Honor to the Martyrs! A Declaration of Gratitude to the Martyrs of Our Day

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“21 New Martyrs Icon” by Tony Rezk

In the Divine Office last week we read a remarkable passage on the persecution of the Church. It seems proper to consider a portion of it in times like these; more on that in a moment.

Of course in writing of persecution and martyrdom, I write as an American who, though experiencing a lot more scorn these days, does not have to endure grave threat for being a Catholic. But as I consider Catholics and Christians in places like Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, the Sudan, Kenya, and other places having their churches burned, seeing their ancient Christian communities scattered, being exiled, and being killed by beheading or other methods, I am both shocked and moved.

Frankly, I can barely avoid screaming when, while all this goes on in the world, we in America get worked up about things like whether or not someone deflated a football before a game. We can be so decadent, spoiled, and focused on trivialities (but I digress).

While there is a tragedy to the martyrdom of Catholics and other Christians, there is also a glory. I do not think that we will ever really know in this life what their suffering has merited for the Church or how, as St. Paul said, they  fill up in [their] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church (cf Col 1:24). Somehow their sufferings are mystically united to the once for all perfect act of Christ for our salvation.

Honor to these martyrs! How they make reparation for our often decadent and pusillanimous living of the faith. I can only thank God that, as many people in places like Europe and North America forsake the faith and consider it of little value or demand changes to it (to accommodate divorce and remarriage, alternate families, homosexual acts, euthanasia, etc.), many in other parts of the world suffer and die for the unabridged faith handed down from the Apostles. May their heroism move us to courage and to a determination to preach the faith, pure and unadulterated, without considering the personal cost.

We do not seek conflict, but we must be willing to accept what comes, for we serve a Lord who was crucified for what He taught. The Book of Hebrews says it well:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:12-14).

Persecution is really the normal state of the Christian and the Church when we are seeking to live and teach the faith. The goal of the Christian faith is not to offend, but neither is it to win a popularity contest. Jesus warns, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26). Jesus had enemies and told us to love and pray for them. If we don’t have any enemies, we should ask ourselves why not. Do we think we can be more successful than Jesus in preaching the Gospel, such that we can preach it or live it without giving offense?

It is going to get increasingly difficult for us in the decadent West to argue that persecution can be avoided by anything but a serious compromising of our faith or at least a camouflaging of it. And neither of these is acceptable for disciples of Christ.

Meanwhile our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world show us true courage and help the Church to be the Church: willing to follow our crucified Lord.

Not only that, but they are a kind of medicine for the world, too. This leads us (finally) to the remarkable passage from the Breviary to which I referred at the beginning of the blog. And while it is applied to all Christians, it can be said to apply especially to martyrs and others who endure suffering for the faith:

Christians … condemned because they are not understood, are put to death, but raised to life again. … They are persecuted. … yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.

[But] The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.

The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven.

As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself (from a letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)).

Yes, honor to the martyrs. The world hates them but does not realize that it depends on them and on every faithful Christian to be its soul and life force. Without faithful Christian presence, the world is dead and heading for eternal death. Without martyrs, the Church risks being a friend of the world but an enemy of God (cf James 4:4). But with them in our ranks the Church can say, “I love God whatever the cost and am willing to go with Jesus outside the gates, outside the world’s embrace, and suffer shame and even death.”

Pray in thanksgiving for these glorious martyrs of our age. Pray, too, that we may have their courage when the wolf comes for us. That wolf may first come in sheep’s clothing, talking about “tolerance” and “acceptance.” But beware, you will know them by their fruits (Mat 7:16). Do not hate them, but resist the evil they glorify, even unto loss and death.

Honor to the martyrs, honor!