Catholic Faith and Martyrdom

“Be faithful unto the death and I will give you the crown of the life” (Apoc 2:10). These words of Our Lord are a holy task for every Christian. To be faithful, means to keep the faith, which infused in our soul by the Triune God, in all its integrity, purity and beauty without changing nothing, without adding nothing to its unchangeable truths.“The word: I believe, means I hold everything that is contained in the articles of faith to be perfectly true; and I believe these truths more firmly than if I saw them with my eyes, because God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, has revealed them to the Holy Catholic Church and through this Church to us.” (St. Pius X, Great Catechism).

Saint Thomas Aquinas says: “Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us” (Summa theologica, II-II, q. 4, a. 1 c.). “Man, by assenting to matters of faith, is raised above his nature” (Summa theologica, II-II, q. 6, a. 1 c). The perennial sense of the Magisterium teaches us, that even the beginning of faith and the very desire of credulity is the gift of grace, which through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit reforms our will from infidelity to faith, from impiety to piety. Therefore such a beginning of faith is not naturally in us, and those who are alien to the Church of Christ have not the supernatural faith (cf. II Council of Orange, can. 5: Denzinger-Schönmetzer 375).

The Mysteries of Faith:“Mysteries of faith are truths above reason and which we are to believe even though we cannot comprehend them.We must believe mysteries because they are revealed to us by God, who, being infinite Truth and Goodness, can neither deceive nor be deceived.The mysteries cannot be contrary to reason, because the same God who has given us the light of reason has also revealed the mysteries, and He cannot contradict Himself.” (St. Pius X, Great Catechism).

The sacred Tradition:Tradition is the non-written word of God, which has been transmitted by word of mouth by Jesus Christ and by the apostles, and which has come down to us through the centuries by the means of the Church, without being altered.The teachings of Tradition are kept chiefly in the dogmatic decrees of Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church, the unchanged and constant teachings of the Roman Pontiffs during a considerable long period of time, the words and practices of the sacred Liturgy.We must attach to Tradition the same importance as the revealed word of God, which Holy Scripture contains (cf. St. Pius X, Great Catechism).

Only the Catholic faith possesses the integral Divine truth. Blessed John Henry Newman affirmed: “O my brethren, turn away from the Catholic Church, and to whom will you go? It is your only chance of peace and assurance in this turbulent, changing world. Private creeds, fancy religions, may be showy and imposing to the many in their day; national religions may lie huge and lifeless, and cumber the ground for centuries, and distract the attention or confuse the judgment of the learned; but on the long run it will be found that either the Catholic Religion is verily and indeed the coming in of the unseen world into this, or that there is nothing positive, nothing dogmatic, nothing real, in any of our notions. Unlearn Catholicism, and you open the way to your becoming Protestant, Deist, Pantheist, Sceptic, in a dreadful, but inevitable succession. … O restless hearts and fastidious intellects, who seek a gospel more salutary than the Redeemer’s, and a creation more perfect than the Creator’s!” (Discourses to mixed congregations, 13)

Heresy:Saint Thomas Aquinas described heresy as infidelity to the faith: “In a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith, there does not remain the living faith. If, of the things taught by the Church, the heretic holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will.” (Summa theologica, II-II, q. 5, a. 3 c). Unlike a true Catholic the heretic accepts still some dogmas, yet only on the base of his own will and his own judgement, and not more on the base of the authority of God, who reveals, because the heretic rejects this authority with respect to other points of the faith.

The sins against the faith are the greatest moral sins, except the sins against the Divine virtue of hope and love. “Every sin consists formally in aversion from God, as stated above (I-II, 71, 6; I-II, 73, 3). Hence the more a sin severs man from God, the graver it is. Now man is more than ever separated from God by unbelief, because he has not even true knowledge of God: and by false knowledge of God, man does not approach Him, but is severed from Him. Nor is it possible for one who has a false opinion of God, to know Him in any way at all, because the object of his opinion is not God. Therefore it is clear that the sin of unbelief is greater than any sin that occurs in the perversion of morals.” (Summa theologica, II-II, q. 10, a. 3 c).“The unbelief of heretics, who confess their belief in the Gospel, and resist that faith by corrupting it, is a more grievous sin than that of the Jews, who have never accepted the Gospel faith. Since, however, they accepted the figure of that faith in the Old Law, which they corrupt by their false interpretations, their unbelief is a more grievous sin than that of the heathens, because the latter have not accepted the Gospel faith in any way at all” (Summa theologica, II-II, q. 10, a. 6 c).

There will last always an inexorable battle between the world and the faith, as Blessed John Henry Newman stated:“What is the world’s religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the Gospel,—its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth. … Those fearful images of Divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound are explained away. Every thing is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first of sins. Austerity is an absurdity;—even firmness is looked on with an unfriendly, suspicious eye. On the other hand, all open profligacy is discountenanced. … New objects in religion, new systems and plans, new doctrines, new preachers, are necessary to satisfy that craving which the so-called spread of knowledge has created. The mind becomes morbidly sensitive and fastidious; dissatisfied with things as they are, desirous of a change as such, as if alteration must of itself be a relief. …In other words, is it not the case, that Satan has so composed and dressed out what is the mere natural produce of the human heart under certain circumstances, as to serve his purposes as the counterfeit of the Truth? I do not at all deny that this spirit of the world uses words, and makes professions, which it would not adopt except for the suggestions of Scripture; nor do I deny that it takes a general colouring from Christianity, so as really to be modified by it, nay, in a measure enlightened and exalted by it. Still, after all, here is an existing teaching, only partially evangelical, built upon worldly principle, yet pretending to be the Gospel, dropping one whole side of the Gospel, its austere character, and considering it enough to be benevolent, courteous, candid, correct in conduct, delicate,—though it includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honour, no deep hatred of sin, no horror at the sight of sinners, no indignation and compassion at the blasphemies of heretics, no jealous adherence to doctrinal truth, no especial sensitiveness about the particular means of gaining ends, provided the ends be good, no loyalty to the Holy Apostolic Church, of which the Creed speaks, no sense of the authority of religion as external to the mind: in a word, no seriousness,—and therefore is neither hot nor cold, but (in Scripture language) lukewarm. … Human society has a new framework, and fosters and develops a new character of mind; and this new character is made by the enemy of our souls, to resemble the Christian’s obedience as near as it may, its likeness all the time being but accidental. Meanwhile, the Holy Church of God, as from the beginning, continues her course heavenward; despised by the world, yet influencing it, partly correcting it, partly restraining it, and in some happy cases reclaiming its victims, and fixing them firmly and for ever within the lines of the faithful host militant here on earth, which journeys towards the City of the Great King. God give us grace to search our hearts, lest we be blinded by the deceitfulness of sin! lest we serve Satan transformed into an Angel of light” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, I, 24).“Thus in the sacred province of religion, men are led on,—without any bad principle, without that utter dislike or ignorance of the Truth, or that self-conceit, which are chief instruments of Satan at this day,—led on to give up Gospel Truths, to consent to open the Church to the various denominations of error which abound among us, or to alter our Services so as to please the scoffer, the lukewarm, or the vicious. To be kind is their one principle of action; and, when they find offence taken at the Church’s creed, they begin to think how they may modify or curtail it, under the same sort of feeling as would lead them to be generous in a money transaction, or to accommodate another at the price of personal inconvenience. Not understanding that their religious privileges are a trust to be handed on to posterity, a sacred property entailed upon the Christian family, and their own in enjoyment rather than in possession, they act the spendthrift, and are lavish of the goods of others. Thus, for instance, they speak against the Anathemas of the Athanasian Creed, or of the Commination Service, or of certain of the Psalms, and wish to rid themselves of them.

… And sometimes they fasten on certain favorable points of character in the person they should discountenance, and cannot get  themselves to attend to any but these; arguing that he is certainly pious and well-meaning, and that his errors plainly do himself no harm;—whereas the question is not about their effects on this or that individual, but simply whether they are errors. … Or they are arguing that they belong to a tolerant Church, that it is but consistent as well as right in her members to be tolerant, and that they are but exemplifying tolerance in their own conduct, when they treat with indulgence those who are lax in creed or conduct. Now, if by the tolerance of our Church, it be meant that she does not countenance the use of fire and sword against those who separate from her, so far she is truly called a tolerant Church; but she is not tolerant of error, as those very formularies, which these men wish to remove, testify. …  I wish I saw any prospect of this element of zeal and holy sternness springing up among us, to temper and give character to the languid, unmeaning benevolence which we misname Christian love [mercy].” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, II, 23)

The salvation of the soul surpasses all temporal and earthly realities: Blessed John Henry Newman said:The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit or whining beggar, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth [of a poor country] or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.Such is the Church, O ye men of the world, and now you know her. Such she is, such she will be; and, though she aims at your good, it is in her own way,—and if you oppose her, she defies you. She has her mission, and do it she will” (Certain difficulties felt by Anglicans in catholic teaching, II, 8).

Crisis of faith and apostasy. In a time of a tremendous general confusion inside the Church concerning the integrity of the Catholic faith and the ecclesiastical discipline, the great Saint Athanasius addressed in 340 in a letter to all bishops the following words: “The canonical discipline were not given to the Churches at the present day, but were wisely and safely transmitted to us from our forefathers. Neither had our faith its beginning at this time, but it came down to us from the Lord through His disciples. That therefore the ordinances which have been preserved in the Churches from old time until now, may not be lost in our days, and the trust which has been committed to us required at our hands; rouse yourselves, brethren, as being stewards of the mysteries of God, and seeing them now seized upon by others. Such things have never before been committed against the Church, from the day that our Saviour when He was taken up, gave command to His disciples, saying, ‘Go ye and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (cf. PG 27, 219 – 240).

Of the confusion between truth und untruth through a false ecumenism warned already Blessed John Henry Newman:“Never did Holy Church need champions against the spirit of Liberalism in religion more sorely than now, when, alas! It is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth. … Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternize together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrines in common, or seeing the need of them.” (Biglietto Speech, May 12, 1879).

“Surely, there is at this day a confederacy of evil, marshaling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, and preparing the way for a general Apostasy from it. Whether this very Apostasy is to give birth to Antichrist, or whether he is still to be delayed, as he has already been delayed so long, we cannot know; but at any rate this Apostasy, and all its tokens and instruments, are of the Evil One, and savor of death. Far be it from any of us to be of those simple ones who are taken in that snare which is circling around us! Far be it from us to be seduced with the fair promises in which Satan is sure to hide his poison! Do you think he is so unskillful in his craft, as to ask you openly and plainly to join him in his warfare against the Truth? No; he offers you baits to tempt you. He promises you civil liberty; he promises you equality; he promises you trade and wealth; he promises you a remission of taxes; he promises you reform. This is the way in which he conceals from you the kind of work to which he is putting you” (Discussions and arguments on various subjects, 2).

The fidelity in the Catholic faith remains usually a minority phenomenon, as Blessed John Henry Newman said: “I have all that time thought that a time of wide-spread infidelity was coming, and through all those years the waters have in fact been rising as a deluge. I look for the time, after my life, when only the tops of the mountains will be seen like islands in the waste of waters. … Great actions and successes must be achieved by the Catholic leaders, great wisdom as well as courage must be given them from on high, if Holy Church is to be kept safe from this awful calamity, and, though any trial which came upon her would but be temporary, it may be fierce in the extreme while it lasts.” (Letter from Jan. 6th, 1877).“It is plain every great change is effected by the few, not by the many; by the resolute, undaunted, zealous few. Doubtless, much may be undone by the many, but nothing is done except by those who are specially trained for action. In the midst of the famine Jacob’s sons stood looking one upon another, but did nothing. One or two men, of small outward pretensions, but with their hearts in their work, these do great things. These are prepared, not by sudden excitement, or by vague general belief in the truth of their cause, but by deeply impressed, often repeated instruction; and since it stands to reason that it is easier to teach a few than a great number, it is plain such men always will be few.” (Parochial and plain sermon, I, 22).

The Catholic faith demands always courage and sometimes even martyrdom. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains the meaning of martyrdom: “Of all virtuous acts martyrdom is the greatest proof of the perfection of charity: since a man’s love for a thing is proved to be so much the greater, according as that which he despises for its sake is more dear to him, or that which he chooses to suffer for its sake is more odious.Martyrdom is the most perfect of human acts, as being the sign of the greatest charity” (Summa theologica, II-II, q. 124, a. 3 c). “Martyrs are so called as being witnesses, because by suffering in body unto death they bear witness to the truth; not indeed to any truth, but to the truth which is in accordance with godliness, and was made known to us by Christ: wherefore Christ’s martyrs are His witnesses. Now this truth is the truth of faith. Wherefore the cause of all martyrdom is the truth of faith. But the truth of faith includes not only inward belief, but also outward profession, which is expressed not only by words, whereby one confesses the faith, but also by deeds, whereby a person shows that he has faith, according to James 2:18, “I will show thee, by works, my faith.” Hence, it is written of certain people (Titus 1:16): “They profess that they know God but in their works they deny Him.” Thus all virtuous deeds, inasmuch as they are referred to God, are professions of the faith whereby we come to know that God requires these works of us, and rewards us for them: and in this way they can be the cause of martyrdom. For this reason the Church celebrates the martyrdom of Blessed John the Baptist, who suffered death, not for refusing to deny the faith, but for reproving adultery.” (Summa theologica, II-II, q. 124, a. 5 c).

The fidelity to the Catholic faith and Christian martyrdom not only demands the fearless confession of the Divine truth before the pagans and unbelievers, but even before heretical Christians. Among many such martyrs one can present the moving example is Sir John Burke of Brittas in Ireland during the times of the persecution of the Catholic faith, in the beginning of the 17th century. One Sunday morning in the castle of John Burke there gathered Catholics to assist the Holy Mass celebrated by a clandestine priest. However the civil authorities were informed by a traitor. Suddenly a troop of soldiers surrounded the house, where the Holy Mass had to be celebrated. The captain asked to be admitted. The only answer returned by Sir Burke was, that he might enter freely when if he would prepare to make his confession and urge his companions to do the like; otherwise they should remain outside, for unbelievers should not have a share in what was holy, nor should sacred things be cast to dogs or pearls set before swine. Burke could eventually escape and flee, later however he was captured. When he was on trial in the public court. the president of the court declared that he would treat him with every kindness if he obeyed the wish of the King in all that related to faith and religion, otherwise he would sentenced to death. Yet John Burke was bold unmoved. He then listened to the sentence of death with a cheerful countenance, and only answered that he was glad those who harmed his body in such a way had no power over his soul. He added a few words in which he declared his aversion to heretical doctrines and opinions, and his heartfelt desire to obey the teaching of Catholic Church in whose communion he declared he wished to die. When coming to the place of execution, he asked to be set down, in order that he might approach it on his knees, and this was allowed him. John Burke showed as much contentment and joy as if he was going to a sumptuous feast. In the last moment he was offered pardon, restitution of his lands, and preferment, if he would take the oath recognizing the supremacy of the King in religion and assist Protestant worship. He said that he would not for all the world offend God, he would not exchange heaven for earth, and that he renounced and abominated all that the Catholic Church has always repudiated and condemned. John Burke died in December of the year 1607 in Limerick (cf. Murphy, D., Our Martyrs, Dublin 1896, pp. 228 – 239).

The famous English Catholic poet and apologist Hilaire Belloc made the following apt and prophetic observation about the situation of the Catholic faith in the modern society of the 20th century, which is perfectly applicable to our 21st century: “Not a few profound observers (one in especial, a modern French-Jewish convert of the highest intellectual power) have proposed, as a probable tendency or goal to which we were moving, a world in which a small but intense body of the Faith should stand apart in an increasing flood of Paganism. I, for my part (it is but a personal opinion and worth little) believe, upon the whole, a Catholic increase to be the more likely; for, in spite of the time in which I live, I cannot believe that the Human Reason will permanently lose its power. Now the Faith is based upon Reason, and everywhere outside the Faith the decline of Reason is apparent. But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the Faith is at hand, I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning.” (Survivals and New Arrivals. The Old and New Enemies of the Catholic Church, London 1929).

G.K. Chesterton,one of the greatest Catholic apologists of the Modern times, formulated the following truth: “The Church does often set herself against the fashion of this world that passes away; and she has experience enough to know how very rapidly it does pass away.” (Why I am a Catholic), and: “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” (The Catholic Church and conversion).

The Catholic faith and namely the integral and pure Catholic faith is the greatest treasure, which God put in our soul in the moment of our baptism.Immediately before we were baptized, we heard this question: “What do you ask from the Church? (Quid petis ab Ecclesia?)”, and the godparents answered in our name, or when we were adults, we answered ourselves this only one and decisive word: “Faith” (fidem). This “faith” meant the integral and pure Catholic faith. The next question was: “What gives you the faith?”. The answer was again most short, decisive and unsurpassable: “Eternal life (vitam aeternam)”.

Saint Fidelis, who was martyred by Protestants because of his uncompromising fidelity to the Catholic faith, a few days before he shed his blood to bear witness to his preaching, gave his last sermon. These are the words he left as a testament: “O Catholic faith, how solid, how strong you are! How deeply rooted, how firmly founded on a solid rock! Heaven and earth will pass away, but you can never pass away. From the beginning the whole world opposed you, but you mightily triumphed over everything. This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. It has subjected powerful kings to the rule of Christ; it has bound nations to his service.What made the holy apostles and martyrs endure fierce agony and bitter torments, except faith?What is it that today makes true followers of Christ cast luxuries aside, leave pleasures behind, and endure difficulties and pain? It is living faith that expresses itself through love. It is this that makes us put aside the goods of the present in the hope of future goods. It is because of faith that we exchange the present for the future”.

+ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana