St. Maximus of Turin
Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Maximus of Turin during his general audience with 30,000 people in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 31. Maximus reminds us that Christians must strive to achieve a vital synthesis between their duties as citizens of an earthly society and their commitment to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom of holiness, justice and peace.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Between the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, there is another Father of the Church — after St. Ambrose of Milan — who made a significant contribution to spreading and solidifying Christianity throughout northern Italy. He is St. Maximus, whom we encounter as bishop of Turin in 398, one year after the death of Ambrose.
We have very little information about him, but to make up for that, a collection of about 90 of his sermons has survived. In them, the profound and vital bond between the bishop and his city is apparent, and is a clear testimony to a link between Ambrose’s and Maximus’ ministry as bishops.
At that time, serious tensions plagued the order of life within society. In this context, Maximus successfully rallied the Christian population around him as their shepherd and teacher.
The city was threatened by scattered groups of barbarians who, having entered through the eastern passes, were advancing toward the western Alps. For this reason, Turin was permanently defended by military garrisons and, at crucial moments, became a refuge for the people who were fleeing the countryside and the urban centers that remained unprotected.
Maximus’ interventions in this situation bear witness to his commitment to do something about the growing deterioration and collapse of civil order. Even though it is difficult to determine the social makeup of the people to whom his sermons were directed, it appears that Maximus’ preaching — to avoid the risk of addressing it to a generic audience — was specifically addressed to a select nucleus within the Christian community of Turin that was comprised of rich landowners who owned land in the countryside around Turin as well as a home in the city.
This was a brilliant pastoral decision on the part of the bishop, who perceived this kind of preaching as the most effective way of maintaining and solidifying his ties with the people.
In order to illustrate Maximus’ ministry in his city from this perspective, I wish to refer to Sermons 17 and 18 as examples, since they are dedicated to a theme that is always relevant — the theme of wealth and poverty in Christian communities.
In this regard, there was serious tension throughout the city. Wealth was accumulated yet hidden away. “People do not think about the needs of others,” the bishop bitterly notes in Sermon 17.
“In fact, not only do many Christians not distribute what they have, but they also plunder the possessions of others. Not only do they fail to bring to the feet of the apostles the money they collect, but they even drive away from the feet of the priests the brethren who are seeking help.”
He concludes by saying: “Many travelers and pilgrims come to our city. Do what you promised [by adhering to the faith] so that what was said of Ananias may not be said of you: ‘You have not lied to men, but to God’” (Sermone 17, 2-3).
In Sermon 18, Maximus criticizes the common forms of profiting from the misfortunes of others.
“Tell me, Christian,” the bishop asks his faithful; “tell me: Why have you taken the loot abandoned by the plunderers? Why have you brought to your house that which you might consider as ‘profits’ but that has been looted and is contaminated? Perhaps you say you bought it,” he goes on to say “and in this way think you can avoid being accused of avarice. But this is not the way that you can make buying correspond to selling. It is good to buy what is freely sold in times of peace— not what has been looted in times of plunder. ... Therefore, whoever buys things in order to give them back acts like a Christian and a citizen” (Sermone 18, 3).
Without making it too evident, Maximus managed to proclaim a profound relation between the duties of a Christian and those of a citizen. For him, living as a Christian also meant taking on one’s civic commitments.
On the other hand, a Christian who, “despite the fact that he could live on the fruits of his own labor, takes someone else’s loot with the fierceness of wild beasts” or who “ambushes his neighbor, attempting day by day to claw at his neighbor’s fence and take possession of his crops” appears not so much like a fox who slaughters chickens, but rather like a wolf who preys on pigs (Sermone 41, 4).
Church and Civil Authority
Compared to Ambrose’s prudent and defensive attitude to justify his famous effort to rescue prisoners of war, the historical changes that had since taken place in the relationship between a bishop and the various civil institutions clearly emerge here.
Supported in his time by a law that urged Christians to ransom prisoners of war, Maximus, when faced with the collapse of the Roman Empire’s civil authorities, felt that he was fully authorized to truly exercise full power of control over the city. This power would become broader and more effective, eventually becoming a substitute in the absence of the judges and the civil institutions.
In this regard, Maximus not only did his utmost to rekindle within the faithful a traditional love for their native city, but also declared that it was their duty to take on any financial responsibility, as serious and unpleasant as it might be (Sermone 26, 2).
In short, the tone and substance of his sermons reflect a growing awareness of the political responsibility of a bishop in those specific historical circumstances.
He was a “sentinel” placed within the city. Are not the sentinels, Maximus asked in Sermon 92, “the blessed bishops who, being raised — so to speak — on an elevated rock of wisdom to defend the people, see from afar the evils that are approaching?”
In Sermon 89, Maximus of Turin describes his responsibilities to the faithful by uniquely comparing the bishop’s function to that of bees: “Like the bee,” he says, the bishops “observe chastity of the body, offer the food of celestial life, and use the sting of the law. They are pure in order to sanctify, gentle in order to comfort and severe in order to punish.”
That is how St. Maximus described the mission of a bishop in his time.
Relevant Even Today
Clearly, historical and literary analysis demonstrates Maximus’ growing awareness of the political responsibility of Church authorities within a context where they are de facto substituting for civil authorities.
Indeed, it is along these lines that the ministry of the bishop developed in northern Italy, beginning with Eusebius, who lived in Vercelli “like a monk,” to Maximus of Turin, who was placed “like a sentinel” on the highest rock in the city.
Obviously, the historical, cultural and social context today is profoundly different.
My venerated predecessor, Pope John Paul II, described today’s context in his post-synodal exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa, where he offered an articulate analysis of the challenges and signs of hope for the Church in Europe today (see Ecclesia in Europa 6-22).
In any case, independent of changed conditions, the duties of the believer toward his city and homeland are still valid. The intertwining of the commitments of an “honest citizen” with those of a “good Christian” has not faded at all.
In conclusion, I would like to recall what the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes says in order to shed light on one of the most important aspects of the unity of the Christian life: the consistency between faith and behavior and between Gospel and culture.
The council exhorts the faithful “to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation” (Gaudium et Spes 43).
Following the teachings of St. Maximus and many other Fathers of the Church, let us make the council’s hope ours, as well, that the faithful may ever more “exercise all their earthly activities and their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory” (ibid.), and in this way for the good of mankind.
- November 11-17, 2007