We live in a time when every time we turn around we hear of a Catholic celebrity denying their faith. We live in a generation to whom the Catholic Faith isn’t all that important but the reality is that we have a faith worth dying for. Over the history of the Church it is likely that millions sacrificed their lives rather than give up their faith.
It started at the time of the Apostles. Almost everyone remembers that all of them except John ran away on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Yet somehow all of the eleven who ran somehow found the courage to be martyred? Only John who took Mary to the Cross died of old age. All of the rest suffered painful deaths. Peter was even crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die the way Jesus died. I ‘m sure many of you remember St. Stephen who was stoned to death even before the Apostles.
I’m sure most people are aware of the thousands of Catholics who were killed by the Roman Empire in the Coliseum and other places. They were willing to be fed to lions and bears and other wild animals rather than give up their faith. What is amazing is the number of witnesses to these executions who became converted. Amazingly the Christians converted many of their guards to the Catholic Faith. Many of these became martyrs. How many of us would become Catholic if we knew that we would be executed and had witnessed others being executed?
Maybe people know of the martyrs who tried to convert the Germanic tribes during the Conquest of Rome. We know of the ones mentioned at mass but what about the rest? Do we realize that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who died for the Catholic Faith? Think about the persecutions in communist Russia and China, maybe even in communist Vietnam and Cambodia but what about the non communist world. Are we even aware of the thousands who died for their faith in countries we consider being Christian even Catholic?
What about England? We share a common heritage but what about the hundreds of Catholics martyred there. When Henry VIII started the Church of England any priest or bishop who refused to join was beheaded. We all know the story of St. Thomas More but there were many, many more. When Elizabeth was queen Catholic priests were hunted down, drawn and quartered at times. Any who assisted them in hiding was also executed. Amazingly, many Catholic men crossed over to France to study at the seminary at Reims then returned to England and went into hiding. They returned knowing it was more a matter of when not if they would be caught and executed. The lucky ones lasted three years. Blessed Thomas Hemerford was ordained in 1583 and was drawn and quartered on February 12, 1584. Edward Waterford was ordained in 1592, arrived in England in June and captured and executed January 7, 1593. Both probably served for less than a year as priests. Amazingly Robert Ludlam served for six years before he was captured and executed with Father Nicholas Garlick and Richard Simpson. We have to ask what makes a man willing to make such a sacrifice
Over one hundred and twenty English folk including women like Margaret Clitherow were either canonized or beatified for their martyrdom but there were surely more. You could be executed for hiding a priest like Thomas Warcop or being present when he was arrested. Edward Fulthrop was executed for converting to Catholicism. There were more killings when the Puritans took over England in the 1640’s during the English Civil War. Some were known for simply killing any Catholic they found.
Ireland was under the rule of the English for over four hundred years. That means basically the Irish were persecuted for the same time. Many Catholic practices were outlawed. That’s why the Catholic faith was taught in hedge schools. It’s why there is a rosary called the Irish Penal Rosary, one decade long and easy to hide in your hand.
A great Catholic nation, France, persecuted the Church during the French Revolution. Any priest who refused to swear an antipapal oath was guillotined. Father Rene’ Ambroise was guillotined with thirteen other priests on January 21, 1794. Even sisters were executed for their faith for attending one of their masses. Sr. Rosalie du Verdier was executed three days after Father. Even lay people were executed. Antoine Fournier, a father with two sons, was executed that same month. There were one hundred and ninety-one priests beatified including Fathers Jacques Lombardie, Jean-Georges Rehm.Gervais-Protais Brunel, Louis- Francois Lebrun, Andre Fardeau, and Claude Beguignot. At least forty two sisters were killed for their faith..
Spain, another great Catholic nation went through two periods of persecution. The first was during the period of occupation by the Moors. The second occurred during their civil war when the Loyalist government executed almost five hundred including Modesto Garcia Marti. Ramon Peiro Victori, Aurelio Ample Alcaide, Angel Prat Hostench and Prudence Canyelles I Ginesta for the Catholic Faith. The Socialist government tried to wipe out the Church. Often these priests were caught because they chose to stay to minister to Catholics rather than flee to safety. Closer to home, Mexico persecuted Catholics during the 1920’s and martyred at least twenty-five. Some were killed by a firing squad. Others like Father Pedro Maldonado Lucero was beaten to death.
In Asia over eight thousand Koreans were executed. Most of these were not clergy but lay people like Augustine Pak Chong-won and his wife Barbara, Madeline Yi Yonghui, and Martha Kim Song-Im who were beheaded around 1840. Thousands of Japanese were martyred by governments trying to remove Christianity from their country. Despite the persecutions missionaries in the 1800’s discovered Catholics living in Nagasaki, Japan. They kept the faith alive for over two hundred years despite the threat of death if caught. In Vietnam over one hundred and thirty thousand including Peter Khanh, Peter Quy Cong Doan and Phillip Minh Van Phanwere killed for their faith and this was before communism.
Hundreds of thousands if not millions have died for their faith. Millions more risked their lives to practice it. Father Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit who served in Russia and was imprisoned in a Siberian work camp, wrote a book, He Leadeth Me about his experiences. In it he talks about the sacrifices men would make to receive communion. They would have to sneak away at lunch to say mass but only a few could get away without the guards being suspicious. The others would have to wait until they finished the day and received communion then. This was at the time you fasted from midnight on so they basically went all day without eating in order to receive the Eucharist.
When you look at the history of the Church and realize what people sacrificed and risked to practice their faith you have to think how easy we have it. Most of us can openly go to church any Sunday we want. We complain if the weather is bad or the mass schedule conflicts with a sports event. It’s a great sacrifice if the air conditioning isn’t working. An hour is too long for most people to fast or to be in church. On any given Sunday less than half of the Catholics in the US will go to mass. Sadly, we’re better than many so-called Catholic nations.
Yet we practice a Faith that millions were willing to die for. We have to ask ourselves, what is it that we don’t get. There is something seriously wrong here. We have it easier than previous Catholics. Until now this generation has not had to deal with persecution and prejudice. There were only a few areas in our country where we faced prejudice and ironically, my experience in the South has been that Catholics who do face prejudice seem to be more committed to the faith. The mass and the Sacraments are in English. What more could we want?
It is time for Catholics to take the time to find out what they are missing, why so many would die rather than switch faiths. It is time to take a serious look at what we’re missing. Millions of people risked death for the Catholic Faith. In countries like Communist Poland they endured persecution and discrimination but refused to give up their faith. In China true Catholics worship underground risking imprisonment and torture to practice their faith today. We’re not talking about priests and bishops but ordinary lay people like you and me.
What is it that they know about that American Catholics are missing? What makes them willing to die for their faith while so many American Catholics can’t be bothered to even attend mass on Sundays? Could it be that they’ve discovered something we’re missing? That the Catholic Faith is more than going through the motions, of putting in your time, of looking good to others or following rules? That it is more than a nice set of traditions at Christmas and Easter? That it is more than a cafeteria menu that we pick and choose from?
Could it be that they discovered that it is about a relationship with God, a God who loves us passionately enough to become a man and die the most horrible death in history? Could it be that they discovered in the Sacraments a way to love God and be loved by Him? Could it be that they went beyond the minimum required of Catholics and opened their hearts to Jesus in the Eucharist and in doing so discovered a love so deep that they were willing to give up all rather than turn their back on it? Could it be that they discovered a God of infinite mercy and love who wants so much more for us than we want for ourselves or think possible?
Written by Ron Quinlan, a former teacher in the Archdiocese of Newark now living in South Carolina. An earlier version of this was published on Catholic Exchange, September 28, 2010.