Filed under: Patristics
Yesterday our patristic pope turned his attention to St. Maximus of Turin. Here’s the unofficial Zenit translation:
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
Between the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, another Father of the Church — after St. Ambrose of Milan — contributed decisively to the spread and consolidation of Christianity in northern Italy: He is St. Maximus, who was the bishop of Turin in 398, one year after the death of Ambrose. There is very little information about him; but, we do have a collection of about 90 Sermons. In these the intimate and vital union of the bishop with his city emerges, which bears witness to an evident point of contact between the episcopal ministry of Ambrose and that of Maximus.
At that time, serious tensions upset civil coexistence. In this context, Maximus succeeded in uniting the Christian population around him as pastor and teacher. The city was threatened by scattered groups of barbarians who, having entered through the eastern passes, were advancing toward the western Alps. For this reason Turin was permanently surrounded by military garrisons, which became, during critical moments, a refuge for the people fleeing the countryside and the unprotected urban centers.
The interventions of Maximus in the face of this situation bears witness to his commitment to do something about civil degradation and disaggregation. Even though it is difficult to determine the social composition of the people that his Sermons addressed, it appears that his preaching, to overcome the risk of being generic, was addressed specifically to a select nucleus of the Christian community of Turin, comprised of rich landowners who owned land in the countryside and a home in the city. It was a lucid pastoral decision of the bishop, who envisaged this kind of preaching as the most effective path to maintain and reinforce his ties with the people.
To illustrate Maximus’ ministry in Turin from this perspective, I wish to refer to Sermons 17 and 18 as examples. They are dedicated to a theme that is always current, that of wealth and poverty in Christian communities. Sharp tensions ran through the city on account of this topic. Wealth was accumulated and hidden. “One does not think of the needs of others,” the bishop said bitterly in Sermon 17.
“In fact, not only do many Christians not distribute what they have, but they also plunder the possessions of others. Not only do they fail to bring to the feet of the apostles the money they collect, but they even drive away from the feet of the priests their brethren who seek help.” And he concludes: “Many guests and pilgrims come to our city. Do what you promised” in good faith, “so that what was said of Ananias may not be said of you: ‘You have not lied to men, but to God’” (Sermon 17, 2-3).
In the next Sermon, No. 18, Maximus criticizes the common forms of profiting from the misfortunes of others. “Tell me, Christian,” the bishop asked his faithful, “tell me: Why have you taken the loot abandoned by the plunderers? Why have you brought to your house a savage and contaminated so-called profit?” “But,” he continued, “perhaps you say you bought it, and in this way think you can avoid being accused of avarice. But this is no way to establish a buyer-seller relationship. Buying is something good, but in times of peace, when one sells freely, and not when one sells what has been looted in plunder. … Therefore, act like Christians and like citizens who buy back things in order to return them” (Sermon 18,3).
Maximus preached of an intimate relationship between the duties of a Christian and those of a citizen. For him, to live a Christian life also meant taking on civic commitments. And on the other hand, the Christian who, “despite the fact that he could live on the fruits of his own labor, takes someone else’s loot with the fierceness of beasts,” or who “ambushes his neighbor, attempting day by day to claw at his neighbor’s fence and take possession of his crops,” isn’t even similar to a fox who beheads chickens, but rather a wolf who preys on pigs (Sermon 41,4).
Compared to the prudent defensive attitude taken by Ambrose to justify his famous initiative of rescuing prisoners of war, the historical changes that have since taken place in the relationship between a bishop and civic institutions can clearly be seen. Supported in his time by a law that urged Christians to redeem prisoners of war, Maximus, facing the collapse of the civil authority of the Roman Empire, felt fully authorized to exercise a true and proper power of control over the city.
This power would become broader and more effective to the point of substituting for the absence of magistrates and civic institutions. Maximus not only dedicated himself to reigniting in the faithful a traditional love for their native city, but also proclaimed that it was their duty to take on fiscal responsibilities, as serious and unpleasant as they may be (Sermon 26, 2).
In short, the tone and substance of his Sermons assume a mature and growing awareness of the political responsibility of a bishop in specific historical circumstances. He was the city’s “watchtower.” Are not the watchtowers, Maximus asked in Sermon 92, “the blessed bishops who, being raised, so to speak, on an elevated rock of wisdom to defend the people, see from afar the evils that are approaching?”
In Sermon 89, the bishop of Turin illustrates to the faithful his task, availing himself of a singular comparison between the bishop’s function and that of bees: “Like the bee,” he said, the bishops “observe corporal chastity, offer the food of celestial life, use the sting of the law. They are pure in order to sanctify, gentle in order to comfort and severe in order to punish.” That is how St. Maximus described the mission of a bishop in his time.
Definitively, historical and literary analysis demonstrates his growing awareness of the political responsibility of ecclesiastical authorities, in a context in which he was in fact substituting for civil authority. This is the development of the bishop’s ministry in northern Italy, beginning with Eusebius, who lived in Vercelli “like a monk,” to Maximus, who “like a sentinel” was situated on the highest rock in the city.
Obviously, the historical, cultural and social context today is profoundly different. The context today is that which my venerated predecessor, Pope John Paul II, described in his postsynodal exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa,” in which he offers a detailed analysis of the challenges and signs of hope for Europe today (6-22). In any case, independent of changed conditions, the duties of the believer toward his city and homeland remain valid. The intimate relationship between the “honest citizen” and the “good Christian” continues to stand.
In conclusion, I wish to recall what the pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes” says to clarify one of the most important aspects of the unity of Christian life: the consistency between faith and behavior, between Gospel and culture. The Council exhorts the faithful “to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation” (No. 43).
Following the magisterium of St. Maximus and many other Fathers of the Church, let us make the Council’s hope ours as well, that the faithful may ever more “exercise all their earthly activities and their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory” (ibid.), and in this way for the good of mankind.
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