Martyrdom by any other name is still martyrdom

Today is World Mission Sunday in the Church’s liturgical calendar.   In upstate New York and Quebec, though, October 19 marks another memorial: the feast of the North American Martyrs.     These are eight Jesuit priests and lay brothers who died in the seventeenth century while evangelizing among the Iroquois and Huron. Parts of their stories provide the basis for the 1991 film Black Robe. My home diocese of Albany thus features an interesting pilgrimage destination: the North American Shrine in Auriesville standing over the Mohawk village of Ossernenon. Here three saints met their death (Rene Goupil in 1642, and then Isaac Jogues and Jean Leland in 1646) and then ten years later, in 1656, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born there. Canonized this month two years ago, St. Kateri received baptism in nearby Fonda, endured persecution from her own family and husband, and then made her way to Quebec where she died in 1680. The Jesuit martyrs didn’t make it that far. Goupil, Jogues, and Leland all suffered torture before being tomahawked. (The 2010 article by Father Martin SJ includes some graphic descriptions of St. Jean de Brebeuf’s 1639 martyrdom.) Their remains were often discarded in the nearby woods.

Auriesville pilgrimage Sept 2012 023

Just remember: whenever you see televangelists in round churches, American Catholics got there first.

The Martyrs’ Shrine in Auriesville celebrates all this history. Catholics older than forty from all over eastern New York have memories of parochial school day-trips there. Scout troops still camp out there every September, a pilgrimage now in its 64th year. Dominating the shrine grounds is the Martyrs’ Colosseum , one of the first “church-in-the-round” buildings in the United States.

More to the point, the Colosseum church celebrates the Jesuit martyrs and the native Americans they served. The high altar stands atop a log palisade reminiscent of the Mohawks’ own protective wall at Ossernenon, and the crucifix (which also provides essential support to the roof!)The crosses adorning the columns refer to those carved on nearby trees by both St. Isaac Jogues and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Around the walls light streams through seventy-two windows which recall Christ’s commission of disciples in Luke 10:1-24. Of course, the name and architectural style recall the early Christian martyrs in the Roman Colosseum.

Rome 3rd and 4th days canonization 413So often our histories and experiences emphasize the distance, the chasm, between Rome and the United States. The Auriesville shrine recalls an earlier time when American Catholics looked at their own, comparatively short, history and built their own spaces to recall the Church’s simultaneously rooted yet universal origins. In this view the insignificant, the remote, the overlooked (three adjectives unfortunately attached frequently to the Martyrs Shrine) possess their own spiritual significance in Christ because their connotations—through architectural space as well as martyrdom—to Rome. Fittingly, the Jesuits still maintain a cemetery on the ridge above the Shrine. There lie the graves of Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, and Pete Corrigan SJ of On the Waterfront fame.

If that were not enough, October 19 will also see the beatification of Pope Paul VI. Born Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI reigned from 1963 to 1978. To make a long story (his fifteen year pontificate still ranks as the second longest since Pius XII’s!) short, Pope Paul embodied a different sort of martyrdom. His quiet, studious demeanor departed significantly from his predecessor, the popular (and now canonized) John XXIII, and his smiling, even cheery, successors: the short-lived John Paul I (who reigned for only 32 days) and the long-reigning St. John Paul II (whose pontificate lasted longer than all but Pius IX’s). Paul pledged to continue the Second Vatican Council that Pope John had inaugurated. In fact, the Council’s major achievements all occurred under Paul’s watch. Still, his pontificate seemed to bear a lingering sorrow throughout. Even a Presbyterian college student visiting Rome in 1989 (your humble author) understood the difference. Deep in the Vatican grottos I saw several eldery women bring flowers to Pope John XXIII’s tomb, but nearby Paul’s seemed forlorn.

Perhaps it is not surprising, as Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography (itself now over twenty years old) shows, that Paul’s pontificate seemed exhausted by 1970, if not earlier. The overwhelming negative reaction to Humanae Vitae , the 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control and abortion, clearly played a role (and figures prominently in Hebblethwaite’s biography). Part of it was the culture, which lumped Paul’s papal authority into a widespread rejection of all authorities. Paul’s Ostpolitik of rapprochement with Soviet Communism and its satellites likewise did not bear the fruit Paul expected. It took a pope from the Warsaw Block, who knew its realities and brutalities, to bring that down.

That history still offers rich resources for the revitalization of Catholic life today. The question remains: what prompts Paul’s beatification? Because, it seems, his pontificate—and his quite successful clerical career before—offers a more ordinary, readily-at-hand, martyrdom. Despite widespread ridicule, Pope Paul stood by Humanae Vitae as well as other positions that many, religious or not, often accept unthinkingly. “If you want peace, work for justice” adorns bumper stickers and felt banners, and it comes from the same pope who gave us Humanae Vitae.   For all of the furor swirling around the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, both sides might be seen as embodying Pope Paul’s quiet, committed spirituality: proclaim the Gospel, come what may. The North American martyrs certainly greater physical pain, but Paul’s spiritual and psychological pain surely approximated their own. Paul’s path and the struggles it brought him offer a more familiar road to American Catholics than the red-hot tomahawks the Jesuit martyrs faced. In other parts of the world, though, other Christians still confront them.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Mind, Will, Heart, and Body

Previously I explored the remarkable dual canonization of Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II. Not surprisingly, the same event has prompted its fair share of humorous takes, too. Will the Church simply go ahead and canonize every pope?   While those particular links asks it satirically, the question does have some legitimacy.

Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI

All joking aside, one pope overlooked in the current papal-canonization-craze is Pius XI. This pope deserves renewed attention amid the just and extensive celebrations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. These popes’ legacies rest largely on their social witness. Each in his own way boldly proclaimed the Gospel and addressed the modern world’s questions and needs. In doing so they followed the path of their predecessors, of course, but most closely Pius XI. Born Achille Ratti and elected the 259th successor of St. Peter in February 1922, Pius XI reigned exactly seventeen years when he died in 1939. Thus his pontificate witnessed almost the entire period between the last century’s two World Wars. Like the Polish pope, Ratti was an avid hiker and mountain climber. Some video footage exists of his election and funeral, alluding to the future spectacles that Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and Pope Francis routinely display. Like his papal namesakes Piuses IX and X, Pius XI made ample use of encyclicals. Here the dimensions of his pontificate’s legacy become fully known.

When elected, Pius XI took as his motto: Pax Christi in Regno Christi (Christ’s peace within Christ’s Reign).   To the extent that he is remembered, Pius XI’s legacy rests on three encyclicals: Casti Connubii (1930), a discussion of marriage; Quadragesimo Anno (1931), a commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and itself a statement of Christian social reconstruction; and Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), an explicit condemnation of the Nazi agenda. Each merits its own consideration, because each fulfills in some way Pius XI’s own motto. Our earthly lives don’t truly make sense until they stand ordered under Christ. A certain Augustinian/Anselmnian vision pervades Pius’s legacy: we must believe in order to understand. In like fashion, we must believe in order to act and live appropriately.

This trajectory began with Pius XI’s first encyclical: Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio (December 23, 1922). Devoted to explaining his own papal motto, the encyclical recounts the destruction wrought by the Great War. While decrying assaults on the Church itself, Pius does not stop with mere Catholic boosterism. The war’s catastrophic violence denigrated human dignity (see #21) and only through faith do people fully recover a sense of this (see #38). Thus the foundational principle of Catholic social thought is established in the aftermath of the First, not Second, World War. Throughout his pontificate Pius XI wrote encyclicals extolling Catholic intellectual leaders. In 1923, he began with St. Francis De Sales (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Studorium Ducem). Across two weeks in May 1925, he canonized St. Therese de Lisieux, St. Madeline Sophie Barat, and St. Peter Canisius. These new saints illuminated the spiritual path Achille Ratti had taken himself, one of quiet, conscientious commitment to one’s faith and the Church. We know now, of course, that the Great War’s end only suspended tragic military and civilian deaths. The world would soon again experience the consequences of secular hubris.

Pius XI himself recognized the shift later in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas. Released on December 11, 1925, the encyclical established the Feast of Christ the King, now celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. In so doing Pius XI returned to his papal motto and asserted Christ’s spiritual and temporal authority (see #s 15 & 17). Christian faith is necessarily embodied, and thus the Church stands in the world, but free from control by the secular state (see #31). The laity especially stand to benefit from meditation upon Christ’s kingship. If Christ died for all, then, Pius concludes, “it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire” (#33). Christ must reign in our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies. Each faculty contributes to both spiritual sanctification and social justice, and serves, Pius XI prays, as evangelical examples to all non-Catholics. The peace that passes understanding, if authentic, moves beyond the individual to include others, not just Catholics but all peoples. After all, each person possesses intrinsic dignity given by God alone.

So when Pope Francis tells us “Confess Jesus. If we [the Church] don’t do that, we will be a pitiful NGO”, his words recall his Petrine predecessor almost one hundred years earlier.   Social justice requires more than just spirituality, but actual orthodox faith. After all, Christ reigns our minds, hearts, and wills as well as our bodies. And in like fashion, that faith must not remain merely mental or spiritual. Our bodies put faith into action, and both Pius XI and Francis repeatedly ask that we do just that. Neither one of them suffered under the illusion that doing so would be easy.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

A Blog from Rome

I didn’t know that I suffer from agoraphobia until this year. We were in Rome this spring when the city imageswelled with pilgrims to celebrate the canonizations of the two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. We couldn’t even get within a mile of Piazza San Pietro; it seemed that half of Warsaw was in town. Here’s a picture from the other side of the river, about two miles away, which was as close as we could get without needing the services of the Italian Red Cross.

The event naturally encourages us to think about the monumental achievements of these two popes. Pope John XXIII’s calling of the Council, of course, will stand as one of the most important institutional events of the modern era. It encouraged and renewed so many people, inside and outside the Church. Pamela and I were very lucky to be able to pray most evenings with the Community of Sant’ Egidio, a lay community of peace founded by high school students in Rome who were inspired by John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. The community is anchored in communal prayer, evangelization and solidarity with the poor.

An aspect of John Paul’s legacy was on display in the newly opened excavation of a section of Domitian’s Circus, better known to tourists as the Piazza Navona. The archeological site had just opened a photographic and text exhibition celebrating the tireless efforts at interreligious dialogue of Pope John Paul II. It is amazing to be reminded how often he traveled to meet leaders of Jewish, Islamic and other faith traditions in the service of mutual understanding and peace. The second of the “Ten Commandments” of the Assisi prayer gathering for peace formulated by John Paul II reads:

We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem, in order to help bring about a peaceful and fraternal coexistence between people, of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions.

The photo exhibit is an excellent tool for such education; I hope that a good website for it will be available soon. So far I have been unable to find one. In the meantime, here is an article that lists the pope’s travels in the service of interreligious dialogue.

David Hammond and his wife Pamela Hedrick teach theology and Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Nobody Does It Better

On Divine Mercy Sunday, two extraordinary men were canonized: Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II. When these two heavenly friends sat on their papal thrones, they looked towards another extraordinary man to provide them—and the world—words of wisdom and hope: the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, whose birthday we commemorate tomorrow.

From John XXIII

During Archbishop Sheen’s first visit with Pope John XXIII, the Pope presented Sheen with a small silver gondola. During his second visit, the Holy Father asked Sheen to visit his brother and relatives in his home in northern Italy. When Sheen went there, the entire town turned out to bid him welcome. At that same audience, John XXIII told Sheen “You have suffered much…Is there anything I can do for you?” Sheen replied that there was nothing he wanted except to do the will of God. To that the Pope replied, “That makes it very easy for me.” On another visit with John XXIII, Sheen went to the Pope’s private residence, and John XXIII gifted him some autographed books he had authored. Sheen was surprised at the simplicity of the papal private chapel. After they prayed together in the chapel, they returned to his office downstairs, John XXIII called in a photographer and told Sheen.“Come, let us have our picture taken. It may make some in the Church jealous, but that will be fun.” (



sheen with pope saints

From John Paul II

Shortly before Sheen’s death in 1979, Pope John Paul II reached out to him in a personal letter.

God called you to proclaim in an extraordinary way his dynamic word. With great zeal you accepted this call, and directed your many talents to spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, in these six decades of your priestly service, God has touched the lives of millions of the men and women of our time. They have listened to you on radio, watched you on television, profited from your many literary achievements and participated in spiritual conferences conducted by you. And so with Saint Paul, “I thank my God whenever I think of you; and every time I pray for…you, I pray with joy, remembering how you have helped to spread the Good News.”  (October 11, 1979.)

In his inimitable wit, Sheen summed up the essence of the Church’s teaching on the papacy and not only that, but the means and meaning of our salvation:

No chain is stronger than its weakest link, and the weakest link of the chain of Popes was the first. But that weak link was held in the hands of Christ. That is why the papacy will never fail.                    (Through the Year with Fulton Sheen)

This excerpt from Archbishop Sheen’s television show in which he offers a teaching on the life of Pope John XXIII provides a window into Sheen’s gift of oratory, his love for the papal office, and of the man, John XXIII. Prepared to be amazed and humbled.

Speaking personally about my own spiritual growth, “nobody does it better” than Sheen. His audio talks were my constant companion during my long and solitary commute to and from work; the cadence of his voice mesmerized my young children on family trips, and they never once asked to “switch the radio station.” During down times, I find myself searching YouTube for clips of his television show. Interestingly, when I have used his writings in undergraduate classes, the students respond favorably, and they tell me they can understand him.

Saint Joseph’s College has acquired the complete Sheen audio files. SJC students can access them all here. If you are not a student, you can purchase them for under $30. I even have the app on my iphone – the portable Sheen! If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage everyone to become a friend of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Listen to his talks; watch his videos; get fed a daily quote by “friending” him on Facebook; watch a movie on his life; pray for his canonization.

Heavenly Father, source of all holiness, you raise up within the Church in every age, men and women who serve with heroic love and dedication. You have blessed Your Church through the life and ministry of your faithful servant, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. He has written and spoken well of Your Divine Son, Jesus Christ, and was a true instrument of the Holy Spirit in touching the hearts of countless people.

If it be according to Your Will, for the honor and glory of the Most Holy Trinity and for the salvation of souls, we ask you to move the Church to proclaim him a saint. We ask this prayer through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


 Patricia Ireland is Director of Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Going for Two

Thirty years ago, a great college football team faced an awful choice.  Expected to win a championship game handily, they instead found themselves playing catch-up throughout.  With less than a minute to go, though, they scored and trailed by only one point.  Thus their choice:  play it safe and kick an extra point to tie the game and probably still win the championship, or go for two points, risking everything to win clearly.  The team and its coach never hesitated; they lined up for the two point conversion but fell tragically short.  The other team won, and ever since experts have mused ‘what if’ the expected winner hadn’t overreached.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II. (CNS photo)

On Divine Mercy Sunday, the Universal Church celebrated the canonizations of two recent popes:  John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli, 1881-1963) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, 1920-2005). The Church prepared for this remarkable day with great anticipation.  All sorts of Catholics offer their devotions to John and John Paul.  Their legacies appear where the Church now grows fastest.

Still, similar ‘overreach’ questions have emerged.  What does it mean that two popes enter the Communion of Saints on the same day?  In the conventional wisdom, John XXIII and John Paul II represent two loci of the post-Vatican II Church.  John XXIII, who convened the Council but then died before the Second session started, stands as the great hope of liberals or at least those who seek greater reforms in the Church.  “Good Pope John” wrote passionately about socio-economic justice and peace.  On the other hand, the same stereotype casts John Paul II as the great restorative hope for conservatives.  Elected as a young, vibrant fifty-six year old, the Polish pope quickly restored the Church’s teaching and spiritual authority following the decade-long fallout from Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.

Of course, the nay-sayers offer counter-narratives.  John’s Council welcomed the very Modernist innovations condemned so vigorously by Popes Pius IX and St. Pius X.  John Paul’s concern for restoring authority suppressed the Council’s reforming zeal, especially regarding women’s ordination, and ignored clear signs indicating clergy sexual abuse.  How can these two popes stand, let alone enter sainthood, together? Thus in “going for 2” the dual canonization appears as overreach or, perhaps worse, a confused message about papal legacies.  Well-read Catholic critic Paul Elie sees (mistakenly, I think) Francis slyly undermining Benedict’s legacy.  How then would this dual canonization aid that quiet revolution?  (If anything, Benedict will perhaps enjoy the canonizations more than most.  After all, he worked for and with both saints!)

Investigation reveals the myopia of such concerns.  For all his zeal about the Council’s aggiornomento, John XXIII conserved as much as he inaugurated.  Reading John’s body of work (short, compared to John Paul II’s exhaustive writings) challenges the customary view that John’s Council turned its back on Catholic history.  Roncalli clearly saw himself standing on the shoulders of giants.  His early encyclicals in 1959 and 1960 teem with references to Pius X and Pius XI, especially. This makes sense; St. Pius X had ordained Roncalli to the priesthood and both men came to the papacy through Venice.  Furthermore, John saw aggiornomento following Pius X’s motto:  Instaurare Omnia in Christo (To Restore All Things in Christ).   Likewise, John Paul II cannot be dismissed as a ham-handed reactionary.  His five-year lecture series on the Theology of the Body thoroughly reconstructed the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and continues to inspire new research, especially among women theologians.  His extensive writings on work and freedom contributed directly to the downfall of the Iron Curtain, starting in his own beloved Poland.  John Paul II also boldly added the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary, that most Catholic of prayers.  Tellingly, the most frequent citations in John Paul II’s own writings?  Scripture and the documents of Vatican II.

So instead of overreach, perhaps Francis chose, following John XXIII’s own example, to celebrate two of the popes who most formed his own ministry.  If that’s the case, we should expect more citations from both as long as Francis remains pope.  Given their heroic challenges to unreflective conventions, this cannot be bad.

From what Pope Francis has shown us thirteen months into his own ground-breaking papacy, celebrating the saintliness of these two predecessors reaffirms the Church’s catholicity—its universality and inclusiveness.  Both John XXIII and John Paul II celebrated the joy and hope the Gospels give the entire human race, not solely Christians or Roman Catholics.  The canonizations also remind us of God’s surprising providence.  That God might call a humble Italian or an orphaned Pole, both of whom worked clandestinely against the Nazis, should alert us to God’s unexpected presence in our own lives.  A glance at Pope Francis’ Twitter feed reveals the same utter reliance on God’s grace.  Why play it safe?

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.