“It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
My designated “Papa chair” is now located near a window, nestled between two bookcases. It had been in a different room altogether, but recent redecorating and refurbishing there required that my ratty old perch be shifted elsewhere.
Which is just fine. In fact, its new situation is ideal, particularly with reference to the wealth of analogue information within easy reach. I’m not a cell phone guy, and I’ll be the one they’ll have to jail someday when Big Brother decides that everyone has to have a smart phone. Consequently, when I’m sitting in my dad spot every morning, sipping my coffee and doing some meditative reading, I don’t fire up a gizmo to track down answers to fleeting questions. Instead, I grab a book – which, like my chair, is often enough ratty and old, and frequently requiring a quick puff along the top to disperse accumulated dust.
Recently, something in my early a.m. reading caused me to snag a weathered Encyclopedia of the Papacy off the shelf. Maybe it some oddball papal reference I’d come across and wanted to check up on; maybe it was my random church history cursor going off – who knows? In any case, I grabbed the Encyclopedia, blew off the dust, and thumbed through the pages, back to front. I made note of the earliest entries and their relative brevity compared to later ones. Indeed, some in St. Peter’s immediate line of succession only merited a line or two. “Stands to reason,” I thought. “The later the pope, the more likely there’d be surviving, solid documentation.”
Then my eye fell on the entry for Pope St. Urban I, who served the Church of Rome for eight years before his death in 230. Here’s the entry in its entirety: “Nothing of note occurred during Urban’s pontificate.”
Huh – really? How could that be? The first few centuries of the Church were filled with persecution and ecclesial wrangling, doctrinal division and staying one step ahead of imperial anti-catholic law. Eight years of petrine service in the chaos of pre-Constaninian Rome, but “nothing of note?” Nothing worth commenting on? I picture the faithful adorning Urban’s earthly remains with an “I sat in the throne of St. Peter, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” covering before committing him to the catacombs.
I examined the Encyclopedia a bit further: Publication date, 1958; author, one Hans Kühner; publisher, The Philosophical Library out of New York. Ah, a secular treatment of papal history – I should’ve known. Maybe something a bit more Catholic could reveal some edifying tidbits about poor Urban I.
So I turned to the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia and read E.G. Weltin’s brief treatment of Urban. I was glad to find that Weltin provides a few more details than Kühner, but not much. It seems that Pope Urban dealt with lingering dissension and Christological heresies, but these seemed to be already on the wane by the time he was ensconced. Plus, Weltin points out that Urban’s pontificate coincided with the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus “who was favorably disposed toward Christians,” so the Pope probably died in his sleep – not martyred like so many of his predecessors.
Further investigations didn’t prove all that fruitful. The time-honored 1912 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia has a longish article on Pope Urban I by J.P. Kirsch, but little more in the way of solid facts. Kirsch provides context in terms of the controversies in play during Urban’s reign (namely those stirred up by the schismatic Hippolytus) and background on Emperor Alexander’s strikingly benign attitude toward Urban’s Church. Kirsch also reviews Pope Urban’s appearance in the legendary Acts of St. Cecilia and discusses various proposals regarding his burial location and associated inscriptions. Yet, even Mr. Kirsch has to conclude that “[n]othing is known concerning the personal labours of Pope Urban.”
In desperation, I even turned to Wikipedia, but the only additional info I came across there was that Urban I has a cameo in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Maybe the Kühner’s Encyclopedia of the Papacy is right after all.
Wrong. For although Kühner dismisses the business side of Urban’s papal tenure, he overlooks what we already know from the liturgy: Pope Urban I is a saint. And sanctification, as we all know from experience, is always noteworthy and hardly the stuff of insignificance. It’s the whole point of the Christian enterprise, and it’s, frankly, grueling – at least for most of us. It’s why we keep going to Mass and saying “Amen” when the Body of Christ is held up to us at Holy Communion. It’s why we strive to keep our disordered appetites in check and choose virtue over vice when it’s inconvenient, or even seemingly impossible. And it’s why we go to Confession, over and over again, surrendering our selfishness at the court of last resort – really, the court of only resort – and promise to try again.
No, Pope St. Urban I led a significant life, despite the historians’ inability to divine the details. He’s a saint, after all – a saint! To paraphrase Leon Bloy, becoming a saint is all that matters, but that “becoming” is wild – like a steeplechase in a puzzle in a whirling tumbler. And the vast majority of all that is interior – acts of conscience and intention and self-abandonment – so how could anybody keep track of anyone’s path to glory with all its hidden ups and downs?
So it will be for you and me should we realize, with God’s grace, the same heavenly prize as Pope Urban. Sure, he’s an obscure figure as far as the scholars are concerned, but can there be any doubt that he cares little about that now? Similarly, all those who’ll join him in Paradise won’t care a whit if their doings are recorded in a book – not even a single line. Nobody on earth will know about the extra prayers and fasting you undertook for your ailing grandma; nobody will know about the kindnesses you doled out on strangers in need; nobody will know when you didn’t do the wrong things you wanted to, nor right things you embraced when you were inclined otherwise. But God knows. God knows our doings, God knows our hearts, and that’s plenty. Indeed, it’s everything.
Oh, and if you do want to give Pope St. Urban I his due, consider marking his feast next May 25. I know I will be.