By Father Stephen Perzan
Sometime back in the fourth century, when Catholic-Christianity was being established as the official religion of the Roman Empire, a great and horrible tragedy occurred. Christians, who had been so much under the sword of persecution, began to pressure for the outlawing of pagan practices, and with the help of the Emperor Theodosius and his “decrees,” began a systematic destruction of the pagan cult and its temples of worship.
Religious intolerance against all things pagan reached such a fevered intensity that a number of Catholic-Christian bishops defended the emperor’s ill-tempered decision to send an army of Roman soldiers to Thessalonica on a miscalculated mission of revenge that ended in the slaughter of 7,000 people at the city, in what is now modern day Greece.
When Ambrose, who was the Bishop of Milan, heard about the slaughter he openly castigated the bishops who stood by the emperor in his charade to defend his indefensible action and said that he would have no communion, that is, he would not share the Eucharist with them. He was also openly critical of the emperor, who was his friend.
History has amply recorded the public confession of the emperor in this regard and the open and lengthy public repentance and penance that Theodosius showed in order to be reconciled with the Church.
This history is worth recalling as we come to celebrate the memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, on Dec. 7. But it is also worth mentioning because of the break in communion that Ambrose initiated with those who engaged in the willful slaughter of 7,000 people, many innocent non-believers or pagans. Although Ambrose agreed with much of the Theodosian decrees, he did not agree with a rampant, senseless persecution by Catholic-Christians upon anyone, not even pagans.
Much has been made of the recent revelation by Rep. Patrick Kennedy that he has been denied Communion because of his publically political stand on the issue of abortion. In all this there might be a smattering of history repeating itself.
As wrong as the Church has been at certain periods of its history, there has also been a consistent cry, even if only among a minority of its members – that life is valuable. In the case of Ambrose it was defending the innocent and heretics against the sins of Catholic-Christian fanaticism.
No matter how different a person’s belief was from that of the majority – the person was to be protected even if his or her religion was not to be accepted. And those who engaged in such immoral behavior as to take the life of another – even that of a despised pagan, could not sit down at the table of the Lord. Even the emperor, himself a believing Christian, was not simply free to break God’s law – take another’s life and then casually join with a group of faithfully worshiping Christians to share in the Lord’s Supper.
Perhaps had those 7,000 Thessalonians been slaughtered by a non-Christian emperor, Ambrose would have had very little to say, except to label such a massacre as “man’s inhumanity to man,” but since the emperor was a Christian he forbade him to join with him and other Christians in celebration of Communion.
There are times when our religion has become enmeshed in the machinations of politics rightfully to be castigated, but we never have to apologize when a bishop personally speaks to his flock on what is moral. Theodosius understood that. Maybe our Catholic politicians can take time to understand that, too.
Father Perzan is parochial vicar at St. Helena Parish in Philadelphia.