Pope St Sixtus II and Companions

Roman martyrs (entered heaven in 258)

Dear Hector,

Gearing up for senior year?  I hope you get at least a few days of leisure before having to launch into another school year.  You should try to start out fresh, so you can finish your college career with a flourish, not a whimper.

You have probably already decided on the topic for your senior short-film project, but if you haven’t (well, even in you have) I wanted to recommend a scene from the life of today’s saint.  I continue to be baffled about why filmmakers refuse to exploit the treasure house of human drama that is the lives of the saints. They go around desperately scavenging up scandalous and unbelievable plots, when all they have to do is turn the pages of history to find the most riveting and cathartic stories that can be told.  

Picture the scene.  The emperor Valerian has just issued a decree (with senatorial backing) that all Christian bishops, priests, and deacons are to be executed, for the good of imperial harmony.  Word spreads; anxious Christians bring the news to the Pope and his assistants (the deacons Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen, as well as some others). The whole Roman Church hurriedly goes into persecution mode – no more preaching, baptizing, and celebrating of the sacred mysteries in private homes; they have to take cover, hiding and disguising their priests, and worshiping in the underground chapels constructed in the cemeteries (called “catacombs” – don’t believe those revisionist historians who try to say that Christians never worshipped in the catacombs; it was a common place of refuge during the many waves of persecution).  Dark, damp, torches casting flickering shadows on the rough, pumice-like tufa walls, the faithful huddle together for Mass, praying for safety and for strength to remain faithful to Christ in the face of these attacks. Mass begins. The Liturgy of the Word takes on new meaning as they read from the Scriptures about the sufferings of Israel and of Christ. The sacred books are closed; all eyes turn expectantly to the president of the assembly, their bishop, Sixtus. He is seated at the head of the gathering, near the makeshift altar. His down-turned face seems to burn with a determined glow in the torchlight. Slowly, he lifts his gaze to the faithful pressed together in the cavern.  He smiles. They smile back, relieved, drawing vigor and confidence from his sturdy faith. He begins, “Let us think of immortality rather than death; let us find joy rather than fear in this new opportunity to glorify our Lord; let us all – each and every one of us – remember that soldiers of Christ are not killed when they die in battle, but crowned.” Suddenly a commotion is heard above them. The frantic voice of the porter protesting the gruff and raucous shouts of Roman police: they have been discovered. The assembly begins to panic; cries can be heard as they struggle to find some way to escape. Sixtus takes it all in at a glance, his gentle smile transmutes into calm, peaceful determination.  “Be still, my little flock,” he raises his hand to bring order, and then continues, “You have nothing to fear. Set your minds on Christ the Lord; he will be your strength.” The police are coming closer. Sixtus continues, “Only one Empire will last forever; do not forfeit your citizenship therein.” The Police burst into the chapel and demand the apprehension of the bishop and deacons. The Pope ignores them. He continues, seated like a rock on his humble chair, exhorting the assembly. Another shout from the invaders; no acknowledgment from the bishop. Furious, they charge through the gathering and snatch him from his seat. They drag him and the deacons above ground, followed by the crowd of Christians.  Unceremoniously, brutally, the ministers are beheaded right there…

Pretty dramatic, isn’t it?  Funny thing is – it’s true (except the homily – which is stolen from his contemporary, St Cyprian, Bishop of Alexandria).  I think it would be great for your film-short. I also think you should stay close to Pope St Sixtus: if your career path does end up taking you among the briars and brambles of the entertainment world, you will certainly need help to stay faithful to the much subtler persecutions you will encounter there.

God bless, Uncle Eddy

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