Words on the Word

Pope Saint Martin

Acts 6.1-7: Men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom.
John 6.16-21: It is I. Fear not.

In Acts we hear the Twelve expound what qualities are required to serve the Church. Our translation speaks of ‘good reputation’. It is useful to note that the Greek word is μαρτυρουμένοι, which is to do with martyrium, testimony. In other words, one must credibly live that in which one claims to believe. In addition one needs to be filled with the Spirit and with wise good sense: two gifts that complement one another essentially. 

In the Gospel our Lord demonstrates that a situation of crisis can occasion great grace; consolation and fearless can result from anguish, if we loosen its grip on us and open up trustfully to Christ’s presence. He is and remains our peace. He is and remains light that shines in the darkness. That’s worth remembering when we find ourselves caught up in a nocturnal tempest.

The liturgy also gives us today an historical example of service. We commemorate St Martin — not the one with the geese, of Tours; but Pope St Martin, who was bishop of Rome 649-53. 

Perhaps we think that we, now, live in trying times, church-politically speaking. Ha! That’s nothing compared to what Martin contended with. The western empire had fallen to the barbarians a century before. Rome was governed from Constantinople. The emperor kept close watch over the Church and largely kept her under foot. 

Martin had been ambassador of the Holy See to the imperial court. He knew the state of things. He didn’t approve of it. When he was duly elected pope, he let himself he installed forthwith. He did not await, as Byzantine rules required, imperial confirmation. He stood up for the Church’s freedom. Then, that same year, he convoked a synod, the Lateran Council, which addressed a burning issue: the question of the free will of Jesus Christ. A synod in those days was a highly theological affair. 

Had Christ, or had he not, like any man or woman, complete freedom of will? Of course he did! The Lateran Council made a clear pronouncement. It went against the grain of common opinion in the East, where it was widely assumed that Jesus’s human freedom to say Yes or No was absorbed, so to speak, by his divine will.  

This issue may seem theoretical and abstruse, but isn’t, in fact. It concerns, for example, the Agony in Gethsemani. Was it genuine, or just devout theatre? The answer is of consequence for anyone aspiring to the imitation of Christ. 

The emperor was appalled by the pope’s independentmindedness. Assassins were engaged. For self-protection, Martin slept at night before the altar in the Lateran basilica. Imperial soldiers arrested him there in June 653 and took him to Constantinople. Martin, chronically ill, was terribly maltreated. Once, while suffering from dysentery, he was confined for 47 days without being permitted to wash. He was condemned as a traitor, led in chains through the city streets, mocked, and publicly scourged. Then he was shipped off to exile in Crimea, where he died. 

Martin’s successor as pope wasn’t cut from quite the same cloth; but Martin’s perseverance bore fruit. Rome upheld, despite all, the Church’s orthodox christology, defined at the council of Chalcedon. With time this teaching re-established itself in both east and west. We honour St Martin as a martyr. He died a ‘natural death’, strictly speaking, but it was provoked by treatment sustained at the hands of men who in name were fellow believers. He gave everything, to the point of shedding his blood.  

Martin’s example is immortal. It confronts us with a challenge in our own day. A Christian should be a loyal citizen and contribute to the good of society. On this subject the New Testament is clear. Our loyalty, however, should not become gormless gullibility. When secular powers interfere with the living-out of faith, when the truth is under attack, Christians have a right and a duty to say: ‘Thus far, but no further.’ 

Such a stance can have violent consequences. That’s just the way it is. 

A Christian’s ‘good reputation’ and credibility, we have seen, are a function of martyrium, which may call for the staking of one’s life. 

The collect for the feast of St Martin resounds like a trumpet blast: ‘Grant, almighty God, that we may withstand the trials of this world with invincible firmness of purpose, just as you did not allow your Martyr and Pope Saint Martin to be daunted by threats or broken by suffering.’ Thank God, we live still in more protected circumstances. But who knows what awaits us in our fast-changing, uncertain times?

Even if the wind is strong and the waves beat high we shall row out into the depths if the Lord bids us. He is faithful and does not abandon us if only we cling to him, governed by enlightened wisdom and the power of the Spirit. 

May God grant us courage to live up to our task, our call, our mission. Amen. 

Statue of Martin I in the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi, Italy. Wikipedia.