Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
My very Dear Sons,
We live in a new era of martyrs, that is to say, of “witnesses” to the truth of the Gospel. Christians are undergoing violent martyrdom at various locations around the globe, in numbers that rival and even surpass those attributed to the early centuries of the Church. This is no great secret: even secular society is aware of what is taking place to some extent. There are also many “social” martyrs in our day, that is to say faithful followers of the Lord who are being put to death, not in a bloody manner, but by being rejected, calumniated, ridiculed, scorned, persecuted, and mistreated in every way by those who prefer the world to God. This kind of martyrdom is getting closer to home—especially since a recent decision of our Supreme Court.
Among all the Church’s holy martyrs, Saint Peter and Saint Paul are, no doubt, the most notable and the noblest. They are truly two pillars of witness, two “lamp stands.” The words of the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, are fittingly applied to these brothers who bore testimony to the Lord in Rome under the Emperor Nero:
And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, wearing sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lamp stands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified (Apoc. 11).
After the age of the Apostles, many other champions of the faith followed in the footsteps of the two brothers, Saints Peter and Paul. One such hero was Saint Blandina, a young slave girl, who died in the amphitheatre at Lyon, in 177, saying “Christiana sum… et nihil apud nos mali geritur, I am a Christian, and there is no evil in our way of life”.
It has been related that in the terrible persecution going on right now in the Middle East has led to scenes eerily similar to the dramatic confrontations that are related in the Acts of the ancient martyrs. In one case, a family was recently confronted by the Islamic terrorists that are taking control of regions that have been Christian since the first century (Mosul). Despite the frantic efforts of the parents to stall for time or somehow convince the murderers to spare the children, it was no use. As the man with the sword asked each child in turn whether he or she was a Christian, the answer came with that firmness that only innocence can show, “I am Christian, Christianus sum.” And so these little children were put to death just like the Christians of the first centuries of the Church.
Although the same thing could happen one day in America, it does not look like such brutality as that carried out by the Islamic State is likely to come upon us in the near future. What we are more than likely to see, however (and it is already happening), is that sort of martyrdom that consists in being treated like pariahs, like fools, like second-class citizens, of being penalized for our Christian faith through more subtle and insidious tactics. As we all see, the new “normal” is moral permissiveness as has never before been witnessed in the history of the world. The new “normal” is anything and everything that denies the law of God and the very law of nature. The only thing that is considered truly abnormal all too often is an honest life according to the Gospel and the law of the Church. We are henceforward forewarned. The time is coming, perhaps, when we will be called to prove our loyalty to Christ under the deadly knife of this social persecution, if not under the material sword.
So let us humbly beg, through the intercession of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as through that of the Blessed Virgin, the grace of fortitude to stand up for what is right if and when we are called to bear witness to the Gospel. May we have the simple and profound courage to say, in sum, “Christianus sum, I am a Christian.” When all manner of accusations against the Catholic Church and against the Christian faith in general are multiplied around us and to our face, may we remember to say, “I am a Christian, and there is no evil in our way of life.” If a handful of Christians, even Catholic Christians, are found to be guilty of some sin or crime—even if, God forbid, they be priests—let us not fall into the trap of believing therefore that all is lost. Let us say, rather, with Saint Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ; and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Let us also remember, so as not to lose courage, the words attributed to the Church Father, Tertullian, “Sanguis martyrum semen christianorum, the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” If this is so, how many Christians there will be, when this new era of martyrdom has run its course! Amen. Alleluia.