Martyrdom Answers Jesus’ Call: ‘Come, Follow Me’

EDITORIAL: All-or-nothing love for Christ and what it means for hard times

A statue of Oscar Romero in Salvador del Mundo Square in San Salvador on May 23, 2015, before his beatification. Archbishop Romero was canonized Oct. 14.
A statue of Oscar Romero in Salvador del Mundo Square in San Salvador on May 23, 2015, before his beatification. Archbishop Romero was canonized Oct. 14. (photo: David Ramos/CNA)

On Oct. 14, Pope Francis presided over the canonization Mass of seven new saints of the Church, including Pope St. Paul VI and Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador.

Celebrated on the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the canonization Mass included the Gospel reading from Mark Chapter 10 of the rich young man who ran up to Christ and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life.

In his homily for the canonization, Pope Francis noted that the rich young man asks for eternal life as an inheritance. “Jesus’ answer,” Pope Francis says, “catches him off guard. … Jesus changes the perspective: from commandments observed in order to obtain a reward to a free and total love. … And the Lord suggests to the man a life that cuts to the quick: ‘Sell what you have and give to the poor … and come, follow me’” (Mark 10:21).

Throughout this pontificate, one feature of Francis’ teaching has been especially consistent: the beatification and canonization of martyrs for the faith.

The martyrs embraced the call of Christ to “Follow me,” and Pope Francis has used their beatifications and canonizations to provide role models in the face of persecution and as a poignant reminder of the intense suffering of Christians all over the world today.

In the very first canonization ceremony of his papacy, in May 2013, Francis raised to the altars the largest group of martyrs ever canonized: the 800 Martyrs of Otranto, who died for the faith in 1480 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the midst of a mostly forgotten Muslim invasion of Italy. One by one, the martyrs were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam.

Pope Francis said of them, “They refused to deny their faith and died professing the Risen Christ. Where did they find the strength to stay faithful? In the faith itself, which enables us to see beyond the limits of our human sight, beyond the boundaries of earthly life. It grants us to contemplate ‘the heavens opened,’ as St. Stephen says, and the living Christ at God’s right hand. Dear friends, let us keep the faith we have received and which is our true treasure.”

Just in the past year, in beatification and canonization ceremonies around the world, 361 martyrs have been declared “Blessed” or new saints. They span the globe, from Japan to Algeria and from Spain to Mexico.

They have been beatified and canonized in groups as large as 115 (José Álvarez-Benavides de la Torre and Companions from the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War) and in smaller classes, such as with Archbishop Romero and his six canonization companions.

Archbishop Romero, who was murdered in 1980 while saying Mass, similar to St. Thomas Becket eight centuries before him, paid the ultimate price for serving the poor, the forgotten and the persecuted in a violent time in his native country.

During his homily for the canonization of St. Óscar Romero and the six other saints, Pope Francis taught, “Jesus asks each of us and all of us as the Church journeying forward: Are we a Church that only preaches good commandments or a Church that is a spouse, that launches herself forward in love for her Lord? Do we truly follow him or do we revert to the ways of the world, like that man in the Gospel?”

Unlike St. Óscar and the other martyrs honored this past year, the vast majority of Catholics in the United States will not be asked to choose to abandon Christ or face torture and death.

As the history of the Church tells us, however, martyrdom can come in many forms.

We are asked, then, are we willing to face increasing mockery and social pressure for not surrendering to the ideologies of our time? Are we willing to remain steadfast in our love of Christ and his Church even if it means that we will lose friends or social position or income?

Consider Takayama Ukon, a Japanese samurai in the late 16th century who was beatified in Osaka, Japan, in February 2017. Blessed Takayama gave up his political and social status and went into exile for the Catholic faith after it was banned by Japanese authorities. He died in exile in the Philippines.

The heroic samurai asks us today: Would we leave our homes to remain Catholic?

At the Oct. 14 Mass, Francis said, “Jesus is radical. He gives all, and he asks all: He gives a love that is total and asks for an undivided heart. Even today he gives himself to us as the Living Bread; can we give him crumbs in exchange? We cannot respond to him, who made himself our servant, even going to the cross for us, only by observing some of the commandments. We cannot give him, who offers us eternal life, some odd moment of time. Jesus is not content with a ‘percentage of love’: We cannot love him 20% or 50% or 60%. It is either all or nothing.”

It was that all-or-nothing love for Christ that compelled the Martyrs of Algeria to remain in North Africa during the 1990s, despite the dangers of a civil war in the country and the threats of Islamic fundamentalists.

Each of the 19 martyrs, including the famed Trappist monks of Tibhirine, died brutally, but they will be beatified in Oran, Algeria, on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

In an era in which millions of Christians across the globe endure mockery, social and political disabilities, torture and even death on a daily basis, Pope Francis holds up the martyrs as exemplars in their suffering, even as he calls for Catholics to pray and work for the safety and security of our fellow Christians.

This was made very clear by Francis at the end of his homily for the canonization of the Martyrs of Otranto.

Francis proclaimed, “While we venerate the Martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain all the Christians who still suffer violence today in these very times and in so many parts of the world and to give them the courage to stay faithful and to respond to evil with goodness.”

We are in an age of martyrs, and Pope Francis wants us to remember that when one part of the Body of Christ suffers, the whole suffers, as well. During a general audience in June of last year, Francis spoke of martyrdom and its meaning for each of us as we all face hard times.

As is his teaching style, he asked another hard question: “In difficult times, one must believe that Jesus is before us and does not cease to accompany his disciples. Persecution is not in contradiction to the Gospel but, rather, is part of it. If they persecuted our Teacher, how can we hope to be spared the fight?”

As followers of Christ Jesus, and with the feast of All Saints only days away, why would we want to be?