When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
Tongues of Fire
This Sunday we celebrate one of the greatest Christian feasts, the Solemnity of Pentecost, which is sometimes called “the birthday of the Church.” We see the central event of Pentecost in the passage from Acts above: the Apostles, along with the Blessed Mother, “the women”, and other disciples, were staying together in Jerusalem where we are told “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer.” (Acts 1:14) Up to this point the small band of Jesus’s remaining followers were keeping to themselves, largely avoiding the hostile public atmosphere in the aftermath of their leader’s crucifixion and awaiting the arrival the Spirit which he had promised (Acts 1:4-5).
And what an arrival it was! Along with the rushing wind came tongues (γλῶσσαι) of flame which enabled them “to speak in other tongues” (γλώσσαις ). The disciples immediately put this newly bestowed power to work by rushing out of the house where they staying and enthusiastically preaching the Gospel to the crowds who had come to Jerusalem from all over the known world to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost (the name comes from the Greek Πεντηκοστή, fiftieth, occurring fifty days after Passover). They continued preaching, and publicly living out their Christian faith, in the face of often violent opposition.
While this Sunday’s liturgical celebration is devoted to Pentecost, it is good to remember some of the saints whose feast day also falls on May 23rd. Of particular interest is St. Julia of Corsica (also known as St. Julia of Carthage), a martyr who refused to be seduced by personal gain or cowed by the threat of torture and death. My first post about St. Julia, published seven years ago, was one of the most visited pages on my original blog, a testimony to the timelessness (and the timeliness) of this saint.
St. Julia of Corsica
St. Julia’s story throws an interesting light on both the events of Pentecost and on the situation in which we find ourselves today. Her story starts in Carthage in the 5th century, where she was born into a noble family. When that ancient city was captured and sacked by the Vandals, Julia was enslaved and sold to a Syrian merchant named Eusebius. Despite the hardships and humiliations of her servile state she remained content, even cheerful, because of her piety and her deep love of Christ. These same qualities greatly endeared her to her master.
On one occasion, when Julia was on a journey with her master, he stopped at the island of Corsica where the locals were celebrating a pagan festival. Eusebius joined in the revelry; Julia, needless to say, stayed away. Her refusal to participate greatly annoyed the local governor, a man called Felix, who, according to the account in Butler’s Lives of the Saints,
asked who this woman was who dared to insult the gods. Eusebius informed him that she was a Christian, and that all his authority over her was too weak to prevail with her to renounce her religion, but that he found her so diligent and faithful he could not part with her.
Felix, however, was not one to take no for an answer. First, he offered Eusebius four of his own female slaves in exchange for the one Julia; Eusebius emphatically refused to surrender her. Next, after her master had fallen asleep, the governor approached Julia directly, offering to free her if only she would sacrifice to the pagan gods. She answered that she was “as free as she desired to be as long as she was allowed to serve Jesus Christ.” This answer enraged Felix, who had her tortured and crucified.
A few points stand out from the account of St. Julia’s life. First and foremost, her devotion to Christ and her courage in the face of unspeakable suffering is an inspiration to us. Maybe, the next time I’m tempted to “go along with the crowd” simply because I’m afraid of the disapproval or verbal abuse of others, I’ll take some strength from Julia’s fortitude in the face of much, much worse persecution.
Julia also shows us the power of example. Clearly, her character and virtue made a large impression on her master Eusebius. While her diligence and fidelity alone were not enough to win him over to the faith, at least not right away, they did give him the courage to stand up to the governor Felix, and convince him not to give her up for, literally, any price. None of the accounts I have seen, unfortunately, tell us anything about what eventually happened to Eusebius. One wonders whether the example of her heroic martyrdom was finally enough to make him a Christian. We do know that the witness of the martyrs was crucial to the conversion of very many people, for which reason Tertullian said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
A Saint for Our Time
Julia’s story also tells us something about the nature of sin. I am reminded yet again of Father Richard John Neuhaus’ aphorism: “When orthodoxy becomes optional, sooner or later it will become proscribed”. Simply doing the right thing, in other words, is seen as a rebuke by those who are doing the wrong thing. Look at Julia: she wasn’t interfering with the pagan festival, she was simply staying away. The governor, however, couldn’t tolerate anyone who was not actively endorsing his activities.
How often we have seen this same attitude today. Granted, at least in the United States, nobody is literally being crucified, although the advocates of a “New Orthodoxy” will certainly try to destroy the reputation and livelihood of anyone who does not publicly cheer for their moral and societal innovations. The list of people, from celebrities on down to ordinary people including school counselors and college professors and students who have been “cancelled” merely for stating their adherence to things that were considered to be commonsense up until the day before yesterday is too long to go into here. We all know about the weak-kneed corporations giving in to leftist bullying and, and within the last year we have seen communications monopolies such as Twitter, Facebook, and the rest become bolder than ever in their attempts to shut down speech that doesn’t adhere to the politically correct point of view.
The Dogma Lives Loudly
Notice that many of the stances that draw the most fire from the Woke Cancellation Mob are not only things that have traditionally been taken for granted by virtually everyone, but are also matters of clear Catholic teaching. Consider the following questions from then Senator, now Vice President (!) Kamala Harris directed toward judicial nominee Brian C. Buescher, regarding his membership in what Senator Harris and Senator Mazie Hirono characterized as an “extremist” organization:
“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization? . . . Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?”
This was not an isolated incident: the year before Senator Dianne Feinstein disapprovingly observed to Judicial nominee (and eventual Supreme Court Justice) Amy Coney Bryant, also a Catholic, that “the dogma lives loudly within you.” The year after Harris’s grilling of Buescher, Senator Cory Booker demanded of Neomi Rao, another nominee for a federal judgeship (and in her case a convert to Judaism) “whether you believe it is sinful for two men to be married?” It’s telling that these prominent politicians, two of whom were planning presidential runs, were deterred neither by the Constitution’s explicit ban on “religious tests” for office nor by fear of a electoral backlash from their overt shows of anti-religious bigotry. It should come as no surprise that the administration in which former Senator Harris now serves has promulgated a rule denying conscience protection to Catholic and other doctors morally opposed to “gender reassignment” surgery, and is promoting the so-called “Equality Act,” which would force pro-life doctors to perform abortions.
We should not conclude from the examples above that this is primarily a political problem: as we have seen before (here and here, for instance), politics is an outgrowth of things going on at deeper levels in society, in the culture and, more fundamentally still, on the religious level. Politics reflects changes that have already taken place on those deeper levels, and if major national politicians believe that they can get away with such overtly anti-Christian behavior (and why shouldn’t they? It’s worked so far), something has already gone very wrong at the roots. In fact, aggressive secularism has not only taken over the culture, but has also taken on the the role of an alternative religion that is fighting traditional Christian belief for possession of the deepest foundations of our society. The secularists can draw on their cultural influence to acquire political power, and then in turn use their political gains to protect what they have won on the other levels. As Austin Ruse says in an essay published on the Crisis website this week:
Catholics and other Christians must understand that we are not merely up against a new faith but a new faith that is an established Church backed by the power of the federal, state, and local governments.
Like St. Julia, simply by believing in orthodox Christianity and following its precepts, we are seen as a threat by that rival faith.
More Precious Than Gold Tested By Fire
But, of course, that’s not the end of the story. Christ sent the Holy Spirit down on his Church at Pentecost, the Church against which, he had promised Peter, the “Gates of Hell” would not prevail (Matthew 16:17) . . . but he had also promised persecution (Matthew 5:11). The Persecution was not long in coming. The same Peter who boldly addresses the wondering crowds on Pentecost will soon be writing to the early Christians:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Granted, the sort of harassment Christians face in the secular West does not come close to that faced by the Early Church or by martyrs like St. Julia . . . yet. The same can’t be said for much of the Islamic world, where Christians face tremendous violence or, increasingly, in communist China. We are kidding ourselves if we think it can’t happen here. At the same time, throughout the history of the Church we have seen zealous persecutors from St. Paul himself to the Nazi death-camp guards who were awed by the martyrdom of St. Maximilian Kolbe converted, often by witnessing the faith and Christ-like serenity of their victims. The ancient accounts don’t tell us, but St. Julia’s master Eusebius, or even the governor Felix, might well have been among these. Whether or not they were moved in this way, we can be sure that many of the other pagan witnesses were.
Finally, the times are dark, but be of good cheer. The example of St. Julia of Corsica is a reminder that, although there will always be defeats along the way, Christ wins in the end. If we can put our Hope in His promise and rely on the support of the Holy Spirit, as Julia did, we can persevere. As St. Peter said: “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 13).