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Our Times: The Age of Martyrs

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Never in the history of the papacy has any Bishop of Rome written at greater length about martyrdom than Pope John Paul II. His encyclical The Gospel of Life devotes 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 martyrs is the seed of Christians"--was not a pious 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 judgment, this is the condition in which faithful Christians who are believing Catholics find themselves as we approach the third millennium. In a country like America, 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 are accepted as part of modern life. On the side of truth, no one has better expressed what is going on than 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 every day and heard over the 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 by 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 witnesses 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 by my martyrs." This prefix is crucial. Those who are martyrs are witnesses to Christ. They testify, if need be with their blood, that what they believe is true because they have known 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 Pet. 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 St. 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. Opposition to the Christian faith and way of life does not always end in violent death for the persecuted victims.

Consequently, it is well to distinguish between what may be called martyrdom of blood and martyrdom of opposition, which is bloodless indeed, but no less--and sometimes more--painful to endure.

Not all the victims of persecution die at the hands of a godless government. Millions more are ostensibly free to walk the streets and live in a home. Yet they are, in effect, deprived of every human liberty to practice their religion and to serve Christ according to their Faith. If they teach their children catechism, the parents are prevented from enjoying such privileges as decent living quarters or any kind of skilled job. If they are seen attending church, they are first warned, then threatened, and finally penalized – even to the loss of their possessions.

So the sorry tale goes on, and has been going on for years, in spite of the conspiracy of silence in our American press.

But that is not the whole picture. We need to shake ourselves into awareness that our country is going through persecution. It is no less real for being subtle, and no less painful for being perpetrated in the name of democracy.

What do I mean? I mean that any priest or religious, any married or single person in America who wishes to sincerely and fully live up to his Catholic commitment, finds countless obstacles in his way and experiences innumerable difficulties that accumulatively demand heroic fortitude to overcome and withstand.

All we have to do is place the eight beatitudes in one column and the eight corresponding attitudes of our culture in another column, and compare the two. Where Christ advocates poverty, the world despises the poor and canonizes the rich. Where Christ praises gentleness, the world belittles meekness and extols those who succeed by crushing anyone who stands in their way. Where Christ encourages mourning and sorrow for sin, the world revels in pleasure and the noise of empty laughter. Where Christ promises joy only to those who seek justice and holiness, the world offers satisfaction in the enjoyment of sin. Where Christ bids us forgive and show mercy to those who have offended us, the world seeks vengeance and its law courts are filled with demands for retribution. Where Christ blesses those who are pure of heart, the world scoffs at chastity and makes a god of sex. Where Christ tells the peaceful that they shall be rewarded, the world teaches just the opposite in constant rebellion and violence and massive preparation for war. And where Christ teaches the incredible doctrine of accepting persecution with patience and resignation to God's will, the world dreads nothing more than criticism and rejection; and human respect which means acceptance by society, is the moral norm.

On the bloody side, our century has had more Christians who were martyred for Christ than in all the centuries from Calvary to nineteen hundred included. I should know because not a few of my own relatives behind the iron curtain have shed their blood for Christ rather than deny their Catholic Faith.

To this day, innumerable Catholics are dying for their faith at the hands of Muslims who are told by the Koran to either convert Christians from their idolatry of adoring the man Jesus as though he were God, or put them to death.

But my focus here is on our own country. Call it an unbloody martyrdom. But have no doubt that to live an authentic Catholic life in America today is to live a martyr's life.

This is my fiftieth year in the priesthood, and I can testify to every syllable of the following sentence: Only heroic bishops and heroic priests, heroic religious, heroic fathers and mothers, heroic faithful, will survive the massive persecution of the Catholic Church in our country today. We call ourselves the Land of Liberty. But the only liberty that is given freedom is the liberty to do your own will. Pro-choice is not just a clever phrase. It is the hallmark of a culture in which millions have chosen to do what they want and make life humanly impossible for those who choose to do what God wants.


Martyrdom of Witness

We still have one more type of martyrdom to reflect on, and it is, in a way, the most pervasive of all because no follower of Christ can escape it. This is the martyrdom of witness.

What do we mean by martyrdom of witness and how does it differ from the other two? It differs from them in that, even in the absence of active opposition--the imitation of Christ must always face passive opposition. From whom? From those who lack a clear vision of the Savior or who, having had it, lost their former commitment to Christ. All that we have seen about the martyrdom by violence applies here too, but the method of opposition is different. Here the firm believer in the Church's teaching authority; the devoted servant of the papacy; the convinced pastor who insists on sound doctrine to his flock; the dedicated religious who want to remain faithful to their vows of authentic poverty, honest chastity, and sincere obedience; the firm parents who are concerned about the religious and moral training of their children and are willing to sacrifice generously to build and care for a Christian family--natural or adopted--such persons will not be spared also active criticism and open opposition. But they must especially be ready to live in an atmosphere of coldness to their deepest beliefs.

Sometimes they would almost wish the opposition were more overt and even persecution would be a welcome change. It is the studied indifference of people whom they know and love, of persons in their own natural or religious family, of men and women whose intelligence they respect and whose respect they cherish.

This kind of apathy can be demoralizing and, unless it finds relief, can be devastating.

To continue living a Christ-like life in this kind of environment is to practice the martyrdom of witness. Why witness? Because it means giving testimony to our deep religious convictions although all around us others are giving their own example to the contrary.

It means giving witness twice over: once on our own behalf as the outward expression of what we internally believe and once again on behalf of others whose conduct is not only different from ours but contradicts it.

Wherein lies the martyrdom? It lies in the deprivation of good example to us on the part of our contemporaries, and in the practice of Christian virtue in loneliness, because those who witness what we do are in the majority--numerically or psychologically--and we know they are being challenged and embarrassed by the testimony. We witness to them, indeed, but they are not pleased to witness who we are, what we stand for, what we say, or what we do.

Notwithstanding all of this, however, it behooves us to look at the positive side of the picture. 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 mountaintop. We should not be afraid that by such evidence of our good works 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.


Prayer

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 ©2003 by Inter Mirifica





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