THE SUFFERANCE OF HERETICS

– Aurelio Porfiri

A few days ago, a piece of news in Italian newspapers got a lot of comments and not without reasons. A young guy killed another one of his age because he could not stand that this person looked “happy.” The killer said that “he has chosen to kill him, because he seemed too happy and I could not stand his happiness.”

I know, when we read something like this we may think this guy is not only a killer, but he is also crazy. Yes, maybe he is. But we should not play down how powerful frustration is in people, when they cannot adapt to a certain reality. Sometimes I think that some people lack the ability to adhere to reality for what reality is and they try to destroy it in one way or the other, such as killing someone that “looked happy.” The biggest problem that this guy has is that he doesn’t understand that he has killed a person – which is horrible – but he cannot kill happiness. Happiness will be always there, even if he “removed” from the world someone that reminded him of his problem. You cannot kill reality.

I think that a similar problem, even if with different modalities, is the one of “heretics.” The meaning of “heretic,” “heresy,” is something like “choosing.” Is it not strange? Indeed it seems something nice and good that someone has the courage of making a choice. But here the choice it is not against two alternative options, but against the reality of the eternal and immutable truth of the Roman Catholic Church that can be deepened, but not changed. Heretics don’t think like this, they think that truth can be and has to be changed to adapt to their idea of reality, an idea that has no basis in the Church’s immutable teachings.

This problem came to my mind when thinking about Saint Julius (pope from 337 to 352) whom the Church celebrates on April 12. First, we need to remember something: this Roman pope was elected in February of the year 337. In the same year, but three months later, the emperor Constantine will pass away. As we all know, the emperor Constantine has had a central role in the history of Christianity, because he was the emperor who gave the Church and other religions freedom from persecution with the edict of Milan in 313. But, as always, things were not so easy. The culture in Rome was a pagan one and the opposition to Christianity was strong. Christians were considered “ignorant,” people you could not trust or rely on. Despite this, the 4th century was probably the greatest century in the history of Christian literature, when  Christianity was constantly under threat from the outside (and this is understandable) but also from the inside.

In the time of pope Julius one of the worst heresies (opposition from inside) was Arianism, the doctrine of the priest Arius (250-336), that basically did not fully recognize the divinity of Christ. That was not just an innocent opinion, because it threatened the whole established Christian doctrine at the very base. One of the issues at the time was the situation of Athanasius (296-373), bishop of Alexandria, strenuous defender of Christian orthodoxy and for this reasons strongly challenged by heretics. Pope Julius reinstated him in his due position of bishop of Alexandria, even if the problem would not fade away even after this decision. The Pope gathered a Council to decide on the case of Athanasius and established clearly the primacy of the seat of Peter: “When accusations against the bishop of Alexandria and other bishops arise, first of all, according the custom, you need to write to us so that here, with justice, the controversy can be solved.” This because the seat of Rome, when adhering to the immutable teachings of the Church that no Pope can change, but only interpret, is called to teach the people of God on matters concerning faith.

The Pope thought that in dealing with the Arians, it was not enough to try a friendly approach. He knew that he had to make it clear to them that they were in great danger because their actions against the Church of Christ could lead them to eternal damnation. We need always to remember that no pope is  owner of the Church. The Roman Pontiff is charged with guarding the deposit of faith for the good of the faithful and they need to hand over this deposit of faith to their successors fundamentally unaltered. Pope Benedict XVI, in the general audience of May 3 2006, has said: “The Second Vatican Council comments:  ‘What was handed on by the Apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes’ (Dei Verbum, no 8).  The Church transmits all that she is and believes, she hands it down through worship, life and doctrine. So it is that Tradition is the living Gospel, proclaimed by the Apostles in its integrity on the basis of the fullness of their unique and unrepeatable experience:  through their activity the faith is communicated to others, even down to us, until the end of the world. Tradition, therefore, is the history of the Spirit who acts in the Church’s history through the mediation of the Apostles and their successors, in faithful continuity with the experience of the origins.

“This is what St Clement of Rome said towards the end of the first century: ‘The Apostles,’ he wrote, ‘have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent by God. Christ, therefore, was sent forth by God, and the Apostles by Christ.’ Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God…. Our Apostles also knew, through Our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the episcopal office. ‘For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry’ (Ad Corinthios, 42, 44:  PG 1, 292, 296).  This chain of service has continued until today; it will continue to the end of the world. Indeed, the mandate that Jesus conferred upon the Apostles was passed on by them to their successors. Going beyond the experience of personal contact with Christ, unique and unrepeatable, the Apostles passed on to their successors the solemn mandate that they had received from the Master to go out into the world. ’Apostle’ comes precisely from the Greek term, ‘apostéllein, which means ‘to send forth.’ The apostolic mandate – as the text of Matthew shows (Mt 28: 19ff.) – implies a service that is pastoral (‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…’), liturgical (‘baptizing them’), and prophetic (‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’), guaranteed by the Lord’s closeness, until the end of time (‘and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’). Thus, but differently from the Apostles, we too have a true, personal experience of the presence of the Risen Lord. Therefore, through the apostolic ministry it is Christ himself who reaches those who are called to the faith. The distance of the centuries is overcome and the Risen One offers himself alive and active for our sake, in the Church and in the world today. This is our great joy. In the living river of Tradition, Christ is not 2,000 years away but is really present among us and gives us the Truth, he gives us the light that makes us live and find the way towards the future.”

I think that a true Catholic, despite his limitations and setbacks, has only to rejoice when the Church defends her deposit of faith with courage, not making any compromise with a world that is going astray. Popes like Julius decided to go for the hard way because they understood how much was at stake. Because a Pope, all the popes, always must listen to the command of Our Lord Jesus Christ that we can find in the Gospel of John: “Pasce oves meas,” look after my sheep.

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