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The third-century Church Father Tertullian once wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith.” Tertullian lived during one of the most violent periods of Roman persecution, but he noticed that paradoxically, the more Christians died for their faith, the more their numbers grew. The astonishing courage and love shown by the early martyrs inspired many pagan Romans to embrace Christianity, Tertullian included.
The word “martyr” means “witness,” and the martyrs’ heroic deaths were understood as a testimony par excellence to their belief in Jesus. Martyrdom has been a central element of the Church’s spirituality since her foundation, and there have been martyrs in every age, including our own.
The possibility of having our own life threatened on account of our faith can be a jarring one. We know that our life in this world is a good thing, and we are naturally programmed to do whatever we can to preserve it. Given this, we might be inclined to ask: If we were in a situation where our life depended on it, would we be permitted to deny Christ in order to save our lives?
To answer this question, it would be helpful first of all to keep in mind that the Church has never had any problem with Catholics taking prudent measures to avoid circumstances where one is likely to be martyred. For example, in 16th-century England, St. Thomas More faced execution at the hands of the state for his refusal to approve of the king’s unlawful second marriage. Rather than boldly courting death, St. Thomas, a trained lawyer, sought to take advantage of every potential legal loophole to avoid being convicted of the capital crime of high treason. This was not because More was unwilling to die for his faith. Rather, it was because he understood that ordinarily God wills us to do whatever we reasonably can to protect the gift of life he has given us, provided of course that we do so without sinning.
Still, this consideration does not really answer the question, but only pushes it back a few steps. Circumstances may be such (as they were for St. Thomas More in the end) that there is no way out of facing persecution head on. What then?
It is important to recall that apostasy — the technical term for denying one’s faith — is indeed a very serious sin. Christ himself told us, “whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father” (Matthew 10:33).
The Church does have a long tradition of pardoning those who repent after denying their faith under extreme duress, and the Church also teaches that grave fear can greatly reduce one’s personal culpability for sins, including the sin of apostasy. However, a readiness to forgive apostasy is not the same thing as suggesting that apostasy is not sinful, and even less is it permission or encouragement to deny the faith in extreme circumstances.
While it might seem that very few Christians possess the depth of devotion necessary for martyrdom, the call to be faithful even unto death is arguably a facet of the universal call to holiness. Martyrdom might rightly be considered a special gift insofar as most Christians will not have the situational opportunity to bear this kind of witness, but all Christians without exception are called to a heroic fidelity in the face of adversity.
We could even go so far as to say that a willingness to die for Christ is necessary in order to fully live for him. A fundamental resolve to accept the possibility of martyrdom is the only logical consequence of taking our Catholic faith seriously. That is, if we truly believe what the Church teaches, then we know fully well that God is real; that he is our ultimate good and is in fact the only source of any goodness; that our time on earth is fleeting and we all must face death eventually and that Jesus truly rose from the dead and promised eternal life to all those who remain faithful to him. If Christ were not worth the total offering of all we have and are, then he would be less than what we profess him to be.
It is true that, due to our human weakness, none of us can speak with full assurance about how we would react if we were forced into a position of being compelled to choose between our faith in Christ and our mortal life. Yet if we are resolved to bear this kind of witness, we have every reason to be confident that the Holy Spirit would endow us with whatever strength was needed to stand firm in faith until the end.
Of Related Interest:
Fr. Elias Mallon: Can Christians Profess Faith in Islam in Order to Save Their Lives?
Jenna M. Cooperis a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York. She completed a licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 2014.