Saturday, July 14, 2012

On the Need for Martyrs

I've always been a fan of martyrs.

I think many Catholics are.  Martyrs have some of the best stories, some of the best one-liners (1), and frankly some of the most inspiring lives - no matter how cut off in their prime - of anyone who've ever lived.  Check it out:

St. Cecelia
The patron saint of music, St. Cecelia was a beautiful young Roman noblewoman who was forced by her pagan father to marry another nobleman, Valerianus (we'll call him Val), despite having sworn her virginity to God.

Nevertheless, the marriage went through, and on her wedding night as Val entered the honeymoon suite, he was greeted by his new wife who informed him that she was terribly sorry, but she was a Christian, and - what's more - a consecrated virgin, and that incidentally if Val tried any hanky-panky, her angel would cut him down.

"Go take a walk," Cecelia ordered Val.  "Think about it.  Come back and tell me what you think."

Val went out for the walk, and when he came back, he saw Cecelia talking to her angel.  Val converted pretty much on the spot (and agreed to the no-sexy-times relationship).  Soon after that, Val's brother also converted.

Unfortunately, the boys were caught early by the anti-Catholic government officials of Marcus Aurelius, who had the men put to death immediately.  Cecelia lived on a while longer, converting many, until she was finally caught, subjected to various tortures, and at last put to death by beheading.

The rule at the time was that executioners only had three tries to cut off someone's head.  They tried three times...but failed...and so left St. Cecelia to bleed out.  She died and was buried in the catacombs, having arranged her fingers to show "three" and "one" on each hand - to indicate her belief in the Trinity.

Several centuries later, her body was discovered in the catacombs - incorrupt.  Her body was moved across the Tiber and in the crypt of a new basilica, now known as the Basilica of St. Cecelia. (2)

St. Maximilian Kolbe
A humble Franciscan priest, taken into Auschwitz for opposing Hitler.  When someone stole some food out of desperation, the Commadant decided to put several of the prisoners at random into a starvation cell.  One man who was chosen, broke down and begged for his life: he was a family man.  St. Maximilian Kolbe, who had not been chosen to be starved, volunteered in the man's place.  While starving, St. Maximilian was heard not only offering spiritual counsel and confession to his fellow prisoners, but also leading them in songs and in jokes.  They did all eventually die of starvation.  The man whose place St. Maximilian took did survive, was reunited with his family, and testified on St. Maximilian's behalf at his beatification.

St. Robert Southwell
A distant cousin of Shakespeare, Southwell not only chose to become a Jesuit priest (the thorn in the side of the anti-Catholic English monarchy) but begged to go from the safety of France back to his native England, there to say mass, hear confessions, and minister to his persecuted countrymen.  For several years, he managed to live in England secretly, moved from Catholic house to Catholic house.

During this time, Southwell, an accomplished poet himself, wrote a letter to Shakespeare - who was just beginning to write a few plays and poems and enjoy celebrity - saying, in effect, "Your work is very good.  You have much talent.  It's a pity you throw it away on writing trivial stuff.  Think of what great work you could do, were you to write about more than fluff."  (At this point, Shakespeare had written Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, Love's Labour's Lost, and probably Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

Soon after, Southwell was found out by Queen Elizabeth's chief priest-hunter who imprisoned and tortured Southwell.  After enduring several years of this, Southwell was at last ordered to be executed by being drawn, hung, and quartered (3).  The day of his trial, the crown tried to publicize the execution of another criminal in order to keep people from viewing Southwell's death (since many had converted several years earlier at St. Edmund Campion's execution).

However, when he was being hung, Lord Mountjoy and many of the other onlookers rushed forward and pulled on Southwell's body so that he would die in the hanging.  His lifeless body, therefore, was quartered, and not one person in the crowed called out the traditional "Traitor!"

After Southwell's death, Shakespeare - who was very likely in the London crowd that day - began writing plays with richer significance and greater depth and glory.

I could go on and on.  St. Joan of Arc, St. Thomas More, St. Edith Stein, St. Isaac Jogues...all those persecuted for being Catholic in the last century in Spain and in Mexico, or previously during the Reign of Terror in France...all the Catholics who to this day are persecuted and killed in China and Japan...all those Catholics who are, to this very hour, being murdered while at prayer in Muslim-held territories from Egypt throughout the Mideast.

It's pretty staggering, when you think about it.

Yet, in light of current events, I can't help but think that America is long overdue for her martyrs.

I remember the day the news came out that the Supreme Court had acquiesced to Obamacare - just two weeks ago, now.  My entire household, as Catholics, held their breath regarding the ruling.  Would we be forced to fight for our religious rights?  Would we be forced to pay for the death of infants?  Would we be forced to shut down our relief services because of government command?  Would we, in effect, be persecuted thanks to a clever legal loophole?

It's not an impossible thought.  Look at the martyrs listed above.

They all faced the ruling forces and would not kneel.

My mother held out hope that the entire bill would be struck down.

But somehow I knew, I knew, as I sat at my job with the vein under my right eye twitching (a result of a high-stress job, not of the ruling), that the Supreme Court would bow to Obama.

I knew, even as I said my rosary for the Fortnight of Freedom - sneaking in a decade here and there as I went to the bathroom or drove to and from lunch - that the Catholic Church would be made to fight.

I knew, I knew, even as I fervently prayed that God would spare our country, that He was sparing our country.  He was doing it at this very moment.  He is pouring out His graces - but in the way that He always has:

Through His blood we are healed.  Through His cross are we granted salvation.

He didn't say, "I come to bring fluffy bunnies."  He said, "I come with a sword."

He didn't say, "Pick up your remote control and follow me."  He said, "Pick up your cross."

He didn't say, "Blessed are those who grow fat and comfortable and forget about their God while sprinkling themselves insensibly with holy water when they can be bothered."  He said, "Blessed are you when people insult you, and persecute you, and utter false things against you for My Name's sake.  Rejoice and be glad!  For your reward is great in Heaven."

However, He also didn't say, "Run into buildings, take out a bunch of infidels with you, and follow me."  Christ didn't unleash His power upon His persecutors - He forgave them.  In fact, He even promised to bring the thief to Heaven that very day.

Is it any wonder, then, that as in Egypt when God allowed His people to suffer under Pharoh, as in Soviet Poland from whence our late John Paul the Great came in opposition to persecution, that He would allow our human government once more to feel its full power and therefore to truly ask of us, "Who do you say I AM?"

Is it any wonder when, like with the debaucheries of Rome, He saves us by allowing the world to truly witness (what "martyr" literally means) what their debaucheries were getting them: the circus, the death-matches, the Christian holocausts of the first centuries.

The Church requires her martyrs.  By the blood of the martyrs - those brave fools, those men and women who would not bend even when the world was being trampled, those ordinary folks like you and I who said "I am God's servant, first, and my life is His," those glorious saints who are a bafflement to their peers, a scandalon in the soft shoe of the comfortable, a stumbling block to make men stop and look and think and believe.

I do believe that we are heading towards a time of martyrdom - of bloody martyrdom.  I pray we are not.  But I fear that we have become too comfortable.  We must wake ourselves.

We need those martyrs who stand up for the waking truth, even in the midst of a world gone mad with nightmares.  God, give us Your grace.  Amen!

(1) Classic example: St. Lawrence, patron saint of saints, was being roasted alive by government officials who were furious that Lawrence wouldn't stomp on the crucifix. Lawrence, far from - you know, screaming - merely said: "Turn me over, boys! I'm done on this side!"

(2) Back in 1997, I visited the catacombs where a statue of how St. Cecelia's body was found lo those many centuries ago.  Inspired by this, I diverged from my tour group one afternoon, dragging a classmate with me, to find the Basilica of St. Cecelia.
Directions: from the Coliseum, go left towards St. Peter's/the Vatican.  Right before you'd go into St. Peter's, turn left, keeping the Tiber on your right.  Head down about half a mile until you could go left again and see that crazy round head thing from Roman Holiday which is supposed to cut off your hand if you tell a lie while your hand is in its mouth.  By the way, it doesn't work, but it freaks you out when you do it, anyway!  After you've had fun with the crazy round pagan lie-detector, go back right and over the Tiber via the closest bridge.  The Basilica is on your right, and they tie on fake roses to the bushes (at least in November).  It will look like a teeny villa, but don't be deceived!  It's her humble Basilica!
When I got there, I was disappointed to find that the doors were locked.  Fortunately, a very pretty organist came up - one of those with a carefully careless beard, rosy cheeks under dusky skin, and brown curly hair falling into his eyes, head mostly bowed, music tucked under his arm, as he rushed up to the basilica muttering to himself, keys swinging from his pocket.  Very pretty.  I went up, batted my eyelashes, begged to be let in (in my broken Italianish), and was let in.  However, then pretty boy was trying to...flirt back?  And I was in full pilgrimage mode and didn't much believe that I was bait for gorgeous Italian men.

Note to self: invent time travel and punch my former self in the windpipe.

(3) For anyone who doesn't know, this form of death is particularly awful, and includes the following steps:
  • The victim is first drawn from his place of imprisonment to his place of execution by means of a sled, so that his back, head, and torso are dragged along the road and the filth.
  • Next, the victim is hung only to suffocation, not to death.
  • Then, the victim's torso is cut into in a cross form (light enough to keep him alive).  Then his arms and legs are tied to four separate horses, who are then sent off at a gallop in different directions, so that the prisoner is alive as his abused body is literally torn apart.
Yeah.   Nnnngh.  The Tudor's favourite form of execution.


  1. It reminds me of the stiff-necked Israelites and everything God had to do to get them to even realize they were screwing up so badly. Only we're probably much, MUCH worse. And it's not because God is being a two year old and wants His way. (Actually, He'd be perfectly entitled to do exactly that, but it's not what He's doing.) I really liked what Fr. Robert Barron said, how our sins are rousing God's Divine wrath and how that's a good thing.

    God really and truly knows what is best for us, despite at least 1000 years of people trying to sell us on other stuff. He really does know that we need His help to survive this world and this life, and that we'll be in for incredible pain and sorrow if we don't cling to Him. And that's where we are now.

    Our sins--personal, national, and global--have blinded us, weakened us, and re-shackled us to the slavery the devil once had us in and so passionately and viciously and hatefully wants us back in. And God is furious at that! He came down to earth and died upon to the Cross to free us from that very slavery, broke Satan's hold on us and gave us the means to never fall under Satan's power again through the Sacraments of the Church...and now people are shrugging God off, ignoring the unfathomable Gift of Himself He gave us, and allowing themselves to go blind and senseless, be sapped of the ability to fight the world, the devil, and the flesh, and become enslaved to the devil and all his lies and all his works. How could God NOT be furious?!

    But He is never furious at us, only at our sins and at all the things the devil has done to make our sins seem like good or laudable things instead of the horrors they truly are. I know it's sounding like a broken record, but God really does love us personally, individually, and completely! He wants us back! He wants us safely with Him! And He has allowed us to have natural disasters of practically cataclysmic proportions, to have an economy swirling the toilet bowl, to have a government so corrupt that the public finally cries out against it, all in the hopes that He won't have to allow anything more drastic to wake us up and get us to turn back to Him. Because as bad as it is now, it can always get worse.

    But you're probably right, Em. The world probably does need to see martyrs all over again to get the message. We need the white martyrdom--to do the daily duties of our states in life and offer up any sufferings that come with that--at the very least. It may come to the actual martyrdom of blood, but if it does, I stand behind what my mother says: "If being Catholic ever becomes a criminal offense, I want there to be enough evidence against me to earn a capital sentence!"

  2. Hi, Em!

    No wish to disagree on essentials, but you used the words "Robert Southwell," thereby arousing the anal-retentiveness that can only come from a twenty-year obsession (second only to the reaction provoked by the words "Henry Garnet"), and thus I must take slight issue with your third footnote. By the sixteenth century, the method had changed a little. Here's the sentence from Campion's trial: "You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your head to be cut off and your body divided into four parts, to be disposed of at her Majesty's pleasure." My suspicion is that the horses just weren't practical with the crowds pressing around Tyburn Tree. And the change led to an image I love: according to the Devlin biography, at least, Southwell's heart fluttered in the executioner's hand before being thrown into the cauldron.

    And before I plug my novel, I'd better go write it. Signing off for now!