Monday, May 13, 2013


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Pope Francis canonized over 800 Fifteenth Cent. martyrs of Otranto in a sainthood ceremony in St. Peter’s on Sunday, May 12, 2013.  Given the age of the cases, and the large number of saints, how can we be sure of their authenticity?  In “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom,” (HarperOne, 320 pages, $25.99.) Notre Dame Professor Candida Moss argues that the earliest persecutions of Church history were a “pious fraud” perpetrated by the Church Fathers to serve ideological ends.  This story of Christian martyrdom is a myth that leads Christians to claim the rhetorical high ground,” writes Moss, but it also leads to a “theologizing of violence.”  Óscar Romero would beg to differ!
Romero’s life—and death (photo)—rebuts any assertion that persecution and martyrdom is a “myth” in three important respects:

  • Romero took it as a point of faith that martyrdom/persecution are defining qualities of the Church and had the conviction that persecution was both a historical and theological fact.
  • Romero’s life life—and death—help illustrate how martyrdom/persecution can come to be denied, but also how the historicity of these claims is ultimately redeemed.
  • Finally, Romero did not shy away from embracing an ‘insular’ Catholic identity of persecution that some on the Left and in the secular world find off-putting.
The Catechism states that, “The Church has painstakingly collected the records of those who persevered to the end in witnessing to their faith.”  The Acts of the Martyrs are “the archives of truth written in letters of blood.”  (C.C.C.: 2474.)  Romero would wholeheartedly agree: Romero believed in early Christian persecutions/martyrdom as a historical fact.  He told the faithful that “the first Christians came to an understanding of the meaning of the word Cross” because their community “could speak about persecution and martyrs.”  (September 3, 1978 Homily.)  On the pagan columns of Rome the cross of Christ stands as a sign of the triumph and victory of faith,” he said.  At the base of these columns is the blood of many martyrs.”  (Ibid.)  For proof, Romero cited “the immortal words of Tertullian”—the Church Father who famously said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  (Oct. 23, 1977 Hom.; Apologeticum, 50).  Romero vouched for the Church’s ability to conclusively identify martyrs: “a process that involves the supreme authority of the Church that declares before the universal Church that such an individual is a martyr.”  (Sept. 23, 1979 Hom.)  I respect this law,” he declared, and he would never claim that priests killed in the archdiocese whom the faithful referred to as ‘martyrs’ “were canonized martyrs.”  (Ibid.)

Romero also believed in early Christian martyrdom as a sort of theological necessity.  Persecution is a reality that is necessary for the Church,” he declared.  You know why? Because the truth is persecuted. Jesus told his disciples: if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20).”  (May 29, 1977 Hom.)  He quoted Pope Leo XIII as having said that in addition to the well-known “Four Marks of the Church”—to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic—“I would add another: persecuted.”  (Ibid.)  Accordingly, “persecution is a characteristic mark of the authentic Church,” and, “A Church that does not suffer persecution is not the true church of Jesus Christ.”  (Mar. 11, 1979 Hom.)  Thanks to God,” Romero said, “we are not only aware of the stories of the martyrs of past ages but we are also conscious of the martyrs of our own time.”  (Apr. 14, 1979 Hom.)  For example, Romero said that the persecution of the Polish Church by Communist regimes recalled the Roman persecutions: “Cardinal Woytila reminds us of the times of the catacombs and the times of the [Roman] circus,” Romero said: “the times of the martyrs.”  (Oct. 29, 1978 Hom.)  To Romero, there was a continuity, a constancy, between early martyrdom and the modern experience: “Because the Christians refused to adore the emperor, many of them died as martyrs.  This is always the cause of martyrdom.”  (Sept. 29, 1977 Hom.) 

His intense identification with the early Christian Church was a source of encouragement and consolation for Romero, which allowed him to face the prospect of slander, personal attacks and accusations, harassment, intimidation, and ultimately, threats of violence and violent attacks upon his Church and his collaborators with serenity.  The struggle of the Church is precisely the following: to maintain herself faithful to the majesty of God as she confronts the powers of this earth,” Romero reflected.  For her defense of God, the Church is slandered. Those who attempt to establish the Kingdom of God on this earth are seen as subversive and therefore persecuted and denounced.”  (Ibid.)
The following critique from Prof. Moss could well be applied to Archbishop Romero: Moss argues that the early Christians were not being “persecuted” because they were Christians, but because they were offending Roman sensibilities on other grounds: early Christians were “rude, subversive and disrespectful,” refusing to swear oaths, join the military or participate in any other part of Roman society.  If persecution is to be defined as hostility toward a group because of its religious beliefs,” she argues, “then surely it is important [whether] the Romans intended to target Christians.  Otherwise this is prosecution, not persecution.”  This is a maddening variation of the «odium fidei» quandary that has plagued Romero’s canonization process, wherein it is argued, essentially, that Romero was killed because he was “rude, subversive and disrespectful,” refusing to be civil with government authorities, denouncing the army’s human rights records, railing against the hoarding of land and wealth by the oligarchy, etc.  The “Catholic Answer” to this critique, of course, is that, “The early Christians would not follow Roman rules—such as sacrificing to the Roman gods—because of their religious beliefs,” so it makes the assertion that they were not persecuted for their religious beliefs untenable.  Similarly, Archbishop Romero was denouncing injustice because of his religious beliefs and therefore the contention that he was not killed for religious reasons but for “other” reasons is based on a myopic view of reality.  Most Christians today aren't being menaced because of their doctrinal convictions but because of moral choices rooted in their faith,” John Allen writes in a recent piece regarding modern persecutions.  That distinction doesn't make their suffering any less spiritually significant ...”

Allen illustrates the point by discussing the case of Fr. Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, set to be beatified on May 25.  The Church has ruled his death at the hands of the Italian mafia a martyrdom.  His assassins’ motives had nothing to do with opposition to Christianity—indeed, they understood themselves to be good Catholics,” Allen writes.  Yet Puglisi's reasons for standing in the firing line had everything to do with his faith.”  Allen recognizes that Romero’s is a similar case.
Finally, Romero also quietly rebuffs Prof. Moss’ tepid approach to prosecution of the Church when she questions characterizing the Obama administration’s attempts to force religious institutions into providing abortion rights as a subtle, modern form of persecution.  The use of this language of persecution is discursive napalm,” Moss says.  It obliterates any sense of scale or moderation.”  Here is what Archbishop Romero said on the issue:

Abortion has been legalized in [El Salvador] despite the fact that the bishops asked the President and the Assembly to respect the life that lives within the mother’s womb. But the law was passed. This is truly a persecution of the Church for this law is clearly against the morality that the Church preaches.
(Oct. 2, 1977 Hom.)

Archbishop Romero drew strength and inspiration from the early Christian martyrs and he believed wholeheartedly in Church persecution as a historic and theological truth.  He wanted, he declared, to be part of “a Church that is alive, a Church of martyrs, a Church that is filled with the Holy Spirit.”  (Dec. 31, 1978 Hom.)


Musical Tribute to Romero & Other Martyrs
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