Preface to the volume Custodians of Wonder: Daily Pope Francis, ed. by Joseph Halldorf (Sturefors: Silentium, 2023)
Towards the end of his novel Quo Vadis, written in the 1890s, Henryk Sienkiewicz evokes the spread of Christianity during the apostolic era. He shows how Christ’s words, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12.24), are realised in the lives of the apostles, enabling a most unlikely harvest.
The human cost of giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, unto God what is God’s is credibly portrayed. This makes the reader thoughtful. In times hostile to faith, how does one calculate risk? How does one know when caution is called for, when intransigence?
In the novel, the aged Peter, resident in Rome, sees that secular authority is minded to destroy him. He retreats from the city. Self-preservation seems to be in the Church’s best interest. That is when, on the Via Appia, he encounters Christ who, in response to Peter’s wondering question, Quo vadis? — ‘Where are you going?’ — answers: ‘Now that you are abandoning my people, I am going to Rome, there to be crucified a second time’.
The encounter brings about a revolution in Peter’s heart, a heart that has already experienced much, has already shown such
proof of fortitude. He realises that evangelisation does not depend on cautious arrangement; that fecundity comes about through integrity of witness, through life and death ‘in Christ’ (cf. Romans 14.7-8):
From that time forth Peter understood that all the legions of Caesar could never destroy the living truth — that never could it be drowned in tears or in blood, and that the hour of victory had begun. He understood also why the Lord had bidden him return, since already the city of pride, of crime, of debauchery, of supreme power had become the city of Christ — had become the capital which was to rule over both the souls and the bodies of men!
Babylon is secretly transformed into the New Jerusalem: the Biblical story of salvation is compacted into a single, arresting image.
Sienkiewicz, a master novelist, explores the call to transformation through the prism of Peter’s life and witness. The call confers an imperative to plumb the active, world-changing deep impact of Christ’s sacrifice to the point of being caught up in it in personal oblation. This drama is played out still with especially redoubtable, wondrous intensity in the life of any man entrusted with the Petrine ministry. In this book we catch a glimpse of its stakes in our day, with concrete, day-by-day implications for us all.
+fr Erik Varden OCSO
Bishop of Trondheim
Annibale Carracci: Domine quo vadis? (1601/02). National Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.