The Road to Martyrdom

by Fr. Leonard Feeney, M.I.C.M.

The greatest lack of charity in the world today, my dear children, is found in the Liberal Catholic treatment of Jesus. This treatment goes on all through the year, but it comes home to one most especially at Christmas. Liberal Catholicism at Christmas is a “Jingle Bells” Catholicism, with no Blessed Mother, and no little Child at her breast. Mary and her Child are exposed to the cold winds of our disregard — they who need our love as they needed the breath of the ox and the ass; as Jesus needed the warmth of the swaddling clothes!

God is lost and forgotten in His own world! Having come to make Himself visible, He is snubbed by the hard hearts of the world and told that they prefer it the other way. They prefer that the visible should not have become visible. And they pretend to get that message out of the mouth of Jesus! They imply that what He came to say need not have been said!

You say, “Father, are you not very hard on the world at large when you feel that so few people get into Heaven? You make the way so narrow and straight!”

Our Lord, not I, said that the way was narrow and straight. But, may I say, the journey is not hard for all that. It is a struggle to get to Heaven. It is a cross-bearing pilgrimage. But there is something beautiful about carrying a cross when you know which road to walk upon. The insufferable burden of the cross is when you do not know which way to carry it: when you come to a crossroads, and the crossroads becomes the cross, not that which is upon your back!

Everyone in the United States, if he wants salvation truthfully and sincerely, knows in the depths of his heart that the Catholic Church is the way. Even when he has not heard the truth of the Church, he has heard the falsehoods spoken about it. He knows it by the manner in which it is slandered and rejected.

I was reading today a prayer written by Saint Thomas More, just before he died, in 1535. Saint Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and while he was there waiting for the sentence of execution to be passed on him, he turned to prayer.

Saint Thomas More could not find in the England of his day many who would support him in the dogma for which he was to die. He was given the hold-up question which is always put to us these days: “Are you right, and are all the bishops wrong?”

There was something in Saint Thomas More’s stubbornness in the Tower that was a rebuke to the more than thirty bishops in England who would not support him. Actually, we know that there was one bishop, Cardinal Fisher, who did support the doctrine of Papal Supremacy, in defense of which Saint Thomas More was prepared to die. That fact, however, was concealed from Saint Thomas More. The officers of the King deliberately told him that Saint John Fisher had given in. Saint Thomas More thought that he was fighting for the Faith non-episcopally. When it was said to him, “You are going against all the bishops in England,” he said, “I have all the bishops in Heaven on my side!”

Saint Thomas More, since he believed that Cardinal Fisher had defected, did go against every bishop in England. And still the Church has canonized Thomas More. The bishops in England had gone into heresy! If the bishops of Saint Thomas More’s day could go into heresy, the bishops of our day can go into heresy, too.

If we in Boston are not to learn from Saint Thomas More, then I ask you, by God in Heaven, why do we have a church dedicated to him right in the center of the city? Is not the Church teaching as much through that canonized loved one, as through the Question Box in the local diocesan paper?

Does not the Church teach by her canonizations? Does not the Church teach the Jesuits, for example, whom they should follow when it makes two Jesuits, Saint Peter Canisius and Saint Robert Bellarmine, Doctors of the Church?

Before I go on to speak of Christmas and the liturgy of Christmas, I am minded to say to you, very, very strongly, that the Church is still teaching that there is no salvation outside it. It is teaching this doctrine in all its prayers, in all its abjurations of heresy, and in the kind of Catholic it is willing to call a success in Heaven.

The canonized Catholics are always conspicuous for their orthodoxy. The saints are never the Liberal Catholics; never the easy, careless, mundane minds. The latter may prevail locally for a while. They may be editors or assistant editors of diocesan newspapers. They may write a column in the press, or appear on the radio, or television. But the kind of mind which the Church guards and preserves and gives to us for example, is the kind of mind that says what Saint Thomas More said in the last year of his life, when he was preparing for his beautiful martyrdom:

Teach me, O Lord, to be joyful of tribulations,
To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life…

If it is a narrow road, then not great crowds are pouring over it. One, therefore, could walk that way, if one walked with the steps of a child!

That brings me to a second point, and to a thought that has been in my mind this Christmas season. I have been thinking of how beautifully the Catholic Church arranges Christmas week.

The liturgists in the Church, in our day, have come to be those men who feel that when dogma is aesthetic, it is then de fide; or, in other words, when it is attractive decoratively, it has then been defined! They skim off the liturgy from the Faith and leave all the, I might say, hard, cold, challenging, monotonous, heavy, beautiful, silent, unobtrusive truths, behind.

If these men, these modern liturgists, were to have arranged Christmas week, I am certain that they never would have ordered the feasts of the Church so that the priest would go from white vestments for the Mass of Christmas to red vestments on the very day after Christmas, for the Mass of a martyr saint!

I know these aesthetes! I unfortunately lingered in their territories too long in the days when I was urged to be America’s leading Catholic versemaker! I can almost hear them say: “Oh, can’t the martyrs wait until after the Epiphany? We have just gone over to Bethlehem to see the Baby, and you turn us on to Stephen and his stoning immediately, the day after!”

The very day after the birthday of the silent, hidden little Baby Who is God — the day after this Divine challenge to the world — the Church gives us for our reflection and veneration a man cast out of the city and stoned by the Jews because he believed that this Baby, lying on straw in a cave, breathed on by an ox and an ass, and wrapped in the clean, warm, woolen clothes His Mother had prepared for Him, was God. The Church celebrates, the day after Christmas, the death of its first martyr, Saint Stephen.

You see, Christmas does not stay in soft territory for too long, does it?

The second day after Christmas is the feast of Saint John, the beloved disciple, who was also a martyr. The only reason the priest wears white vestments on this day is because the martyrdom of Saint John is celebrated on another day. Saint John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil. That was martyrdom indeed, and Saint John deserves to be called a martyr, even though he was miraculously preserved from death and died of love, as an old man. The priest is urged to wear white vestments, on the second day after Christmas, for a white-haired old man, the last of the Apostles to die.

The third day after Christmas is the feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates the slaughter of so many little infant boys for the sake of Jesus. You might say, “Why don’t you hush up these noisy Jewish babies until our songs get sung and our Christmas carols are finished?” “No,” says the Church, “this is the way I want it: Rachel, bewailing her children!” . . . Rachel was buried near the place where the Holy Innocents were martyred.

Having staggered through these three days of Christmas week, with Stephen stoned, John in and out of a cauldron of boiling oil, and the Holy Innocents slaughtered, we come, on the fourth day, to Saint Thomas à Becket — another martyr! He is called à Becket, and not just Becket, because in his day — which was shortly after the Norman invasion — the little French connectives were still put in English names.

Thomas à Becket is the great Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed in his Cathedral for the dogmas of the Faith. As he entered his Cathedral in the evening, at the hour of Vespers, his enemies came to kill him. Saint Thomas forbade his people to defend him with their arms. “The house of God,” he said, “must not be defended like a fortress.” He walked into the church, and when he was not far from the altar, his murderers overtook him.

They hit him once with a sword. That must have hurt. They hit him harder with a sword. And he was not gone. They hit him again, and the sword broke!

It was a pretty sound beating Saint Thomas got on that head on which a mitre had rested, to show God what a man was willing to suffer for the beliefs in his mind, for the dogmas that make him divine — and not the points of view that make him popular.

We envy this great Saint Thomas of Canterbury. We know it is a beautiful thing to die for the dogmas of the Faith. There is some sense in which you can say that if a Catholic does not know when he is right in his Faith, so that he can stand alone against the world in defense of it, he has not got the Faith at all!

Saint Joan of Arc had to stand alone. Condemned and betrayed by a bishop, she was burned at the stake. Little Bernadette of Lourdes knew that she must stand alone in preserving the message given to her by Our Lady.

We find in Saint Thomas More’s meditations, which he made all alone in the Tower of London, the following prayer:

Give me Thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at nought.
To set my mind fast upon Thee,
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths…
To be content to be solitary,
Not to long for worldly company,
Little by little utterly to cast off the world,
And rid my mind of all the business thereof,
Not to long to hear of any worldly things…

Imagine how beautiful a heart must be, how sure it must be in its union with God and the divine company of His Blessed, to say: “I do not want to hang upon the blasts of men’s mouths. I want to be content to be solitary, to be glad to be alone.”

Saint Thomas More did not mean that he wanted to be alone for loneliness’ sake. He did not say, “I want to be lonely.” He said, “I want to be content to be solitary” — because: “I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2:20.)

This is all the more poignant when we remember that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, for love of us, submitted Himself to indignities which neither the Father nor the Holy Ghost ever knew, or could know, in eternity. God the Father was never scourged with ropes. The face of God the Holy Spirit was never spat upon. And neither God the Father nor God the Holy Spirit, in the nature They have in common with the Son in eternity, could die.

Only the Son of God took a human nature, and only He was able to die. He trod the wine press alone. (Isa. 63:3.) “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken Me?” He cried on Calvary, (Matt. 27:46), to let the other two Persons in the Blessed Trinity know the depths of degradation to which one Person of the Divine Three was plunged for the sake of man.

There was one place in the passion of Jesus where an angel comforted Him, and that was in the agony in the Garden. But there was another place where there is no mention of the comfort even of an angel, and that was in the agony on the Cross.

All alone, God died: in the supremest martyrdom that ever could be. We who can die are privileged to die with Jesus. If we die apart from Him, it is a routine death, which even the undertaker will soon forget. If we die for the sake of Him, it is a martyrdom, which even the angels will remember.

But to go back to the birthday of this lonely Jesus. The feast of Saint Sylvester is at the end of Christmas week. He was a Pope. They call him the first great Pope after the Church came out of the catacombs. The conversion of Constantine the Great occurred during his pontificate. Pope Sylvester was the Roman Pontiff during the Council of Nicea, in 325. He died in 335.

I would say that the great message of Christmas week can be summed up in two words: dogmas and martyrs; dogmas for which Catholics should be ready to die, and martyrs which Catholics should be eager to become.

That is our offering to the little Child of Bethlehem, from the world of hardship into which He came. We give Him the whole of our mind in belief, and the full flood of our heart’s blood in testimony to that belief.

Americans are generous. They are tired of being generous for the wrong reasons. As an American Catholic priest, I call them to a new crusade: in which their courage will need to be divine, their suffering will be great, and their victory eternal.

(Bread of Life, Saint Benedict Center, 1952)

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