Making the Case for Martyrdom

“I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”  ∼ Francis Cardinal George, OMI

Concerning the four Chicago archbishops cited above, along with the predictions made of each, there can be absolute certainty only about one, which is that Francis Cardinal George did indeed die in his bed. A year ago last April, in fact. As for the others, it is impossible to predict the outcome of any one of their lives, particularly the last two who don’t even exist yet. As for the current occupant, Archbishop Blasé J. Cupich, while there are those for whom his performance has been less than stellar (not that the late Cardinal George was an easy act to follow), one must nevertheless hope that when the time of real testing comes, he will prove equal to the challenge. (Mother Church, we are told, continues to make provision for eleventh hour conversions.)

All of which means, of course, his witness will have to be as convincing as that of any other believing Christian, for whom life begins when one is baptized into the death of Christ. What other source have we got from which to derive strength and identity if not the Lord’s Body and Blood broken upon the Cross? Or are we to construe as mere metaphor those lapidary lines from T.S. Eliot?

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The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.                              

We are not. And so we must be ready—at any moment, in every circumstance—to make our witness heard. The Catholic Thing is no bloodless truth but testimony to the eternal God himself, whom we encounter in the historical figure of Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we may locate the ground and meaning of the universe.

This is especially true of bishops, by the way, who, in their unique and non-transferable capacity as shepherds, are entrusted by Christ himself to the care of souls. The exercise of high episcopal office is a most sobering prospect, chilling even in its implications, because it requires a readiness to suffer and die for the sheep.  Costing not less than everything, as Eliot reminds us on the last page of Four Quartets. The Church does not need careerist curates who, knowing how to climb the ladder of ecclesiastical preferment, have conveniently forgotten that it can also serve as a stairwell to hell. She will not welcome those who move in lockstep with the world, but only those who work to move the world. Like Thomas Becket, the sainted archbishop of Canterbury, who, in defying a wicked king, went to his death in a blaze of glory. When accosted by the barons murderously bent on butchery and revenge before the high altar, he reminded them that he was no enemy of his king that they should seek to kill him. “I am here,” he tells them in Eliot’s imaginative reconstruction of the scene. “No traitor to the King. I am a priest.” But because death is preferable to a life of shame and dishonor, he will forego that life and, yielding it up to the Lord, embrace death as one who gladly goes out to meet the One he loves.

Ready to suffer with my blood.
This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death,
My death for His death.

 ∼ Murder in the Cathedral

Or, to reach all the way back to the earliest beginnings of ecclesial life, we have the striking example of Ignatius, bishop and martyr of the Church in Antioch, who died shortly after the turn of the second century. What a rare specimen of sanctity he was! A man so avid for the ravenous beasts that he could hardly wait to reach Rome in order to be eaten by them. “Let me be fodder for wild beasts—that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ… Then I shall be a real disciple of Jesus Christ when the world sees my body no more.” And while they made short work of him amid the cries of the Roman mob baying for his blood, they certainly enabled him all the more speedily to return to God.

His was a soul “seething with the divine eros,” to quote St. John Chrysostom, who paid eloquent homage to his memory in a sermon preached in Antioch on his feast day some two centuries later. Called Theophorus (“God-bearer”) by those who knew him, the word became a fitting epithet for Ignatius, a man literally filled with God, overflowing with zeal for the divine life. And even as he was being tormented by the cruelties of his Roman escort (his “ten leopards” he called them), dragooning him across Asia Minor to the arena in Rome where the Emperor Trajan had condemned him to die, he managed to dispatch a series of impassioned letters to various churches along the way.

What were the themes of so hurried a correspondence—composed, as it were, on the fly? Besides the obvious preoccupation with his impending death, Ignatius was at pains both to showcase the importance of unity among the faithful, who must ever submit to the authority of their bishop as its guarantor, and the maintenance of the faith itself, particularly against those who would divest the Church of her sacred deposit.

“I hasten to urge you,” he tells the Church of Ephesus, “to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ—that life from which we cannot be torn—is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ.” Let each presbytery, he continues, “be as closely tied to the bishop as the strings to a harp,” for otherwise it may not “sing in unison and with one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ.”

Make no mistake about it. If anyone is not inside the sanctuary, he lacks God’s bread. And if the prayer of one or two has great avail, how much more that of the bishop and the total Church. He who fails to join your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic. It is written, moreover, ‘God resists the proud.’ Let us, then, heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God.

Only where there is unity behind the bishop, who speaks for the Church herself amid the accents of Jesus Christ, is it possible to uphold the integrity of the Church’s faith. Here, then, is the final theme that runs through the letters, that of faith itself. And the threat for Ignatius was twofold. On the one side, there were those who refused to rid themselves of Judaism, living as though they had never been given grace. Get rid of the bad yeast, he exhorts them, because it can never deliver the goods.

It has grown stale and sour—and be changed into new yeast, that is, into Jesus Christ. Be salted in him, so that none of you go bad, for your smell will give you away. It is monstrous to talk Jesus Christ and live like a Jew. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity.

Maybe Peter put a bit more polish on the point when, in the Acts of the Apostles, he reminds the Jews that “the stone rejected by you the builders has become the cornerstone,” but the conclusion remains the same, namely that there can be “no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).

And, then, on the other side, there were those who, while they had no problem accepting Jesus as God (they were not tempted to Judaism), it was God as man that gave them pause; indeed, they recoiled with a kind of pious horror before the fact of God having pitched his tent in our midst. They were far too fastidious for the flesh and the notion, for instance, of a God actually assuming a body that would then be subject to suffering was simply too much. Ignatius is no less scathing in his contempt for their position, especially as it would undermine the whole case for his own, which is rooted in the most resolute willingness to die. “And if, as some atheists (I mean unbelievers) say, his suffering was a sham (it’s really they who are a sham!), why, then, am I a prisoner? Why do I want to fight with wild beasts? In that case I shall die to no purpose.”

The hearers of the Word must be, he insists in a deft little distillation of the Creed, “deaf to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died…” In other words, it is due to the Incarnation that we affirm the event of Easter. It is the Incarnate and Crucified God who rose from the dead.

May all of us, including especially our bishops, find nourishment in the blood of Christ. Not only will it wash away the world’s sin, but for those of us whose lives are bound by constant recourse to his blood, it will be the only thing to sustain us in the time of testing that is to come.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the murder scene from the 1964 film Becket staring Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Archbishop Thomas Becket.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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