In 412 St. Augustine was preaching on the meaning of a psalm in the city of Carthage.
Remember that Augustine had stenographers who wrote with astonishing accuracy everything he said. You can hear the "oratorical" quality of this piece. You can tell it is a sermon and that the people are reacting to him as he speaks. The force of it builds and builds. Here is the bishop:
When some festival of the martyrs falls due, perhaps, and some holy place is named at which all are to assemble to celebrate the solemn rites, remember how the throngs incite one another, how people encourage each other, saying, “Come on, let’s go!” Others ask, “Where are we going?” And they are told, “To that place, to the holy site.” People talk to each other and catch fire with enthusiasm, and all the separate flames unite into a single flame. This one flame that springs up from the conversation of many people who enkindle one another seizes them all and sweeps them along to the holy place. Their devout resolve sanctifies them.
If, then, holy love energizes people and tugs them to a material place, what kind of love must it be that tugs persons united in heart toward heaven, as they say to each other, We are going to the Lord’s house? Let’s run, let’s run fast, they say, for we are going to the Lord’s house! Let’s run and not weary, because we shall reach a place where fatigue will never touch us. Let’s run to the Lord’s house, and let our soul be gladdened by those who tell us these things; for those who cheer us on have seen out homeland before we have, and they shout from afar to us latecomers, “We are going to the Lord’s house! Walk! Run!” The apostles have seen it, and they exhort us, “Run, walk, follow: we are going to the Lord’s house!” And what do we reply, every one of us? “I rejoice over those who told me, We are going to the Lord’s house. I rejoiced over the prophets and I rejoiced over the apostles, for all of them have told us, We are going to the Lord’s house.”
(En. ps. 121.2)
There is simultanously in this tour de force imagery of pilgrimage and also of the athletic race. This is so appropriate for today, which is the feast of the Proto-martyrs of Rome.
Yesterday, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Rome saw thousands upon thousands of people flow to the Basilica of St. Peter and outside the wall to the Basilica of St. Paul to visit the tombs of the martyrs.
Each day in Rome people visit the churches and catacombs to venerate the tombs of martyrs, some few who are famous and many thousands whose names are known only to God and their blessed companions in heavenly glory.
This prayer was not in earlier version of the Missale Romanum, though it was in the Proper for Rome itself.
Deus, qui Romanae Ecclesiae copiosa primordia
martyrum sanguine consecrasti,
ut firma virtute de tanti agone certaminis solidemur
et pia semper victoria gauedeamus.
There are ancient fragments here, however: the origin seems to be from the so-called “Leonine” Sacramentary, better known as the Veronese for the feast of the Roman deacon and martyr St. Lawrence (IIII IDUS AUGUSTAS. NATALE SANCTI LAURENTI): Concede nobis, domine, gratiam tuam in beati Laurentii martyris celebritate multiplicem, ut de tanti agone certaminis discat populus christianus et firma solidari patientia et pia exsultare victoria.
Words like agon and certamen, words for “battle” and “struggle” and “athletic contest” which St. Paul himself employs to describe the Christian apostolic experience, are used often for the early martyrs. Martyrs “run races” and win “unfading crowns”. Their “victory” in death is the reward of heaven.
O God, who consecrated the rich beginnings
of the Roman Church with the blood of martyrs,
grant, we beseech You,
that from the struggle of such a great contest may be made steadfast in constant virtue
and we may rejoice always in pious victory.
When certain ancient portions of this prayer were crafted, the memories of the martyrs had not really faded from memory. The people of the Church knew that their freedom of Faith had been won by the blood of their forebears.
Can we say the same? The comfy Church of the 21st century may yet have to face terror, persecution and death. It already does in not so comfy places in the world. When will the “comfy” part change? We should remember the martyrs, friends, and take upon ourselves something of a daily martyrdom with the practice of voluntary penances. These will help us to secure a holy victory in the moment of challenge and a reward in heaven.
We can and must encourage each other each and every day. In a way, is not what many of us are doing with the Catholic blogosphere another way of urging each other on? With the technology of creating links and interconnecting our comments and informing each other, are we not in a way doing what in that sermon Augustine describes as making many individual flames become one brighter flame?
For this reason I thank all of you who, read, comment and link. Something special occurs thereby.
1973 ICEL version:
you sanctified the Church of Rome
with the blood of its first martyrs.
May we find strength from their courage
and rejoice in their triumph.
Is there a difference between our finding strength (perhaps through our own efforts) and our being made steadfast in virtue (by God)?