Pastoral Reflection

The Cost of Going to Mass (2)

(a reflection on martyrdom)

I began Part One of this reflection with these same opening paragraphs which I repeat here because they also introduce this reflection.  How many people in the average parish really look forward to their Sunday celebration of the eucharist, and especially because they aren’t able to also go during the week?  On the other hand how many go reluctantly because they have to, or because of the struggle it takes to get the family ready and out of the door, or because they find Mass boring?   I suspect there may be far more of the latter than the former, but that the majority of people are probably somewhere in between, but even amongst the reluctant there really isn’t any actual personal cost involved in going to Mass.

The persecution of the Church during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I saw large numbers of Catholics martyred for their faith rather than accept the prohibitions imposed on them.  Priests studied abroad and returned to this country to serve the spiritual needs of the people knowing that as soon as they stepped ashore they faced the risk of arrest and of being hung, drawn and quartered simply for being a priest and celebrating Mass.  Ministerial “life expectancy” for priests at the time was about six months.  Imagine the determination of men spending six years studying for the priesthood knowing that they could be martyred, and in such an horrific way, within a matter of months of their ordination. 

As I also said before, it’s beyond comprehension that people can kill other people in the name of God and religion and think that what they are doing is therefore righteous and pleasing to God!  Sadly killing in the name of God is nothing new.  No less than nine Church-sanctioned crusades during the two hundred years from 1096 to 1291 brought Christian and Muslim armies into conflict in defence of places holy to one side or the other.  And, as we have said, Protestants have martyred Catholics and vice-versa, and Muslim factions have fought and killed one another and continue to do so, and the catastrophic partitioning of India and Pakistan resulted in as many as two million deaths as conflicts arose between Hindus and Muslims.  And on and on. 

The word martyr originally meant a witness, someone simply bearing witness to their faith but which was not intended to put their life at risk.  However it then took on the more sinister meaning that we are familiar with today: a person who suffers death because of, or for refusing to renounce, their religious beliefs.  The Wikipedia website says:

Once Christians started to undergo persecution, the term “martyr” came to be applied to those who suffered hardships for their faith.  Finally, it was restricted to those who had been killed for their faith.  The Apostles faced grave dangers until eventually almost all of them had suffered death for their faith.  Thus the term martyr came to be used to refer to a person who suffers death rather than deny his faith.

Tertullian, one of the 2nd century Christian Fathers, wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”, implying that a martyr’s willing sacrifice of their life leads to the conversion of others.  St Stephen is the first martyr reported in the New Testament.  (Early) Christians were the targets of persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities because they refused to worship the Roman gods or pay homage to the emperor as divine.

If we dip into the Old Testament, we will find some very shocking examples of what today we would recognize as martyrdom – individuals choosing to suffer horrific deaths, in this case at the hands of pagan authorities, rather than renounce their faith in God, and their resolve is truly astounding.  Perhaps one of the best examples is the martyrdom of Eleazar as recorded in the Second Book of Maccadees (6 v 18-31).  We are told that he was “a foremost teacher of the (Jewish) Law” and was being forced to eat pork, which he refused to do.  His persecutors, who were apparently long-standing friends of his(!), offered him the opportunity to have the pork secretly replaced by some other meat that he could eat, but he refused on the grounds that it would set a bad example to those who were watching (and especially young Jews amongst them) who would think that he had eaten the pork and, therefore, that it was permissible for them to do the same.  So there he was, given a way out of his dilemma, but his refusal on a matter of religious principle cost him his life.  In chapter 7 we have an even more horrific episode of seven Jewish brothers again being forced to eat pork against their religious principles, and each suffering torture and then put to death in front of the others and their mother. 

The way in which they were executed will, I’m sure, remind us of the equally horrific deaths suffered by Catholic and Anglican martyrs here in this country during the Reformation: being hung; being hung-drawn-and-quartered; being beheaded; being burned at the stake; and in St Margaret Clitherow’s case (and no doubt others) being pressed to death by weights beneath a door.  It has to leave us struggling to understand how someone could remain so firm in their faith convictions faced with the horrors of a martyr’s death – when they could have escaped that fate by even a pretence of conversion.  Who would have known? – well obviously God would have and that’s what made the difference.  In their place would we have remained so stoic, so resolute, in our faith?  Thankfully it’s a question we will only ever have to answer in theory because hopefully we will never be faced with such a situation – though it has only been five hundred years since we might have been and the possibility isn’t all that far away geographically at least.

The Wikipedia website reports that:

The persecution of Christians is getting more severe than ever, affecting increasing numbers of believers around the world.  A staggering 260 million Christians in the top 50 countries on the World Watch List face high or extreme levels of persecution for their faith, and Open Doors estimates that there are another 50 million Christians facing high levels of persecution in a further 23 countries outside the top 50.  Attacks against churches have risen an astonishing 500 percent – 9,488 compared to 1,847 the previous year.  In 2019 2,983 Christians were killed for their faith.  That figure is shocking and upsetting, but it is fewer than the number of believers reported killed in 2018 (4,305) or in 2017 (3,066).

As I began this reflection it was the feast of the soldier-martyr St George and the prayers of the Office for the feast presented us with some tremendously encouraging and supportive quotes from scripture regarding martyrs and the call they answered in suffering and dying for the faith.  I will begin with two quotes from St John in the book of Revelation:

One of the Elders then spoke and asked me, ‘Do you know who these people are, dressed in white robes?  These are the people who have been through the great persecution (and) have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. 

God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. (7 v 13-17)

I saw a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language; they were standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands. (7 v 9)

(The footnote in the Jerusalem Bible explains that palms symbolize victory in the war waged by the spirit against the flesh.)(The phrase is often used: “He/she received the palm of martyrdom”.  Martyr-saint are often depicted holding a palm.)(The Catholic Encyclopedia says: A palm depicted on a tomb signifies a martyr’s tomb.)    

It is better to take refuge in the Lord then to trust in men. (Psalm 117/118)

If anyone openly declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father. (Matthew 10 v 32)

You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake; but he who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10 v 22)

The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. (Romans 8 v 18)

To those who win the victory I will give the right to sit by me on my throne.

(Revelation 3 v 21)

There is also this passage from the First Letter of St Peter:

My dear people, you must not think it unaccountable that you should be tested by fire.  There is nothing extraordinary in what has happened to you.  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,  It is a blessing for you when they insult you for bearing the name of Christ, because it means that you have the Spirit of glory resting on you.  If any one of you should suffer for being a Christian, he is not be ashamed of it; he should thank God that he has been called one. (from 4 v 12-16)

The point I set out to make is that our religious freedoms and our freedom to worship – especially as Catholics – have at times been dearly won, and even now they are not enjoyed everywhere.  The danger is that in this country these freedoms are too easily taken for granted because they have been so little challenged in recent times.  Nobody is going to arrest you for going to church, priests are not going to face execution for celebrating Mass, and at least in England and Wales religious sectarianism rarely rears its ugly head anymore. 

We might struggle to get out of bed on a Sunday morning, or to get the family out of the door and on their way to church, and the traffic or the parking when we get there might be a pain, but if that’s the only cost to us then we have little to complain about.  We certainly don’t expect to have to pay with our lives for going to Mass – or even for simply witnessing to our faith – as many have done over the centuries.  Perhaps it’s only when we stop and reflect on the price, the personal cost, that was paid by some that we might better appreciate the religious freedoms they won for us.

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