacrifice in the Gospels far more than He does about anything else. Jesus’ bloody, public execution was embraced and emulated in the countless bloody, public executions of the early martyrs who followed Him, including St. Stephen. These men and women built the Church not on the ramblings of some sort of hippie philosopher telling people to “Have A Nice Day”, but on their firm belief in Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

We forget very often in this country, perhaps because it has been so long since Catholics were persecuted and discriminated against, that we must be prepared to lose everything because of our Faith: our family and friends, our livelihoods, our freedoms, or even our lives. Yet the reward for losing everything, as St. Stephen saw in his vision at the moment of his martyrdom, is worth far more than the cost. For then one may finally meet Christ in Heaven, see Him face to face, and hear Him tell us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”