The Catholic Church began compiling “martyrologies”—lists of saints, typically martyrs—during the first centuries after Constantine. In the pre-Vatican II breviary, a reading from the Roman Martyrology, or what we might call the Catholic Book of Witnesses, was an integral part of the Office of Prime, the “hour” recited after sunrise. The day’s date was given, followed by a reading of the names of the saints commemorated that day, with information about each saint’s origin and place of death—and, if the saint were a martyr, the name of the persecutor, a description of tortures endured, and the method of execution. It was a bracing way to begin the working day and a reminder of Tertullian’s maxim that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.
It is somewhat ironic that the loss of Prime from the Liturgy of the Hours—and thus the loss of a daily liturgical reading from the Roman Martyrology—coincided with the greatest century of persecution in the history of the Church. It’s a point well-established but little appreciated within American Catholicism: we have been living, and we’re living now, in the greatest era of persecution in Christian history. More Christians died for the faith in the 20th-century than in the previous 19 centuries of Christian history combined. And while the character of the persecutors has changed, from the lethal heyday of the 20th-century totalitarianisms to the first decades of the 21st century, the assault on the Christian faithful today is ongoing, extensive, and heart-rending.
Solidarity with the persecuted Church is an obligation of Christian faith. Reflecting on how well each of us has lived that obligation is a worthy point on which to examine one’s conscience during Lent. And that brings me to a suggestion: Revive the ancient tradition of daily readings from the Roman Martyrology this coming Lent by spending 10 minutes a day reading John Allen’s new book, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (Image).
The longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and CNN’s senior Vatican analyst, Allen has recently moved to the Boston Globe as associate editor, where he (and we) will see if talent and resources can combine to deepen a mainstream media outlet’s coverage of all things Catholic, both in print and on the Web. Meanwhile, Allen will continue the Roman work that has made him the best Anglophone Vatican reporter ever—work that has given him a unique perspective on the world Church, and indeed on world Christianity. His extensive experience across the globe, and his contacts with everyone who’s anyone in the field of international religious freedom issues, makes him an ideal witness to what he calls, without exaggeration, a global war on Christian believers.
That witness includes, in his book, a continent-by-continent overview of anti-Christian persecution, a debunking of various myths about anti-Christian persecution, and some counsel on what can be done to support those who are literally putting their lives at risk for love of the Lord and the Gospel. Most poignant for Lenten reading, of course, are those parts of Allen’s book that truly are a contemporary martyrology: his telling of the stories of such martyrs of our time as Shabhaz Bhatti of Pakistan, Ashur Yakub Issa of Iraq, the Tibhirine monks of Algeria, and the pastors and church elders who were crushed to death by a bulldozer in front of their North Korean place of worship.
In pondering these cases, and the hundreds more that Allen cites, one gets a new understanding of “hatred of the faith,” that ancient odium fidei that identified the deaths of martyrs. Odium fidei expresses itself in many way, of course, not all of them lethal. Allen’s close focus on those who really are at risk of life and limb for the faith is a useful reminder that, whatever the contempt orthodox Christians are called to suffer today for fidelity to biblical truth in the comfortable, decadent, and increasingly intolerant West, others are being called to suffer far more. Their witness should strengthen ours.