Uncomfortable Lessons from the Martyrology

The Roman Martyrology is a vital, if uncomfortable, antidote to many modern poisonous misconceptions.

A quick scan of conservative and tradition-leaning Catholic websites, blogs, and news platforms reveals some reliably controversial topics: transgenderism, the LGBTQ agenda, how to make sense (or even whether or not it is possible to make sense) of Vatican II and decisions coming from Rome, and how to spread the message of Christ in a confused world.

The perennial Catholic advice for the faithful is to establish a strong framework of prayer. In the traditional Divine Office, we find the hour of Prime. Unfortunately, this office was suppressed in the liturgical reforms of Paul VI and not replaced in the Liturgy of the Hours. Among the many nourishing features of Prime is the reading of the Roman Martyrology.

In an era suffused with talk of “gender transition” and “gender-affirming care,” a Catholic who reads the Roman Martyrology will get startling reminders about the human body and soul. For instance, we come across this entry for October 28: 

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At Rome, the holy martyrs Cyril and Anastasia the Elder, virgin. In the persecution of Valerian, under the prefect Probus, Anastasia was bound with chains, buffeted, subjected to fire and scourging, and, as she remained immovable in her confession of Christ, her breasts were cut away, her nails plucked out, her teeth broken, and her hands, feet, and head severed from her body. Adorned with her sufferings as with so many jewels, she went to her Spouse. At her request, Cyril gave her some water to drink, and for his reward became a martyr.

Shocking as this brief entry is, it is just one of many in a book filled with such stories.

The record of Cyril and Anastasia may do more than shock modern sensibilities; it may even offend some. That this is so illustrates the depths to which the Faith has sunk in our degenerate era. For centuries, the record of the martyrs, confessors, and virgins served as a potent reminder to the faithful about the perils of clinging to Christ. Furthermore, familiarity with the martyrology can correct mistaken notions about reality, a counterpoint to extant notions about what it means to be human.

Taking the above story of the martyr Anastasia, we might ponder this: that saint—without her consent—suffered the physical agony of having her breasts cut off. The Roman authorities must have wanted to humiliate and unsex this woman and others like her. In our time, women sometimes have mastectomies in response to breast cancer. That is an attempt to survive. 

But breast removal is now being performed for a bizarre reason: to help women in their “transition” to a false male identity. So-called “top surgery” is now even done on teen girls. St. Anastasia suffered this fate because of her true identity in Christ. The martyrology supplies a number of similar cases, including Sts. Macra (January 6) and Agatha (February 5). 

Indeed, the martyrology must make uncomfortable reading for ardent feminists. On September 20, we read of St. Fausta, whose “head was shaved to shame her,” eerily reminiscent of Jewish women at holocaust death camps. Fausta’s torturers were not done with her. After the shaving, “she was hung up and tortured…and had her head bored through and her whole body pierced with nails.” After being laid on a gridiron, she died; but not before one of her torturers was converted to Christ through her witness. 

Also offensive to feminists, who base much of their belief on sexual liberation, is the emphasis on virginity, one of the three categories of believers found in the martyrology (the other two being martyr and confessor, with an occasional mention of a minor child). Some notable female virgins include Sts. Emerentiana (January 23), Scholastica (February 10), Julia (May 22), and Aurea (October 4), just to name a few.

If someone “woke” read the martyrology of November 1, he or she might be horrified that the “servant girl” (i.e., an “enslaved person” in contemporary parlance) Mary was not allowed to proclaim “my body, my choice,” but was forced to endure “cruel scourging, torture on the rack, and the lacerating of her body with iron hooks” before she died a martyr. The stunning lack of agency on the part of the girl is anathema to the Church of the post-post-modern.

But lest we be accused of reveling in the cruel misogyny (actually a hatred of the Faith) of the past, we need to prove that not just women suffered in centuries gone by. On the first day of the year (January 1) we read of St. Almachius, killed by gladiators for proclaiming Christ. And on December 31 we are told of the passion of St. Stephen and his companions. Men share in many of the same torments and manners of death as their sisters in Christ. 

However, men also suffered and died for being clergy, preaching, and proselytizing. These works of proclaiming the Faith were decidedly un-ecumenical by post-Vatican II standards: St. Nicetas is remembered on January 7 for preaching to “fierce and barbarous nations.” St. Sosthenes (November 28) “was chief of the synagogue when he converted to Christ.” On November 29, St. Saturninus was rewarded for preaching to the heathen by being thrown from a building, resulting in a mangled body, smashed skull, and death. 

The martyrology can also shine a light on widespread indifferentism. The resolute preaching of Christ to Muslims was met with rejection and often deadly force. St. Joseph of Leonissa (February 4) suffered greatly for his daring evangelization, though he was not martyred. On April 17, Sts. Elias, Paul, and Isidore were slain in Spain by Muslims “for the profession of the Christian faith.” The following day commemorates St. Perfectus, killed “because he argued against the sect of Mohammed and firmly insisted on the Catholic faith.” So much for the canard that all roads lead to God.

In the martyrology’s pages, one finds saints engaged in fighting heresy, struggling to attain Church unity, and calling those in schism back to reunion with the See of Peter. These unfashionable strugglers include Pope St. Benedict XI (July 7), who “greatly promoted the peace of the Church, the restoration of discipline, and the spread of religion.” Pope St. Urban V (December 19) brought “about a reunion of the Latins and the Greeks, and…suppress[ed] heretics.” The longing for holy bishops and popes felt by many Catholics now is confirmed in the pages of the martyrology.

One also finds military saints who suffered and died for clinging to Christ. St. Mennas (November 11—the same day as ex-soldier St. Martin of Tours) died by the sword after casting off his soldier’s belt. Two days before (November 9), we have St. Theodore, who was tortured and burned alive not for dereliction of duty but for confessing Christ. The military in today’s United States does not martyr men and women in a traditional sense, but it seems intent on purging its ranks of Christian believers and replacing them with a “diverse” cadre.

We could go on and mention saints young and old. In the midst of reports of elder abuse and the age of consent, we have yet more examples. The entry for August 18 shows us the martyr St. Agapitus, only fifteen years old. The point is that the saints of the martyrology—martyrs, confessors, virgins—are not mere historical footnotes. They are real people—our brothers and sisters now able to intercede for us from Heaven. 

Their courageous examples can fortify us to resist political correctness, wokeism, ostracism, and fear. They can help us clearly diagnose disastrous trends in our society. They triumphed not by fitting in but by not wavering in their commitment to Christ and His Church. If that makes us uncomfortable, then we are rightly attuned to God’s voice beckoning us to focus on Heaven and not get too accustomed to this world. Holy martyrs, confessors, and virgins, ora pro nobis!

[Editor’s Note: A inexpensive pocket edition of the martyrology can be found here.]

  • Greg Cook

    Greg Cook is a writer living with his wife in New York’s North Country. He earned two master’s degrees, including one in public administration from The Evergreen State College. He is the author of two poetry collections: Against the Alchemists, and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini’s ‘Sacred Signs’.

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