Daily Mass once moved me to tears.
I used to work in campus ministry, so I went to Mass every day. It was not unusual to have the diocesan vocations director visit us. While I was working at the University Catholic Center, the vocations director was Fr. Brian McMaster, so we had him for Mass often. On one unremarkable weekday, he announced that he’d be offering one of the Masses for Various Needs and Occasions (of which there are many), and that he’d chosen the Mass for Persecuted Christians.
It cut me to the core. This was years before the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS) was making daily headlines, putting the persecution of Christians into full focus. Fr. Brian’s reverence and heartfelt preaching created such an intense experience of the Mass that when I knelt to pray in thanksgiving after the dismissal, I just cried.
These days, of course, the persecution of Christians is at the forefront of our minds. It doesn’t stop on days when the news doesn’t report it. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in every other century in history combined. When you hear “martyr,” you probably think of first-century Christians who were thrown before wild beasts. But do you also think of the Christians who are dying right now fleeing Syria and Iraq?
I jumped at the opportunity to read about the historical and contemporary reality of Christian martyrdom in a new book by my former bishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. In To The Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness, the faith and courage of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the Truth is honored, retold, and illuminated. They died for what they believed in. Could you?
Cardinal Wuerl recaps the stories of martyrs in historical order, beginning with those living among the ancient Romans. As he notes, Roman society prized the law above almost everything else, so the initial persecutions couldn’t have begun without a legal basis. Christians had to be guilty of some crime. In the end, the charge was “hatred of humanity,” demonstrated by the Christians’ refusal to accept prevailing social attitudes and practices. Christians loved above all, and hated no one, but they could not condone the Roman way of life: pagan worship, widespread debauchery, divorce and adultery, abortion and infanticide. They wouldn’t get with the Roman program, so they lost their lives. It seems so stark, so dramatic, and so eerily similar to the world we know now.
The cardinal continues to lay out the facts of periods of martyrdom around the world. St. Stephen, the first martyr. St. Perpetua, St. Felicity, and many others who died in the Roman Coliseum. The Christians shoved to the margins of society by Emperor Julian, who let mob justice move in when imperial bloodshed would have been too bold. The spread of Islam in the 6th and 7th centuries, decimating the Christian minority. (That sounded much too familiar, too.) The Protestant Reformation, which gave us St. Thomas More. The French Revolution, which created its own gods in Reason and the People and saw the witness of the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne. The Armenian genocide, the Cristero war in Mexico, Nazi Germany, communist China, the Spanish Civil war: all 20th century horrors, and all leading to the deaths of many Christians. Martyrdom is not just an ancient phenomenon.
Finally, we have to face the story of today’s martyrs. We’re not carving their names in catacomb walls or taking black-and-white photographs. We’re seeing video that is only hours old, and we’re hearing very little despite living in an age of instant, constant communication. “Where is the outrage over these public tortures,” writes Cardinal Wuerl, “carried out in the amphitheater of YouTube?” Remember the Christian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria? They were never rescued. Remember anything you’ve ever learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust? We said we would never let that kind of religious extermination happen again. But we have. And we are.
The cardinal brings together these tragic tales with a meditation on the Eucharist. As Christians, we worship a Savior whose death at the hands of those who hated him was the real Blood, the true seed of the Church. We repeat the preaching of one who said the greatest act of love was to lay down your life. We live in a time when fidelity to our Church’s teaching is called bigotry and hatred (again). Yet if we continue to receive the Eucharist without sparing even a thought for those who suffer bodily for Christ, we are kidding ourselves. I encourage you to read To the Martyrs. It’s a straightforward, profound exposition of the ultimate call of our Christian life: to love even unto death.
O God, who in your inscrutable providence
will that the Church be united to the sufferings of your Son,
grant, we pray, to your faithful who suffer for your name’s sake
a spirit of patience and charity,
that they may be found true and faithful witnesses
to the promises you have made.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
—Collect from the Mass for Persecuted Christians
I received a free copy of To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness from Emmaus Road Publishing in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!