Today, in the Christian Churches throughout the world, an ever-expanding smorgasbord of programs, groups, congregations, committees, and commission focus on the Christian family. This is as it should be. Indeed, in October of 2014 Pope Francis is convening an Extraordinary Synod of Catholic Bishops and in October of 2015 an Ordinary Synod of Bishops to focus explicitly on the Christian family.
You might think that—before planning programs or giving advice on how to fix the Christian family—wisdom and logic would dictate that one ask the question: “What is the ultimate objective of a Christian family?” To be clear, I am not speaking about non-Christian families here. The question that is the focus here is this one: “What is the supreme objective that the mother and father and children of a Christian family should have before them?” “What is the supreme objective the Church should lavishly expend its resources on to assist families in accomplishing?”
In the secular domain, there are as many answers to the question about the ultimate objective of the family as there are secular philosophies. In the domain where the Gospel reigns, there is only one answer. The ultimate goal of the Christian family is that each and every member of the family becomes a saint. This is the supreme objective of the Christian family because it is the supreme objective of Christ and the Church, within which each Christian and Christian family exists. The final canon of the Catholic Code of Canon Law (No. 1752), placed there to emphasize its all-encompassing nature, reads: “The salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law of the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”
This fact brings us directly to St. Marcellus (d. AD 298), whose relics, by the design of God and by the decision and work of Edward Sorin, C.S.C. (1814 –1893), the founder of the University of Notre Dame, have since 1888 prophetically rested, here, beneath the high altar of Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart Basilica. St. Marcellus was a human being like us. He was a husband and a father. He was a centurion in the Roman military. He was a Christian who, in the name of Jesus, lay down his sword and shield. He was a conscientious objector, the price of whose conscientious objection was his earthly life, his Christian wife’s earthly life, and his Christian children’s earthly lives. He was a martyr. He was one of the overseers of a domestic Church who kept before his eyes the eternal salvation of his wife, his children, and himself.
St. Marcellus is an authentic Christian family-values witness. Indeed, he should be formally installed as the Patron Saint of the Christian Family as well as the Christian Family Movement. Pope Francis should declare him the offi cial intercessor, guide, and guardian of the upcoming October Synods of Bishops on the Family. As overseer of his domestic Church, Marcellus in Christ-like service to his family kept his eyes on the prize, the only prize worth receiving, eternal salvation.
Today, the Christian family is widely used as a pretext for not following Jesus. How many times have we said to ourselves or heard rationalizations of infi delity to Jesus that sound something like this? Look, I would rather not be working for a company that makes weapons to destroy other human beings, but I have a family to raise and this is the only good-paying job I can get. Or, I would like to be faithful to Jesus and His Way. I do not want my children—or myself—to ignore or support or participate in enmity and homicidal violence of any sort. But if I do not let my son and daughter join the ROTC and get their entire college tuitions paid for by the US military, we will not be able to afford to send them to college, etc.
Jesus foresaw the possibility that those He had chosen would be seriously tempted to exempt themselves on the basis of such family-centered concerns from following the will of God as He revealed it. He responded to that possibility in this way: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37-39; Lk 14: 26-27). Surely this could be the motto of the Christian Family Movement and the banner of these Synods on the Family! Would either dare use this teaching of Jesus as its publicly professed standard to designate the proper spirit that should reside within a Christian family? For those who think such a motto would be “out of place,” “unrealistic,” or “just crazy,” remember who spoke those words and what seeing them as an embarrassing absurdity implies, especially in terms of raising Christian children. Jesus uses father, mother, son or daughter because if anything could override faithfully following Jesus these relationships would be it. And if these do not take priority over following Jesus certainly nothing else can, e.g., love of country, love of one’s ethnic group, love of comfort, love of a human institution including religious institutions, desire for a college education, etc.
All political and economic tyrants, in every age, use threats of earthly suff ering and/or death to members of the family or to the entire family as a power to control the adult population. The horrific deaths of members of Christian families in the Colosseum were a recurring piece of savagery-as-entertainment-with-a-calculated-political-purpose throughout Christianity’s first three hundred years. Yet, into the Colosseum (actually the Circus Maximus) Christian families chose to walk rather than betray Jesus and His teaching. Since these families were like us in all things, it is highly probable that many, if not most, stepped into the stadium of their via dolorosa with fear and trembling over the ordeal that awaited them. But they also stepped forward with a courage born of the supreme conviction of their faith, “Christ is risen.”
Such also must have been the faith of Marcellus and his Christian family. If Marcellus is dead and gone forever, and if all that is left of him are a few bones under the altar at the University of Notre Dame, then we who are here tonight, and all Christians for the last two thousand years, are, as St. Paul says, “the most pitiable of all people”: our witness is false, our preaching is hollow, and our Christian faith is only empty babble to divert our attention from the drop into extinction that awaits us and our loved ones, and all. For, as Saint Paul phrases it, “If Christ has not risen, our faith is in vain, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor 15:17-18), e.g., Marcellus and his family.
But if Christ is risen, then the Way He teaches by word and deed as the Way of God, the Way of Eternal Life, is true. Marcellus and his family, along with three centuries of Christian Colosseum families, believed as Peter did when he says to Jesus, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). When Marcellus chose to follow Jesus and his Way even unto death, he was not thinking, “With the grave, existence for my family ends forever.” Surely he was thinking, “Eternal life with Christ-God is the future for my family.”
So, in choosing the Way of Christ’s Nonviolent Cross for himself and his family, Marcellus chose life, not death. He chose to act rationally rather than irrationally, by refusing to choose temporal life over eternal life. He chose for himself and his family to follow the Way of the Lamb who conquers evil and death in all their manifestations and who “reigns forever and ever” as “the Lord of lords, the King of kings” (Rev 17:14).
Could those who voice their concern over the present state of decomposition of the Christian family do better than to have St. Marcellus as their patron, model and advocate? By word and deed he taught his children that it is infinitely better to put up the sword and die in the Way of Christ, than to take out the sword and live in the way of Satan? Could the mother and father of a Christian family do better than to instruct their children by word and deed that it is honorable and noble, holy and heroic to be a Christian conscientious objector? Could they do better than to teach their children to refuse to pledge allegiance to any person or institution—political, military, economic, educational, religious or social—demanding, under threat of penalty, that they act in a way that is contrary to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, for example, that they pick up a gun and use it to kill a human being whom someone, that they know only through media sound bites, designates as “the enemy?”
And, if Catholic and Christian educational institutions, from pre-school to Ph.D., stand spiritually in loco parentis for the Catholic and Christian youngsters who come to them, must they not also do the same?
This, again, brings us to exactly where we are this evening, the Sacred Heart Basilica at the University of Notre Dame and to St. Marcellus, whose relics reside here under the high altar. This church is a fine example of what it means for a Catholic or Christian educational institution to teach secular knowledge within a Christian environment. Why? The altar, which is the architectural centerpiece of the church is the place where Jesus is daily re-presented in His passion and death—rejecting violence, loving enemies, praying for persecutors—obeying, in word and in deed, in the face of suffering and death, the will of the Father. It is from the altar that young Christian boys and girls, men and women, receive the Bread of Life, Jesus, in order “to become what they receive.” It is therefore most fi tting and right that the relics of St. Marcellus lie beneath the altar, for he also obeyed the will of the Father as revealed by Jesus and, like Jesus, he was murdered by the state for “obeying God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). It is also fi tting and right that high above the main altar a statue of the victorious Lamb of God permanently stands—and not a statue of the victorious bird of prey, the imperial eagle with its claws bared.
But what about that stained glass window to the left of the high altar? Does it communicate the truth that Jesus taught, the Way of Jesus, the will of the Father for which Jesus and Marcellus died? Does a stained glass window in a church, let alone a basilica, that pictures Christians slaughtering Muslims during the Crusades, and also Christians bludgeoning Muslims to death at the Battle of Lepanto, proclaim the truth that is communicated by Jesus at the high altar daily and by the relics of St. Marcellus beneath the high altar and by the Lamb above the altar? It does not!
It contradicts the truth of Jesus. Such a stained glass window has no place in any Christian church, for it bears false witness. It communicates to all who see it, that the opposite of what Jesus taught is the truth of Jesus. Not a scintilla of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is depicted in it. Indeed, the entire image oozes hate and viciousness, the very opposite of all that Jesus said and did, lived and died for. And to make matters more grotesque, these same stained glass windows contain representations of the Mother of Jesus, Notre Dame, as a supporter and spiritual validator of the Catholic homicidal violence pictured—Mary, whose very last words in the Gospel are “Do whatever He tells you.” Is enmity-driven homicidal violence depicted in these windows what Jesus tells his disciples to do when He says, “Follow me,” and “obey all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19)? If not, what is this stained glass image doing in Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart Basilica? And what are similar stained glass windows and/or art doing in Christian Churches of every denomination throughout the world? Do they foster in children or in parents an understanding of the Way to eternal life as taught by Jesus in the Gospels? They do not!
Christian parents, or an institution standing in loco parentis spiritually for them, are under a divine mandate not to deceive those in their spiritual care in matters regarding the truth that Jesus taught concerning eternal life and the Way of God to it. Stationing permanently a stained glass window of Catholics slaughtering Muslims a few feet away from the high altar in a basilica is a most effective method for making it appear that what Jesus taught as evil is in fact good. Any and every icon or artifact in a Christian Church should reflect what takes place on the altar. A symbol in a Church that is in direct logical contradiction with Jesus and His teachings in the Gospels may produce the earthly ends those who placed it in the Church desire. But, as far as helping children and parents adhere to the supreme law of the Church and keep before their eyes the salvation of souls and the Way to that end such a symbol is a terrible disservice carrying within it the seeds of the most terrible of consequences, for those who view it.
There you have it: The blinding clash between the relics beneath the high altar and the stained glass window to its left, between the Gospels and the ROTCs in Christian high schools and colleges, between the family of St. Marcellus and the Christian family in which parents permit their children to be nurtured in the tinsel “glory,” “honor,” and “holiness” of being a heroic homicider for a state or a religion. In a nutshell, the radical difference between St. Marcellus and his family and most Christian families today is that for the former, martyrdom is what one accepts rather than betray Jesus and His “new commandment”: “Love one another as I have loved you,” while for the latter, martyrdom is what one accepts only after one runs out of ammunition and other means of loving the enemy while killing him.
In light of the daily, heavy-duty assault on Christian children’s minds, an insidious and rampant form of child abuse, by highly paid expert propagandists employed by governments and the militaries—in light of the near absolute non-response of Churches and Church leaders and Church families to this assault on the minds of their children, whose brains are nowhere near being fully developed and capable of evaluating what is being presented to them—in light of the massiveness of past and present justification of participation in human slaughter by Christians, and finally—in light of Christian children immersed in a cultural atmosphere saturated with all the paraphernalia and trappings of militarism, is there a more important problem for the Christian family to confront and solve than this? There is not, unless Christian parents and the Church think that having the mind of Rambo hardwired into their children’s brains is a way of putting on the mind of Christ, unless Christian parents and the Church think the means of war are the means of Christ, unless Christian parents and the Church think the goals of war are the goals of Christ, unless Christian parents and the Church think that being killed while trying to kill another beloved son or daughter of the “Father of all” on the say-so of the local Grand Pooh Bah is a way to save one’s soul or a way to save the souls of others. Or, unless Christian educational institutions that stand in loco parentis, thinks all this, and much more of the generous funding they receive yearly, directly and indirectly, from the military and government to orchestrate this militarized metanoia of a young Christian’s mind under the auspices of Jesus—and even of Mary, his mother!
The witness of St. Marcellus is grounded in the choice of Jesus’ Way of Eternal Life over the choice of the way of adding a cubit more earthly time for himself and his family. This is the reason why St. Marcellus is the ultimate “family-values” saint. It is also exactly why St. Marcellus should be the patron saint of Christian families, the exemplar and model for all Christian family movements, and the offi cial guide and guardian of the coming October Synods of Bishops in Rome on the Christian Family. The root of everything destructive of the Christian family lies in the choice of the perishable over the imperishable, the corruptible over the incorruptible, death over life, the idol over God. It is this type of anti-Gospel decision that in the Christian family and in the institutional Church often deceitfully operates under the auspices of Christian symbols. Until this hardwiring of children’s brains into an anti-Gospel metanoia is acknowledged and openly addressed and corrected, all the techniques, methodologies, exercises, programs, Synod documents and Papal encyclicals that focus on rehabilitating the Christian family will be nothing more than the “baptism” of supporting structures for that which can neither save nor be saved. Much will be gained by many people in high places for making sure that this critical issue is systematically kept off the table when discussing the ongoing decomposition of the Christian family. To which it can only be said, “What profit is there for a person to gain the whole world [or some totally perishable speck thereof] and forfeit his or her eternal life?” (Mk 8:35-36; Mt 10:37-39; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25)
Until the decision of the Christian family (and of those who stand in loco parentis for the children of this family) is to put all its eggs in one Easter basket—that is, saying and meaning, Jesus, I Trust in You, and then risking everything on “He is risen” (Mt 28:6; Mk 16:6; Lk 24:6; Jn 20:16), on His Way of Nonviolent Love of all under all circumstances being the Way to Eternal Life and the Way to conquer evil and death—no substantive restoration of the Christian family can take place. The Christian family will just keep hopping from one foot to another, desperately trying to make things go well for it in this world, as if it doesn’t matter whether Christ is risen or is not risen, whether what He teaches is God’s Will and the Way of Eternal Life or is not. Such a family is not a Christian family living according to the Gospel of Life. It is, rather, a Christian family not in its right Christian mind, whose willingness to choose the utterly corruptible over the eternal is causing it to suffocate in the atmosphere of finite when it could be breathing in the atmosphere of the Infinite.
It really is not that diffi cult for a Christian to become a saint or to help other people become saints. One might say, as many have, Jesus makes it too simple. But, all that is necessary for any of us to become a saint is to live as if the truth that Jesus teaches is true. Then, regardless of the earthly consequences of that choice, we—who for reasons known only to God—must live through this vale of tears, can wait peacefully until oneself and one’s family, as well as the entire family of God, wakes as if from a dream into eternal light when the Son of God shines in our night.
I would submit that if the two Synods of Bishops on the Family taking place in Rome in October 2014 and in October 2015 desires to be an instrument to turn Christians, the Christian family, the Church and humanity more to Jesus and His Way, then it should request of Pope Francis that the following Promise by parents become part of the Catholic liturgy for the Baptism of children—and that Pope Francis, as the Successor of Peter, ask all other Christian Churches to include it as part of their Baptismal ritual. An honest implementations of it in a world where the horror of homicidal violence is normalized, glorified, honored, ennobled and sanctified would require a tremendous eff ort and application of resources by the domestic, parish, diocesan and universal Church. The only alternative to this at any place on earth is to the leave the nurturing of the Baptized innocent child’s mind to the all-permeating and all-pervading atmosphere created by and ruled by the Snake, who was a liar and a murder from the beginning (Jn 8:44).
I will not raise my precious child to kill your precious child. And if it is within my power, I will not hand over my beloved child to others to kill your beloved child, or to learn how to kill the one you cherish. Saint Marcellus, pray for our family.
—Emmanuel Charles McCarthy
* Based on and excerpted from a reflection delivered at the Sacred Heart Basilica at the University of Notre Dame on the Feast Day of St. Marcellus by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy.