Fr. Roger J. Landry
Bishop Connolly High School, Fall River, MA
Baccalaureate Mass for BCHS Class of 2001
Holy Name Parish, Fall River
Memorial of St. Justin Martyr
June 1, 2001
1Cor 1:18-25; Mt 28:16-20
1) There are no coincidences in God. This Baccalaureate Mass takes place on the feast of Justin Martyr, a saint who died in the year 165. St. Justin is not one of the most popular saints today, and many might not even know who he is, but he has been one of the most influential saints throughout the history of the Church and his story is particularly appropriate, I think, for Catholic high school students graduating at the beginning of the third Christian millennium.
2) Justin was born about the year 100 in what is now the city of Nablus, which is now one of the Palestinian-controlled territories in the Holy Land. He was born of pagan parents and received a decent pagan education as a child. During his later teenage years, he began to feel a hunger within to know what made the world tick, to know what made him tick, to know whether there was a God and what his nature was. He started out on a search. He placed himself as a disciple under a well-known local Stoic philosopher — the Stoics were famous for their self-control and morality — but after some time found that he had learned nothing about God and that in fact his master had nothing to teach him on the subject. He then went to a Peripatetic philosopher, but after a short time this Aristotelian wanted money from him, and to Justin this showed that he was not a real philosopher, a seeker of wisdom, but just a philosophical mercenary who wasn’t living the truth that he claimed to had been seeking. Still searching for truth, he sought out a Pythagorean, but this Pythagorean refused to teach him anything until Justin had mastered music, astronomy and geometry. Justin didn’t want that likely-fruitless detour. Finally he found a Platonist and for a while Justin delighted that at least someone sought eternal truths and the real meaning of human life. He began to delight with his Master and fellow students. One afternoon, however, when he was in his late 20s, he was walking along the beach and, as he says in his autobiographical writings, met an old man with whom he began to converse. This Old Man listened intently to Justin pour out his heart in seeking the truth. The wise old man turned to Justin and said to him, “You’re not really in love with the truth. You’re in love with talking and discussing the truth, with philosophy, with thinking about thinking. If you’re in love with truth, you’ll live the truth.” Then the old man challenged him to read the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, bid him adieu and left.
3) Justin was stung and intrigued at the same time. He reflected for a while on the old man’s contention that he was not really a lover of truth, but just a lover of intelligence, of being smart, of knowing more than others, and thought that the old man was reading his soul. His life did not depend or had not even much changed on the basis of his meditation upon Plato’s “eternal forms.” He was also captivated by the sage’s challenge to “live the truth.” Plato had always thought that if you knew the truth, you’d live it automatically. But spurned on by the old man, Justin reflected on his own experience and saw that knowing the truth and putting it into practice were two different things. Finally, convinced that the old man had a wisdom for which Justin yearned, he poured himself into the study of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
4) Study of the Christian Scriptures brought him into contact, naturally, with both Christians and Jews. The Christians were the ones who fascinated him, because they took the search for truth to all new levels. Justin wrote his first series of impressions. He wrote of men and women who have no fear of death, who prefer truth to life and are yet ready to await the time allotted by God; of human beings who have a great devotion to their children, charity even towards their enemies, and a desire to save their enemies. He noted their patience and their prayers in persecution, their love of mankind, their chastity and their courage. These Christians, he concluded, were not hypocrites. They lived the words they preached, and they actually loved and joyfully prayed for those who were persecuting and killing them. Justin concluded either that it was the most benevolent, joyous and holy craziness he not only had ever witnessed but could possibly conceive, or the truth for which he had been searching all his life. The more he got to know the Christians, the more he became convinced that the truth for which he had been searching for most of his life, the truth which had captivated him and taken him through so many stages, a truth worth living for and a truth worth dying for, had a NAME, and that name was Jesus.
5) “Seek and you shall find, ask and it shall be given to you, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These words of Jesus were, in a certain sense, Justin’s motto. He searched for the Truth and found Him, and once he found him, he accounted everything else as loss in comparison with the treasure he had discovered. How easily he could relate to St. Paul’s insight from the first reading. St. Paul described three types of wisdom, Greek, Jewish and Christian. The Greek sought the truth in philosophy. The Jews sought it in miracles and signs of God’s power. The Christians, St. Paul said, find it in the Cross of Christ. To the ancient Greeks, this is foolishness, that anything good could come from the brutal execution of a Galilean on a Cross, and Christians were still being mocked during Justin’s time for believing in the “absurdity” of a “crucified God.” To the Jewish authorities, the Cross was a scandal, the scandal of a Messiah-wannabee who claimed to be the Savior of others but who refused or couldn’t save himself. But St. Paul said, and St. Justin agreed, that the Cross is the greatest wisdom of all and the greatest sign of God’s power ever seen. The greatest wisdom in that it pointed not to the ignominious sufferings undergone by Jesus but to the love that made all of those sufferings worth it, that to love means being willing to lay down your lives, everything, for those you love. The greatest sign in that in dying, Jesus destroyed death and by rising restored life. This Christ crucified is the power and the wisdom of God, the way, the truth and the life.
6) And St. Justin followed all the way. He knew, as soon as he became a follower of that Crucified Savior, that he would be asked to pick up his cross and follow the Lord along the path of joyous, self-giving love. He wrote several years before his martyrdom, “I, too, expect to be persecuted and to be crucified by some of those” whose arguments he had publicly refuted. While Christianity was still illegal and punishable by death, he wrote a book to the emperor, refuting all of the attacks on Christianity, and proposing the Christian truth in a clear and understandable way, trying thereby to convert the emperor, Antoninus Pius, and through the emperor’s conversion, the Roman empire. That, of course, brought him to the clear attention of the Roman authorities as a very influential and persuasive Christian. He was rounded up with six of his disciples and brought before the prefect, Rusticus, in the year 165 AD. The actual record of his trial was kept in the Acta of the Roman authorities and has survived. We can see in it clearly that Justin’s lived his love for the truth, for Jesus. These are the last words of Justin’s life, and we can still sense all the drama:
Rusticus: What branch of learning do you study?
Justin: I have studied all in turn. But I finished by deciding on the Christian teaching, however disagreeable it may be to those who are deceived by error.
Rusticus: And that is the learning that you love, you foolish man?
Justin: Yes. I follow the Christians because they have the truth.
Rusticus: What is this teaching?
Justin then explained that Christians believe in the one creator God and confess His Son, Jesus Christ, of whom the prophets spoke, the bringer of salvation and judge of mankind. Rusticus then asked him:
Rusticus: Tell me where you gather with your followers.
Justin: I have always stayed at the house of a man called Martin, just by Timothy’s baths. I have never stayed anywhere else. Anybody who wants to can find me and hear the true doctrine there.
Rusticus: You, then, are a Christian?
Justin: Yes, I am a Christian.
After ascertaining from the others that they also were Christians, Rusticus turned to Justin and said:
Rusticus: Listen, you who are said to be eloquent and who believes that he has the truth — if I have you beaten and beheaded, do you believe that you will then go up to Heaven?
Justin: If I suffer as you say, I hope to receive the reward of those who keep Christ’s commandments. I know that all who do that will remain in God’s grace even to the consummation of all things.
Rusticus: So you think that you will go up to Heaven, there to receive a reward?
Justin: I don’t think it, I know it. I have no doubt about it whatever.
Rusticus: Very well. Come here and sacrifice to the gods.
Justin: Nobody in his senses gives up truth for falsehood.
Rusticus: If you don’t do as I tell you, you will be tortured without mercy.
Justin: We ask nothing better than to suffer for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and so to be saved. If we do this, we can stand confidently and quietly before the fearful judgment-seat of that same God and Savior, when in accordance with divine ordering all this world will pass away.
The others agreed with what Justin had said. And so they were summarily sentenced to be scourged and then beheaded, which was carried out immediately at the common place of execution.
7) There are several great lessons this great saint’s life and death has for graduates of a Catholic high school at the dawn of the third Christian millennium. The first is hunger for the truth. From the time he was a teenager, Justin sought the truth and eventually found that the truth was not a proposition, but a person. Seek and you shall find, Jesus promises. If we seek the truth, we will find the truth. It does not just have to be the truths of the faith — it can be the truths of nature, the truths of science, the truth about the human person. All truth comes from God and all truth leads toward God. But a life worth living starts with something that your parents cannot give you — no matter how much they love you — and your teachers cannot teach you, no matter how much they love you. It starts with passion, with a desire, with a hunger. Justin had it — and tonight we pray that you might have a similar fire within. Today there are so many young people who wallow as couch potatoes through human life with no real passion for life, for the most important things in human life. Don’t be among their number. As the great Bishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say, “Even dead bodies can float downstream,” it takes no effort to “go with the flow” of culture which in many respects is flowing toward the sewer. “It takes a real man to swim against the current.” To be Christian today, like in the days of St. Justin, means to be counter-cultural. Even showing up to Church on Sunday is a counter-cultural act today. Swim against the stream, seeking that imperishable prize.
8 ) Second, learn the lesson from the old man on the beach who changed Justin’s life forever by challenging him to live the truth. If we’re really seeking the truth, the truth will change us for the better and help us to change others’ lives for the better. Justin lived in an age in which all sorts of technological know-how was used in building places like the coliseum, with all types of trap-doors for wild-animals, etc., so that that wisdom could be put to use in watching those animals tear up human beings to the cheers of countless thousands in the stands. We’ve just left a century in which human knowledge has been used for all types of terrible purposes. The great knowledge of the atom led to the development of nuclear bombs which indiscriminately destroyed Japanese cities and thousands of people. The great engineering know-how of the Germans was used to build gas-chambers that efficiently put to death millions. Ultrasounds are now being used selectively to kill innocent baby girls in the womb not just in China and India, but here in the United States as well. And probably in our lifetime, the knowledge of the human genome will lead to all types of Frankinstinian horrors. All of this happens when the search for truth is divorced from living in accord with the truth as a whole, including the truth about the human person and the truth about God. As graduates of a Catholic High School sent out into today’s world, you have a hugely important mission to transform that world by contagiously living the truth and giving witness to it, just as Justin did. We have tried to prepare you by sending you out into this world not just with “values” but with the truth that God revealed when he sent His Son Jesus, who founded the Church. May you always live that truth, for that is the truth that will set you free.
9) Third and lastly, St. Justin gave witness that living the truth means suffering, bearing the Cross. But it also testifies to the fact that the Cross is worth it! If you live the truth, you will suffer, but you will also experience the power and the wisdom that only God can give. Just as Justin was killed because he didn’t sacrifice to the pagan gods of sexuality, war, and power, so will you suffer for refusing to do them fealty in loving fidelity to Christ. Never be ashamed to suffer. Willingness to suffer for another is the greatest sign of true love. The main mission of Bishop Connolly over these past four years has not been to prepare you for the SAT and entrance into college, but it has been to prepare you for the final exam of life and hopefully entrance into heaven. Like a benevolent teacher, Jesus has already given you all of the subjects for the final exam at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel. When he comes in all his glory he will separate the dead into two groups on the basis of their actions of love, whether they cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, ill, in-prison, wandering and we can add infinitely to the list. The final exam will be an examination of how we have loved, how we have put others and God first in our lives, and how we have used the gift of the time God gives us here on earth to seek and live the truth in our relations with God and with others.
10) It is my firm hope that, after your four years at Connolly, building on the education you received at home and in schools prior to Connolly, you may, one day, have your whole class show up for a reunion that will last forever, in the presence of St. Justin Martyr and all the saints.