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Our Witness in a Sin-Laden World

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

This title is surprising. You might object that human beings have always been living in a sin-laden world. That is true. But the twentieth century has been the most sin predominated world in human history.

There have been more wars fought in our century with more death casualties than in all the wars since the dawn of civilization. There have been more abortions since nineteen fifty then in all the previous centuries before put together. There have been more suicides and more killings of aging people in the past century than in all the centuries of mankind combined.

There must be some solution. There is. Christianity must be restored where it has been lost and strengthened where it has so desperately weakened.

But how, how, can Christianity be restored? Christianity can be restored only in the way in which it was begun. How was that? It was through martyrdom.

The Church was born the moment Jesus died on the cross. The Church grew through the death of thousands of martyrs in the first three hundred years. And the Church will continue to grow only where there are men, women and children who are willing to offer their lives for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom, which is the Church, until the end of time.

That is why the present Vicar of Christ is so painfully clear about the need for martyrs in the modern world.

Pope John Paul on the Need for Martyrs

Never in the history of the papacy has been any Bishop of Rome written at greater length about martyrdom than Pope John Paul II. His encyclical The Gospel of Life devoted a thousand or more words to the call to martyrdom in our age.

He reminds us that the revelation from the Old Testament to the new, and from the time of Christ to the present day, is the history of martyrdom as a witness to the truth.

He names Susanna, who refused to consent to lechery and was ready to die to preserve her chastity. He spoke of John the Baptist who was beheaded by King Herod because he condemned the adulterous marriage of the king. But he especially identifies Jesus Christ as the king of martyrs, who died on the cross as a witness to the Truth which He was sent to proclaim to the world.

So the history of courageous practice and profession of the Truth has gone on for twenty centuries of Christianity.

We commonly speak of the first three hundred years of the Christian era as the Age of Martyrs. Certainly tens of thousands of believing Christians laid down their lives, rather than compromise their Christian faith and morality to the pagan culture in which they lived. Every single Pope up to the fourth century died a martyr’s death.

So, far from crushing Christianity or destroying the church founded by Christ, martyrdom actually contributed to the growth of a Christian civilization. The phrase, sanguis martyrum est semen Christianorum—“the blood of martys is the seed of Christians”—was not a pius aphorism. It was a literal fact of history. The more blood was shed by Christians in dying for their faith, the more Christianity expanded throughout what had been a pagan world.

Modern Paganism

All that we have said so far was a prelude to the message that I wish to leave with you. Paganism is as old as human history. In one sentence, paganism is a culture of untruth. Over the two thousand years since Calvary, Christianity has had to constantly contend with pagan ideas, pagan laws; in a word—with a pagan culture that hated Christianity for the same reason that it crucified the Incarnate Truth, who became man to teach the world how to serve God here on earth, in order to possess Him in a blessed eternity.

There are differences, however, between a paganism that has never been Christianized, and a once-Christian society that has become paganized.

In my judgement, this is the condition in which faithful Christians who are believing Catholics find themselves as we approach the third millennium. In a country like American, whose supreme court in the early years of this century called a Christian nation, they find themselves surrounded by a paganism that is literally directed by the prince of this world. It is a paganism whose father is the evil spirit, whom Christ identified as the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning.

There are therefore two qualities of this modern paganism which no one can rationally deny. It is first of all a culture of death, and secondly it is a society penetrated with the untruth. Can anyone doubt that our society is a culture of death? The lowest statistic for the number of abortions throughout the world is sixty-five million. One once civilized nation after another has legalized the abortion of not only the unborn, but of the newly born. Infanticide is now part of accepted American practice. So-called euthanasia and assisted suicide is part of modern life. On the side of truth, no one has better expressed what is going on then Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher of social psychology. “The modern media,” wrote McLuhan, “are engaged in Luciferian conspiracy against the truth.” Millions of words are published everyday and heard over radio and television. Consciously and deliberately, much of this written and spoken communication is not true. It is estimated that ninety percent of the books borrowed from American libraries are fiction. Whole nations are living in a dream world created by the media, and the dreams are scientifically calculated to keep the human mind from contact with reality.

We define “truth” as conformity of the mind with reality. On these terms, must we not say that the evil spirit is demonically successful in deceiving whole nations in filling their minds with lies?

The Need for Martyrs

Given the widespread culture of death and plague of untruth in our day, is it any wonder that the followers of Christ must pay dearly for their loyalty to the Master, who identified Himself as the Life and the Truth?

You do not remain faithful to the Savior without paying for it. This has been the story of Christianity since the first Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified by His enemies. Why did they crucify Him? Because He taught that we were made for a life that will never end, and because He would not compromise on the Truth which He had received from His Father.

This has been the verdict of Christian history ever since, and will remain the same until the end of time. Those who want to remain loyal to Jesus Christ must expect to suffer for their witness to Incarnate Life and Truth. Another name for this suffering witness is martyrdom.

What is Martyrdom?

The best description of martyrdom was given by Christ Himself just before He ascended into heaven. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” He told the disciples, “and then you will be my witness not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Here we have capsulized in one sentence the motivating power of martyrdom, its nature, and its apostolic purpose.

The source of strength to suffer for Christ comes finally from the Holy Spirit, who is said to give power. In the language of the New Testament, this power is the same kind of power by which miracles can be worked.

The nature of martyrdom is to witness, except that when Christ spoke to the disciples He did not say “You shall be my witnesses,” but, “You shall be my martyrs,” which tells us exactly what we want to know. The essence of being a martyr is to be a witness. And we know what a witness does. He gives testimony publicly that something he saw or heard is true. He has experience of a fact or an event, and as a witness he declares that what he says or signs his name to is so. He gives evidence to others that what he testifies to should be believed. Why? Because he personally knows,

We are liable to miss the preceding adjective “my” in the clause “You shall be my martyrs.” This prefix is crucial. Those who are martyrs are witnesses to Christ. They testify, if we need be with their blood, that what they believe is true because they have know Christ. The implication is that in order to be a witness, even to martyrdom, one must have experienced Christ, in a way comparable to what Peter told the early Christians: “You did not see Him, yet you love Him. And still without seeing Him, you are already filled with joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe” (1 Peter 1:8).

So it was in the apostolic age, and so it is in ours. In order to witness to Christ we must believe in Him so strongly that we are filled with His joy. This joy is, of course, as Peter explained, not devoid of pain.

But it is genuine and unmistakable. It is also profoundly communicable. In fact, one of the paradoxes of martyrdom is the positive happiness that a strongly committed follower of Christ has in suffering for Christ.

This is brought out dramatically by Saint Luke in describing the second summons of the apostles before the Sanhedrin, after they had been warned not to preach about the Savior. The apostles were flogged and warned again not to speak in the name of Jesus. As they left the jail where they had been scourged, they were “glad to have had the honor of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40-41).

Martyrdom of Persecution

Not all the faithful who suffer for Christ also die for Christ. We must remind ourselves that this witness of ours is not so sterile as we may suppose. Quite the contrary. Although we may be, or at least feel, often quite alone, we are not alone at all. Not infrequently our severest critics can become our strongest admirers. In any case, witness that we give by living up to the conviction of our faith is surely demanding on human nature. That is why we call it martyrdom. But it is a witness to the truth and God’s grace is always active in the hearts of everyone whose path we cross.

If we would know the power of this martyrdom of witness we have only to read the annals of the early Church. The handful of believers whom Peter baptized on Pentecost Sunday were as a drop in the immense culture surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Yet see what happened. This small group of convinced faithful were able, in less than three hundred years, to turn the tide of paganism in the Roman Empire. For a long time they were deprived even of the basic civil rights accorded other citizens. They were often hunted like animals, and the catacombs tell us that they had to hide when celebrating the liturgy and hide the tombs of their revered dead.

But their patience and meekness finally prevailed. Yes, but only because it was supported by unbounded courage, born not of their own strength, but of the power that Christ promised to give all His followers that shall witness to His name everywhere. This promise is just as true today. All that we need is to trust in the Spirit whom we possess, and never grow weary in giving testimony to the grace we received.

This is what Christ was talking about when He told us not to hide our virtues but to allow them to be publicly seen, like a candle on a candlestick or a city on a mountain top. We should not be afraid that by such evidence of our good words we shall be protected from vainglory by the cost in humiliation that witnessing to a holy life inevitably brings. There will have to be enough death to self and enough ignoring of human respect to keep us from getting proud in our well-doing. God will see to that. On our part, we must be willing to pay the price of suffering in doing good, which is another name for being a living martyr, that is, a courageous witness to the life of Christ in the world today.


Mary, Mother of our Redeemer, we want to be faithful to His teaching and never compromise our Faith. But we are weak. Obtain for us from Jesus the strength to live a martyr’s life in the modern world. If it is God’s will we ask for a martyr’s death. Help us, we pray, to face the oppositions from those who reject your Son. Mary, Queen of martyrs, pray for us.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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