Topics

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB

Since deaths of Peter and Paul, Church awash in martyrs' blood

Voices Jul 17, 2017

Henryk Siemiradzki depicts Christian martyrs in his 1876 work Nero's Torches. The First Martyrs of the Church of Rome were Christians martyred in the city during Nero's persecution in 64 AD. Archbishop Miller says, in their "commemoration we see fulfilled Jesus’ warning to his disciples: 'They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.'"

This is an excerpt from a homily given at the Queen of Peace Monastery in Squamish June 30.

In this optional memorial of the Holy Martyrs of the Roman Church, we see fulfilled Jesus’ warning to his disciples as recorded in today’s Gospel: “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name” (Mt 24:9).

The celebrations of this feast today, and the great feast of Sts. Peter and Paul yesterday, remind us that the Church is awash in the blood of martyrs. This a sober thought for us Canadians as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

According to the most ancient tradition, the roots of Roman primacy are grounded in the fact that both Peter and Paul “founded” the See of Rome by their blood; that is, they taught, gave witness and shed their blood in Rome: Peter, crucified upside down at a circus on the Vatican hill, and Paul, beheaded on the road to Ostia.

Although Peter and Paul were among the first martyrs of the Roman Church, we remember in today’s feast the many Christians who died as a result of government‑sanctioned persecutions, which waxed and waned for the next 250 years. The horrors of these martyrdoms did not crush the Christian faith in Rome, but rather led to exponential growth. The more men, women, and children died for the faith, the more people sought to be numbered among those who would give their lives to follow Christ.

Far more Christians were martyred for their faith in Christ during the 20th century than in the early centuries of the Church.
Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB

The same story is told today. In fact, far more Christians were martyred for their faith in Christ during the 20th century than in the early centuries of the Church. We have to break through the narrative which tends to dominate discussion in the West that Christians aren’t persecuted because they belong to the world’s most powerful religion.

In various parts of the world, as Pope Francis has said, “sometimes in silence – often a complicit silence – great numbers of Christians are marginalized, vilified, discriminated against, subjected to violence and even death, not infrequently without due intervention on the part of those who could defend their sacrosanct rights.”

Despite our conviction that we have reached a certain degree of civility and a more mature culture, Pope Francis points out, “Many of our brothers and sisters who bear witness to Jesus are persecuted for it. They are condemned for having a Bible. They cannot wear the sign of the cross. The Christian life is simply the following of Jesus, and this is what happens when we follow Jesus.”

Stripped of all easy sentimentality which is easy enough to conjure up in a comfortable pew, the martyrs of all ages tell us once again, and forcefully, that the consequence of our baptism may well be persecution. This is the Christian’s recompense and this is the path of whoever wishes to follow Jesus. For it is the path that he trod: he was persecuted.

An important lesson that the martyrs teach us today, when we are so concerned about the religious freedom of individuals and institutions – as I am for our health-care workers and Catholic institutions – is that the martyrs looked through and beyond this world into eternity.

This is why, from its earliest days, the Church has honoured those who, under great persecution, manifest true spiritual freedom. “The martyrs are venerated for their refusal, even under harsh interrogation and threat of execution, to deny their loyalty to God above all else.