Clusters

You show me a saint without holy friends, and I’ll find you a cause for canonization waiting to be opened! The beauty of yesterday’s “Tour di Roma” was the affirmation of a simple yet practical truth I’d run across way back in college: saints come in clusters.

Case in point: this ancient mosaic showing the Heavenly Jerusalem where Jesus Christ is not alone, but surrounded by saints and angels:

Arches of the Church of Santa Prassede.
Arches of the Church of Santa Prassede.

Think also about Sts. Peter and Paul, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, Sts. Benedict and St. Scholastica, Sts. Francis and Dominic, Sts. Francis and Clare, Sts. Cosmas and Damian, Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, just to name a few. The history of the Church is replete with these examples.

Santa Pudenziana and Santa Prassede require no introduction among those with profoundly detailed devotions to the devotees of the early Roman martyrs.  For the rest of us, a little background is needed. These two sisters, daughters of the Pudens who was a friend of St. Paul the Apostle, were also pillars in the early Christian community of Rome. Now when I say early, I mean 1st-century early…EARLY! While Pudenziana was martyred, Prassede died of natural causes.  The two sisters had acquired a fair amount of wealth, given that their father was a Roman senator, but their faith in Jesus Christ changed their outlook on the value of that wealth.  They used it, rather, in the service of the Church and the needs of the faithful.  In this period, it particularly meant a devotion to the last of the corporal works of mercy: burying the dead.  The martyrs, who were executed in disturbingly-high numbers (and in disturbing ways, I might add) during the first 3 centuries of the Church, were used as examples by the Roman empire to deter others from joining this “treasonous sect.”  See, for example, the acts of the Martyrdom of St. Cyprian, whom the Church celebrates today.  Thus, in order to further deter others from coming to faith in Jesus Christ, the bodies of the martyrs were left to rot in public places and sometimes desecrated by men or beasts.

IMG_1889
TRANSLATION: There rests in this Church of St. Prassede 2,300 bodies of the holy martyrs, placed here by Pope St. Paschal I (817-824).

Understanding that our faith encompasses both spiritual and physical matters (ex. Sacraments), Pudenziana and Prassede employed their wealth to honor the bodies of the saints, by seeing that they received a proper burial in a place of honor for their witness to Christ.  In fact, the statue of St. Prassede, unfortunately not very flattering, has her on her knees with a sponge and a basin, gathering up the blood of the martyrs.  Perhaps related to this is the fact that the Church of St. Prassede became home to the relics of some 2,300 martyrs.

What likely made these two sisters more effective in this holy work of mercy, is that they did it together.  The simple adage that ‘many hands make light work’ holds as true on the natural level as on the supernatural level. It’s easier to become holy if you’re surrounded by others striving for holiness.  If St. Paul’s line that bad company corrupts good morals is true (and it is!), then it’s safe to say that good company fortifies and encourages good morals.  How simple and how obvious, yet how often we forget the life-changing truth of this reality.

Now, this truth was so important that it has literally been set in stone in two ways. First, the Churches of Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana are separated by a mere 4-minute walk, both within earshot and within sight of the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Thus, their memories are immortalized in close proximity to one another, but that’s secondary to the more beautiful union which they share in eternity. In both Churches, there’s an image of the two sisters together with Christ and His Apostles.

High Altar of the Church of Santa Prassede
High Altar of the Church of Santa Prassede
High Altar of the Church of Santa Pudenziana
High Altar of the Church of Santa Pudenziana

But wait, there’s more! That heavenly reality is reflected in a concrete way (this is 2B for those keeping track of the “two ways”). The bodies of these sister-saintsIMG_1865 are laid together in the same tomb below the high altar at the Church of Santa Prassede.  The photo at the left shows two tombs, the bottom of which houses the remains of the sisters, as testified to by the inscription on the tomb.

As we know from the teachings of the Church, the saints aid us in many ways, not least of which is to show us by their example, the manifold ways in which to live in imitation of the holiness of Jesus Christ.  One of the most profound examples, especially for our culture, is the example of (literally) surrounding oneself with good people to imitate (see Proverbs 27:17).  Parents, in particular, have a crucial and irreplaceable role in helping their children form good friendships that will influence and encourage them in the right way.  Friendships thus formed give rise to necessary things like fraternal correction – this is peer pressure used according to its intended design – and the promotion of virtue.

These simple truths were so important that they were set in stone. Let us imitate their valuable example so as to achieve the goal of eternal life in Christ! Saints Prassede and Pudenziana, pray for us! Saints Cornelius and Cyprian, pray for us!

Prassede and PudenzianaSts.-Cornelius-and-Cyprian

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