Every day we celebrate many saints. Only the most known are mentioned in the main calendars, but in fact if you look at the detailed catalogues of saints on a daily basis, you’ll be surprised to see their great numbers.
On the 13th of April, two of them – Pope Martin the 1st and young Blessed Rolando Rivi – went through martyrdom. Let us reflect and ponder on Martyrdom.
|Pope Martin I Martyr|
Martyrdom is the highest imitation of Christ, the highest level of holiness, because a holy life is crowned by the highest way of following the Lord and imitating his life: giving himself to us, dying for us on the Cross.
It is important for each and every Christian to ask himself this question: What is the most important aspect of Martyrdom? – not in their eyes, but in the eyes of God.
In our eyes, we might be impressed by the horrors of the ordeals the martyrs go through. We might be impressed by the barbaric behaviour that we humans are capable of doing to each another. We could be struck by the fact that God, who certainly was very present in the life of these saints, never intervened to stop these horrors – think of Jesus himself, God didn’t stop his enemies and the people who wanted to torture him and kill him to do so. Whilst it looks as if God is ‘absent’, watching the horror and not doing anything, in fact He is working more than ever, as we will see. You might be struck by the fact that one of the martyrs is even a Pope, the visible head of the Church on earth, although of course the Lord is the Head of the Church.
So in the end, watching the horrors of martyrdom, you might feel helpless. You might overlook the core of martyrdom.
These two martyrs – Pope Martin and Blessed Rivi – went through huge ordeals and humiliations… they lived in different eras, they had different “enemies” Rivi, who was a seminarian, had the Italian Communists against him. The other, who was a Pope had the Byzantine (other Christians like him) against him, because they drifted into a heresy of not recognising Jesus’ two wills, the divine and the human and not accepting what the Pope said.
|Blessed Rolando Rivi Martyr|
Of course each one of them in his heart presented himself as a victim to the Lord, in the hands of his enemies, like Jesus and in Jesus… offering life for the Lord’s cause.
But now contemplate the darkest moments in the tortures of each one of them, – some lasted hours some lasted days – and think: what is the core of Martyrdom? Is it just dying for Christ because of the hatred for Faith?
“Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death” (Catechism no. 2473)
Many people die for very noble causes. So what is the core reason that makes somebody a Christian martyr? Martyrdom is the highest Grace and the highest achievement for any follower of Jesus. I think that the highest act God can do (in such horrendous ordeals) is for us to be elevated and given the Holy Spirit and so we become capable with His Help to forgive our torturers and pray for them. This is the core of Martyrdom. Remember Jesus on the Cross saying: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”;
|“Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”|
remember Jesus having to forgive Judas, remember Mary, mother of Jesus, who had to forgive Judas, remember the first Martyr after Jesus and Mary: Stephen, who forgave the persons stoning him (see the Acts of the Apostles chapters 6-7).
|St Stephen Protomartyr|
If, while submitted to such horrors, a human being reaches – by the power of the Holy Spirit – the point to forgive and pray for his persecutors, then we have arrived at a fairly deep understanding of what is happening in the heart of a martyr.
The risk is to consider their fortitude, resilience, patience, sufferings… thinking that martyrdom is a matter of self control, pure human faithfulness or personal resilience and fortitude. While in fact these aspects are only the crust of martyrdom.
Can we in any form relate to that?
Well, the first point to clarify is to say: one doesn’t reach martyrdom in one shot. In order to reach that high state of docility to the Holy Spirit, there is a life of spiritual growth behind it. Martyrdom in itself is the crowning of that journey of growth. Behind it there is a journey of forgiveness that started probably years before and then grew.
In the “Our Father” we receive the seed of Christianity and the core of Martyrdom: “as we forgive those who trespass against us, hate us,…”. How many times during one day do we have the opportunity to forgive?
But without the Grace of God we can’t forgive, pray for or bless… So from day one, the real journey toward the real martyrdom starts this way: opening our heart to the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit in our heart, wanting to come in it, heal it, strengthen it, so it becomes capable of forgiving. Only God forgives. We just offer our “yes” to Him, so he comes in us with his power of healing and forgiveness and helps us forgive, heals our heart, changes it, opens it, makes it a heart of flesh, helps us embrace our “enemy”, helps us pray for him, communicate His Grace to him. We need to bestow God’s Grace on all our enemies. You might object: ‘they are not worth it, they are bad people!’ Ok, but weren’t we all bad people in the beginning? Aren’t we all persons who were saved by Jesus without any merit from our part? So why do we harden our heart towards our ‘enemy’?
God can help us forgive, what He needs is not our capacity to forgive but our desire – our “yes” for forgiveness.
My prayer could be:
“Lord I can’t forgive, because my heart is hurt.
I know you want me to forgive. I want to do your will.
But I find that I can’t do it, the damage is too big and it hurts.
You can’t ask for something that You can’t realise in us.
So please, Graciously, come and heal my heart.
Pour in it your Grace, free me from all that bitterness, hurt, pain, darkness.
Change my heart, open my heart, expand my heart…
and now, graciously, give me the Forgiveness
you want me to give to this person
because I don’t have it.
Help me love this person as you love them,
with your own love.
You could add: “I ask you this through the powerful intercession of Mary your mother and my mother, Mother of Mercy”.
There is a big difference between thinking that God wants us to be capable of forgiving, and God wanting us to forgive by Him coming in our heart, healing it, and giving us the capacity to forgive. He has the capacity, we have the desire, and we express it in a prayer (like the prayer shown above).
If we make this prayer, Miracles can happen, we are touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, we experience the fact that God can really intervene in our heart and change us, and as Origen, the theologian says: we start to become Christians (see his comment on the “Our Father).
This spiritual experience is necessary… it is even a condition for any prayer to succeed and be heard: “forgive us … as we forgive”. This “as we” is here to remind us every day of our divine vocation: to allow God himself, Jesus himself, the Great Divine Forgiver, to come in us, dwell in us with His Holy Spirit and forgive, embrace, love, shower His Grace on all our “enemies”. This is our vocation.
This is the attitude of the heart and all this happens first in the heart. Of course this doesn’t mean that the bad things that happened didn’t happen! This doesn’t mean that you agree with any wrong doing against you. It only means that you don’t hold any hatred or resentment against this person, it means that you want to be a real Son of God, capable of allowing Jesus himself to come in you and realise the divine work.
Note: A real sign of strength is to become by the grace of God capable of allowing Jesus to do in you what He is doing on the Cross: forgiving your ‘enemies’. It is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of power and spiritual strength. The weak are violent… they hate. The strong are humble, meek, they allow the power of the Holy Spirit to work in them and through them, showering Him over the world. Who wins in the end?
It doesn’t mean that your “enemy” will necessary accept your forgiveness. Nonetheless you give it generously, otherwise you are blocking the Grace of God, stopping God from working in you.
It doesn’t mean that you have every time to accept any injustice and never rise against it. Jesus said: ‘turn the other cheek’, but He also replied to the centurion who slapped him on the face: ‘why do you do that?’. But you can notice that his general attitude was forgiveness, embrace, patience, love, showering the Grace of God on his torturers. Our Heart has to be clean, never holding any grudge against any person, on the contrary, taking the opportunity to have our divine ‘revenge’ against our enemies: by praying for them. This is how Christianity spread: the forgiveness of the Martyrs is seed of new Christians.
Only the Power of Jesus’ forgiveness, only the Power of His Blood can change the world and is in fact changing the world (the hearts). Because the world is a world of hearts, who are called to be changed from ‘hearts of stone’ to ‘hearts of flesh’.