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Martyrdom: A Love Strong As Death For The Sake Of Truth

November 16, 2022 Frontpage No Comments


In the Gospel of St. Mark, we read of our Lord solemnly affirming as the “first and greatest commandment” of the New Covenant what the people of Israel had been told to ingrain upon their hearts and keep ever before their eyes: “. . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
Volumes could be written about the full meaning and implication of these words, but one particular aspect to consider here is just how absolute, just how unconditional, just how uncompromising these words are. What our Lord is commanding is a love for Him that knows of no exceptions, no limitations, no exclusions or equivocations.
As if to emphasize this very point, our Lord says elsewhere: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). Our Lord certainly does not sound like He is in any mood to share His throne, to share His place in our hearts, with anyone or anything else, and least of all with the zeitgeist (the spirit of the present age).
Pope Benedict XVI astutely observed that in the pursuit of a genuine biblical exegesis we need to draw heavily upon that living hermeneutic provided by the lives of the saints (Verbum Domini, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, September 30, 2010, nn. 48-49). The category of saints that perhaps best elucidates the full implications and dimensions of this total and absolute love for God is that of the martyrs. They tell us by their words and actions that our love for God should be so total and unconditional that we should be willing to give up everything, and even our very lives, for the love of God, rather than renouncing or betraying that love.
The specifics of just how and why so many martyrs had to face such a life and death situation in the first place reveal that, often enough, it was simply a matter of not willing to deny one particular article of the faith or break one particular moral commandment. Their persecutors would offer them amnesty and even lavish rewards if they would but yield on just one of these matters of faith or morals.
Key to every genuine martyr’s decision to face death rather than deny his faith is his conviction of certainty regarding what he believes. The martyrs did not die for the Gospel because they thought it might be true but rather because they knew it to be true, knowing it with an absolute and utter certainty that only God Himself can give through the gift of faith.
Among the specific articles of faith that the martyrs were willing to suffer and die for, we find among the most prominent of these the virtue of chastity. A large contingent of God’s heroes in Heaven are virgin martyrs, many of them quite young, who having made the total gift of themselves to our Lord in consecrated virginity, or who as unmarried women having kept themselves faithfully chaste and pure in body and spirit, bravely resisted and refused those who attempted to steal their chastity from them.
There are men who likewise suffered martyrdom for this virtue, most notably the Ugandan Martyrs (1885-1887), who died rather than consent to the heinous sin of sodomy. There are also those martyrs who died in defense of the virtue of chastity by testifying with their blood to the indissolubility of marriage, in particular the English martyrs Saints John Fisher, Thomas More, Richard Reynolds of Sion Abbey and the Carthusians John Houghton, Robert Lawrence, and Augustine Webster (+1535).
One further dimension of the martyrs’ witness to absolute truths is their total refusal to lie about their faith — that they would sooner die than utter what is untrue, even if it were only a “one-time” lie. In most instances of martyrdom, the martyr could have escaped a death sentence simply by pretending to deny his faith. Escape from a painful death was just one lie away, an easy way out; it’s a temptation that many a martyr has had to find the strength to resist.
Martyrdom also requires perseverance. For their decision not to deny their faith the martyrs would face often enough a prolonged imprisonment, repeated interrogations, repeated rounds of torture, a trial by kangaroo court, a further wait in prison, and finally the execution itself, an ordeal that in the worst cases would drag on for hours. All the while the persecutors would strive to make the martyr give in by asking him time and again whether he was at last willing to yield. Through it all, the martyr had to persevere in an unflinching resolve to stand fast in his refusal to apostatize.
The decision to face death rather than deny one’s faith requires a sacrifice by which even more than one’s life is lost: The martyr instantaneously loses and is parted from absolutely everything he has had in this world, not only all his material possessions but even his family and friends.
What the great Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (+1977) said of the death of every man is true in a particularly acute manner for the martyr: “From the earthly point of view, death means farewell to all the most precious natural blessings, most especially farewell to all the persons we love” (Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1991, p. 61).
On top of everything else, the martyr must contend with the great fear and dread that will come upon him as his death draws near, as well as the grievous pain he will undergo at the hands of persecutors determined to make his end as agonizing as possible.
This insistence of the martyrs upon not giving in or compromising on even one point of doctrine or morals, this unwillingness to allow of even one exception in the application of their faith, this profession of absolute certainty in their beliefs, stands in stark contrast to the contemporary drive for working out a mutually agreeable “settlement” with the enemies of our faith, to meet them more or less halfway so as to show that we are a “listening Church,” which in this case means a Church that is willing to validate to a certain degree or more the rejection of her doctrines and then reformulate her doctrines or pastoral practices to incorporate these “theological insights” from her enemies.
As for the absolute certainty in their faith that not only the martyrs but countless faithful Catholics have professed for twenty centuries, this is now cast by many a modern theologian as a species of intolerance, a supposedly arrogant unwillingness to concede that other “faiths” may be just as true or even truer than our own; so, according to these theologians, we must no longer speak of absolute truths or of absolute rights and wrongs in morality, for this would show a triumphalistic unwillingness to “listen.”
I think we need to ask the theologians who came up with this new model of “being Church” just where in the Gospels our Lord proposes or engages in such a negotiated settlement with the zeitgeist. Where does our Lord apologize to the scribes and Pharisees for being such a “rigid” critic of their vices? And could it be that these theologians have taken the side of Pilate in asking, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)? Moreover, these same theologians want to eviscerate the Church’s traditional teachings on sexual morality, the morality that so many martyrs died for.

Witnessing To The Good

In his stellar 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), Pope St. John Paul II develops fully the perception of martyrdom as the ultimate answer to the illusions of moral relativism. Beginning his treatment of the subject by noting how martyrdom emerged in the early Church as an imitation of the sacrifice of Christ Himself, the Pontiff continues:
“Countless other martyrs accepted persecution and death rather than perform the idolatrous act of burning incense before the statue of the Emperor (cf. Rev. 13:7-10). They even refused to feign such worship, thereby giving an example of the duty to refrain from performing even a single concrete act contrary to God’s love and the witness of faith. . . .
“The Church proposes the example of numerous saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect His Commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those Commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.
“Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man. . . . Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever ‘human meaning’ one might claim to attribute, even in ‘exceptional’ conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: It is a violation of man’s ‘humanity’. . . .
“. . . This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil…By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church’s Saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good, they are a living reproof to those who transgress the law (cf. Wisdom 2:12), and they make the words of the Prophet echo ever afresh: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!’ (Isaiah 5:20)” (Veritatis Splendor, August 6, 1993, nn. 91-93 — Vatican website translation — ©Dicastero per la Comunicazione — Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
The martyrs were willing to love God so much, to believe in Him so much, to hope in Him so much that with the help of His grace they found the courage to die for Him. May their courage steel us in upholding without compromise “the inviolability of the moral order” established for all time by God Himself!

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