Missionary Martyrs

Fr. Jayme martyred
The Death of Father Luis Jayme at Mission San Diego, November 4, 1775

In Christ you were chosen to exist for the praise of God’s glory…You have heard the word of truth, the Gospel of our salvation. (see Ephesians 1:11-14)

Missionaries evangelize. They proclaim the Gospel and initiate pagans into the life of Christ and His Church. Missionaries give up everything and risk everything. They make friends with people who speak another language, with unfamiliar customs. All in order to share the heavenly life of Jesus.

Missionaries often get themselves killed. In New York and Ontario, the French Jesuit martyrs we commemorate at Holy Mass today met death at the hands of Hurons and Iroquois.

In San Diego, California, the Kumeyaay killed a Franciscan named Luis Jayme during a night raid of the mission. In 1597 the Guale killed five Franciscans near Savannah, Georgia. Here in Virginia, eight Jesuits died as martyrs in 1571.

One thing many of these martyrs have in common is this: They loved the native Americans and learned their languages and customs, but they would not compromise with polygamy. As we know from reading the holy gospels, the Son of God preached a Gospel involving monogamous marriage for life. The early missionaries of these lands practiced ‘enculturation’ like nobody’s business. But the Gospel always requires some change in people’s lives. Like renouncing polygamy.

Anyway: While the martyrs of what is now the USA shed their blood here, the life of the Church had all kinds of issues in Europe. Don’t know if they had federal grand jury investigations in those days. But plenty of secular authorities clashed with corrupt bishops and priests.

Meanwhile, the missionaries here bore their pure and loving witness to the urgency of conversion to Christ. Mankind needs the Gospel, and Jesus, and His Church. Internal ecclesiastical problems don’t make that need less clear; they make it all the more clear.

The Magicians

The Burning of Rome by Robert Hubert
The Burning of Rome by Robert Hubert

The Roman Emperor Nero despised the clean, upright living of the Christians in his city.  He called them “magicians.”  Because, to pagan eyes, the worship of the one, true God looks like superstition or black magic.  The pagan Romans generally regarded Christians as excessively religious.

The Roman race believed that they had descended from the ancient warriors of Troy. The Greeks had burned Troy to the ground, during the time when the Judges ruled Israel. The Trojan hero Aeneas fled westward to Italy.

Emperor Nero fantasized about watching Rome burn, just as Aeneas’ famous father-in-law Priam had watched Troy burn.  So, it appears, Nero ordered his henchman to set fire to his own city.

But he blamed the magicians for the fire.  The people to whom St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans therefore became martyrs.  Burned at the stake.  Or fed to packs of wild dogs. Everyone knew they had nothing to do with the big fire.  But the Romans killed the Christians anyway.

We read at Holy Mass today:  “Jesus saw their faith.”

The martyrs of Nero’s Rome literally provided light int he darkness of a ruined city, as their bodies’ burned during the night.  But the truly great light is faith in Christ.

Lord Jesus loved us to the end, and He offered His life in sacrifice for us–to turn death from a curse into a blessing, to make our lives on earth worth living.

The first martyrs of our mother Church gave their lives back to Christ, responding to love with love.  There’s no more potent magic.

Stubborn Ladies

Carthage ampitheater excavation
Excavation of the arena where Ss. Perpetua and Felicity died

Today we mark the 1,810th anniversary of the martyrdom of two young mothers.

The Emperor Septimus Severus ordered the enforcement of laws which required Christians to renounce Christ and offer sacrifices to the gods of Rome for the prosperity of the Empire. The emperor hoped to develop a universal pagan religion which incorporated all the local cults. Christianity, of course, does not tolerate this kind of syncretism. So it was illegal to convert to Christianity. But Perpetua and Felicity did anyway.

Perpetua mosaicPerpetua’s father begged and pleaded with her to give up on Christianity, for his sake and for the sake of her newborn child. Her heart broke, but she had no choice. She entrusted her family to God.

Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions were thrown to wild beasts in the arena for the amusement of the crowd. But the animals did not finish them off. Gladiators then stabbed them to death.

Perpetua and Felicity sang through the entire ordeal. They had been chosen to die for Christ, and they rejoiced at the opportunity.

We have every reason to believe that they were both gentle and accommodating young women. But about one thing they were adamant, stubborn, utterly impervious to any persuasion: they would hold fast to their faith in the triumph of Jesus Christ.

Maria Goretti, the 20th-Century Famine, and Us

One hundred ten years ago today, St. Maria Goretti suffered martyrdom rather than consent to sexual impurity.

She became one of the first of the countless martyrs of the 20th century. One historian estimates that the last century saw 45 million martyrdoms, out of a total of 70 million over the whole course of the last twenty centuries. This would mean that two-thirds of all the martyrdoms that have ever occurred took place in the twentieth century. Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote, “At the end of the second millennium, the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs.”

In the first reading for today’s Mass, the prophet Amos warns of a famine. “Not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but of hearing the Word of the Lord.”

A famine of hearing the Word of the Lord. The blood of the innumerable martyrs testifies to the fact that the last century endured just such a famine. The hard soil that did not hear God’s Word extended to many corners of the globe.

But God brings good out of evil. A lustful young man killed Maria Goretti out of willful malice. But he repented and turned to God. He attended her canonization Mass, at peace with her family.

If the twentieth century began with such a beautiful testimony to God’s all-conquering mercy, then only He can know all the good for souls that can come from the quiet suffering of so many millions of faithful Christians.

As the Lord teaches us, every faithful life bears fruit. Every earnest Christian bears witness in his or her little way. More good than we can know comes from it.

St. Maria Goretti feared sin more than death; she loved Christ more than she loved her earthly life. If we can say the same, then the famine of hearing God’s Word won’t last. We ourselves will water the soil with our faith.

The Quintessence’s Reason

What a beautiful spectacle this, that is thus given to the world, to angels, and to men! How worthy of eternal praise are such deeds! Many individuals, members either of the Knights of Columbus, or officers of the Federation for Religious Freedom, of the Union of Catholic Women of Mexico, or of the Society of Mexican Youth, have been taken to prison handcuffed, through the public streets, surrounded by armed soldiers, locked up in foul jails, harshly treated, and punished with prison sentences or fines. Moreover, Venerable Brothers, and in narrating this We can scarcely keep back Our tears, some of these young men and boys have gladly met death, the rosary in their hands and the name of Christ King on their lips. (Iniquis afflictisque 27)

Pope Pius XI wrote these words in 1926, in his encyclical letter about the persecution of the Church in Mexico.

The question asked by the Mexican authorities was: ¿Quien vive? Who lives? –The Revolution? The supreme government of the socialist republic?

The soldiers asked St. Rodrigo Aguilar Aleman this question three times—tightening the noose around his neck each time they asked, because he did not give the answer they were looking for.

¿Quien vive? Viva…Cristo Rey.

In the geographic center of Mexico, a large hill holds an enormous statue of Christ the King, re-built from the ashes. The Mexican bishops first conceived of erecting it in 1914. In 1923, Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado led a procession of 40,000 people to pray for peace at the shrine. In 1926, the statue was bombed to smithereens by order of the President. And on June 26 of that year, Fr. Hurtado was hanged.

“We are always courageous,” writes St. Paul, “because we walk by faith…faith in the One Who died for us and rose again.”

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet reflects on human nature: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Good question, Hamlet. What is this quintessence of dust, man? What makes us make sense?

Are we meant to make everything work perfectly on earth? Right all wrongs, balance all scales of justice—make life easy and comfortable and low-maintenance for everyone?

How could a Mexican soldier in 1928 bring himself to cut the soles off the feet of a 14-year-old boy, just because the boy would not say “Viva la Revolucion?” How could the soldier then bring himself to march the boy through the streets and bayonet him to death, when the boy cried out, “Viva Cristo Rey?”

The soldier could do it because he was certain that the Church stood in the way of Mexico’s progress toward utopia. Because social engineering could lift the poor out of their kneeling stupor. And only the old-fashioned, foreigner-controlled, popish superstition of the rosary-clutching women stood in the way. If we can just get this intransigent, reactionary Catholic Church to knuckle under, then true progress will finally be possible!

…What is this quintessence of dust, man? Fed, sated, rested, lesiured, sensually satisfied—marking the days till the long sleep with amusements and recreations of constant diversion? Is this what we are? Just one more technological advance away from perfect computerized comfort?

Cubilete
Sure. Perfectly comfortable. On the backs of people waiting for the bus by the side of the smog-choked highway. On the backs of children who lost their one chance at reading a book when the local library lost its funding. On the back of our Mother Earth, who groans more and more under the weight of all the noxious compounds we spew out into the air, water, and soil in order to keep ourselves comfortable.

This quintessence of dust. What point can we really have? What makes us the paragon of animals and the beauty of the world?

Only one thing: God. God has distilled the dust of the earth to its quintessence, and produced us, for one reason: that we would know Him, love Him, serve Him, hope in Him.

The dignity of man: to glorify God. What a wretched mess our lives become when we forget this.

This week we begin our fortnight of prayer and fasting for religious freedom. We need religious freedom because we need God. We make no sense without Him. Let’s pray and fast and come together because we know we cannot live without God.

Cristero Movie

a.k.a. “101 Ways to Smoke and Drink Tequila While Defending the Holy Faith”

Movies in which the stirring orchestral score cues up before the five-minute mark make me suspicious. “For Greater Glory” will not be outdone as a music video of the Cristero War. Some resourceful acting manages to cover the relative lameness of the script. Andy Garcia makes sense by smoking in meaningful ways. Rubén Blades as President Plutarco Elias Calles almost steals the Opening-Scene-Menace Award from De Niro’s Al Capone as “The Untouchables” begins.

I wish I were a better priest, a better friend of the Mexican nation, a better Knight of Columbus. If I were, then I would know more facts about the Mexican martyrs than I do. I do know that Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory makes the whole business 10,000 times more real that this film does. The novel gives us one of the greatest heroes I have ever encountered, and this film makes Greene seem all the more brilliant by comparison.

But “For Greater Glory” gives us some lovable heroes, too. I never really doubted that I am fighting for the right team. But if I had doubted it, the scene in which “El Catorce” tells the federal (who just hanged a priest for saying Mass) to “spend your money in hell, c-bron!” would have dispelled any doubts I had. Our church has room for bad-sses.

And fifteen-year-old Mauricio Kuri, playing Bl. José Luis Sánchez del Rio…In real life, the saint was not even yet fifteen when martyred. I wept when they cut up his poor little feet, to torture him. Come on, evil federales! But it really happened.

The Spanish-isms of the movie struck this gringo as patently ridiculous, even offensive. In what world does using “Mejico” instead of “Mexico”—in the middle of English patter with bad accents—in what world does this achieve verisimilitude?

But, al otro lado, the movie does give us Mexico, mainly by the authentic use of tequila in the interactions between men and in the open, airy style of the churches.

The main thing: Don’t die without going to Confession to a Catholic priest. Or die as a martyr. Don’t leave this world via any other exit. This movie makes it magnificently clear that leaving the world in any other way is really lame.

In the 1920’s, the Mexicans played big-league spiritual ball, while we dithered as a nation of t-ball strikeouts. The Spanish-speaking world made the rest of us look like piker Catholics. (The Spanish Civil War of the late 30’s produced scores of holy martyrs, too.)

Graham Greene grasped this fact a long time ago. Hopefully, “For Greater Glory” will remind us—and prepare us for whatever battle we will have to face.

Everybody’s Holy Day


People say that Catholics have a hard time observing holy days in our thoroughly secularized culture.

But that is not exactly the case when it comes to keeping All Saints’ Day. Just about the entire American population observes this holy day—by doing something unusual the night before, be it dressing up, or giving out candy, or watching horror movies.

Continue reading “Everybody’s Holy Day”

The Lapsed

During the third century A.D., the Roman emperors repeatedly persecuted the Church. The Emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian ordered that all Christians must renounce the faith and offer pagan sacrifices. Registries of compliance were to be kept in all provinces. Recusants could be punished by forfeiture of property or death.

Human beings being human beings, a mad whirlwind of attempted scams ensued.

By the third century, the Empire was home to many well-to-do Christians. These did not relish the prospect of offending God. But neither did they want to be impoverished or executed.

So they paid their slaves to offer pagan sacrifices on their behalf. Or they bribed officials to produce false certificates, saying they had sacrificed, even though they really hadn’t. Or they lent their identification documents to a pagan, who would then offer sacrifices under the assumed name.

The Christians who employed these stratagems to save their hides came to be known as “the Lapsed.”

The persecutions of the third century came in fits and starts; they lasted for a time, but then the Church would enjoy a few years of peace. St. Cornelius was Pope, and St. Cyprian a prominent bishop, through a couple of these cycles.

During the intervals of peace, a question inevitably arose: Could the Lapsed be forgiven? They had failed to exercise the heroic faith and courage of the martyrs. But, at the same time, they had never stopped believing in the Trinity and in Christ.

Now, of course, neither Cornelius nor Cyprian ever lapsed. Both of them eventually went to their deaths as martyrs. But, before they themselves were killed, they had to deal with the question of what to do with the conniving Lapsed who wanted to go to communion.

Perhaps we might think that, since Cornelius and Cyprian proved to be heroic martyrs themselves, that they would have insisted on Christian heroism. But the opposite is the case. Both of them were roundly criticized by other bishops for being too lax.

Cornelius and Cyprian both taught: We believe in the forgiveness of sins. Let the Lapsed confess their sins, do penance, and be reconciled. The martyrs are our heroes. The Lapsed do not pretend to have been heroes. But they are our brothers nonetheless. Let’s gather around the altar together, so that we can all learn to be heroes next time.

Holy Co-operation!

God is holy. By definition.

The apse wall of Otranto Cathedral holds the skulls of 800 martyrs
What is holy?

God.

What is God?

Holy.

He is holy.

He is infinitely, terrifyingly holy.

He is won-derfully, magni-ficently holy.

We Christians aspire to holiness. We desire the holiness of God. We want to share in His glory. We want to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy.

Are we presumptuous? After all, how can we be holy—we who subsist on the flesh of dead animals, and sometimes produce bad smells and bad words, and spend a lot of time thinking about ice cream and professional sports and a lot of other things that don’t exactly pertain to holiness? How can we hope to be holy?

Continue reading “Holy Co-operation!”

Year of Barnabas?

Sts. Barnabas and Paul the pagan priest in Lystra
Sts. Barnabas and Paul with the pagan priest in Lystra

The Church has dedicated a year to commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul. Half of the books of the New Testament have St. Paul for their human author. St. Paul is one of the most famous and well-beloved saints of all time.

St. Paul made his first apostolic journeys alongside St. Barnabas.

In a comical episode in Lystra, the locals mistook Barnabas and Paul for Greek gods. They mistook Barnabas for Zeus and Paul for Hermes. Zeus is the king of the Greek gods; Hermes is Zeus’ spokesman. The locals’ mistake, therefore, leads us to believe that Barnabas seemed to be the one in charge.

During St. Paul’s second missionary journey, he and Barnabas agreed to separate and work in different territories.

Martyrdom of St. Barnabas
Martyrdom of St. Barnabas
St. Barnabas then went on to do what St. Paul did, just in different parts of the world. St. Barnabas preached, explained the faith, wrote evangelical letters, etc.

St. Barnabas could well have written as much or more than St. Paul did. We do not know, because most of the writing of the ancient world has been lost.

The Lord, in His Providence, saw to it that a great deal of St. Paul’s writing was collected in the New Testament. St. Barnabas’ writing was not included in the canon of Scripture.

My point is: This year could just as easily have been the Year of St. Barnabas. Barnabas could have become the famous one.

St. Paul could have remained a relatively obscure saint, with just a humble Memorial every year. (N.B. Click through this link to discover a wonderful weblog with the daily Mass readings correlated with the excellent Haydock commentary!)

St. Barnabas, however, is not worried about the discrepancy. He is in heaven, after all, with St. Paul. Neither of them are concerned with earthly glory.

St. Barnabas was never worried about earthly glory. All he ever worried about was…

1. Getting to heaven himself.

2. Helping other people get there.