I just read Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s new book To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness and give it my strong recommendation.
Cardinal Wuerl starts from the beginning of the Church and explores the martyrdoms that Catholics have endured down through our time.
Martyrs in Every Age
Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Cardinal Wuerl demonstrates the truth of that statement as he looks at the first martyrs in the early Church, including the Apostles, and how the Church grew from their witness.
He moves forward in time to the various Roman persecutions, telling the story of what it was like to be a Christian during those times, how the Church grew from a tiny, insignificant thing into a powerful social, economic, and moral force in the Roman empire.
The Cardinal then heads into the 600s and did not hold back from describing the rise of Islam and its immediate persecution of Chrisitans:
Muhammad was astonishingly successful. He took many towns and oases, and he absorbed many tribes, sometimes through battles, but sometimes without any resistance at all. The key to many victories was the ferocity of Muhammad’s warriors, who had no fear of death. Indeed, they seemed to welcome it, as Muhammad had applied a traditional honorific term to his warriors who died in battle. It was a Christian term, martyr (shahid in Arabic), and it acquired a new meaning in the emerging religion known as Islam, whose followers were known as Muslims.
There is a key difference, however. The Christian martyrs laid down their own lives, but took no one else’s. The Arab warriors took many lives, including those of many Christians and Jews.
In the next chapter he jumps ahead to the Protestant Reformation and focuses on King Henry VIII. I was pleased to see here that he called out King Henry’s brutality, lust, and the grievous devastation he brought upon the Church, including countless martyrs, with Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher being the most well-known.
The Reformation paved the way for the Enlightenment, and Cardinal Wuerl describes the slaughter of Catholics during that time, including holy nuns and priests who brought the mobs to silence with their solemn, joyful witness to Christ even as they were being executed.
He then heads into the twentieth century–where more martyrs were made than in all the centuries prior–and discusses the reality of the Armenian Genocide by Islamic Turkey, the Mexican persecution and Cristero War, the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany, and Communist China.
But the blood shed has produced fruit already. For instance, in China:
In 1949 there were only one million Christians. Forty years of anti-religious communist rule produced some 1.2 million martyrs. The result: explosive church growth to today’s 90 million believers.”
Cardinal Wuerl brings the reader up to the present day, and discusses the martyrdom in our age, where Islamists like ISIS make martyrs right before our eyes and upload the videos to YouTube.
And in our own country, persecution is rising. Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice here. To think that it can’t grow into something far worse ignores history, as Cardinal Wuerl points out:
And no land is safe from a sudden resurgence of persecution. Think about the bloodiest purges of the last century. Where did they take place? Catholic Spain. Orthodox Russia. Christian Germany. Christian Armenia. They began with small encroachments that grew greater over time.
To say “it can’t happen here” is to speak from profound naiveté and ignorance of history.
In January 2012, Pope Benedict XVI warned the United States bishops of a “radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres” in our land.
To conclude the book, Wuerl connects martyrdom–witness–with Jesus in the Eucharist:
As the Eucharist is a re-presentation of Jesus’ Passion, so is martyrdom. As the Eucharist is a voluntary self-offering, so is martyrdom. As the Eucharist brings about communion, so does the act of martyrdom. As the Eucharist is given so that others might live, so are the lives of the martyrs.
Having not read any books by Cardinal Wuerl before, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was impressed by this book. It was an excellent survey of Church history and how men and women gave their lives for Christ. They didn’t go looking for death, but when it came for them, they were ready. May we be so as well!