This Monday (4/25) is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist, the patron saint of Venice, whose symbol is a winged lion. Mark was born in the early 1st century and his family was prominent among the earliest Christians in Jerusalem. His uncle was St. Barnabas, who was St. Paul’s primary collaborator during his early missionary journeys. Mark was selected to join his uncle and Paul on their initial foray into Greece, to preach the Gospel to the pagans. But Mark quickly abandoned the work, returning to Jerusalem when the experience in Greece became difficult and dangerous. Eventually, he would become an assistant to St. Peter in Rome, and would compose the Gospel attributed to him based on the testimony of Peter. Under the care of Peter, Mark grew to be a resolute member of the early Church, and was sent by Peter to establish a Christian community in Alexandria (Egypt), which would be the first Church established in Africa, renown in the ancient world for its vibrancy and intense passion for true teaching about Jesus Christ.
St. John Henry Newman, in a sermon for the feast of St. Mark, remarks on the astonishing transformation of the evangelist from a weak disciple, who abandoned the mission at the first sign of trouble, to the founder of one of the most important communities in the ancient Church. Newman describes Mark’s upbringing, surrounded by pillars of the Church in Jerusalem. “Doubtless he had received a religious education; and, as being the friend of Apostles and in the bosom of the pure Church of Christ, he had the best models of sanctity before his eyes, the clearest teaching, the fullest influences of grace.” But when his faith and his capacity for obedience was tried, he became discouraged, and abandoned the work of evangelization. Newman compares the experience of St. Mark to the people of his own day in 19th century England, an ostensibly Christian country, where the Anglican Church (of which Newman was a member before his conversion) enjoyed peace, and the public order was secure. “Christians, such as Mark, will abound in a prosperous Church,” says Newman, “and, should trouble come, they will be unprepared for it.” Desirous to preserve their untroubled state, he argues, such Christians will compromise their faith in order to make peace with those who are hostile to authentic Church teaching, and will tend to resent those who seem to them excessive in their religious observance. Above all, writes Newman, they seek to avoid any experience of persecution for the faith.
As distressing as persecution, or even strong cultural resistance, to our Catholic faith can be, Newman says that we should view it as a grace. Had St. Mark not had his own weakness exposed, he might have continued under the delusion of real fidelity. Without the chastisement of his failure, he would not have had the deep experience of conversion under the care of St. Peter, which transformed him and prepared him to be the first bishop of Africa – where even today the Faith is most vibrant despite persecutions. It’s easy for us to forget the great mercy God has shown us who have received baptism and a Catholic education, who live in a well-ordered society, and for whom it is easy to attend Mass and practice our religion without the threat of imprisonment or death. Says Newman: “Trials come when we forget mercies – to remind us of them, and to fit us to enjoy and use them suitably.” Many of the challenges we face today are due to mercies forgotten. We can no longer rely on the support and protection of those hard-won structures and institutions that were established to bolster the faith of American Catholics of yesteryear, and which we mostly took for granted. This is understandably a source of sadness and regret in many ways. But perhaps we might also see it as a mercy in disguise, and an opportunity to ask for the grace of personal conversion, which can turn even the lukewarm and the fainthearted into faithful lions like St. Mark.