After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands (Apoc. 7:9).
And one of the ancients answered, and said to me: These that are clothed in white robes, who are they? and whence came they? And I said to him: My Lord, thou knowest. And he said to me: These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Apoc. 7:13-14)
Pope Benedict has spoken often about the ultimate sacrifice and in praise of those who have given it. In his Angelus sermon last Sunday (August 9) he made mention of the martyrs, Saints Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Maximilian Kolbe, being it was the former’s feast day. He spoke about the death camps and the atheistic regimes that have given the world “the hell that comes to earth when man forgets God and replaces him, usurping his right to decide what is right and what is wrong, to give life and death.” He concluded his talk with these words:
“Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray to the Virgin Mary, to help us all – first of all we priests – to be holy as these heroic witnesses of the faith and of dedication even to martyrdom. This is the only way to provide a credible and comprehensive answer to the human and spiritual questions, which gives rise to the deep crisis of the contemporary world: love in truth. ”
Benedict has written especially profound words concerning suffering and martyrdom in his message to the Church in China, which Church has given us so many thousands of martyrs, not only after the Communist takeover in 1949 but in other persecutions in previous times.
Did the pope not also strongly stress the call to martyrdom in addressing the newly created cardinals in his first Consistory after his election in 2005? He reminded them that their red cassocks and birettas symbolize their readiness to shed their blood for Christ. In February 2008, I wrote brief biographies for our website of seven cardinals who, although they did not die in captivity, suffered long imprisonments under Communist persecution. It can be read here.
Perhaps, in view of the increasing anti-Christian violence in the world, the Holy Father is thinking that the pope who is slain by soldiers in the vision of the Third Secret of Fatima could easily be himself; and the cardinals, bishops, priests, and religious being killed all around him are those who remain faithful unto death in the coming persecution.
The Church was born out of blood and persecution. As the traditional saying credited to Tertullian went: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” All of the Apostles were martyrs, including Saint John, who, although submerged into boiling oil during the persecution of Emperor Domitian, was miraculously preserved from death and bodily harm. The fact that he was willing to die for Christ (tradition has it that he also felt the pain) merited for him the martyr’s crown. All of the saints named in the canon of the Mass were martyrs, except for Our Lady, whose unique, un-bloody martyrdom was like a sword piercing her soul. The first thirty-three popes were martyrs. It was revealed to Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori that in the first three centuries of persecution, from the Edict of Nero (which began the persecutions) in the year 66 to the Edict of Milan (which ended them) in 313 eleven million of the faithful were martyred for their Faith in Christ. Finally, in the last days, during the reign of antichrist, the faithful will endure the worst of all persecutions, and martyrs will usher in the final triumph of the Church, which will precede the end of the world.
Truly, then, we belong to a Church of martyrs. Every age has contributed its share, some ages many more than others, but there have been martyrs at all times, some of whom are known only to God, His angels, and His saints. We have our martyrs today and we shall surely have them tomorrow.
Some of the victims of Communism who were spared the shedding of blood unto death suffered more than the martyrs, even thirty years of prison or in labor camps, under the most inhuman of conditions. In Communist China, to be a bishop loyal to the pope, guaranteed a prison sentence with at least mental torture, or death.
Why does God require so much blood from His servants? Why such a price? Why so much suffering?
Could it be that God wishes to exact from His closest disciples that greatest of all acts of love which Jesus was Himself to manifest for all men: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)?
At the Last Supper, in anticipation of His Passion and Death, Our Lord was very anxious to assure His Apostles that they were now His intimate friends: “I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
It was in His Passion and Death that Christ manifested how great was His love for men. “In this we have known the charity of God, because he hath laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1John 3:16). So, too, with the martyrs, in their passion and death they manifest how great a love they have for their Savior.
Nevertheless, many of the holiest of saints, even though they desired the crown of martyrdom, were not asked to make that sacrifice. Rather their whole lives were continual oblations of self-sacrifice. Think of Saints Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila. Then, there are the stigmatists, such as Saint Padre Pio, who suffered a martyrdom in his hands, feet, and side, on the cross every day, but without death, for fifty years.
Jesus did not hide the fact that His disciples would be persecuted, even unto death, for His Name:
“The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall put you to death: and you shall be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9).
“But look to yourselves. For they shall deliver you up to councils, and in the synagogues you shall be beaten, and you shall stand before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony unto them” (Mark 13:9).
“They will put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doth a service to God” (John 16:2).
“For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel, shall save it” (Mark 8:35).
Saint Paul, concerning whom, after his miraculous conversion, the Lord told His disciple Ananias, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16, my emphasis), has given us the key to understanding the mystery of the call to martyrdom, indeed to understanding the mystery of the cross, which every Catholic “must” carry if he will be saved. The key is the greatest Mystery of all — as far as the partaking in it of baptized Catholics — I mean the most wonderful Mystery of the Mystical Body. This Mystery, in fact all knowledge of the Faith, was revealed to Saint Paul directly by Christ at the moment of his conversion. It was a miraculous gift, which came by way of infused knowledge and understanding, and given to him in an instant
Speaking to the faithful that he brought forth in Christ at Colossae, the Apostle utters these profound words concerning his sufferings for Christ and the gospel: “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).
Was the Passion and Death of Christ not sufficient for redeeming all men? God forbid the thought! One drop of His Precious Blood, in Itself, would have been enough to redeem the world. If this were God’s economy, however, Christians would not have known “the charity of God,” which Saint John marvels at in his First Epistle.
What, then, does Saint Paul mean when he writes that his suffering fills up what is “wanting of the sufferings of Christ”? Understanding the meaning of this verse will help us understand why God calls so many to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for His Name. Let us go to Saint Thomas Aquinas for an explanation:
“At first glance these words can be misunderstood to mean that the passion of Christ was not sufficient for our redemption, and that the sufferings of the saints were added to complete it. But this is heretical, because the blood of Christ is sufficient to redeem many worlds: ‘He is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn 2:2).
“Rather, we should understand that Christ and the Church are one mystical person, whose head is Christ, and whose body is all the just, for every just person is a member of this head: ‘individually members’ (1 Cor. 12:27). Now God in his predestination has arranged how much merit will exist throughout the entire Church, both in the head and in the members, just as he has predestined the number of the elect. And among these merits, the sufferings of the holy martyrs occupy a prominent place. For while the merits of Christ, the head, are infinite, each saint displays some merits in a limited degree.
“This is why he says, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, that is, what is lacking in the afflictions of the whole Church, of which Christ is the head. I complete, that is, I add my own amount; and I do this in my flesh, that is, it is I myself who am suffering. Or, we could say that Paul was completing the sufferings that were lacking in his own flesh. For what was lacking was that, just as Christ had suffered in his own body, so he should also suffer in Paul, his member, and in similar ways in others.
“And Paul does this for the sake of his body, which is the Church that was to be redeemed by Christ: ‘That he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle’ (Eph 5:27). In the same way all the saints suffer for the Church, which receives strength from their example. The Gloss says that ‘afflictions are still lacking, because the treasure house of the Church’s merits is not full, and it will not be full until the end of the world.’”
This is the word also that was given to the martyrs in the Book of Apocalypse, when they asked how long it would be before their blood was avenged upon the earth: “And white robes were given to every one of them; and it was said to them, that they should rest for a little time, till their fellow servants, and their brethren, who are to be slain, even as they, should be filled up” (Apoc. 6:11).
I was asking myself the question which I posed at the start of this article: why so many martyrs? Why so much suffering for the Name of Christ? Not that I ever doubted the goodness of God’s providential design throughout the history of the Church, but such an abundance of bloody suffering seemed such a mystery to me. Reading the words of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, for instance, which he penned as a prisoner in chains on his way to be martyred in Rome (+117), I could only marvel. I could not understand the intensity of his desire for death. I knew that it had to be more than winning a straight pass to heaven; but what was it? Why would he not pray that he be spared so that he could further nourish his flock and win more converts to the Church?
“Allow me to become food for the wild beasts,” he wrote to the Christians of Rome, “through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God].”
Bishop Ignatius ardently longed for the better part, to be united inseparably to Christ, to be one with Him forever. And now that it was offered to him, he begged the Christians in Rome not to pray for his safety but for the immolation of his entire body. Saint Paul, on the other hand, before his final imprisonment, accepted the will of God that he remain a sometime longer with the Church Militant, as the faithful had need of him; yet he would have preferred martyrdom today rather than tomorrow: “But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better” (Phil. 1:23).
This is the real reason that motivated the yearning of so many saints for martyrdom. It was to lose themselves in Christ, to be “dissolved” in Him. Their sacrifice would be their final act of imitating Him as perfectly as possible in this life. And this is not all; it is more than that. It would be Christ’s final act in them, before they entered into glory. This would be their final offering in perfecting the extended presence of Christ in them and in His Mystical Body. There is no greater love.
How gloriously beautiful in its youth was the Mystical Body of Christ! How well these saints understood how their Holy Communions transformed them!
Christ is visible in the martyrs. Their heroism does not manifest their own strength but His. Saint Felicitas, whom we honor in the Canon of the Mass, summed up this mystery in just a few words when she answers Saint Perpetua her mistress, who was worried that her servant would break down under torture because while giving birth in prison she could not keep from screaming: “Today,” she assured Perpetua, “it is Felicitas who suffers, then [in her martyrdom] it will not be me, but Christ who will suffer.”