As the last 2,000 years attest, Christian martyrs will be with us until Christ's return.
In just the 20th century, communism, Nazism, socialism and fascism produced millions of Christian martyrs — the great preponderance of them Catholic. And, even as we speak, Catholics and other Christians are under attack in Sudan, India, Malaysia, China, Serbia and India.
Those under fire for their faith in every age can take heart in the knowledge that their suffering and death will not be for nothing. For, as Tertullian proclaimed to the Church's persecutors in the second century: “We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.”
“Because we need that power more than ever,” writes Paul Thigpen in the introduction to his book titled after that early Church Father's famous statement, “I offer this little collection of martyrs' stories, trusting that what these saints tell us by their deaths will change what we do with our lives.”
So begins a spirited journey through the centuries and around the world, during which we meet the “seeds” upon whose sacrifices our magnificent Church has grown and still stands. Cutting between times, places and circumstances, Thigpen show the similarities in faith and courage that bond the martyrs into one unified, living witness. Moving us along at the swift pace of a novella, he introduces us anew to John the Baptist and Stephen before bringing us to Polycarp's final, dramatic ordeal (loaded with documented dialogue) and on to the heroic ends of Justin Martyr and Perpetua in Carthage.
And that's just the beginning of the story. Moving through the years, Thigpen doesn't shy from recounting the horrific tortures some martyrs endured. Clearly his aim is not to shock, but to help us realize and appreciate all the more what they suffered for the love of Christ — and, in this way, to let them remind us what Jesus himself suffered for us.
Writing about Isaac Jogues, one of the Jesuit missionaries who died to bring the faith to the natives of North America, he writes: “When Jogues tried to tend to a wounded Frenchman, the Mohawks beat him, bit out his fingernails, and chewed off his forefingers. Next the savage torturers burned one of his fingers, crushed another with their teeth, and twisted and squeezed the others they had already injured. The stabbed him and scratched his wounds with their fingernails, then laid burning torches to his arms and thighs. The other prisoners received similar abuse.”
The volatile mix of politics and religion fueling martyrdom across the centuries is linked here from the Reformation to the anti-Christian fury of 20th-century atheism. All of the accounts are told in an engaging narrative that reads like good fiction; only a sparse section on Thomas More, one of the greatest martyrdom stories of all, seems wanting for more breadth and depth.
I found a chapter on the 20th century especially affecting. From Edith Stein dying at the hands of the Nazis, to Miguel Pro bearing the brunt of Mexican socialists' anti-Church rage, to Marcel Van losing his life to Vietnamese communists — these are stories that will stay with me for a long time.
“Perhaps the most significant insight we gain is that martyrs were often quite ordinary men and women caught in extraordinary circumstances,” notes Thigpen. “In many ways, they were everyday people like us, people who weren't looking for trouble and who prayed, even as Jesus had, that God might somehow spare them from it.”
The witness of these martyrs disturbed a world fleeing the truth, a world trying to silence those who speak the truth in love. Their vivid stories now disturb us a bit. If these accounts of these lives don't shake us out of our modern complacency, nothing will.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.