Martyrs’ Day at the Venerable English College
December 2, 2017
On December 1, 2017, the Most Reverend J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P., delivered the following homily for Martyrs’ Day, the celebration of the English Martyrs, at the Venerable English College in Rome.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ. We give thanks to God today for the blessed martyrs, illustrious alumni of this college, who attained that perfect configuration to Christ for which he himself commanded all of us to strive: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross everyday and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
With the martyrdom of Father Ralph Sherwin, who was the first, a pattern of ritualized violence was established from the start. Upon receiving the sentence of death he was inspired to intone the Easter antiphon Haec est dies: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” On the day of his execution at Tyburn, Father Sherwin proclaimed that, “if to be a Catholic, if to be a perfect Catholic, is to be a traitor, then I am a traitor.” As he was dying, he gasped, “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, be to me a Jesus.” As he passed from this world, the crowd exclaimed: “Good Mr. Sherwin, the Lord God receive your soul” (The Forty Four, 8). Procession to the gallows, prolonged public humiliation, the harangues of their accusers, their protestation of their faith in Christ, brutal death by hanging followed by mutilation of their bodies, the jeers or the prayers of the crowd: over the years these elements repeat themselves in the martyrdom of Sherwin’s fellow Venerable alumni.
The pattern of ritualized violence that we discern in the martyrdom of these forty-four mostly young English priests between the years 1581 and 1679 offers striking parallels with that of thousands of martyrs in the first three centuries of the Christian history. In the Acts of the Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, for example, the author (possibly St. Irenaeus) wrote: “The governor brought the blessed martyrs before the tribunal to make a show and spectacle of them before the crowds,” and “though their spirits endured much throughout the long agony, they were in the end sacrificed” (quoted in Robin Darling Young, In Procession Before the World, 36-7).
Repeated many times in every part of the Roman Empire, this public spectacle became for Christians a kind of “public liturgy ultimately aimed at the defeat of powers opposed to God and at the conversion of the world” (ibid. 59). At the center of this public liturgy was the re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ. “[E]arly Christians commonly thought of martyrdom as a reproduction of the Passion of Jesus, so much so that they brought out so prominently in their martyrologies all the detailed similarities between the death of the martyr and that of Christ: the essential core of martyrdom is the proclamation of faith in Jesus as the Son of God—that is, the Christian’s adoption of Jesus’s own testimony about himself” (Servaise Pinckaers, The Spirituality of Martyrdom, 47).
Moreover, Christ is so absolutely central to the liturgy of martyrdom that he is made present—as a eucharistic sacrifice, in effect, to the eyes of faith. In the words of Karl Rahner, “If in the liturgy of the Mass the death of the Lord and our death in him, is mystically celebrated and if, in this celebration, the Church attains the perfect ritual fulfilment of her nature, the same thing happens in death by Christian martyrdom in which the Lord continues until the end of time to suffer and to triumph….” (On the Theology of Death, 105). Just recall Sherwin’s final words: “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, be to me a Jesus.”
Martyrdom in the Church must thus be distinguished from any other type of voluntary death for an ideal, an ideology, or a cause. Christian martyrdom is not merely one of the many cases in the world of ‘defending one’s convictions to the death.’ Nor is martyrdom simply an instrument for the dissemination of the Christian message of the faith or for the consolidation of the identity of the Christian community. “In martyrdom…we have an indissoluble unity of testimony and what is testified, guaranteed by God’s gracious dispensation. Here there is accomplished with absolute validity and perfection what is testified: authentic Christian life as victorious grace of God. The testimony makes present what is testified and what is testified creates for itself its own authentic attestation” (ibid. 104).
The liturgical and indeed quasi-sacramental character of Christian martyrdom opens up for us something massively important at the core of our celebration and our appropriation of the mystery of this great feast. Not for nothing did the story of the martyrs of this college begin with the words of the Easter antiphon on the lips of the first martyr: Haec est dies quam fecit Dominus, exaltemus et laetemur in ea. For In martyrdom we have not only a praiseworthy heroic witness to the faith, but, “in procession before the world,” a witness in which the very content of the witness is made present. Thus in Christian martyrdom, the perfect configuration of the martyr to Christ is by grace both achieved and revealed.
As we celebrate today the martyrdom of Saint Ralph Sherwin and his fellow Venerable alumni, we can see in the spirituality of martyrdom the primordial spirituality of all Christian life. “To all Jesus said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will find it. What gain, then, is it for a man to have won the whole world and to have lost or ruined his very self?’” (Lk 9:23-25). Here Christ is addressing not only potential martyrs, but all of us. Only the perfect image of God who is the Person of the Son could constitute the principle and pattern for the transformation and fulfilment of every human person who has ever lived. And the more we are conformed to his image, the more authentically to we become our true selves.
“The Christian ideal of sanctity emerges directly from the spirituality of martyrdom” (Pinckaers, 34). It is this profound truth that is not merely witnessed to but is actually realized and made manifest in the death of Christian martyrs. To become sharers in the communion of divine life, we must become like the Son so that the Father sees and loves in us what he sees and loves in Christ. We become conformed to Christ in order to be “at home” in the shared life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Above all, “if you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ be glad, because you will enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed” (I Peter 4:13). Certainly during episodes of suffering, trial and self-denial, but not only in them, taking up the cross each day encompasses the whole of every Christian’s life. Throughout this continuous sequela Christi, the Holy Spirit is at work shaping in us—Christian martyrs and all the rest of us as well—a transformation that is finally nothing less than a perfect configuration to Christ. This is the meaning of Christian sanctification.
Rightly could say Origen to his community in Alexandria: “I have no doubt that in this community there are a number of Christians—God alone knows them—who before him, according to the testimony of their consciences, are already martyrs, who are ready, as soon as it is asked of them, to shed their blood for Christ. I have no doubt that there are amongst us many who have already taken their cross upon themselves and have followed him” (Hom. In Num. 10:2). And rightly too may a preacher make Origen’s words his own today in the chapel of the Pontifical Seminary of Martyrs. “Your feast day is not indeed in the calendar,” declared St. Augustine, “but your crown is ready and waiting for you” (Sermon 306E).
Image: Stained glass window of St. Ralph Sherwin.