By Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR
O Lord Jesus, King of Martyrs, to those who must suffer torment and violence, hunger and fatigue, be Thou the invincible strength sustaining them in their trials and assuring them of the rewards pledged by Thee to those who persevere unto the end. (Pope Pius XII, “Prayer for the Church of Silence,” July 16, 1957.)
I believe that we often labor under a false impression about the martyrs. Their heroism in the face of evil is but a small “window” into their life that we are told about after they died a glorious death, but it is never the whole story of their passion. We may think that they never feared death or came close to running away from their fate, but in reality, the martyrs were a lot like you and me. They were men and women of flesh and blood who could not have gone through their agonizing deaths without another Strength to get them through death into the life of heaven. The deep inner beauty of the martyrs’ stories is not so much in the shedding of their blood, but in how they managed their moments of doubt and preserved in their fidelity to God to the bitter end.
Jesus is sometimes called “King of Martyrs” because His martyrdom is the model for all others. In the Garden of Gethsemane He agonized over the sins of the world and even begged the Father to take away the cup of suffering. He felt all the weakness of human flesh but never abandoned His mission. His decision to do the Father’s Will was no less pure when He was standing before Pilate, betrayed by His own, mocked and scourged by the soldiers, or walking on the Way of the Cross. If we read the Passion very carefully we will see that at every moment of His agony, He was saying “yes” to the Father even to the very end when He cried, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46) His heroism was certainly in the glory of His death but I think more so in His continuous decision to accept death for our sake.
If we go back again to the stories of some of the most inspiring martyrs, we see that their heroic deaths are just the culmination of their heroic lives dedicated to doing God’s Will:
One of my very favorites is St. Joan of Arc who, at the age of seventeen was made the Commander-In-Chief of the armies of France. This girl led men into the thick of battle as if she were General Patton and never lost a battle, but when she was unjustly condemned and burned at the stake, she asked for someone to hold up before her eyes a Crucifix. The “Strength of Martyr
Blessed Miguel Pro, the marvelous young Mexican Jesuit who died in the anti-Catholic persecutions in the 1920s, stood before a firing squad holding a Rosary one hand and a Crucifix in the other and yelled out, “Long live Christ the King!” as the bullets took his life.
St. Thomas More was the first of the hundreds of astounding English martyrs whose deaths were I think the cruelest of any martyrs in history. He had his head chopped off because he would not submit to King Henry VIII’s plan to control the Church. When he ascended the platform he said, “I die the king’s good servant but Christ’s first.” He had his kings in proper order.
Both St. Perpetua and St. Felicity were young mothers, in their early twenties when they were condemned to die in the arena for being Christians. St. Felicity’s execution was delayed until she had given birth to her baby! St. Perpetua had to endure multiple heart-wrenching pleas of her father who begged her not to “abandon” her children and family for the sake of what he thought was a meaningless death. The early church apparently didn’t think so: eighteen centuries later we still tell the story of their fidelity to God.
It is impossible to know the number of men and women have suffered martyrdom for the Christian faith, but I can tell you that there are many more martyrs than those who have been canonized. The list of martyrs is undoubtedly the Church’s greatest badge of honor. How is it possible for mere human beings to remain faithful through tortures like these? Only Christ, the “Strength of Martyrs,” makes such heroic sacrifice possible.
If we cling to Him in all times of stress or pain, call to Him in times of temptation, beg Him for the grace to remain faithful in all our duties and practices of the faith, He will give us His strength to undergo our own personal martyrdoms. We should pray that we will not have to die a violent death for the Catholic Faith, but if we do, Christ Himself will be standing beside us in that very moment.
O Holy Lord Jesus, King and “Strength of Martyrs,” fill us with Your Spirit of sacrifice, and make us one with You in all the sufferings we have to endure, both in our daily duties and in our fidelity to the Catholic Faith. Give us the grace to support all those who suffer and teach us to look to Your cross as our only hope. We ask this in Your most holy Name. Amen.
[Excerpted from: Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Jesus and Mary: In Praise of their Glorious Names, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.: Huntington, Indiana, 2012.]