The very first command that Christ utters in the Gospel to his followers is this direct and simple summons, “Follow Me.” And in a sense this may be considered to be the first commandment of the New Covenant, which builds upon its Old Covenant counterpart, “I am the Lord Your God, You shall put no strange god before Me.” But this summons is both an invitation and a command, for Christ never imposes on our free wills as if we were boot camp recruits. He desires only a freely given response on our part. But, like those first apostles, once we make that commitment there must be no turning back. The only one who turned back from the original twelve was Judas whose fate we might not wish to share. And where does that divine command to “Follow me” eventually lead? It takes one to wherever the master goes, which means it ultimately leads to the very brow of Calvary.
We just returned from an exhilarating trip to Great Britain and one of the most edifying aspects of our journey was discovering the many English martyrs who so heroically accepted their Lord’s challenge to “follow me” throughout 150 years of persecution during the 16th and 17th centuries. We Americans have a very limited history of martyrdom and, apart from a handful of French Jesuit and Spanish Franciscan missionaries, there are few if any native born martyrs who are widely known to us. Why is this significant? Because, that tradition of martyrdom in any given culture gives a whole new complexion to the local Church. Nor am I speaking of political martyrs or the hapless victims of unjust aggression. I use the term martyrs in the strict sense of those who freely and consciously lay down their lives for the sake of God’s kingdom, thus creating a kind of “blood tie” directly to the King of Martyrs. This, in turn, deepens the people’s faith and vivifies the sacrificial work of Christ on his cross. For the Christian believer, martyrdom is the fullest possible expression of communion with Christ. It is the perfect imitation of him and, as such, enriches the Church wherever it has occurred.
The proof of this can be found from the earliest days of the Church where altars were built and consecrated on or near the tombs of early martyrs. Shedding one’s blood for Christ became an imitation of his own salvific shedding of blood and so the two events became closely intertwined in the minds and hearts of the Christian community. But this does not mean that martyrdom is something that we should go looking for. It should never become a political statement or some grandiose gesture to “prove” one’s toughness or commitment. In fact St. Polycarp warned that martyrdom is something God calls us to: it is not something that we should seek in an impudent and hasty manner, especially as our courage might fail us at the last moment. German philosopher Joseph Pieper put it this way. “The essence of courage is not aggressive self-confidence but endurance and patience.”
That brings me back to the English martyrs. One of the more poignant examples from among hundreds might be Blessed Humphrey Pritchard. Pritchard was an unlettered servant at a local Oxford inn when he was arrested, tried, and convicted in 1589 for harboring two priests, Blessed George Nichols and Blessed Richard Yaxley. From the scaffold where he was to be hanged, Pritchard replied to the Anglican clergyman accusing him of being ignorant of Catholicism. “Though I may not be able to tell you in words what it means to be a Catholic, God knows my heart, and he knows that I believe all that the Holy Roman Church believes, and that which I am unable to explain in words I am here to explain and attest with my blood.”
St. Margaret Clitherow
b. 1556 ~ martyred 1586
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Many of us may have heard of a few, better known, martyrs from this turbulent period such as St. Edmund Campion, St. Margaret Clitherow (in whose home we were privileged to hear Mass) and of course Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher. But what truly amazed me were the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men and women, both lay and clergy, who willingly endured heinous tortures and grisly methods of execution in order to keep the flame of faith alive during those terrible times of persecution in England. Even so, Catholicism itself was very nearly extirpated in a land that had been strongly Catholic for 900 years. In the end though, the blood of the martyrs invariably becomes the seedbed of the Church. After the atrocious penal laws were finally revoked in the early 19th century, allowing Catholics to practice their faith openly without forfeiting their civil rights, the so-called Oxford movement witnessed countless conversions to the Faith in England, most notably Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Today the battle lines have completely shifted as the Church struggles with militant secularism, not the old Anglicanism of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. It was Henry who had first put this long Christian nation to the test by issuing his own edict, identical in wording but utterly contrary to the spirit of our Divine Lord’s. Henry expected his subjects to bend their consciences so as to “Follow me,” but unlike the ways of Christ, Henry’s command was executed by brute force. Many paid with their lives to faithfully follow the gentle Lamb of God but in doing so they consecrated their native land for future ages to the one, true King of Martyrs.
As Americans, living in a country highly protective of religious liberties, which we sometimes take too easily for granted, it might be helpful to focus our attention a bit more on the nature of martyrdom. It is not just something from the antiquated past. Today there are millions of Christians around the world in countries like Egypt, China, India, Pakistan, Syria and many others who may daily face the prospect of martyrdom. It is incumbent on us to pray for these persecuted Christians that God will give them the grace to endure what may come. One of the more striking realizations in studying the English martyrs was how frequently they were betrayed to hostile authorities by their own fellow Christians, and very often apostate priests. How many of us would weaken similarly with a pistol pointed at our temple? That is why martyrdom must be understood as a special grace from God, not some cavalier choice one makes.
Less than a hundred years ago priests and their supporters, even young boys, were being ruthlessly executed in neighboring Mexico. Out of economic self-interest our own government did little or nothing to protest such cruel barbarities just across the border. Yet considering that England is our mother country and Mexico is our close neighbor it would be foolish to assume that something similar could not happen here. We have Constitutional protections, true, but I am reminded of that deliciously disarming remark in A Man for all Seasons where Thomas Cromwell protests with mock surprise to a duke questioning Cromwell’s brutish methods of interrogation. “My dear man, this is England not Spain.”
Death is not the worst of all fates; rather it is the forfeiture of one’s immortal soul that truly kills. The first kind of death is temporal, but spiritual death becomes an endless of punishment, all the more tragic because it is self-inflicted. Martyrs are people who understand the difference. They so love life that they are willing to sacrifice it, if needs be, for the eternal life promised and purchased for us all, and at a terrible price, by Christ himself. Those sitting closest to him in heaven will undoubtedly be that same glorious company of martyrs because it is they who were chosen to imitate him most closely while on earth.
It is fascinating to note that all the apostles, save John, were to suffer martyrdom like the one their Lord had suffered. How was John different? John also suffered his own martyrdom but it was at the foot of the cross standing opposite Jesus’ mother, Mary, who is also known as the Queen of Martyrs. Mary and John were, in fact, the very first ones who shared directly in Christ’s martyrdom, fully experienced in their own broken hearts, so that it would have been redundant for either of them to die a martyr’s death later. Their sacrificial martyrdoms had already been consummated at the very moment of Christ’s own death. Those other apostles who had fled in fear would have to wait until their appointed times to bear the ultimate witness.
We live in a time of escalating violence on numerous fronts and, as Americans, we find this to be a mystifying yet terrifying phenomenon. We have, to some degree, been insulated from the darker aspects of history which is truly unfortunate because it leaves us less prepared for what we all must inevitably face, death. It is only right to feel sincere empathy for those who become the victims of violent and untimely deaths, but to believe that such tragedies are altogether preventable is to live in a bubble. One of the great gifts that the martyrs give to us is in demonstrating that there can also be great value in dying ─ if we are prepared to die well. And to die well means to die in the confidence that we are placed in God’s hands, and not our own.
To “follow me,” then means to tread the path that leads to Calvary in the footsteps of Christ himself. At the end of that path, as we well know, is death. But it is not the dark, final death with no future that an unbelieving world teaches us to fear but the death of a good seed falling to the ground which in the spring will rise up like a green shoot out of the ground. Rest assured in the words of our Divine Savior, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 16:25)
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.