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Retreat on the Credo
The Faith of Martyrdom
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Today's feast of St. Stephen does not come coincidentally on the day after Christmas. The Church for centuries has put it there lest we have any illusions about what Christmas means, that the Child born in Bethlehem was God Whose followers will have to pay dearly for their discipleship. Christ's coming created conflict in the human race such as the world had never known before. The young Church, and she couldn't have been younger, began by having her martyrs. Today's gospel is the gospel of martyrdom and it comes in four parts.
Part one, Christ foretold to His followers that they would be opposed: the servant will not be greater or different than the Master. Second, He predicted that the opposition would come from the outside but also from the inside. Third, He promised the Holy Spirit to those who in their loyalty to Him would be opposed. Finally, He gave the reason for the opposition. He would permit His followers down the centuries to experience all kinds of enmity. Why? In order thus to witness to His Name.
First, then, Christ foretold opposition. We should not be surprised that when God became Man there would be those who would oppose those who would be loyal to this God-Man, because, you see, opposition to God began before the dawn of human history. That's how the devil came into being. Michael and the faithful angels withstood, as revelation tells us, the rebellious spirits. Let's make sure that we don't put them into heaven before the fall of the angels. No one falls out of heaven. The angels like us were on probation. Some remained faithful, others failed. Shortly after the origins of the human race there was a conflict between two brothers - Cain and Abel - symbolizing conflict inside the human family from the dawn of history. The prophets all met opposition. This was climaxed on Calvary and it went right on after the Church was founded and has remained unabated to the present day. The conflict between Christ - that is His faithful ones and those who do not want to submit to the teachings and laws of Christ - that conflict will go on until the end of time.
The best extended description of this perennial conflict is in the book of Revelation, the Apocalypse. Read it; it tells us something for today.
Christ, besides predicting the opposition, foretold the forms that this opposition would take. There are in general two kinds the Savior predicted: from the outside and from the inside. From outside of what and from inside of what? From outside the Church and from inside the Church, and you'd better believe it;from outside one's family and from inside one's family, and again you'd better believe it. Evidently it is harder and much more difficult to accept opposition from the inside; it is in fact much less expected from the inside. People within the Church you spontaneously trust; persons within your own family you naturally rely on. There is opposition we are not surprised at, there is opposition that we never dreamed will arise. Well, we can stop dreaming because it will arise.
One of the most memorable retreats I've ever made was during my scholasticate days before my ordination. Father Daniel Lord, about whom some of you may have heard, a great teacher and leader of the youth, gave us the retreat. I still remember the theme of that retreat; it was the imperative of the verb - some people think of it only as a noun; it's a verb - the imperative of the verb work! "Brethren," he told us for eight days, "work! God will give the grace; leavethat to Him; you work!" He told us easily thirty wonderful stories and I think I remember them all. Let me tell one; it is apropos to what we are saying.
Father Edmund Walsh, our Jesuit founder of the school of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, was in conversation with Father Lord and told him his experience when he came back from his relief mission in Russia sponsored by the Holy See. Remember, in the '20's? The Communists in Russia had provoked a massive famine; millions, millions died of starvation. TheHoly See among other charitable organizations was allowed to come into Russia to supply food for the starving people. Father Walsh was the Holy See's administrator of that relief mission from the whole Catholic world. What a beautiful gesture! The persecuted Church came to the relief of the persecutor.
After the famine had abated, Father Walsh was asked to meet Pope Pius XI in a private audience. It was in the evening, just the two, Father Walsh reporting on the success of the relief mission and the Holy Father grateful for the services of this dedicated priest and religious. As the conversation went on they began to comment, Pope and Jesuit, on the trials through which the Church was then passing: communism, opposition in Mexico, the rising of persecution in Spain. The picture was a bleak one and prospects for the Church not encouraging. Finally the Holy Father interrupted the conversation and asked a question. "Tell me, Father Walsh, "who have been the worst persecutors of the Church, tell me?" Father Walsh knew the Pope wanted to answer his own question, so he didn't answer. The Pope said, "The Church's worst persecutors have been her own unfaithful bishops, priests and religious." He went on, "Opposition from the outside is terrible; it gives us many martyrs. But the Church's worst enemy is her own traitors."
So much for a commentary on the second part of our conference - the forms of this opposition. Now the promise. Christ our Lord even as He predicted the opposition promised the divine assistance to those who would face the opposition. Two kinds of promise He made: one for the mind, another for the will. A promise for the mind: that we need not fear or worry or wonder what we are going to say, how we are going to maintain our poise. Don't worry; the Holy Spirit will enlighten you. And for the will: the same Holy Spirit. The last promise the Savior made just before His ascension was a promise of power, strength for the will so as not to weaken. How well Christ kept this promise we now know from the pages of the Church's blood-stained history. You don't explain a Stephen or an Ignatius of Antioch or a Polycarp or an Agnes or a Cecilia or an Agatha or in our own day a Maria Goretti or a Maximillian Kolbe; you don't explain the tens of thousands of martyrs under communism in our own day by any natural strength that people have to withstand opposition. Nothing, but nothing except the power of the Holy Spirit gives the wisdom and the strength that the loyal followers of Christ needed, need and will need until the end of time.
One more word regarding this promise of the Savior. Understandably and legitimately the Church honors her martyrs, has the vestments in red, and reminds us of blood. However, none of us knows our own immediate future. What I can safely say is that you don't remain, I repeat, you do not remain faithful in the episcopate, in the priesthood, in the religious life, in the Christian married life unless you are willing I don't say to die a martyr's death but to live a martyr's life. If there was ever an age of martyrs ours is such an age, not only in terms of absolute numbers. As I keep telling the audiences I speak to, the Church has had more martyrs since nineteen hundred, mark you, more martyrs for Christ since the beginning of this century than in nineteen hundred years put together. And all the evidence is the end is not in sight. So we brace ourselves and we quietly and serenely face whatever future the Lord still has in store for us, not living in a dream world. This is a world of conflict and there is only one conflict underlying all of us: between Christ and the antichrist, no matter what sophisticated names the antichrist may assume.
Finally, the purpose. We believe on faith that God has a reason for everything; He never makes a mistake; He never does things by chance. So we ask why, why has Christ permitted opposition to Himself? In fact that's what the crucifix is: the standing symbol of opposition to Christ; that's why we make the sign of the Cross: to remind ourselves many times daily this is Christianity. Why? Christ Himself gives the reason. The reason He tells us is that thereby, because of the opposition inevitably inflicted and faithfully withstood those who are martyrs, whether living martyrs or dying martyrs, they will witness to Christ as no one else can. What does witnessing to Christ mean? It means testifying to the truth of what Christ revealed. Christ revealed some very strange doctrines.
He told us He and the Father are One. He said, "Without Me you can do nothing." He foretold that He, that Man speaking in Palestine, that Human Being would come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. He told His followers they were to eat His Flesh and Blood as a condition of their salvation. These, you don't believe these incredible doctrines and consider them revealed truths unless you have some reason for believing. Very well, very well, martyrdom is Christ's strongest argument in favor of the truth of what He taught. Because anyone, and by now that number of anyones is in the millions who are willing to live dying lives and die martyr's deaths in testimony of their conviction that what Christ revealed is true, that kind of testimony is incontrovertible before anyone who is willing to believe.
As we face our own future let's tell ourselves what's going on now in the Church and in the world at large is not a mistake; it's not some rare exception; it is what has been going on since Christ stained the Cross to which He was nailed by His Blood.
Lord Jesus, strength of martyrs, grant us by the merits of Your Precious Blood the grace to witness to Your Name everywhere and always. Grant us the wisdom to remain firm in our faith; grant us the strength to remain constant in our trust all the days of our life until You call us to possess the kingdom You have prepared for those who love You even to dying for Your Name. Amen.
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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