Some months, like August, seem to be populated by a very long procession of martyrs: The Holy Maccabees (1), Sixtus and his companions (7), Edith Stein (9), Lawrence (10), Pontian and Hippolytus (13), Maximilian Kolbe (14), Bartholomew (24), John the Baptist (29).
I have always had a fascination with martyrs – the “witnesses” to Christ, His Gospel, and His Church – usque ad effusionem sanguinis (to the very shedding of blood). In fact, the very first book report I wrote and delivered to my third-grade class was on the North American Martyrs. After my oral presentation, Sister Vera asked me, “Now, Peter, what did you learn from this book?” “That I want to be a martyr, Sister!” “Well, maybe just a confessor,” she prudently urged.
We often hear that what people say just before they die is significant. The gladiators in the Roman arenas greeted the Emperor with the words, “Ave, Caesar, nos morituri te salutamus!” (Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!). That kind of cavalier attitude toward life and death alike was a fitting epilogue for a society that had become comfortable living by the adage they inherited from the Greek Epicurus, “Eat, drink and be merry – for tomorrow you die.”
These martyrs of August, however, give us an opportunity to reflect on death, particularly a death we may not have chosen for ourselves. The priest-professor who taught us English in college seminary was famous for his quip: “Gentlemen, I know that Heaven is our true home, but I’m not the least bit homesick!” Pope John XXIII, already an old man when elected to the papacy, was asked by a rather indelicate reporter what his attitude was toward his own (presumably imminent) death. With peasant wit and wisdom, he retorted: “My bags are packed, and I’m ready to go.” On another occasion, he was queried about what his advice would be for the Church, were he to receive from Our Lord the precise hour of His glorious return: “Look busy!”
The final words of some martyrs are classics of Christian spirituality. People who know little else about St. Lawrence, grilled to death, remember his suggestion to his executioners: “You can turn me over to the other side. I think I’m done on this one.” St. Thomas More gave new meaning to the expression “gallows humor” with not one, but two remarks reflecting not only what Ernest Hemingway would term “grace under pressure” but also a marvelous sense of humor. As he was being escorted up to the place of execution, he sought the assistance of the lieutenant of the Tower with these words: “Assist me up. Coming down I shall look after myself.” And, as his head was being positioned on the chopping block, he pushed back his beard and declared, “This hath not offended the King!”
Of course, we should understand that if one has nothing worth living for, then one also has nothing worth dying for. Which is why Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman could assert: “No one is a Martyr for a conclusion, no one is a Martyr for an opinion; it is faith that makes Martyrs.” Consider just a handful more of reflections on our topic. Franz Kafka says: “Martyrs do not underrate the body, they allow it to be elevated on the Cross. In this they are at one with their antagonists.” Cardinal Newman also maintains: “Good is never accomplished except at the cost of those who do it; truth never breaks through except through the sacrifice of those who spread it.” Somewhat cynically, Dostoevsky suggests: “Men do not accept their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and worship those whom they have tortured to death.”
Perhaps the most famous bon mot on martyrdom came from the second-century apologist Tertullian, who seemingly did not undergo that fate: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Recently, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence.” Robert Royal has written extensively on the phenomenon of contemporary martyrdom, very well treated in his The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History. More recently, Martin Mosebach has riveted readers with his work, “The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs.” These works put the lie to Shane Claiborne’s observation that “our problem is that we no longer have martyrs. We only have celebrities.” As a matter of fact, we hear that the Middle East has had a flood of conversions to Christ from Islam, precisely due to the noble witness not only of “The 21″ but of hundreds more of common folk who have preferred death to betrayal of their Lord and Savior, thus proving true Tertullian’s intuition.
If you want to see an incredibly powerful portrayal of Christian witness, I heartily recommend François Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Although it lacks the excitement or lyricism of a Puccini opera, it contains a powerful message. The action occurs in France during the French Revolution and zeroes in on one Carmelite convent, which becomes a symbol or microcosm for every other religious house at that time. If you recall your history, that period was also known as the Enlightenment, which prided itself on replacing the God of Revelation with the god of unaided human reason – blasphemously enthroned on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was, of course, characterized by an active hostility toward religion. As the plot unfolds, the revolutionary forces offer the Religious a choice: Give up your convents and habits, or give up your heads. As a result, hundreds of clergy and Religious were martyred – the first fruits of the so-called Enlightenment.
When man exceeds his bounds; when he is blind to his human limitations; when he tries to be like God; the enlightenment which follows is, in reality, darkness. The Enlightenment continues to have a pernicious influence on our culture, bringing in its wake every kind of disaster from abortion-on-demand, to family breakdown, to sexual promiscuity, to materialism, to teenage suicide. Man has attempted to experience enlightenment without Christ, with the result that the darkness has never been deeper, the blindness has never been more devastating.
Returning to our opera, we see that as the guillotine hits each nun’s neck, the blindness of their persecutors in their hatred for Christ’s truth becomes eminently clear. Then true Enlightenment dawns on the crowds, who gradually stop their barbaric cheering of the violence and are forced to consider the witness of these rather unexceptional but holy women – women who were bearers of light in one of history’s darkest hours. They succeeded in bringing people from blindness, to sight, to genuine insight. An interesting historical note: So impressive were the courage and fidelity of those nuns and so negative the reaction of the people to their deaths that they were the last victims of a public execution for the remainder of the French Revolution. Like their Jesus, who could have among His last words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” the witness of those holy nuns to truth and love brought peace and reconciliation.
A little less than a century and a half later, a worthy successor to those Carmelite martyrs was none other than Edith Stein, known in religion as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. With a resoluteness and courage of the mother of the Maccabees, encouraging her sons to covenant fidelity; a mirror image of the stalwart stance of the Mother of Sorrows at the foot of the Cross, as Stein and her sister Rosa were being loaded onto the train which would bring them to their personal Calvary in Auschwitz – the very same hellish spot where St. Maximilian handed over his life to the Father only three years earlier – the Carmelite nun would urge Rosa, “Come, let us go for our people.”
Lest we get the wrong idea about the Christian “take” on martyrdom, we must make some important distinctions. “Suicide bombers” are not martyrs; they are evil. Christian martyrs do not kill themselves, so as to kill many others. Christian witnesses did not – and do not – go out of their way to get killed; indeed, many have avoided a seemingly untimely death. St. Thomas More comes to mind immediately. While unable to deny the truth, More used every honest means at his disposal to give witness to the truth by his life, rather than by his death, which was the only honest resolution. A holy ambivalence in this regard was exhibited by none other than St. Paul who could tell the Philippians: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer” (1:21f). Beyond that, he availed himself of every civil right at his disposal to go on living, precisely for the continuation of “fruitful labor.”
One final consideration: Suicide. Our society today is plagued by hopelessness and despair. How else to explain the tragic statistics of teenage suicide and the daily rise in military personnel and police officers who take their own lives. Yes, this is what happens when there is nothing worth living for. Or, as the saying reminds us, “as a man lives, so shall he die.” Even the existentialist philosophers of the early twentieth century would, in all likelihood, be amazed at how their philosophy has taken root.
Nor can we neglect the constant drumbeat on behalf of assisted suicide. This, too, is a result of mistaken notions of human existence and genuine compassion. If a Christian understanding of suffering and death were in place, no one would want to take his own life. If a Christian understanding of human solidarity were in place, no one would have to fear suffering and dying alone. For a truly compassionate presentation of these life-and-death issues, one can do no better than to read – better, pray over – Pope John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris. Would that the self-identified Catholic governor across the Hudson River had meditated on the sainted Pope’s apostolic letter before signing the death decrees for both willing and unwilling victims in the years to come. That sad situation has emerged in all too many countries in the formerly Christian Europe as well, which has gone well beyond the original official legislation – now, with innumerable persons of various disabilities being killed against their will and that of their families.
From time immemorial, the Church has held in highest esteem her true martyrs, even having recourse to their tombs as the first altars since they replicated in their lives and deaths the Paschal Mystery of Christ. The Church’s exultant hymn of praise, the “Te Deum,” makes a point of highlighting their sacred witness: “Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus” (The white-robed army of martyrs praises you). In truth, as the final book of Holy Writ informs us, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). May their holy example enable us to be bold confessors of Christ’s truth – in our words and in our deeds – and if the “green” martyrdom of a confessor causes the enemies of Christ to present us with the challenge of the palm of “red” martyrdom, may our lives to that moment give us the courage and the grace to join their holy company.
All ye holy martyrs, pray for us
Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us – that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City in 2019 and was originally posted at CWR on August 17, 2019.)
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