The Age of Martyrs

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen. Not only was he one of the first deacons in the Church (cf. Acts 6:1-6), but he’s also the first recorded post-Resurrection martyr for Christ.

Sometimes martyrdom may some far removed from our own comfortable existence. To counter such a mindset, we offer the following reflection from Servant of God John A. Hardon, the founder of the Institute on Religious Life, who tells us why the present age is truly the “age of the martyrs.” This is taken from a conference he gave on the Precious Blood of Christ.

We believe that by His death on the cross, Christ merited all the graces we need to reach heaven. He won all the graces necessary for our salvation. He gained all the graces that the human race needs to reach its eternal destiny.

But we also believe that what Christ did by dying for us on the cross requires that we die on our cross by cooperating with the graces that Jesus won for our redemption. He could not have been more clear. He told us, “If you wish to be my disciples, take up your cross and follow me.” We must cooperate with Christ’s grace if we wish to join Him in eternity. He was crucified by shedding His blood. We must be crucified by shedding our blood in witness to our love.

All of this is elementary Christian teaching. The Precious Blood of Christ does indeed provide us with the light and strength we need to reach heaven. But we have to do our part, otherwise Christ’s passion and death on Calvary would have been in vain.

The focus of our conference is on the Precious Blood of Christ in the age of martyrs. What are we saying? We are saying that the present century is the age of martyrs par excellence. Ours is THE (all three letters capitalized) age of martyrs.

No words of mine can do justice to this statement: We are inclined to think that martyrs are those ancient men and women in the first centuries of the Church whom we commemorate by name in the first Eucharistic Prayer, when we say, “We honor the apostles and martyrs,” and then name after the apostles, “Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Carnelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian.”

Unless we take stock of ourselves, martyrs are not commonly associated with the later history of the Church, and certainly not with our own times. What a miscalculation!

A conservative estimate places the total number of martyrs who died for Christ up to the liberation edict of Constantine in 313 A.D. at around 100,000. We call that period of massive persecution the age of martyrs. Yet, the number of Christians who have died for their faith since 1900 is several million. In the Sudan alone, during the 1950s, over two million Catholics were starved to death by the Muslims because they refused to deny that Mary is the Mother of God since her Son is the Ibn Allah, the Son of God. There have been more Christian martyrs since the turn of the present century than in all of the preceding centuries from Calvary to 1900 put together.

It is no wonder that the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church went out of its way to identify martyrdom as one of the marks of holiness in our day. The passage deserves to be quoted in full:

“Since Jesus, the Son of God manifested His charity by laying down His life for us, so too no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and His brothers. From the earliest times, then, some Christians have been called upon and some will always be called upon to give the supreme testimony of their love to all men, but especially to persecutors.
The Church, then, considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift and as the fullest proof of love. By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Although few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross.”

When the council says that “few are presented” the privilege of shedding their blood for Christ, this is a relative term. The actual number in our century is in the millions.

However, there are two kinds of martyrdom. There is the red martyrdom of shedding one’s blood physically; and there is the white martyrdom of suffering in witness to one’s faith in Jesus Christ.

As we have said, the number of those who have died a martyr’s death in our century is the greatest in Christian history. Must we not also say that the number of those who are now called to live a martyr’s life is the greatest since Christ’s crucifixion on the first Good Friday?

Let me leave no doubt in your minds. To be a faithful Catholic bishop, or priest, or religious, or husband or wife, or father or mother, or young man or woman–devoted to Christ and loyal to His vicar on earth–is to live the life of a martyr in the modern world.

Not all the faithful who suffer for Christ also die for Christ. Opposition to the Christian faith and way of life does not always end in violent death for the persecuted victims.

That is why we must be ready to live a martyr’s life if we hope to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. No doubt loyal Catholics must suffer for their faith in Communist countries like China. That is why Chinese Catholics who are loyal to the Pope can survive only in an underground Church which is not subject to the Marxist government. In China only “patriotic Catholics” have freedom of religion.

Let’s be honest. Fidelity to the Catholic Church, to her doctrines of faith and precepts of morality; who are obedient to the Bishop of Rome must pay dearly for their allegiance. They must be ready to join in spirit their fellow believers throughout the world.

Let us have no illusions. Any Catholic in America who wishes to sincerely and fully live up to his religious commitment finds countless obstacles in his way and experiences innumerable difficulties that accumulatively can demand heroic fortitude to overcome and withstand. All we have to do is place the eight Beatitudes in one column and the eight corresponding attitudes of our culture in another column and compare the two. Where Christ’s praises gentleness, the world belittles weakness and extols those who succeed in crushing anyone who stands in their way. Where Christ encourages mourning and sorrow for sin, the world revels in pleasure and the noise of empty laughter. Where Christ promises joy only to those who seek justice and holiness, the world offers satisfaction in the enjoyment of sin. Where Christ bids us forgive and show mercy to those who offend us, the world seeks vengeance and its law courts are filled with demands for retribution. Where Christ blesses those who are pure of heart, the world scoffs at chastity and makes a god of sex. Where Christ tells the peaceful that they shall be rewarded, the world teaches just the opposite in constant rebellion and violence and massive preparation for war. And where Christ teaches the incredible doctrine of accepting persecution with patience and resignation to God’s will, the world dreads nothing more than criticism and rejection; and human respect, which means acceptance by society, is the moral norm.

The world does not believe in the Beatitudes. But that is not all. With all the legal and financial and psychological power at its disposal, the world opposes those who do not accept the secularism of our day.

Anyone who does not think that a loyal Catholic today must be ready to live a martyr’s life is living in a dream.

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