Feast: Liturgical Color: Red
The Church conquered an imperfect world because of the heroic witness of the Apostles
Little is known with certainty about today’s Apostle, and perhaps Saint Bartholomew is just fine with that. If he were like Saint John the Baptist, he would want Christ to increase and himself to decrease. It is possible, although not certain, that Bartholomew is the same Apostle as Nathaniel. Bartholomew means “Son of Tolmai” and so is not actually a name, but a patronymic, like the Scandinavian “son” found in “Anderson” or “Erikson.” The Bartholomew of Matthew, Mark, and Luke may describe the man known in the Gospel of John more correctly as Nathaniel. Bartholomew is paired with Philip in some Gospel lists, which corresponds, interestingly, with Philip being an old friend of Nathaniel in John’s Gospel. But so little is known with certainty about the Apostles that these conjectures will likely never be resolved.
After his appearance in the Gospels, Bartholomew first resurfaces almost three hundred years later, in the works of Eusebius, a bishop and church historian who wrote around 300 A.D. Eusebius relates a story about a Christian teacher traveling in India who is told that an Apostle, presumably Bartholomew, had preached there long before him and had brought a Hebrew Gospel with him. Equally vague traditions have Bartholomew evangelizing in Persia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The details of his death are also lost in the fog of ancient history. One tradition holds that he was flayed alive, a story reflected in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel, which depicts Bartholomew holding his own skin in his hands. Because of this tradition Bartholomew is the patron saint of tanners. History holds that Bartholomew’s relics are in the church named after him on an island in Rome’s Tiber River.
Belief in the Catholic Church is a matter of doctrine. The Nicene Creed states that we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The Church, then, is an object of faith in the same way that God is an object of faith. She is not the end result of a world-wide community of believers or merely a forum for belief. She gathers. She is not gathered. The Church is the mother of Christians, not their offspring. The Church is more than a carrier of faith, then, more than a train whose cargo barrels through the centuries transporting the heavy freight of the Gospels and tradition to diverse cultures. The Church does not just bear a message, She is the message.
Unfortunately, the Church’s sins and failings are, for many, the primary obstacle to belief in Christ. It is not just that the Church’s holiness is not apparent. It is that Her unity is questioned due to deep theological divisions. And Her members’ struggles for power, wealth, and prestige also obscure a more pristine Christian faith which She should project. But to think that the Church could be transparently holy, unified, and sinless is to dream. The Church exists in the world, reflects the world’s dramas, and suffers from Her same sins. We do not believe in the Church because She is perfect, but because there is nothing else like Her. She is unique. She is better than any alternative. If we expect from the Church the Sacraments we will never be disappointed.
Today’s saint lived and evangelized in the era of the dreamy early church, when the fire of Christ’s love burned hottest, when the Gospel was as fresh as baked bread, and when gusts of the Holy Spirit blew through the Apostles’ hair. And yet…Bartholomew still had his skin slowly peeled from his body by a sharp knife, or was crucified, or both. The world was wicked in the first century too, and the Church had problems in that century as well. Just read the letters of Saint Paul. The Church was born into a rough pagan world and still exists in a rough, though different, secular world. Saint Bartholomew died at the hands of imperfect pagans for an imperfect Church. Yet the imperfect, primitive Church persevered because of the witness and sacrifice of many saints in Her infancy and the imperfect, modern Church will continue to persevere into the future because of our witness and sacrifice today in Her adulthood.
Saint Bartholomew, help all Christians to see in your example of martyrdom a heroic witness to perseverance in the face of difficulty, of fidelity in the face of doubt, and of courage in the face of timidity. May we have just a portion of what you had in such abundance.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ST. BARTHOLOMEW was one of the twelve who were called to the apostolate by our blessed Lord Himself. Several learned interpreters of the Holy Scripture take this apostle to have been the same as Nathaniel, a native of Cana, in Galilee, a doctor in the Jewish law, and one of the seventy-two disciples of Christ, to whom he was conducted by St. Philip, and whose innocence and simplicity of heart deserved to be celebrated with the highest eulogium by the divine mouth of Our Redeemer. He is mentioned among the disciples who were met together in prayer after Christ’s ascension, and he received the Holy Ghost with the rest. Being eminently qualified by the divine grace to discharge the functions of an apostle, he carried the Gospel through the most barbarous countries of the East, penetrating into the remoter Indies. He then returned again into the northwest part of Asia, and met St. Philip, at Hierapolis, in Phrygia. Hence he travelled into Lycaonia, where he instructed the people in the Christian Faith; but we know not even the names of many of the countries in which he preached. St. Bartholomew’s last removal was into Great Armenia, where, preaching in a place obstinately addicted to the worship of idols, he was crowned with a glorious martyrdom. The modern Greek historians say that he was condemned by the governor of Albanopolis to be crucified. Others affirm that he was flayed alive, which might well enough consist with his crucifixion, this double punishment being in use not only in Egypt, but also among the Persians.
Reflection.—The characteristic virtue of the apostles was zeal for the divine glory, the first property of the love of God. A soldier is always ready to defend the honor of his prince, and a son that of his father; and can a Christian say he loves God who is indifferent to His honor?
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.