“It is the Mass that matters”, was how the Irish put it the penal times. Pope Benedict recalls how much the Christians of Abitene in Tunisia relied on the power of the Sunday Eucharist to sustain them spiritually in the early 4th century.
We go back the year 304, when the Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians, on pain of death, from possessing the Scriptures, from gathering on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist and from building places in which to hold their assemblies.
In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They.were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.
Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied: ‘Sine dominico non possumus’. Without the Sunday Eucharist we have no power. We cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.
After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ…
Christ’s Resurrection happened on the first day of the week, which in the Scriptures is the day of the world’s creation. For this very reason Sunday was considered by the early Christian community as the day on which the new world began, the one on which, with Christ’s victory over death, the new creation began.
As they gathered round the Eucharistic table, the community was taking shape as a new people of God. St Ignatius of Antioch described Christians as ‘having attained new hope’ and presented them as people ‘who lived in accordance with Sunday’ (‘iuxta dominicam viventes’). In this perspective, the Bishop of Antioch wondered: ‘How will we be able to live without him, the One whom the prophets so long awaited?’ (Ep. ad Magnesios, 9, 1-2).
‘How will we be able to live without him?’
In these words of St Ignatius we hear echoing the affirmation of the martyrs of Abitene: ‘Sine dominico non possumus’ .
It is this that gives rise to our prayer: that we too, Christians of today, will rediscover an awareness of the crucial importance of the Sunday Celebration and will know how to draw from participation in the Eucharist the necessary dynamism for a new commitment to proclaiming to the world Christ ‘our peace’ (Eph 2: 14). Amen!
Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at Italian National Eucharistic Congress, Bari, 29 May 2005).