Rediscovering the Martyrology

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.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.