After taking note of the fact that the Church commemorates many ancient and modern martyrs during the month of August, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the call to martyrdom during his general audience on Aug. 11.
A martyr, the Holy Father explained, follows the Lord to the very end by freely accepting to die for the salvation of the world, a supreme test of faith and love. Although few people are called to martyrdom, Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians to follow the example of these saintly men and women by letting their act of supreme love and surrender to God be a source of inspiration for growing in holiness and charity towards all our brothers and sisters.
Dear brothers and sisters,
In today’s liturgy we commemorate St. Clare of Assisi, foundress of the Poor Clares, a truly shining figure. I will speak about her in a forthcoming catechesis.
However, this week — as I mentioned during the Angelus last Sunday — we also commemorate several saints and martyrs from the early centuries of the Church — like St. Lawrence, a deacon; St. Pontian, a pope; and St. Hippolytus, a priest — as well as saints and martyrs from times closer to us, like St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), patroness of Europe, and St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe. For this reason, I would like to briefly reflect on martyrdom as an expression of total love of God.
The Basis of Martyrdom
What is martyrdom founded on? The answer is simple. Its foundation is Jesus’ death, his supreme sacrifice of love, consumed on the cross, so that we might have life (see John 10:10). Christ is the suffering servant of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks (see Isaiah 52:13-15), who offered himself for the salvation of many (see Matthew 20:28).
Jesus exhorts his disciples — each one of us — to take up their cross daily and follow him on the path of total love of God the Father and of mankind: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me,” he tells us, “is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).
The logic here is that of the grain of wheat that dies in order to germinate and to bring forth life (see John 12:24). Jesus himself “is the grain of wheat that came from God, the divine grain that lets itself fall to the ground, that lets itself be sundered, be broken down in death and precisely by so doing germinates and can thus bear fruit in the immensity of the world” (Benedict XVI, Visit to the Lutheran Church of Rome [March 14, 2010]). A martyr follows the Lord to the very end by freely accepting to die for the salvation of the world, a supreme test of faith and love (see Lumen Gentium, 42).
Strength to Face Martyrdom
Once again, we might ask, “Where does the strength to face martyrdom come from?” It comes from a deep and intimate union with Christ because martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of some human effort, but a response to an initiative and a call that come from God. They are a gift of his grace that enables us to offer our lives out of our love for Christ, for the Church and, in this way, for the world.
If we read the lives of martyrs, we are amazed by their serenity and courage in facing suffering and death. God’s power is fully manifest in their weakness, in the poverty of those who entrust themselves to him and place their hope in him alone (see 2 Corinthians 12:9).
Nevertheless, it is important to note that God’s grace does not suppress or stifle the freedom of those facing martyrdom. On the contrary, it enriches and enhances it. The martyr is a person who is totally free — free from the power of the world. The martyr is a free person who, in one final act, gives his entire life over to God and, in a supreme act of faith, hope and charity, abandons himself to the hands of his Creator and Redeemer, sacrifices his life in order to totally become part of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In a word, martyrdom is a great act of love in response to God’s immense love.
Call to Holiness
Dear brothers and sisters, as I said last Wednesday, most likely we are not called to martyrdom, but no one is excluded from God’s call to holiness, to live the Christian life to its full extent, and that means taking up the cross every day.
Everyone — especially during these times when selfishness and individualism are so prevalent — must make a primary and fundamental commitment to grow every day in a greater love for God and for our brothers and sisters in order to transform our lives and, in doing so, to transform our world. Through the intercession of the saints and martyrs, let us ask God to ignite our hearts to be capable of loving as he loved each one of us.