The Blood of the Martyrs
In a recent episode of the Considering Catholicism podcast, Greg and I discussed two twentieth-century Catholic novels: Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and Shusaku Endo's Silence. Both are set in times and places where Catholics were killed by the government for their faith, namely, Mexico in the 1930s and Japan in the 1630s. These settings are not unique: Catholics have suffered martyrdom throughout the ages and across the globe, including in many places today. If you're considering Catholicism, you need to know that this is a matter of life and death!
With that in mind, let's consider the Catholic perspective on martyrdom. First, what does the word "martyr" actually mean? Merriam-Webster's definition is "a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion." In fact, the English word comes from the Greek word for "witness." The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, "Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine" (paragraph 2473).
Martyrs accept death to avoid betraying their Lord and renouncing the truths he has revealed through his Church. They unite their deaths with Christ's death in the sure hope of sharing in his resurrection. They show by their actions that union with God is more important than the highest earthly goods: patriotism, prosperity, security, bodily integrity, even life itself. They express their confidence that they will receive eternal life, even though they die, if they persevere.
St. Stephen, whose story is told in Acts 6-7, was the first martyr. In the wake of his death, many other Jewish Christians were killed by the authorities in Judea. The Roman government persecuted and martyred Christians periodically for several centuries. Since then, Christians have been martyred nearly everywhere the faith has gone.
This should come as no surprise, because Jesus himself assured his followers that the world would hate them just as it hated him (John 15:18-21). The holy Catholic Church will always be at odds with the sinful world until the Lord returns to make all things new. Each individual Catholic must pray for the fortitude to withstand persecution and even martyrdom if circumstances demand it.
But Jesus promises to make all of our suffering worth it: "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven" (Matthew 5:11). Perhaps St. Paul, who would be beheaded in Rome, summed up the Catholic perspective on martyrdom best: "For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him... depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death" (Philippians 3:8-10).
If you still find the idea of martyrdom daunting, you're not alone! Even Christ himself was distressed at the prospect of dying on the Cross. We can only gain the strength to withstand the trial by his grace. We can also keep in mind that Christ's ultimate victory is assured, that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18), and, as the early Christian writer Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Their witness has led to conversions over and over again.
Blessed Bartolomé Gutiérrez (1580-1632) is a prime example. (In the podcast episode, we mentioned that One Whirling Adventure did a video segment a while back on his martyrdom and the growth of the Catholic Church in Japan.) Blessed Bartolomé was an Augustinian friar and priest from Mexico who ministered in the Philippines before traveling to Japan as a missionary. He and the other Catholic missionaries were expelled after two years, but Gutiérrez returned to Japan and ministered underground for another twelve years. Ultimately, he was captured, imprisoned for several years, scalded in boiling water, and burnt alive by the Japanese authorities, all because he refused to renounce his Lord and Savior. But his witness, and the martyrdom of many other missionaries and native Japanese Catholics, was the seed that grew into the remarkably resilient and long-lasting Japanese Catholic Church.
The segment on Blessed Bartolomé's life and the history of Catholicism in Japan begins at 4:51 and ends at 25:50 in the video below. Blessed Bartolomé Gutiérrez and the martyrs of Japan, pray for us!