Every so often, I find myself crossing paths (so to speak) with a favorite saint — a quote here, an image there, an unexpected mention in a conversation. Once, after a week of several such “encounters” with Padre Pio, I finished a long country drive, parked my truck in a quaint town and turned to see a garden statue of the beloved Capuchin, smiling through my window. “He’s stalking me!” I later joked to a friend.
This month, however, I’ve felt positively haunted, especially by those who, for me, are the most intimidating sort of saint: the martyrs.
Of course, November begins with All Saints and All Souls, but it wasn’t until the feast of St. Josaphat on the 12th that I really started to reflect on what it’s like to choose between life on earth and life in eternity — and to pay for that choice with your own blood.
For his part, St. Josaphat was stabbed and shot to death by a mob of fellow Christians in 1623. In his role as archbishop, he tried to quell divisions and return schismatic believers to communion with Rome, and for his labors, he received axe blows and a bullet. His body was stripped, thrown to wild dogs and then, weighted with rocks, tossed into a river.
Thousands of miles away, St. Andrew Dung-Lac and his fellow Vietnamese martyrs, whom we remember on Nov. 24, endured similar agonies for their faith in Christ. Converted at age 12 by a catechist, Andrew became a priest, and was ultimately beheaded in 1823 for spreading the Gospel.
As he canonized the Vietnamese martyrs in 1988, Pope John Paul II noted that Andrew “ardently desired” to offer up his life, rather than constantly bargain with those who opposed the Good News, and cited the saint’s own words: “Whoever dies for the faith goes up to heaven; on the contrary, we who continually hide ourselves spend money to escape the persecutors! It would be much better to let ourselves be arrested and die.”
How strange that declaration sounds to modern ears, if indeed we can silence our constant soundtrack to even hear them in the first place. The lexicon of comfortable Christianity doesn’t usually include such phrases; we tend to talk more about “personal fulfilment in Christ,” “claiming our blessings” and “ensuring our religious rights” — that is, if indeed we talk at all about our faith. Most of us prefer to remain mute on the subject of Jesus as we wend our way through life: he’s a good friend, of course, but others might not like him, so (we think) the less said, the better.
Besides, we reason, aren’t the days of martyrs behind us? Surely by this point in human history we’ve advanced beyond such barbarism.
Apparently not. According to the Catholic apostolate Aid to the Church in Need, Christian persecution has been sharply on the rise, and Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that “the church has more martyrs now than during the first centuries.” Some 300 million Christians in 140 countries currently suffer ongoing, systemic and multigenerational persecution.
Within our pews here in this Archdiocese are sisters and brothers who have fled unimaginable horrors because of their faith — murder, rape, torture, starvation, prison, exile. A Nigerian friend from my parish recently confided to me that she has been battling severe depression, overwhelmed by memories of loved ones killed by radical Islamists in her native land.
Religious extremists have distorted the true meaning of what it means to be a martyr, a Greek word for “witness.” Rather than a defiance unto death for a cause of human making, true martyrdom is “the supreme witness … to Christ who died and rose … to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2473).
The ability to endure such a death, at which our flesh naturally and rightly shudders, derives not from our own strength, but from the God-given virtue of fortitude (CCC, 2473), and centuries of such witness “form the archives of truth written in letters of blood” (CCC, 2474). In their own Gethsemanes, every martyr, silently or aloud, echoes the words of Christ himself: “Abba, Father … not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14:36).
Only God knows if any of us will ever be called to defend the Gospel at gunpoint. But if we hold fast to Christ’s love in our little daily deaths to sin, we will find — should a greater battle confront us — the spiritual strength to lay down our lives for the One who, for our sake, first laid down his.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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