The Fruits of Martyrdom

Prof. Michael Hull, New York

May 28, 2004

 

The Church has always maintained that those who are martyred for the Faith without having received the sacrament of Baptism are granted the benefits of Baptism. Martyrdom is the ultimate witness to Jesus Christ and the truth of the Catholic Faith. It is the supreme act of the cardinal virtue of fortitude. The fruits of martyrdom are both individual and communal. On the individual level, the martyr gives pristine witness to Jesus Christ and therefore ensures his union with the Redeemer through close identification with the Lord’s own suffering and death. On the communal level, the act of martyrdom is efficacious for the whole world as it perceives one who lays down his life in imitation of the Savior of the world.

The term "martyr" has its roots in the Greek martus meaning "witness." It makes its way into English through the references in Acts 1:8 and 22, wherein identification with witnessing to the Lord in terms of spreading the Faith is so closely allied with suffering and dying for it. The individual martyr, then, is the one who remains loyal to the end because he knows what the proper end of man is: to know, love, and serve God in this world so as to be happy with him forever in the next. For this reason, the Church has venerated her martyrs from the earliest days to the present moment with great devotion. Since the end of the second century, the date of a martyr’s death was celebrated at his tomb as a heavenly nativity, leading to the building of churches above these sites. So too, in the Roman liturgy, martyrs rank before all other saints and the red color of liturgical vestments highlights the bloody nature of their sacrifice. Thus, St. Ignatius of Antioch could write so eagerly of his impending martyrdom in his Letter to the Romans: "Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ" (4.1).

From the earliest days of the Church, it has been recognized that sanguis martyrum est semen Christianorum—the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. The blood of martyrs in the early Church brought about not only the conversion of millions, but also the strengthening of millions in the Faith. In his apostolic letter Tertio millennio adveniente, John Paul II reminds us that the blood of martyrs is not exclusively a phenomenon of the early Church. "At the end of the second millennium [of Christianity], the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs. The persecution of believers—priests, religious, and laity—has caused a great sowing of martyrdom in different parts of the world" (no. 37). The fruits of that martyrdom will be an increase in converts to Catholicism and an intensification of the practice of the Faith among Catholics. Nothing moves the soul more than the unmistakable imitation of Christ found in following him through his suffering to death, with the firm conviction of sharing in his resurrection. The fruits of the martyrs are all around us. For in a world marred by sin and despair, we still find many Catholics who rejoice at any opportunity to suffer "humiliation for the sake of the name" (Acts 5:40).

For Catholics, as individuals and as a community, it is the martyrs who give us hope in ourselves. In their sacrifice, we see the inspiration of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to his Apostles as the power by which they would be his witnesses, his martyrs, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It is the same Holy Spirit who guides us still, if we have the fortitude, to be the seed of Christians.