At his weekly Wednesday General Audience this week, Pope Francis spoke about martyrdom. Francis summarized the age-long contradiction of Christian martyrdom when he said that “the martyrs are not the defeated but the winners: shining in their heroic witness is the omnipotence of God who always consoles His people, opening new ways and horizons of hope.”
The bald assertion that “martyrs are not the defeated but the winners;” that their deaths at the hands of the enemies of the faith reveal “the omnipotence of God;” and the way God “consoles His people” seems, at first blush, just absurd but, upon reflection, unpacks important revelations about the content of our faith.
These notions run contrary to worldly logic, and even natural instinct. How can the slain be “the winners?” How can we find God’s “omnipotence” in the slaughter of His followers? How can sufffering and death be our “consolation”? Yet, throughout history, martyrdom has been a great resource of faith. “The blood of the martyrs,” said the Church Father Tertullian (160 – c. 225 AD), “is the seed of the Church.”
In his assertion that martyrs are “the winners,” Francis echoes the sentiment of St. Augustine, who wrote that, between the vainglorious executioner, brandishing his sword over the martyr he has slain, the martyr is the true victor because the executioner has broken the martyr’s body but failed to touch his soul. But, in trying to hurt the martyr, the executioner has sustained a self-inflicted wound to his own soul. [Exposition on Psalm 37.]
On the other hand, the martyrs have the ultimate consolation that their body’s death is ephemeral because they have the assurance of eternal life in the promises of Christ. Thus, the martyr confounds death with the exhortations of St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” [1 Cor. 15:55.]
As Pope Francis noted, the martyrs also receive the consolation of being united with Christ: “It was precisely from their profound union with Jesus, from their relationship of love with Him that their strength flowed—as for every martyr—to face the painful events that led them to martyrdom.”
Additionally, by their example of faith, the martyrs provide consolation to us who remain, because their willingness to accept death is a powerful confirmation of their faith—and ours—in Christ’s victory over death. From time immemorial, martyrs have therefore been a point of Christian unity and a source of Christian joy.
In the Martyrium Polycarpi, the account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (c. AD 69 – 160), we read how the Church gathered up the saint’s relics: “we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place,” where later the community could come together, “with joy and rejoicing … to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom.”
Fresh off his recent trip to Albania, where the streets were lined with the portraits of some forty priests martyred by the former Communist regime, Francis said that, “The memory of the martyrs who endured in the faith is a guarantee for Albania’s destiny, because their blood was not shed in vain, but is a seed that will bear fruits of peace and of fraternal collaboration.”
Perhaps more than ever, the blood of Christian martyrs is still the seed of the faith.