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Martyrdom & Suffering

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The Precious Blood in the Age of Martyrs

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

The subject of our conference is really a statement of two mysteries of our faith: We were redeemed by the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, and we are now living in the Age of Martyrs. Our purpose in this conference will be to briefly explain each of these two mysteries and show how they are related.

The Precious Blood

The words “Precious Blood” come from the Holy Spirit who inspired St. Peter to write, “You know that you are redeemed from the vain manner of life handed down from your fathers, not with perishable things as silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as the Lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

What is St. Peter telling us? He is saying that our redemption was accomplished by the shedding of the blood of the Son of God who became man and died for our salvation on the cross.

Having sinned and becoming estranged from God’s friendship, the human race could not have been saved unless God had become man in order to die on the cross for our salvation.

There is nothing more basic to our faith than this mystery of divine love.

God became Incarnate in order to have a human nature. This means that He had a human body and a human soul. It means that He could suffer in His body, indeed could die a bodily death, not because He had to but because He wanted to out of love for us.

The only way that Christ could die was by being put to death by His enemies, who crucified Him on Calvary. Being the sinless Lamb of God, He could not die of any sickness or disease which, for us, is a consequence of original sin.

Christ, therefore, had to bleed to death. He had to shed His blood in order for His soul to leave His body which thus died on the cross so that we might be redeemed.

Jesus not only had a human body that could bleed to death, He also had a human will that could choose this death on the first Good Friday. That, in fact, is the essence of sacrifice. To sacrifice means to voluntarily surrender something precious to God. Christ sacrificed the precious possession of His human life so that He might restore the divine life of grace to the human race.

Over the centuries, devotion to the Precious Blood has been one of the hallmarks of authentic Catholic spirituality. In the Litany of the Precious Blood, we pray:

“Blood of Christ, falling upon the earth in the agony, save us”
“Blood of Christ, shed profusely in the scourging, save us”
“Blood of Christ, poured out on the cross, save us”
“Blood of Christ, price of our salvation, save us”
“Blood of Christ, without which there is no forgiveness, save us”

So the Litany goes on with one repeated theme. God became man to shed His blood on Calvary so that we might reach the heaven for which we were made.

All of this is part of our faith. As Christ told us, “Without me you can do nothing.” This could be rephrased as, “Without the shedding of my blood you could not hope for heaven.”

The Age of Martyrs

As we enter the second part of our conference, on the age of martyrs, let us first make sure that the Precious Blood of Christ and our martyrdom belong together.

We believe that by His death on the cross, Christ merited all the graces we need to reach heaven. He won all the graces necessary for our salvation. He gained all the graces that the human race needs to reach its eternal destiny.

But we also believe that what Christ did by dying for us on the cross requires that we die on our cross by cooperating with the graces that Jesus won for our redemption. He could not have been more clear. He told us, “If you wish to be my disciples, take up your cross and follow me.” We must cooperate with Christ’s grace if we wish to join Him in eternity. He was crucified by shedding His blood. We must be crucified by shedding our blood in witness to our love.

All of this is elementary Christian teaching. The Precious Blood of Christ does indeed provide us with the light and strength we need to reach heaven. But we have to do our part, otherwise Christ’s passion and death on Calvary would have been in vain.

The focus of our conference is on the Precious Blood of Christ in the age of martyrs. What are we saying? We are saying that the present century is the age of martyrs par excellence. Ours is THE (all three letters capitalized) age of martyrs.

No words of mine can do justice to this statement: We are inclined to think that martyrs are those ancient men and women in the first centuries of the Church whom we commemorate by name in the first Eucharistic prayer, when we say, “We honor the apostles and martyrs,” and then name after the apostles, “Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Carnelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian.”

Unless we take stock of ourselves, martyrs are not commonly associated with the later history of the Church, and certainly not with our own times. What a miscalculation!

A conservative estimate places the total number of martyrs who died for Christ up to the liberation edict of Constantine in 313 A.D. at around 100,000. We call that period of massive persecution the age of martyrs. Yet, the number of Christians who have died for their faith since 1900 is several million. In the Sudan alone, during the 1950s, over two million Catholics were starved to death by the Muslims because they refused to deny that Mary is the Mother of God since her Son is the Ibn Allah, the Son of God. There have been more Christian martyrs since the turn of the present century than in all of the preceding centuries from Calvary to 1900 put together.

It is no wonder that the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church went out of its way to identify martyrdom as one of the marks of holiness in our day. The passage deserves to be quoted in full.

Since Jesus, the Son of God manifested His charity by laying down His life for us, so too no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and His brothers. From the earliest times, then, some Christians have been called upon and some will always be called upon to give the supreme testimony of their love to all men, but especially to persecutors.

The Church, then, considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift and as the fullest proof of love. By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Although few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross.

When the council says that “few are presented” the privilege of shedding their blood for Christ, this is relative term. The actual number in our century is in the millions.

However, there are two kinds of martyrdom. There is the red martyrdom of shedding one’s blood physically; and there is the white martyrdom of suffering in witness to one’s faith in Jesus Christ.

As we have said, the number of those who have died a martyr’s death in our century is the greatest in Christian history. Must we not also say that the number of those who are now called to live a martyr’s life is the greatest since Christ’s crucifixion on the first Good Friday?

Let me leave no doubt in your minds. To be a faithful Catholic bishop, or priest, or religious, or husband or wife, or father or mother, or young man or woman - devoted to Christ and loyal to His vicar on earth - is to live the life of a martyr in the modern world.

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.

That is why we must be ready to live a martyr’s life if we hope to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. No doubt loyal Catholics must suffer for their faith in Communist countries like China. That is why Chinese Catholics who are loyal to the Pope can survive only in an underground Church which is not subject to the Marxist government. In China only “patriotic Catholics” have freedom of religion.

Let’s be honest. Fidelity to the Catholic Church, to her doctrines of faith and precepts of morality; who are obedient to the Bishop of Rome must pay dearly for their allegiance. They must be ready to join in spirit their fellow believers throughout the world.

Let us have no illusions. Any Catholic in America who wishes to sincerely and fully live up to his religious commitment finds countless obstacles in his way and experiences innumerable difficulties that accumulatively can 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’s praises gentleness, the world belittles weakness and extols those who succeed in 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 offend 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.

The world does not believe in the Beatitudes. But that is not all. With all the legal and financial and psychological power at its disposal, the world opposes those who do not accept the secularism of our day.

Anyone who does not think that a loyal Catholic today must be ready to live a martyr’s life is living in a dream.


The subject of this lecture was the Precious Blood in the Age of Martyrs. These two are related as source and consequence.

The source of the grace we need to live a martyr’s life is the Precious Blood which Christ shed for us on the cross. Without the grace that He won for us on Calvary, it would be folly, not to say madness, to expect to follow the Savior faithfully in the world in which we live.

Certainly we need the strength that Jesus merited for us by shedding His blood on the cross. But, if we dare say it, Jesus needs us to supply, as St. Paul says, what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ.

What are we being told? Did not Christ’s death redeem the world? Yes, His death redeemed the world, but conditionally. What is the condition? The condition is that we unite our sufferings with His, our crosses with His, our blood in body or spirit with His.

Martyrdom is not an appendix to Christianity. It belongs to its essence. If we unite our sufferings for the faith with the Precious Blood of Christ, we shall be cooperating with Him in the redemption of the world.

The secret is to love the cross. Why? Because our Love was crucified and we wish to be crucified with Him. Why? Because then we shall be glorified together with Him.


“Lord Jesus, you shed your blood on the cross for the salvation of the world. It is by your blood that we were redeemed.

But you also told us that we are your disciples only if we carry our cross, which means shed our blood, and follow you.

Give us the strength we need to be your followers in truth and not only in name. We ask for the gift of martyrdom by professing our Catholic faith in the face of a hostile and Christless world. Amen.”

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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