Dear Friends in Jesus Christ,
Welcome to this week’s Bishop’s Blog!
St. Irenaeus, a very early bishop of Lyons and who died for the faith, is credited as saying that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” With the solemnity of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul on Thursday, followed by that of the martyrs of the Roman Church, it is worthwhile to reflect on martyrdom and its honourable place in our Christian tradition.
In the liturgy Christ himself is referred to as “King of Martyrs” who laid down his life for the salvation of the world. According to tradition, all but one of the twelve Apostles were put to death for the name of Christ. The word martyr comes from the Greek for witness, and a martyr is precisely a witness to the truth. The first martyr, Stephen, is an excellent example of one who bore testimony to Jesus and met death by stoning.
How do we explain the fact that the erstwhile fisherman Peter and the formerly radical anti-Christian Paul were prepared to face death rather than deny faith in Jesus Christ?
A principal reason surely is the experience they had of Jesus Christ: Peter during the Lord’s earthly life and public ministry, and especially his encounter with him after the resurrection; the startling upheaval and conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus when he heard the glorified Lord speaking to him. Both of these great Apostles came to realise the truth from God that is to be found in its fullness in Jesus Christ, and their deep conviction that he was the Son of God in the flesh. No worldly truth or philosophy could sway them from this greatest of all realities, of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
Peter, Paul and Stephen were but the first in a very long line of those who died for their faith in Christ, many of whom we know, but undoubtedly countless others known to God alone. What is remarkable is how their legacy and memory live on despite persecution, torment and finally death. Names familiar to us and which come to mind are Saints Thomas More and John Fisher who died in the Tower of London, and our own Lancashire and Cumbrian martyrs like Edmund Arrowsmith, John Southworth, John Boste and Edmund Bamber, to name but a few. They form part of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ of which the letter to the Hebrews speaks (12:1).
The roll call of Christian martyrs is an extensive one and of universal proportions down the centuries.
In a sermon on martyrdom, St. Augustine observes how the martyrs were sustained by the food they received at the table of the King of Martyrs, Jesus Christ. Through sharing in the Eucharistic food of his sacrificial body and blood they gained the strength to face every trial, even death itself. We here live, by and large, in less troubled times, but nonetheless we are called to bear witness to Christ each day, and to do requires courage, determination and steadfastness.
We are privileged to share in that same sacred food and drink at the Lord’s table as did the long succession of martyrs. They knew instinctively through faith what a supreme treasure the Mass was, and rather than forgo the Mass they risked their lives to be present and celebrate it. May the witness and example of Peter, Paul and so many other martyrs to the faith continue to inspire and teach us as we endeavour to follow the Lord in the very developed world of the twenty-first century!
All martyrs of every time and place, pray for us!
Until next week – May God bless you all,
+Michael G Campbell OSA
Bishop of Lancaster