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Catholic Heroes… St. Justin Martyr

May 31, 2018 saints No Comments


Catholicism is universal. Its teachings and doctrines are ever old and ever new, as is the need to evangelize, applicable to all times and to all people. Redemptoris Missio, issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 1990 on the missionary nature of the Church, names three types of evangelization and how to be an effective evangelist. This document — well worth the time it takes to read it — names three types of evangelization: 1) to the nations, 2) to serving Christian communities, and 3) to fallen-away Christians. (The New Evangelization refers mainly to the third form of evangelization, to fallen-away Christians.)
Since the first Pentecost, the Church has been reaching out to bring people closer to Christ, with the writings of the Church fathers providing excellent material to assist in this all-important mission. St. Justin Martyr wrote significant apologies on Christian topics such as explaining Psalms, addressing Greek philosophers, and expounding on the soul and the sovereignty of God.
Three important ones have been preserved: his First Apology, the Dialogue With Trypho, and his Second Apology. The Dialogue With Trypho describes Justin’s journey to Christianity.
He was born of pagan parents around the year 100 in Flavia Neapolis, Samaria. His early education was Grecian, including the philosophers, which he believed was sadly lacking in substance, dealing with only the superficial and material aspects of life. As a young man he longed to grasp life’s metaphysical foundation, so he felt unfulfilled and empty.
Hoping, but failing, to find more depth to life, he continued his education, studying such great Greek thinkers as Pythagoras, the Stoics, and the Peripatetics. When he discovered the teachings of Plato he believed — stupidly, as he confessed — that he had finally found God. “The perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings.”
But this experience led him in the right direction.
Justin was moved by the moral beauty of the Christians’ charity and chastity, as well as by the witness of their martyrdom. As Justin wrote, “I said to myself that it was impossible that they should be living in evil and in the love of pleasure.”
His conversion happened around the year 130, most likely in Ephesus.
He met an elder Jew, Trypho, to whom he demonstrated the truth of Christianity. Justin wrote 142 chapters — enjoyable reading material — in the form of two characters in conversation. It is an excellent give and take between Trypho and Justin.
Among the variety of subjects covered in this second-century document are how the soul cannot see God, things unknown to the Greek philosophers, the love of Christ, the ancient Scriptures and prophecies such as, “Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (chapter 84). In addition, he discussed the symbolism of Moses stretching out his arms to defeat the Amalekites and how his arms had to be supported as the battle lasted into the night.
Interestingly, he described the sacraments, the Gospels, and the letters of both Paul and Peter, as well as the Acts of the Apostles. Thus we know that it was not over hundreds of years that the practices and writings were developed, but that they were already widely dispersed and used.
With apostolic zeal, Justin traveled around the Roman Empire preaching and leading others to Christ. His history of studying the philosophers qualified him to open a school in Rome in which he led others to Christianity. One of his students was Tatian, who composed a text explaining the harmony of the four Gospels that became the standard text for the Syriac-speaking churches for hundreds of years.
The First Apology of St. Justin written around 150 addressed the atheistic Emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, concerning their antagonism against the Christians. He insisted that the Christians were unjustly hated and wantonly persecuted, himself included.
The sixty-eight chapters describe the harmony of Christianity with reason, how the teachings help man understand the world, their time, creation, freedom, the human soul’s affinity with the divine spirit, and the recognition of good and evil.
He stressed that Christians are not enemies of the state and that all men are called to salvation. In addition, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, the Eucharist, administration of the sacraments, the shortcomings of heathen mythology, Christ’s Incarnation, Passion, death, Resurrection, and Ascension into Heaven, and the actions of the Devil are presented.
When the Christian persecutions continued, Justin wrote another apology. This Second Apology is the shortest of his preserved writings, being only 15 chapters. He addressed the citizens under Urbicus sometime between 150 and 157. He described how the attacks fostered by Urbicus were irrational. Justin bemoaned the immoral practices of the pagan citizens who have been influenced by the Devil and warned them of eternal punishment.
He continued describing once again the rationality of believing in Christ, His teachings, the nature of Truth, and how the Greek and Roman philosophers ultimately were leading mankind to follow Christ. He also wrote that even the pagan philosophers understood the existence of the divine, consequently in preparation for accepting Christ as the Son of God.
Thus Justin fearlessly spread the Truth and readily debated with any orator challenging the teachings of Christ. One such man, a cynic named Crescens, having failed to best Justin in a debate, denounced him to the authorities during the barbaric reign of Marcus Aurelius.
As Tatian and Eusebius wrote, Justin was tried with six of his companions and students by the urban prefect, Junius Rusticus, and was beheaded sometime between 162 and 168. The account describes the repeated refusal of Justin and his companions to sacrifice to false gods. They proclaimed the one true God, and their firm resolve to remain faithful before “the universal tribunal of Our Lord and Savior” than sacrifice to idols.
Both the Church of St. John the Baptist in Sacrofano, Rome and the Church of the Jesuits in Valletta, Malta claim to have the relics of Justin.
In 1882 Pope Leo XIII sponsored both a Mass and Divine Office to be composed for the Feast of Justin that was then celebrated on April 14. Since this date frequently fell within the Paschal celebrations, it was moved to June 1.
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote his encyclical on evangelization, Redemptoris Missio, in 1990 and Pope Benedict XVI established the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization in 2010, Catholics would do well to read the works of St. Justin and ponder their significance in relation to the call to evangelize.
Dear St. Justin, your zeal and fortitude are great examples of the Holy Spirit working through you. Obtain for us, we pray, these graces that we, too, may carry on the mission entrusted to the Church by Christ. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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