by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recently, I read the book, “Martyrs — From St. Stephen to John Tung” by Donald Attwater.
Originally published in 1957 by Roman Catholic Books, the publisher explained that part of the author’s motivation for writing this book was his “dissatisfaction at the numerous accounts of martyrs which substituted edifying legends for historical fact; and relied on pious fancy rather than upon painstaking research.” The publisher also remarked that martyrs “are Christian heroes, not because they were immune to fear and frailty, but because they triumphed over them.”
It is inspiring to read about the courage of the martyrs. Most of them prayed for those who persecuted them and were responsible for their imprisonment and execution. In many cases, they attempted to comfort their executioners.
One such example is Blessed Peter Sanz, a Spanish Dominican missionary to China. The eyewitnesses to his martyrdom said that, after praying for a few moments, Peter Sanz said to his executioner: “I am going to heaven. I wish you were coming with me.” The man, who would behead him, replied: “I want to go there with all my heart.”
The Christians hired a highway robber known for his daring to gather up the martyr’s blood. This thief for hire took the stone on which Peter Sanz had knelt and placed it in his own home, having etched these words: “This is the stone from which the honorable teacher named Peter went up to Heaven.”
The martyrs frustrated their enemies — not just by refusing to renounce their faith, but by approaching the sufferings and torture inflicted upon them as opportunities to follow Jesus more closely. Though they were saddened by the separation from their family and friends resulting from their imprisonment, they made this period of confinement and isolation into a time of retreat and intense prayer.
Many of the martyrs saw very little visible fruit to their missionary labors, but they trusted that Our Lord would use their efforts for good.
Father Peter Chanel, the French missionary to the island of Futuna in western Oceania, infuriated the local ruler by counting among his few converts the king’s son. As a result, Father Chanel was brutally murdered. When new missionaries, at the invitation of the inhabitants, arrived more than a year later, they discovered that every member of the island had become a Christian.
The last week of September, I was at Conception Abbey with the priests of the archdiocese for our annual workshop. Our presenter was Michael Sweeney — not the former Royals baseball star, but a Dominican priest — who is a co-founder of the Siena Institute that is devoted to implementation of the new evangelization.
Father Sweeney hit some of his own home runs by helping us better understand the world-view of our increasingly secularized culture. It was illuminating, while at the same time rather distressing, to recognize how the prevalent false cultural philosophical assumptions that pervade our art, literature, music and movies create tremendous obstacles for young people to understand, much less embrace, an authentic Christian faith.
Father Sweeney’s analysis helped me better understand why the proponents of a godless secularism are so determined to diminish religious freedom as well as conscience protections.
While not suffering religious persecution in the United States for our faith as so many of our fellow Christians are experiencing in other parts of the world, religious belief in general — and the Christian faith in particular — is being more and more marginalized, and in some cases, openly attacked. Religious liberty is being redefined as only the freedom to worship in our churches, while public policies and court decisions appear to be aimed at limiting and discouraging the practice of our faith in all the other dimensions of our lives.
The courage of the martyrs, both ancient and modern, can inspire us today in the circumstances of our lives to practice our faith boldly, not yielding to efforts of intimidation to silence Catholics, as well as other Christians, in the public debate over controversial issues.
The martyrs also remind us that we are never without hope. If we persevere in our faith, we can turn our adversities into opportunities to proclaim the truth of our faith more effectively and more powerfully.
Last month, we celebrated the feast of St. John Chrysotom, who was called the “golden throat” because of the eloquence and efficacy of his preaching. St. John Chrysotom was exiled twice from his diocese of Constantinople, because he had inflamed the anger of the rich and the powerful by his criticism of their neglect of the poor. The following is an excerpt from a homily given by St. John Chrysotom:
“The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of our goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we will surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.
“Do you not hear the Lord saying: Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst? Will he be absent, then, when so many people united in love are gathered together? I have his promise; I am surely not going to rely on my own strength! I have what he has written; that is my staff, my security, my peaceful harbor. Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!”