Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This past Monday was the somewhat obscure feast of St. Eustachius (or Eustace as his name is usually rendered in English). This got me thinking about espresso and a particular coffee bar in Rome that bears the saint’s name, which in turn brought my mind to standards, secrecy, sacraments, and to end the alliteration, evangelization. Come with me on this very convoluted path.
St. Eustace was, before his conversion to Christianity, a successful general known as Placidus in the army of the Roman Empire. Though raised in a pagan environment, he was said to have none of the pagan vices. Aside from his military service, Placidus was fond of hunting. While tracking deer on a hunt, he had a vision. A stag with a cross illuminated by a bright light and held aloft between its antlers stood before him, and a voice commanded him to seek out a priest and be baptized with his whole family. He was obedient, and in baptism took the name Eustachius. To summarize the story, God revealed to St. Eustace that living the Christian life would be challenging and entail sufferings. After losing his possessions and position, his wife was separated from him by force, leaving Eustace to travel alone with their two sons. Then while crossing a river, his two sons were carried off by wild beasts. Eustace, bereft of family and position, was hired by a peasant as a laborer and worked for fifteen years before the Emperor found him and recalled him to military service. During a meal, two soldiers in his army shared their stories of each being rescued from animals and in the course of the telling realized that they were brothers. The woman serving the meal, the wife of Eustace, recognized the men as her sons, and the three went to Eustace, their commanding officer to tell him, only to discover that he was their father and husband. Eustace and his sons, along with the army, went on to win a great victory, and with their wife and mother, returned to Rome. The emperor ordered sacrifices to be made to the gods, but as Christians, Eustace and his family refused to participate, at which point they were executed in a furnace, though when the furnace was opened, their bodies appeared unharmed. The martyrs gave their lives around the year 120. St. Eustace has been invoked as a patron of hunters and firefighters and is symbolized by a stag with a cross in its antlers. You may recognize the symbol on bottles of Jäegermeister, which is the German title for a game warden.
The Caffe Sant’Eustachio in Rome sits a few feet away from the Pantheon, across the street from a small basilica that for over one thousand years has been dedicated to the patronage of St. Eustace. The café is over 80 years old (extremely young in the Roman reckoning of time). While you can purchase coffee to bring home and brew yourself, the specific blend and method of brewing is a closely guarded secret. In fact, unlike most coffee bars in Rome, the espresso machines are oriented so that it is impossible to see exactly what the brewer is doing as the espresso is prepared. This secrecy ensures that the experience of their coffee is unique to that particular bar. The espresso is so good that a New York Times columnist once told his readers that if they were in New York and wanted a good espresso, they should go to JFK, fly to Rome, and take a taxi immediately to Sant’Eustachio; it would be an expensive but worthwhile cup of coffee. Theirs is a particular blend, a particular brew, and a particular service, and they make no apologies for what they do or how they serve. To bring their beans home is to carry a memory of the experience, but it will pale in comparison to the in-person reality and experience.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola meditates on the standard of Christ. This is not simply a flag one follows into battle, pace Emperor Constantine and his vision of the Cross on his standard that led to victory. Rather, the standard of Christ is the way of life to which our Lord directs us, that our thoughts, words, and actions may all be conformed to His holy will. When we look at the lives of the saints, we may be tempted to believe that the standard of their life is something unattainable. But the saints make no apologies for who they are, for how they live their faith, for their love for Jesus. St. Eustace and his family remained profoundly rooted to the Lord in spite of trials and tribulations, and in the final contest, remained faithful to their baptismal covenant even when faced with death. We see in them the incarnation of Jesus’ words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” “If you wish to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Like the saints, Sant’Eustachio makes no apology for what it is or how they make coffee. Unlike the saints, though, they keep a secret. To go with Jesus, to have Him as our standard, to strive for that whole-hearted devotion to the One who gave everything for us is the vocation of every Christian heart. As individual Catholics and as a Church, we must stop apologizing (in the secular sense) for being who we are and start apologizing (in the classic sense of an apologia being an explanation and testimony) for the merciful love of Christ that animates our vision and way of life. The faith we hold dear cannot remain secret or concealed, though it will always remain the secret.
St. Eustace found in baptism the font and beginnings of the life of grace. Just so, it is in the sacraments that we find the source of grace. Whether we are witnessing a baptism, confessing our sins, or receiving the Eucharist, God is constantly pouring out grace upon grace. The Church is at her strongest when we present the sacraments (and the liturgical prayer that accompanies them) in the most straightforward way, no apologies given. When the Church is faithful in celebrating the sacraments, we see the sacraments as that font and beginning of grace, we see them as something distinct from the world. When we evangelize, we are inviting people into a relationship with Jesus, to a standard of living that is radically different than anything the world offers. The Mass, the sacraments, the Gospel itself, are all things that are, in fact, distinct from the world: they carry in themselves an “otherness” that becomes the “secret” source of our strength. By staying true to its recipe, Caffe Sant’Eustachio remains distinct from every other café in Rome, and it is this distinction that captures imaginations and increases attraction. By staying true to his Catholic faith, St. Eustace was distinguished from every other officer in the Emperor’s army. If St. Eustace went along with the pressure to sacrifice to pagan gods, he would have been just another soldier, lost to history. But because he stood apart, his witness and faith can inspire us today. If Sant’Eustachio gave out their recipe or altered their way of serving, they would be just another Starbucks, indistinct and not special. Instead, their single shop has been in operation since 1938 and people from around the world treasure the experience of their coffee. Just so, we need to recover our confidence that the Gospel need not be modified to accommodate a worldly standard, our confidence that the sacraments and the Mass effect the graces they signify. The world is hungry for something other-worldly. A society short on memory and unable to see far ahead is looking for a glimpse into the eternal, and we as a Church are privileged to hold that great secret. Let us never forget that we are called to invite people to know the secret, the source, the One who is Lord of all.