Hopefully, you will remember from one of your history or theology classes that, in the early history of the Church, Christians were relentlessly persecuted. Until Emperor Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 AD), to be a Catholic was illegal and, if caught, was punishable by death. Those were trying times. Thousands of men, women, and children who had been baptized were crucified, thrown to the lions in the Roman circus, or sent away as slaves to all corners of the Roman Empire. History tells stories of some incredibly courageous people who chose to die before denying their faith in Jesus Christ. So important was their witness, it has often been said the Church stands on the blood of the martyrs.
There is one particularly interesting story.
In the year 258, Emperor Valerian issued an edict commanding all bishops, priests, and deacons to be put to death. Properties and money were confiscated from Christians and were put in imperial coffers. Pope Sixtus II, for example, was captured while celebrating a Mass and was quickly beheaded. One of his closest advisors and friends was a deacon named Lawrence. The pope had placed him in charge of the Church’s treasure and instructed him to make sure the poor and needy were always taken care of.
After Sixtus was executed, Lawrence, realizing they were coming for whatever the Church had, sold the sacred vessels and gave the money away to widows and the sick. Eventually, the Emperor called for Lawrence and demanded he hand over all the Church’s possessions. Lawrence entered the imperial palace, stopped, and pointed back to the door where a huge crowd of poor, blind, and sick people followed. He then boldly proclaimed, “These are the true treasures of the Church! The Church is truly rich,” he continued, “far richer than the Emperor.” Infuriated, Valerian ordered Lawrence to be put to death that very day by grilling him over flames on a rack. Legend says that while being barbecued alive he looked at his executioners and said, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”
On Sunday, we held one of the most beautiful and significant events in Belen’s history in Miami. Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated the dedication Mass of our new Our Lady of Belen Chapel. For three years we have waited eagerly for the day it would be completed. The Archbishop not only consecrated the chapel, but also anointed the altar and walls with holy chrism oil. He blessed the tabernacle and baptismal font. He celebrated the Mass and in his homily reminded us of the role Belen has to form young Catholic men who have a responsibility to do good in the world and live our school’s motto of being “men for others.”
Our chapel is filled with beautiful things. It is adorned with marble from Spain and Greece, paintings and statues painted and sculpted by extraordinary artists from around the world, sacred vessels forged from metal and adorned with enamel, and an organ the likes few have ever seen in Miami. But, the real “treasure” is not any of those things. The real treasure is us, the Belen community. You the students are what count. Your journey in faith and commitment to Jesus Christ that will grow as you sit in those pews and recline on those kneelers is far more important than any chalice or ciborium. Every “Amen” you speak, every Our Father you pray, every Salve Regina you sing far outweigh the worth of any altar or baptismal font.
Remember, for as beautiful and glorious as our new chapel may be (and rightfully so because Jesus and Mary deserve it), it is simply a means to an end. The end is Jesus and your relationship with Him. You and your parents, the teachers and staff, the alumni and Jesuits, we are the true treasures of Belen, the treasures of the Church. If that were not the case, then building a chapel would be a monumental waste of time and effort. So, the next time you are there and are admiring the beauty of our new sacred space, never forget it was the same holy oil used to consecrate the walls and altar of our chapel that was used to consecrate you on the day of your baptism. In the eyes of our Lord, the Church is truly rich because we are her true treasure.
Fr. Willie ‘87