Faith of the Martyrs

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.        Romans 12:1

These words of Saint Paul have made a very powerful impression on me of late in light of the recent and ongoing persecution of Christians by ISIS. As I watch these tragic events unfold, I am challenged by the faith of those who have died for Christ. I must ask myself, “Am I willing to die rather than renounce my faith in Jesus Christ? Would I have the courage to withstand the pain?” I find myself praying for that courage, and hope the answer is “Yes.” I want the answer to be “Yes.”

But how do I get there? How do I gain the strength of the martyr? I don’t have to look far. In his very next sentence, St. Paul tells us how.

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.            Roman 12:2

If I am to go willingly to my death, I must see that death the way God sees it. I find that the only way this is possible, or even desirable, is to have Christ on my mind and in my heart at every moment of the day. This means a lot of little “deaths” along the way. So often I drift off into the hectic world of my everyday responsibilities, and, just whSacred Hearten I reach my wits end, I remember Christ. I see His face before me. I feel His love for me, and I want to love Him back.

I must see my work through the eyes of Christ. I must see my life as belonging to Christ. I must offer my body as a living sacrifice in everything I do. This must become a habit, my fallback position in moments of weakness. Only then, should the likes of ISIS decide to come to my home and seek me out, will I be able to die for my Jesus. I will see His face before me, and I will be willing to love Him the way He loved me on the cross.

When I am weak, then I will be strong.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

That Awkward Moment When…

Besides being the first Sunday of Lent, February 22 also celebrates the Chair of St. Peter and the feast of St. Peter the Apostle. These are no small matters. Peter, that most rambunctious of Christ’s disciples, is also the most human. The Gospels depict his bravery as well as cowardice, his faith and his foibles. Peter first declares Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, for which Christ recognizes him as the Church’s foundation (Matthew 16:16-19). On the other hand, to save himself Peter quickly denies Christ three times (Mt 26:69-75, Mk 14:66-72, Lk 22:54-62, Jn 18:16-27). Peter and Paul join to make their contributions to the Church (especially so at Rome). The Catechism copy-cropped-img_0320.jpgcelebrates St. Peter’s charism for visible authority while reminding us that the Marian charism—the one of interior holiness—always precedes the Petrine (#773). There are other feast days involving Peter (June 29—Saints Peter & Paul, November 18—dedication of the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul). These very particular, apostolic reminders link us—in our own locations—to the universal Church that that these apostles founded to proclaim the Gospel.

All that being said, the Islamic State’s recent executions—the burning of a Jordanian pilot, beheading 21 Coptic Christians with a threat to conquer Rome—render moot many, if not all, academic considerations of martyrdom. After all, it’s one thing to write about it; it is another matter entirely to confront the actual, visible reality. I know St. Peter was a martyr; he and so many thousands of believers since have found in Christ the courage to confront death. If we are honest, though, we cannot escape the awkwardness of writing while others actually live.

That living of the faith requires truth-telling. The Catechism discusses martyrdom under the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). God is the source of all Truth, and in Jesus Christ God’s truth is made wholly manifest (#2465-6). All Christians are called to witness to this Truth; the martyrs, in dying, bear supreme witness. They also, through their death, fully imitate Christ (#2472). Sometimes martyrs are well-known, others dwell even in death in relative anonymity.  They now rest with God. Meanwhile back here on earth the Church memorializes all the saints—starting with the Blessed Virgin Mother—and thus the martyrs to illuminate the links between the earthly and heavenly liturgies (#1195). These examples encourage and exhort us in our own journey to God.

In the Lenten season the Church encourages us to renew our practice of prayer, fasting, and alms. This requires humility, a virtue rarely praised or valued today (cf. #2559). By knowing we are not God we are thus able to starting praying to God (and with the saints). Humility also forces us to realize, in occasionally awkward ways, that all our words and gestures do not mean much. In 1970 Peter Berger wrote: “In a world full of Nazis, one may be forgiven for being a Barthian.” Referring to the strident style of Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), Berger meant that, in extreme circumstances, unrepentant declarations of gospel truth might be permissible. Perhaps some Christians have spent the last forty-five years wondering if the world has yet filled up with enough Nazis so they can finally start evangelization. The martyrs did not wait, and through their deaths have testified to the good news.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Hurts So Good

With Christmas having just passed, now is not the time for 1980s pop music nostalgia. However, the title (and very little else!) of John Mellencamp’s 1982 hit does recall Friday’s feast day of St. Stephen Proto-Martyr. Tertullian’s challenge continues to inspire: “The blood of the martyrs are the seeds of the Church” (Apology #50). Scripture itself attests to this; after SSaint Stephentephen’s murder, persecution actually spreads the Church further abroad (Acts 8:1). Once Saul himself converts, the dispersion accelerates even more. St. Mark repeatedly describes Jesus’ actions as immediate; St. Luke instead testifies to the Gospel’s relentless expansion. Nothing, not even death itself, thwarts it. Just before St. Stephen appears in Acts, Gamaliel the Pharisee warns: “For if this idea of theirs or its execution is of human origin, it will collapse; but if it is from God, you will never be able to put it down, and you risk finding yourselves at war with God” (Acts 5:38-39).

This reading, perhaps too common, cannot be separated from that this life-giving blood comes at great cost. John Allen, Jr., has among his many credits constantly shone light on the widespread persecution of Christians in the twenty-first century. This comes after the twentieth century, which witnessed regimes spanning the political spectrum willing to kill Christians who refused to forsake their faith for momentary political or social ease. It is very easy to type and read these lines; living them to follow Christ, as St. Stephen first showed us, is another matter. And yet that is our calling. Pope Francis has repeatedly made this very point. Nevertheless, this also requires joy. The angel first tells the shepherds: “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10).

The liturgical calendar offers little respite as the northern hemisphere’s days darken and then slowly regain the light. The year ends in November with the Feast of Christ the King, a feast instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a reaffirmation of God’s sovereignty confronted by human alternatives both fascist and Communist. Then four weeks of waiting through Advent are culminated in the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity. The very next day we are reminded, though, that death awaits us all and for some that will come precisely as a result of their belief in Christ. This juxtaposition should not surprise us; after all, just hours before we celebrated God’s incarnation, surely a juxtaposition like no other, that begins in a barn. The next day, December 27, is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. In his own way St. John provided a harmonizing note for understanding martyrdom: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

The New Martyrdom

Everyone is talking about the New Evangelization. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (the reason for the Council, in this author’s humble opinion), it is a missionary effort to bring the Gospel to a modern, secular world which has, for the most part, rejected, ignored, or at best, compartmentalized it for its own purposes.

I love Pope John XXIII’s image of “opening the windows”. Some have interpreted this as the Council’s blessing on bringing the modern world into the Church, on updating its teachings and practices to “better fit into” the modern world that the Church finds herself in. These same people have been gravely disappointed that the Church has remained consistent in its teachings, especially the ones that prove difficult for the modern mind to accept. If the Council was not about bringing the modern world into the Church, then what do we do with this image of the open window?

I say, “Fly!” Yes, the New Evangelization is about flying out of the window with the Gospel in hand (and heart!) and living it radically, encountering the world at every turn, bringing the light of Christ to it. I say flying because human beings cannot fly of their own power. The New Evangelization requires a complete trust in God’s providential care. A radical living of the Gospel demonstrates that trust. It will bring about a transformation of the world, not a “better fitting into” it.

The Christian views the world through the eyes of the Gospel, not the Gospel through the eyes of the world. Just like the first Christians, a person radically living the Gospel, radically loving as God loves, will be misunderstood, labeled an outcast at best or a threat at worst, and ultimately rejected or persecuted. The Christian is not of the world, and will be hated by the world (John 15:9). Thus, the New Evangelization is a call to a New Martyrdom.

This martyrdom is not to be sought, nor is it a rejection of the world. It is simply the response the world will have to the Christian, who is loving for the world’s sake, in order to transform it. If the world is considered “the enemy”, the Christian loves the enemy, making friends (even brother and sisters) in the process, and bringing about the kingdom of God. We fight the enemy with love, not so the enemy dies, but so that he may have life.

Both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis understand this. Two ways the contemporary Christian lives out this martyrdom is by loving God and loving one’s neighbor – regardless of the worldly consequences. In a modern world, where human reason is god and wealth is the measure of success, faith in a transcendent God and life that first concerns the welfare of one’s neighbor put one in opposition to the way things work. Benedict spent much of his papacy tending to the celebration of the liturgy, the worship of God. His papacy culminated in a Year of Faith, celebrating faith in the resurrected Jesus and the consequences of having a personal relationship with Him (which is, of course, to know unconditional love in one’s life and to be able to recognize the lack of it in the world). Pope Francis has followed up with a focus on how human beings are to treat each other in light of this faith, placing a spotlight on the poor of the world, our neighbor.

We might come to an awareness of how our actions – economic, political, environmental, etc. – affect other people (even future generations), but we will only care about these effects if, by faith, we are united to all people in the love of God. Only with the faith of which Benedict speaks can the Church of Francis come to fruition. The witness of the New Martyrs will bring the world to Christ, for they will prove the truth of the Gospel.

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.