Tag Archives: martyrdom

On Martyrs and Marchers

Ann AstellSr. Ann Astell

Professor, Notre Dame Department of Theology

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Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

Brothers and sisters, in your relations with one another,
clothe yourselves with humility,
because God “is stern with the arrogant
but to the humble he shows kindness.”
Bow humbly before God’s mighty hand,
so that in due time he may lift you high.

Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.

Stay sober and alert.
Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, solid in your faith,
realizing that the brotherhood of believers
is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.

The God of all grace,
who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish
those who have suffered a little while.
Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen.
(1 Peter 5:5b–11)

Today is the feast of a martyr, St. Sebastian, who gave his life for Christ in the third century, under the emperor Diocletian. Christian art depicts Sebastian as an alter Christus, muscular, young, bound naked to a post, his body shot full of arrows, as Jesus was nailed to his Cross. The epistle of Peter speaks to Sebastian and to all the martyrs. It rings in their ears: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:–9). A prowling lion! During the reigns of Nero and Diocletian, Christians were literally fed to lions.

Throughout the centuries, however, the epistle’s exhortation sounds in the present tense. When has the age of martyrs ever ended? To Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., who died on January 20, 1873, and whose feast we also observe today—to him too came the call to martyrdom! A martyrdom suffered not with a pagan emperor’s arrows and not through violent death, but through the suppression of the Church in a fiercely laical France. Facing that hostility and the countless challenges that were his as a founder, he looked to the Cross as his—and our—only hope.

We celebrate these Vespers on the eve of the departure of Notre Dame students and faculty who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to bear witness to the sanctity of human life in the midst of a culture of death. They will end their march at the steps leading up to the Supreme Court Building, where the Roe v. Wade decision was made in 1973, and where an important case with regard to religious liberty and health care is currently being considered. To the Little Sisters of the Poor, their legal defenders, and their co-litigants, the call to martyrdom has also come. Staying “sober and alert,” they have “cast all their care” on the Lord who cares for them, trusting that he “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish those who have suffered a little while” (1 Pet 5:7–8, 10).

According to the epistle we have just heard, Christians undergoing persecution and trial can draw strength from the knowledge that they do not suffer alone, that “the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:9). In our day, “throughout the world” brings to mind a litany of place names: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burundi, Mexico, Brazil, refugee camps in Europe. Everywhere the lion prowls. And everywhere brave souls continue to love, to hope, to confess Christ, to bow humbly beneath the cross, terrible and triumphant, that conforms the Christian to Christ. Ave Crux, Spes Unica!

On this day, January 20, in 1942, Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885–1968), a Pallottine priest and the founder of Schoenstatt, celebrated Holy Mass in his prison cell. Soon to be sent to Dachau, where he was to suffer for three and a half years, Fr. Kentenich freely laid down his life in union with Christ during that Eucharist, celebrated alone and in secret, but in spiritual union with his followers, some of whom were already prisoners in the concentration camp. “The brotherhood of believers” (1 Pet 5:9)! Fr. Kentenich’s risk-taking, his trusting “yes” to the Cross, expressed his deep faith in Christ, but also in the mystical body of Christ, the communion of saints. “What I do, what I suffer, how I love, affects others,” he wrote.

Let us live our lives, day by day, in a greater consciousness of our responsibility for one another, in solidarity with the martyrs who suffer not only for Christ but, in Christ, for us.

St. Sebastian, Blessed Basil Moreau, pray for us.

Weeping with Rachel, in Sorrow and Hope

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

There are some stereotypes that often accompany the college stage of a woman’s life. Some (like loving babies, studying in coffee shops, etc), I embrace. Others I do my absolute best to avoid (and we’ll leave those ones to the imagination). My friends and I all proudly take up an affection for and gravitation toward all infants and young children within a mile radius as our stereotypical banner of choice. In fact, we have an unspoken arrangement that involves Mutter und Kindimmediately informing each other of the presence of any nearby bundle(s) of joy. My girlfriends and I revel in the wonder that small children have; we discuss how there is nothing on this earth more precious than tiny fingers, toes, and noses; we feel the urge to play peek-a-boo with any and all small children who cross our path. And if we see a little tyke just wobbily learning to walk, it is absolutely the game-over-highlight of our day. Not having children of our own yet means that we certainly still have a somewhat romanticized view of young children and parenthood, but we honestly mean well, and the call of Jesus to “let the little children come” resonates with us.


At Christmas, that love and the gravitational pull of my heart towards little ones seasonally intensifies. And every year, the fact that our Lord came to earth not as an adult but as a helpless, innocent, dependent little one who needed the arms of His mother Mary and his foster-flight into egyptfather Joseph repeatedly stuns me.

But the Feast of the Holy Innocents is not warm and fuzzy. This feast is not a day where we can blithely wonder what it would have been like to count the toes of Baby Jesus and to kiss His head. The Church commemorates the Feast of the Holy Innocents, as it has been doing so since at least the fifth century. The Gospel of Matthew helps us to remember that Joseph and Mary left a dire situation when they fled with Jesus toward Egypt:

“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

How can a day when we remember the martyrdom of infant and toddler baby boys who died in Jesus’ stead because of Herod’s fear, wrath, and pride fit in with the love of children, littleness, and humility that permeates the very foundations of our faith at Christmas? Why do we celebrate and remember a day when infant boys were massacred? We were reminded in the Office of Readings on Christmas of a sentiment that at first glance might not seem to fit with today:

“Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life.” (St. Leo)

Yet here we are, only a few days later, remembering the mothers who “wept with Rachel,” and aching for the infants whose lives were cruelly snuffed out by Herod’s soldiers. How are we supposed to reconcile that brutal fact and painful reality with warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas?

Put simply, we don’t.

St. Leo’s sermon on Christmas did not end with telling us sadness should have no place in the Christian life ever because of the feast of Christmas. The next line continues the story: “The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.” That is what makes the reality of the Holy Innocents livable. If we reduce Christmas to feelings of togetherness and cheerfulness, or if we disable the Mystery of the Incarnation and cripple it to fit in our boxes of gift giving and kitchens full of holiday smells, it will become impossible to reconcile the deaths of the little ones with a good God in faith. Instead, if we remember that the Incarnation actually means that our Savior became flesh and came to dwell among us, and that He was born in order that He could die for us so that we could have the hope of eternal glory, the narrative shifts. It shifts from one that would despair at the death of the Holy Innocents to one that celebrates and remembers them, counting them as martyrs, knowing that they did not die totally in vain.

imagesSt. Bede, the Doctor of the Church who is often mentioned for his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” but who wrote enough to fill a library of material, penned a hymn in Latin titled, “Hymnum canentes martyrum” in memory of these infant martyrs whom we commemorate today. His hymn captures that narrative shift. This shift enables us to realize that Christmas is not about the saccharine fuzziness that we might societally associate it with, but rather the hope of heaven that became reality because our God became flesh, and dwelt among us, for us.

“A Hymn for Martyrs sweetly sing;

For Innocents your praises bring;

Of whom in tears was earth bereaved,

Whom heaven with songs of joy received

 Whose angels see the Father’s face

World without end, and hymn His grace;

And, while they praise their glorious King,

A hymn for Martyrs sweetly sing.

 A voice from Ramah was there sent,

holy-innocents-rachel-weepingA voice of weeping and lament,

While Rachel mourned her children sore,

Whom for the tyrant’s sword she bore

 After brief taste of earthly woe

Eternal triumph now they know;

For whom, by cruel torments rent,

A voice from Ramah was there sent

And every tear is wiped away

By your dear Father’s hands for aye:

Death hath no power to hurt you more;

Your own is life’s eternal shore

And all who, good seed bearing, weep,

In everlasting joy shall reap,

What time they shine in heavenly day,

And every tear is wiped away.

Bede’s song and our knowledge in faith does not mean that we shrug our shoulders at the pain and the injustice of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents; it does not mean that Herod (or his modern-day counterparts) gets a free pass. It does, however, mean that the meaning of the Incarnation is held together because of the Paschal Mystery. And that’s why when we hear of the deaths of the Innocents, we might still cry. But we can cry with hope, knowing that there is a place where every tear is wiped away.

The birth of our Savior has ripped apart the fabric of time. By His later death and resurrection,the Little One whose birth we celebrated this past Thursday saved the souls of the infants who died as Herod greedily tried to salvage his earthly power. And so when those baby boys died, they did not die in vain, but in the hope and promise of eternal life. We celebrate their memory as some of the first martyrs of our faith, knowing that our God can write straight with even the most crooked and sad lines of history.

Auden on the Feast of Stephen

Sam Bellafiore


Samuel Bellafiore
Undergraduate Fellow
B.A. 2015 Music, Philosophy


Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.
– from W.H. Auden’s “For the Time Being

December 26 can be a miserable morning. The fresh-looking print in one’s new books already has the dull glaze of familiarity. If you’re me, your new pants may already have a tear in them. Yesterday weren’t all things supposed to be made new?

Didn’t I just try for four weeks to egg on my longing for Christ, dragging it slouching and grumbling out from under my rocky heart? If I did, I have nothing to show for it. I’m still crabby and arrogant and hoping the Christ child will enjoy His generous allotment of one-quarter to one-half of my heart.

Auden knows me too well. “Once again/As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed/To do more than entertain it as an agreeable/Possibility…” On loathsome Boxing Day, tender and sympathetic Mother Church hands us St. Stephen.

Stephen was one of the first deacons, chosen by the apostles in Acts 6 to aid their ministry to the poor. By the end of the chapter the Jewish priests try him for blasphemy. And by the end of Chapter 7, he has been stoned. He is called the first martyr.

ststephen5I’ve liked Stephen since I first encountered him in my childhood Lives of the Saints.  Recently I’ve been drawn to his freshness and innocence. The picture (at right) from my saints book shows as much. Stephen wants nothing but God. Acts says those who tried him “looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15)

Perhaps many people find this sort of purity off-putting, especially in male saints. It looks weak; the art is not always good. Christianity asks everyone, including men, for weakness. This was as weird in 40 AD as it is today. But there’s also something compelling and attractive about it. Stephen’s weakness was not weakness born of flimsiness or spinelessness. His purity was born of intensity, for being pure means being intent. Søren Kierkegaard said that purity of heart is to will one thing. At the end of his life Stephen came to will nothing other than God. It showed, on his face and in his dying.

Stephen lived in the very earliest of the early Church, in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s life on earth. Perhaps he can teach those of us who wonder what it means to live the day after Christmas, when our presents get tarnished, our faith gets weary and we wonder whether we really let Christ come after all. Stephen had what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness,” which my presents and I lack. He didn’t, as Auden says, entertain Christ an agreeable possibility. He entertained Christ as the true guest of his heart, a tenant who could have every room and never pay rent.

To do this, he had to become weak. Somewhere along the way, one doesn’t know when, Stephen had to let down some bars, give away some goods and give up some petty loves. He was, Acts tells us, a talented man — a good speaker, a quick thinker. He probably had to let go of some pride. In this process Christ came toThe Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen live in Him more and more. Christ took possession of his gifts and used them to preach the Gospel, maybe even to plant seeds in the heart of Saul, who Acts says was present at Stephen’s martyrdom.

Stephen did just what Auden’s modern subjects didn’t do. I “have grossly overestimated my powers” and grossly underestimated God’s. Stephen didn’t regurgitate some self-created love. He let Himself be taken in the divine love. This is how one learns to love one’s enemies and one’s relatives (and sometimes the twain does meet).

On Stephen’s feast,  the Gospel of peace already meets with violence the day after Christ’s birth. Stephen’s weakness, his vulnerability to divine love and power, lets him meet the violence with peace. In many images of St. Stephen, the priests’ stones simply rest on his head. Stephen’s is the weakness and purity of the Incarnate Son.Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 12.00.04 AM

On December 26 we look at Stephen’s seraphic face, but more still at the crèche. There in the manger lies the puzzling baby Word, unable to speak a single word. And what will become of Him? He shall become great and be called the Mighty God and Everlasting Father. So we are told. For a while it looks like it will all work out…miracles and crowds and fame. But after 30 years the wordless, vulnerable baby hasn’t made it very far. Thirty years after sleeping in the wood trough, He’s dying on a tree. Apparently the only words He’s learned are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

St. Stephen shows forth the Christmas mystery of purity, intensity, weakness and captivation by love. If you missed “the actual Vision” yesterday, here He is the next day alive in His saints. I think I’ve seen the Vision. Will I entertain it? Will I keep on seeing it?

The day after Christmas, despite the violence, the order is already being restored. The eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf are cleared. The mighty are already being cast down from their thrones, the lowly already raised up. Though I may not see it, a real freshness is here. The clouds have dropped down dew. The Just One has sprung up from the earth, even if there’s constant injustice. Have I seen the Kingdom of God, already at hand in that boring and arduous now, the Time Being?

 Your hands from your ears!
Away from your eyes!
See who comes, a child with tears;
Hear the God who sniffs and cries.

Three Things We’re Reading Today: Martyrdom, Adoption, and Silence

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1. Today the Church honors the martyrs St. Andrew Dung-Lac and his companions. Anna Keating at The Catholic Catalogue offers a brief reflection on these brave souls, followed by a brief video posted by the Apostleship of Prayer in 2008. The video draws further attention to the continued persecutions faced by Christians in Asia by holding up the life of Servant of God Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuán (1928–2002), reminding us that persecutions and martyrdoms are not a thing of the past, and that we as a Church must continue to pray for those who are not only enduring but also perpetrating such persecutions. St. Andrew Dung-Lac and companions, pray for us.

2. As we near the end of National Adoption Awareness Month, Elizabeth Kirk, J.D. offers profound insights about the ways in which adoption can teach everyone about the very nature of family in her article “Is Adoption Second-Best to a ‘Real Family’?”

…adoption is a particular calling (perhaps out of the circumstance of infertility, perhaps not) and not a second-best way of building a family.  This reminds us that parenthood is not simply a natural consequence of biology, but rather the occasion for all fathers and mothers to serve God through the children entrusted to them.

3. Finally, NPR’s Guy Raz’s interview “What We Learn When We Find Silence” profiles environmentalist John Francis, who voluntarily stopped talking in 1973 and only began speaking again after 17 years. Francis describes what led him to his unexpected vow of silence, and how it changed him.

I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I would stop listening, and then I would start thinking about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong, or that I could say that better or, look how smart I am, you know?

Insights well worth stopping for a moment to consider in silence as we enter the hustle and the bustle of the holiday season, and more importantly, as the Church enters the sacred season of Advent, preparing for the night when we will marvel together, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n.”

The True Song of St. Cecilia

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today, musicians throughout the Christian world will celebrate with joy the feast of their patroness, St. Cecilia. Liturgical celebrations will resonate with anthems and hymns of particular beauty, concerts of sacred music will be performed, all in commemoration of a young Roman girl who lived and died around the third century. Although her association with music did not originate with any particular talent or inclination displayed during her life, nearly all artistic depictions portray her with some kind of instrument. Saint Cecilia with an Angel-Orazio GentileschiIt appears that subsequent generations of Christians began connecting Cecilia with music due to a particular phrase in an early account of her life and her martyrdom, The Acts of Saint Cecilia. According to this account, Cecilia was a young virgin from a noble Roman family, betrothed to a young nobleman named Valerian; however, she desired to live a life of chastity and prayed that God might preserve her virginity. According to the Acts, “Before very long the day of the bridal ceremony was approached, and while the music was sounding, she sang in her heart to God alone, saying: ‘Let my heart and my body by immaculate, that I may not be confounded.’”[1] She and Valerian were married, but on the wedding night, Cecilia told him of her desire to love God alone. Moved by the strength of her faith and by her courageous witness, Valerian not only honored Cecilia’s wishes, but he also converted to Christianity himself, and later encouraged his brother Tiburtius (Turcius in some sources) to do the same. Professing the Christian faith brought swift martyrdom to both Valerian and his brother, and Cecilia followed soon after in giving her life for Christ, but not before she inspired many others to be baptized in her home, which she bequeathed to the Christian community for use as a church.

As a young musician, I never had a moment’s hesitation in choosing Cecilia as my confirmation saint and embracing her as my patroness. However, when I later discovered the fact that her association with music originated not with historical fact but with a legend that grew up in the centuries following her martyrdom, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment. If Cecilia wasn’t actually a musician during her life, what could I hope to gain from her intercession in my musical endeavors?  It turns out that my understanding of Cecilia and her patronage, and of the communion of saints in general, was an anemic understanding. I was missing the point. It wasn’t any musical ability of Cecilia’s that I should have been trying to emulate; rather, it was the beautiful way in which she offered her entire life as a hymn of praise to God.

Cecilia still speaks—or sings—to us today in her witness, in her fidelity to Christ that led to her martyrdom. The swan song of a young girl who preferred to die rather than betray Christ echoes and resonates down through the centuries, and it is this song that I can learn to imitate; it is this song that we can all learn to sing—whether we have perfect pitch or we’re tone deaf.
Saint Cecilia-Stefano MadernoInaugurated by Christ as He poured Himself out in his Passion and Death, the true song of St. Cecilia is the song of love that dies to self so as to share forever in the life of the Triune God; it is the song of love that has been taken up in ceaseless variation, harmony, and counterpoint by men and women throughout history who now sing hymns of praise before the throne of God.

Each person is called in turn to participate in this song of love, this definitive new song of the new Adam, this song of self-giving love, and each person is called to discern and discover the unique, particular way in which God is calling him or her to sing this new song. In his Sermon on Psalm 32, Saint Augustine rightly asks, “But how is this done?” He goes on to explain:

You must first understand that words cannot express the things
that are sung by the heart. Take the case of people singing while harvesting
in the fields… Although they begin by giving expression to their happiness in sung words, yet shortly there is a change.
As if so happy that words can no longer express what they feel,
they discard the restricting syllables.
They burst out into a simply sound of joy, of jubilation.
Such a cry of joy is a sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth
what it cannot utter in words.

There is a pneumatic element to this kind of joy-filled prayer too deep for words; it calls to mind the words of Scripture, “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26). Confident in this intercession, even those who are less than confident about whether or not their voice merits them a place in the heavenly choir need not worry: it is not their merits, but the Spirit within them that enables them to enter the hymn of praise, for “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). It is to this reality that St. Cecilia gives witness. Saint Cecilia detail-Stefano MadernoIt is for this reason that we sing of her who praised God by laying down her life in imitation of Christ. She who is now the patroness of musicians inspires song even today not because she herself was a virtuoso musician, but because of she responded to the grace of the Spirit within her and joyfully echoed Christ’s song of self-giving love. May our voices be one with hers, and with the voices of all the saints and angels, as we too offer our lives as a hymn of praise to God.

[1] from Life and Martyrdom of the Holy and Glorious Martyr of Christ Cecilia, and Those Who Were With Her, Saints Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus. Translated from The Ancient Acts by John Hodges (London, 1887), 8; italics added.