Adopting heroes is one of childhood’s enduring rites of passage. For many of us, our fathers or mothers were our first heroes, but then shortly followed by firefighters, police officers, comic-book heroes and professional athletes. It seems it is not just children who yearn for heroes, but adults as well. As Catholics, we are fortunate in that the story of our faith is filled with Christian heroes, those men and women we call saints.
Some of our saintly heroes are also martyrs, Christians who were killed bearing witness to the faith and in imitation of Christ’s passion and death. During the season of Lent, the lives of the martyrs enable us to reflect in a particular way on what it means to give ourselves completely to our Lord and to give courageous testimony of our faith.
Some of the stories of Christian martyrs were so powerful that early on they were collected and preserved in a particular genre of literature. The “Acts” of individual martyrs began from court transcripts of interrogations, which were then supplemented with eyewitness descriptions of the martyr’s suffering. These stories of the martyrs have survived until this day because people are always attracted by the power of the truth and the courage that comes with placing one’s complete trust in our Lord. Whether they come to us from centuries ago, or from the morning newspaper as we read of Christians in the Middle East who refuse to renounce their faith in the face of violent persecution, these stories still inspire.
The earliest text of a martyr’s story that has survived is the second-century Martyrdom of Polycarp. Saint Polycarp, whose feast day we celebrate today, was a student of Saint John the Apostle and later ordained bishop of Smyrna in modern-day Turkey. In the Martyrdom, we read how the Roman authorities repeatedly urged Polycarp to save his life by acting against the Christian faith in some seemingly small measure. All he needed to do was swear by the fortune of Caesar and he would be set free, they said, asking “What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”
Polycarp, however, remained firm. “Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian,” he replied. Upon this confession of faith, Polycarp was put to death.
Today, we are called to make that same profession of faith in a particular way. There has developed in our country a slow but steady encroachment of the state in limiting our freedom to live our faith completely in proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacraments, and exercising the ministry of charity, which presuppose each other and are inseparable (Deus Caritas Est, 25).
While the situation here in our country is not the kind of violent persecution our Christian brothers and sisters are experiencing in other parts of the world, there are nevertheless burdens – some large, some small – on our ability to live and spread the Gospel. One prime example of the treats to our religious liberty is the HHS Mandate, by which the government insists, like the Roman authorities, that we take what it says are just trifling acts, but which we know violate our Catholic faith in substantial ways. Other examples include efforts to force Catholic schools and ministries to employ people who are antagonistic to our Catholic beliefs.
Saint Polycarp’s total embrace of the Christian faith and love for the Lord gave him the strength to face the murderous wrath of the crowd and authorities. We may not be facing imminent death as he was, but each of us is called to profess Christ whatever the pressures to go against our faith. If we are not bold enough to stand and oppose even the small acts of oppression, then where will we find the courage to defend bigger assaults against our faith or protect the right to fully exercise our faith freely?
When others use force or threats or engage in hate speech against us, there will always be the temptation to respond in kind. But we must respond as followers of Jesus Christ, following the example of Polycarp and the other Christian martyrs. We speak the truth in love – and we must continue to do so whatever the obstacles, jealously guarding our rights, but prepared to face the consequences when people misunderstand and oppose us. As disciples, we all have a responsibility to always and everywhere stand firm and give witness to our faith.