At a time when Christians are under increased pressure in many places around the world Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., has recently published a book on martyrdom.
In “To the Martrys: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness,” (Emmaus Road Publishing) he not only provides a broad historical overview of the topic but also looks at current events and the relationship between martyrdom and the Eucharist.
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, commented in the book’s foreword: “As Christians, we are all called to be witnesses, and witnesses do not change their mission or message even if, like Christ, they face death.”
Cardinal Wuerl started by noting how today Christian persecution is occurring “on a massive scale,” all around the globe. Yet, too often, he lamented, these happenings are sidelined by the mainstream media and governments, resulting in martyrs being left to suffer alone.
He explained that his book was intended to be an act of solidarity with those who suffer for their Christian faith, an expression of the solidarity that unites all those in the Church of Jesus Christ.
“Martyrdom may be constant, and it may be inevitable. But that does not mean we should allow it to take place without consequence and unremarked,” he added.
Cardinal Wuerl dedicated a number of chapters to the history of martyrdom, which was a feature of Christianity from the start of the Church. He noted that while many people associate martyrs with the persecutions during the time of the Roman Empire more people died for their Christian faith during the 20th century than in all the other centuries combined.
One of the causes behind the persecution of Christians, he explained, is that Christianity dares to decry the acts of despots and to oppose the sins of society. Although sermons, rallies, and books provide testimony, martyrdom goes further, providing a testimony sealed with blood.
A testimony highly valued by the Church, as seen in the numerous feast days dedicated to martyrs and how the stories of their sacrifices have been preserved. These examples of the supreme sacrifice, Cardinal Wuerl commented, “invite us all to ask ourselves how much we give and how much we hold back.”
The modern secular state will not persecute Christians in the same way that the Romans did, but it will ask Christians to “compromise their morals, their sense of justice, their belief in human dignity and freedom, and their commitment to evangelize.”
A couple of the concluding chapters of the book are dedicated to examining persecution in contemporary times. Some of the attacks are still physically violent and through the modern media are carried out in a way to make a public statement, this time on the Internet instead of the amphitheatre.
Precise numbers are difficult to come by, Cardinal Wuerl commented, but in Iraq, for example, the Christian population has probably fallen by 90% in just one generation. Amid the public silence about such events he challenged fellow Christians as to what they are doing about it.
Do we pray for those who are suffering, he asked. Are we making our voices heard in the media or by writing to legislators? Are we helping by donating money to those organizations that help persecuted Christians? Do we do anything to help newly arrived refugees?
“If we say we are Christian – if we say we are Catholic, which means universal – we are not free to ignore this great humanitarian crisis of our time,” Cardinal Wuerl stated.
One of the chapters looked at anti-Catholicism in America. Cardinal Wuerl was careful to clarify that he was not suggesting an equivalency between the situation of Christians in America and the persecution in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, we are living at a time when the federal government is taking legal action against religious orders and organizations to force them into acts that violate their conscience.
As well, the Catholic Church is denounced for being prejudiced simply because of its teachings on respecting human life and on marriage.
In such a situation our response must be like that of Christ, Cardinal Wuerl recommended, that is, “a response rooted in love.” At the same time he said: “We must continue to speak the truth, jealously guarding our rights, but prepared to face the consequences when people misunderstand us.”
One of the final chapters of the book contained an interesting reflection on the relationship between martyrdom and the Eucharist. It is no surprise that many martyrs have found a model in the Passion of Christ, but another common theme is that of the Eucharist.
This is no mere coincidence, Cardinal Wuerl explained, as the Eucharist is a voluntary self-offering, as in martyrdom, and just as the Eucharist brings about communion with Christ so does martyrdom.
“Communion with Christ is not a protection from suffering,” Cardinal Wuerl noted. “It is a blessing of our suffering.”
“United with Christ in Holy Communion, the martyrs faced death not with their own weakness, but with Jesus’ strength,” he continued.
The final chapter has as its title “The Ecumenism of Blood,” taken from the repeated use of this expression by Pope Francis. Through the testimony of martyrs, God is achieving a greater Christian unity, particularly between the Christian churches in the Middle East.
Cardinal Wuerl finished with a further appeal for solidarity with the persecuted and also a plea to re-echo their testimony to others. If current trends continue there will be plenty of opportunity to do this.