Throwback Thursday: “You Will Be My Witnesses”

On June 29, we celebrate the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, both martyred in Rome. The next day, we remember the many other nameless Christians who also gave the ultimate witness in Rome in the first century.

During the reign of the Emperor Nero, a huge fire raged through the city destroying homes and shops and killing many, many people. The Roman historian Tacitus reports that the public suspected that the fire was intentionally started on the orders of Nero himself, who wanted to clear ground to build a larger palace (Annals 15:38-40). Nero subsequently blamed the fire on the Christians and had “an immense multitude” killed as a form of sport, as much as punishment (Annals 15:44).

These Christian martyrs, like women and men in every age of the Church, were killed simply for being Christian. Today we know that, particularly in some areas of the Middle East and Africa, Christians live in great peril and are even still being threatened with execution unless they renounce Christ. Studies by the Pew Forum and others, in fact, show that more Christians are suffering persecution throughout the world than any other religious group.

Though the circumstances that lead to martyrdom have varied, the Catechism tells us that “[m]artyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity” (CCC 2473). This brings to mind the scene before Christ’s death when he stands before Pilate and proclaims that he “has come into the world to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).

We who have received the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are also called to give witness to the truth. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council remind us that “[a]ll Christians by the example of their lives and the witness of their word, wherever they live, have an obligation to manifest the new man which they have put on in Baptism and to reveal the power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strengthened at Confirmation” (Ad Gentes, 11).

Thankfully, at present, for us in the Church of Washington, this does not mean that we will be asked to give our lives in defense of our faith, but we are asked to make our daily lives a witness to the Christian faith and imitate the martyrs. In this, “it is always necessary to die a little,” says Pope Francis, “in order to come out of ourselves, to leave behind our selfishness [and] open ourselves to God and to others.” (Message for the Beatification of 522 Spanish Martyrs, October 14, 2013).

These feasts for these first martyrs of Rome also remind us that when Saints Peter and Paul came to Rome, a sizeable Christian community was already there. The first seeds of the Gospel preceded them, having been brought to Rome by way of some everyday nameless people who shared what they learned about Christ or maybe even a personal encounter with Jesus.

To help those early Christians before his arrival, Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans, on which I wrote a series of blog posts in July 2014. Reading this letter today helps us to understand more profoundly how the young Christian community came to be strong in the way of discipleship, how the missionary Apostle helped them understand what it means to be a witness to Christ, particularly in the face of hostilities in the larger society.

Saint Paul’s desire was to encourage these Roman Christians to hold fast to the faith, to know that nothing can keep us from the love of Christ. Joining with our Holy Father, “[w]e implore the intercession of the martyrs in order to be true Christians, Christians not only in words but in deeds; so as not to be mediocre Christians, Christians painted with a superficial gloss of Christianity but without substance. . . . Let us ask their help to stay firm in faith, in spite of difficulties, and let us too nurture hope and be architects of brotherhood and solidarity” (Message for the Beatification of 522 Spanish Martyrs, October 14, 2013).