In Dana Gioia’s thoughtful essay, “To Witness Truth Uncompromised; Modern Martyrs”, one of his essays collected under the title The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays (Wiseblood Books), he reminds us that these exceptional Christians “represent the perpetual challenge of believers to witness to their faith in a fallen world.” Sometimes we are inclined to link the martyrs to the Roman arenas in the early Christian Church, but as Gioia emphasises, the 20th century contained more Christians who died for their faith than all the preceding centuries put together.
He mentions well-known names such as St Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero and Edith Stein, but there are many lesser-known names, such as Bernhard Lichtenberg, provost of Berlin cathedral, who protested again the Nazis’ forced euthanasia programme of the weak and disabled, who died on his way to Dachau and Fr Franz Reinach, executed for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler.
These and millions of others in the last century who will always remain anonymous represent, as Gioia points out “The heroic integrity of the conscientious individual.” Why do I mention such names? Because the season of Lent leads us towards Christ’s Passion and death – and Christ remains the model for all who witness to the truth and who die for it under unjust political systems. In Lenten Meditations by Fr Peter Stravinskas (Newman House Press/Gracewing, £6.99), a useful series of counsels, the author suggests that although we may not be called to give up our lives in a dramatic way, we should recognise that we are meant to carry our cross daily, that penance is not an option and that the little deaths to self we experience in daily acts of self-denial are our own modest yet vital witness to the faith we share with the martyrs.
As we know, such an outlook is deeply counter-cultural; and as Gioia remarks, “Perhaps true professing Christians are always a minority everywhere, even in Christian societies”; in other words, it is tempting to become a comfortable Christian rather than to embrace the life Christ offers us. As Fr Stravinskas points out, “It is only the gentle but piercing glance of the crucified and risen Saviour that leads to repentance, forgiveness and eternal salvation.”
What is the difference between us and men like Fr Franz Reinach (of whom I once read that in an impulsive moment to evade his vocation he jumped over the wall of the seminary)? They kept their gaze on Christ and did not allow themselves to be deflected or distracted from following him. Nonetheless, in our society, we have still many opportunities to show our secular contemporaries that a black smudge on the forehead on Ash Wednesday is not a weird fashion statement, but shows our own fidelity to the great truths of our faith.
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