Editor’s note: The following homily preached at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on the liturgical memorial of St. Venantius (May 18, 2022/EF).
One of the several saints noted in the Roman Martyrology for this date is St. Venantius, whom we are honoring in our celebration of Holy Mass today.
Venantius (also known as Wigand) hailed from Camerino in Italy and was only fifteen when he was hauled before the Roman governor on charges of professing the Christian Faith, which he refused to deny. The Acta of his martyrdom tell of his being scourged, burned with flaming torches, hanged upside down over a fire, and having his teeth knocked out and his jaw broken. Undaunted, he was then thrown to the lions and tossed off a cliff. When none of those tortures produced the desired result, he was beheaded on this date in either 251 or 253, along with a priest, a bishop and his tutor. All this during the reign of the infamous Emperor Decius.
Dom Guéranger in his commentary very tactfully reflects thus:
The account given by the Liturgy upon St. Venantius is a tissue of miracles. The omnipotence of God seemed, on this and many other like occasions, to be resisting the cruelty of the executioners, in order to glorify the martyr. It served also as a means for converting the bystanders, who, on witnessing these almost lavish miracles, were frequently heard to exclaim that they too wished to be Christians, and embrace a religion which was not only honored by the super-human patience of its martyrs, but was so visibly protected and favored by Heaven.
Considering Venantius brought me to consider a number of other “boy-martyrs.”
Think of St. Pancras (or Pancratius), born around the year 289 in Phrygia but, after the death of both parents, who was brought to Rome by his uncle, where both of them became Christians. His zeal for the Faith gained the attention of the Roman authorities (during the reign of another infamous emperor, Diocletian). He was ordered to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods; when he resisted, he was promised wealth and power. Still, he resisted, resulting in his being beheaded on May 12 in 303, which date is kept as his liturgical memorial.
Or St. Tarcisius, another victim of anti-Christian mania, this time during the reign of Valerian. Details of his life are sketchy but, according to one legend, Tarsicius was a young boy – probably an acolyte – deputed to bring the Holy Eucharist covertly to condemned Christians in prison. He preferred death at the hands of a mob rather than deliver to them the Blessed Sacrament which he was carrying. He is the patron of altar boys.
Moving closer to our own time, how about the boy-martyr of the Mexican Revolution, José Luis Sanchez del Rio. During the brutal persecution of the Church in Mexico in the 1920s, there arose the so-called Cristeromovement, a grass-roots resistance to the godless incursions of the revolutionaries. I suppose the most famous martyr of that era is St. Miguel Pro, but perhaps most inspiring was the witness of the fourteen-year-old José; if you saw the film “For Greater Glory,” you came away in awe of the courage and faith of that young fellow. He was made to watch the murder of other committed believers, which only strengthened his resolve. He died, like all the others, shouting out “Viva Cristo Rey!”He was canonized in 2016.
Yet even closer to us is the little-known Rolando Rivi, an Italian seminarian of fourteen, who was kidnapped by Italian Communists in 1945, beaten for three days; he was told his life would be spared if he just tossed off his cassock. When he refused, he was killed. The Sunday following his beatification in 2013, during the Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis commented:
He was guilty only of wearing a cassock during a period when violence was unleashed against the clergy for having raised their voice in the name of God to condemn massacres that immediately followed the war. But faith in Jesus conquers the spirit of the world! Let us give thanks to God for this young martyr and for his heroic witness to the Gospel. And how many 14-year-olds, today, keep their eyes fixed on this example: a courageous young person who knew where he had to go, who knew the love of Jesus in his heart and gave his life for him. A beautiful example for young people!
That’s high praise from a Pope not known for his love of the cassock!
Where am I going with all this?
When I was in third grade, we had to read a book a week, write a one-page report, and give a one-minute summary to the class. The first book I read was on the North American Martyrs. As I finished my oral report, Sr. Vera asked, “Now, Peter, what did you learn from that book?” “I learned that I want to be a martyr!” With some gentle persuasion, Sister suggested, “Maybe just a confessor.”
It seems to me that there is an innate instinct within us to reach for greatness. The Jesuits of old understood this. Hence, the motto of “Magis” (“more”; “greater”) for their educational institutions. Or, their traditional encouragement of their high school boys to become “a man for others.” Heroism, I believe, comes naturally but gets corrupted and eviscerated when the world is allowed to encroach on the sacred precincts of idealistic youth.
That thought popped into my head as I watched the video of the sacrilegious interruption of the Mass at the Los Angeles cathedral two weekends ago. As the lunatic fringe invaded the church, scarcely a handful of men emerged to deal with the blasphemers. Hundreds of men appeared to be paralyzed and glued to their pews. How pitiful! But this is the result of raising a generation of “snowflakes.” You wouldn’t find that kind of paralysis among the Catholic men of Eastern Europe or Africa.
How has this happened? How come we have such a crisis of fatherhood in the West? It’s because we have, first of all, a crisis in manhood. And how did that happen? We failed to train up our boys and young men to sacrifice. Permit me to be a bit autobiographical here.
From sixth grade on, I held down two paper routes – not to gain money for games or hobbies but to pay my Catholic school tuition, which my parents couldn’t afford. The morning route caused me to rise at five, so that I could finish by six and thus be able to serve the convent Mass every morning. Now, honesty compels me to admit that it wasn’t pure, unadulterated love for the nuns that motivated me; there was a reward: the priest and altar boy were always treated to a sumptuous breakfast by the Sisters (let’s be frank, nobody operates from totally pure, altruistic motives). And then there was the late-afternoon paper route. In high school, I took on a job at the city library – to augment my income to pay for the higher tuition cost.
I do not share this information to put myself on a fast track to canonization; many other boys did the same. We were raised in a culture where “sacrifice” was not a dirty word. In fact, during the marriage ceremony, our parents heard that venerable exhortation which, among other things, taught: “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Love can make it easy. Perfect love can make it a joy.” Learning how to sacrifice in small things prepares one to make sacrifices in greater things. We can say that it prepares someone for martyrdom.
To sum up: Lest we content ourselves to point fingers at those men in the LA cathedral, let’s draw closer to home. How many of you have told me over the years that no one in your workplace knows you are a Catholic? What a self-condemnation! Contentment with being a “crypto-Catholic” or a “closet Catholic.” Decades ago, the gay activists came pouring out of their closets, and nothing has been the same since. If you are afraid to witness to Christ in the still-relatively safe environment of work and neighborhood, do not beguile yourself with the thought that you would shed your blood for Christ, if circumstances changed. Which leads to the final question: When will supposedly devout Catholics come out of their self-imposed closeted existence?
May St. Venantius and a host of other boy-martyrs serve as inspiration for a more virile Catholicism among our young men and for a more courageous public witness to our faith by all Catholics, even if only as “confessors” and not necessarily as “martyrs.”
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