This New Age of Martyrs

“Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must be that scandals come: but woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh” (Mt. 18:7).

Once again we must endure a period of shame in the Church, much to the pain of all believers. Our Lord had predicted the inevitability of scandals, so we should not be overly surprised by them, especially in this post-Christian culture that too frequently dismisses sin as some outdated “medieval” concept. But this “denial” only contributes further to that sense of shock for many when confronted with the damaging effects of sinful behavior by persons in positions of trust. And there are still prelates so imbued with a spirit of the world or zeitgeist that they do not seem to understand that all sins, even so-called “private sins,” must produce severe consequences. But the fact remains that as members of the Body of Christ whatever one member does will surely affect the whole body.

I was poignantly reminded of that “cause and effect” dynamic recently at a prayer breakfast in Denver to raise money for the support of persecuted Christians around the world. I sense that there is a real spiritual correlation between the sex scandals rocking the Church in the West and the vicious persecution of her other members in places like Africa and Asia. Could God be using anti-Christian terror perpetrated by ISIS, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Communists regimes, and others as instruments of purification for his Church? If so then it would seem that the sins of those fallen clergy are being expiated by the blood of countless martyrs around the globe. This would not be unusual in God’s economy of salvation. After all, there have always been victims in the Church whose job it is to satisfy divine justice precisely for the salvation of others.

This is not to suggest that the salvific work of Christ on the cross is in any way diminished. Rather, martyrs are a sign that his salvation is being fulfilled in our very presence. Just as St. Paul reminds the Colossians, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Col. 1:24). The same applies to Christians today. The terrible things now being exposed in the Church are bound to have a terrible effect in some other part of Christ’s body. The innocent become like lambs for sacrifice in an act of justice against the sins of the guilty. Such a dynamic may appear to be unfair according to human standards, yet we are called to the higher standard of imitating Christ, whose innocent blood was the first to be shed in expiation of sin. St. Paul affirms this mystery: “All who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall grow worse and worse, deceiving and deceived” (2 Tim. 3:12-13).

 

The following are graphic examples of expiation through persecution as of today. On Feb. 15, 2015, jihadists in Libya lined up 21 Coptic Christian men on a beach and executed them by beheading for refusing to convert to Islam. This savage, bloody act was video-recorded so that it could be broadcast over social media to the entire world. Yet one onlooker, impressed by the courage of these martyrs, many of whom had wives and children, exclaimed, “Their God is now my God.” For his vocal expression of that new-found faith in Christ, he too was summarily decapitated, making 22 martyrs in all to sanctify that bloodstained Libyan beach. Contrast their heroic fortitude with many American Catholics who are even ashamed to pray publicly before eating in a restaurant.

Meanwhile the Christian Association of Nigeria reports that in that country alone over 6,000 Christians have been murdered in the first six months of 2018! At this moment it is estimated that between 200 and 250 million Christians worldwide are living under the grave threat of persecution, torture, and murder for adhering to their faith. The Open Doors World Watch List reports that every month 66 churches are attacked or destroyed either by mobs or government action; 180 Christian women and girls are raped or made into sex-slaves; 255 Christians are murdered outright in countries where they are either denied civil rights outright or find that officials are unable or unwilling to provide adequate government protections. We are truly living in the new age of martyrs.

This has been true for at least a century now although, curiously, these stories have remained largely unreported in the mainstream media. Consider that from 1936-1939 in Spain almost 7,000 priests, nuns, and religious were executed by leftist and government forces, nor was this in response to any perceived “fascist” threat. In fact the cold-blooded murders of clergy had been systematically occurring for five months prior to the outbreak of that civil war in July, 1936. The new Republican government merely turned a blind eye to such anti-Church violence. This callous indifference to unprovoked outrages directed against the Spanish clergy was in fact a major cause of the military uprising against the leftist Republican government. But in addition to atrocities committed against priests and religious and the destruction of countless churches, tens of thousands of lay Catholics were also imprisoned or martyred for the slightest profession of faith, such as being found with a rosary or a crucifix on their person.

Only a decade earlier thousands of Catholics, including children, were brutally martyred just across our own border in Mexico. Many of those martyrs are officially recognized as saints by the Church today. Throughout history, periods of martyrdom seem to be most common in decadent cultures such as the Roman Empire. Is it surprising then that we have seen a resurgence of martyrdoms amid the decadence of our secular modern world? Secular regimes are not the only persecutors of Christians, however. Christians in majority Muslim countries are frequently persecuted today as documented by George Marlin in Christian Persecution in the Middle East, while John Allen has argued recently in The Global War on Christians that targeting followers of Christ is an ecumenical pastime. The tragedy is that this great witness is not widely reported in the West.

It is estimated that there have been more Christian martyrs in the past hundred years than in all the preceding 19 centuries combined. We are truly living in the “age of martyrs” and it is these heroic souls who plead insistently before the throne of God to have mercy on his sinful Church and a corrupted society. Modern day martyrs are the true ballast keeping the Barque of Peter from capsizing in the turbulent seas of our skeptical and hostile modern world. Today we see the bride of Christ covered with shame, and rightfully so, for her sins are like scarlet. But “though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow” (Is. 1:18), so promises her loving Spouse and Redeemer.

We are a Church of sinners, but then the first apostles were also sinful men. Like them, however, our ultimate objective should be to become saints, which precludes remaining in a sinful state. This presents a paradox for the Church. We are currently living in a time of both gross scandal and great persecution; willful sinfulness in contrast with innocent suffering. There seems to be a cause and effect relationship between the two so that each must be understood within the context of the other. But St. John long ago addressed this apparent dichotomy and resolved it in his vision of Revelation. “‘Who are these in white robes?’ ‘Sir, you know better than I.’ He said, they are the ones who have survived the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:13-14).

We are living in an age of widespread martyrdom because we are also living in an age of relentless sin. We must not be content to indignantly complain of the latter while forgetfully looking past the former. Raise your awareness of the fearful persecutions besieging the Christian faithful at this very moment around the world. Pray fervently for those who, in God’s plan, will become martyrs today or tomorrow for the greater good of his Church. It is they who will ultimately rescue the Church from its present crisis, for the blood of the martyrs has always been the future seed of the Church.

(Photo credit: 2014 CNN report of Christian persecution in China / Youtube screenshot)

Francis J. Pierson

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Francis J. Pierson is the author of several books, including most recently a volume on the Incarnational aspects of the Mass titled Word Without End. He is a retired businessman and lifelong Catholic who participates actively in the St. Paul Street Evangelization ministry in Littleton, Colorado where he lives with his wife and children.

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