The Church was built on martyrdom
There was a chilling synchronicity in the religious news this last week. On Saturday, standing with twenty new cardinals, Pope Francis made twenty-one. The next day the world was shocked by a video showing twenty-one young Coptic Christians being marched to their deaths by beheading. The now all too familiar orange jumpsuits were too jarringly similar in color to the red-orange hue of the new cardinals’ vestments. The cardinals’ colors, splendid in St. Peter’s later seemed to be splashed across the Mediterranean Sea to become the grim vestments of the twenty-one martyrs on the Libyan beach.
The comparison and coincidence is not without precedence. Tradition has it that the red color of the cardinals’ robes represents the blood of the martyrs. In February 2012 Pope Benedict affirmed this tradition. Speaking of the cardinals of the latest consistory he explained, “From now on, they devote even more to work with me in governing the universal Church, and to be witness to the Gospel to the point of sacrificing their own life. This is the meaning of the red color in their clothes.”
The martyrdom of twenty-one Coptic Christian men a day after the latest consistory in Rome was a grim reminder that martyrdom is present with us in the modern day as much as it ever has been. It is a commonly known fact that the twentieth century saw more Christian martyrdoms than in all the other centuries combined and persecution of Christians is not only with us today, but increasing around the world. In his excellent book The Global War on Christians veteran journalist John Allen reports that persecution of Christians is not only global, but ecumenical. Christians of all varieties face persecution, imprisonment, torture and death. Speaking on Sunday about the Coptic martyrs Pope Francis echoed this fact, “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.” They were killed “only because they confessed Christ,” the Pope said. “I ask that we encourage each another to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood. The martyrs belong to all Christians.”
Although the ceremony to create new “Princes of the Church” last week was ornate and suitably splendid, we should be able to look past the magnificence of St. Peters’s Basilica, the richness of the robes and the power of the papacy to see the reality that lies beneath. St. Peter’s basilica is built over the pauper’s tomb of a humble fisherman who was crucified just a few hundred yards from the site in the Vatican Circus. The red robes of the cardinals are a reminder that while they are Princes of the Church they are also called Princes of Blood. The power of the papacy rests not in worldly ambition and achievement, but in the power of the cross of Christ alive in the world today. Beneath their great accomplishment the twenty new cardinals and the pope should bear in their hearts and memories the twenty-one men who were led to their deaths on a Libyan beach the next day.
Catholics should also remember that, beating like a hidden heart beneath all the words and works of the Catholic Church, there is this silent and constant remembrance of the martyrs. From the beginning when St. Stephen accepted his stoning, the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church. Through a mysterious alchemy the martyrs bear in their sacrifice the cross of Christ. As he was slain by the powers of evil, so the martyrs continue to share his cross and pay the ultimate price.
Pope Francis’ address to the new cardinals on Saturday emphasized the mission of charity which they bear to the whole world, and this mission is one of sacrifice. Taking the congregation through St. Paul’s hymn to charity the pope reminded them that charity means “to love without limits,” Charity is a kind of martyrdom therefore, in which one lays down one’s life for one’s friends. The experience of the Libyan martyrs on Sunday echoed the example of the Catholic cardinals on Saturday, and as the new cardinals return to their countries they go reminded of their solemn mission to be one with the martyrs and to lay down their lives in charity and service.
If that is their destiny as servants of the servants of God, then they remind each Catholic that self-sacrificial service is the destiny of all who follow Christ — even if it leads to a martyr’s death.
In Slubgrip Instructs— Fr Longenecker’s Lent book—the demon Slubgrip has been demoted to teach Popular Culture 101 in a college in hell. Available here in hardcopy and as an e-book.