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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - Martyrs of Disunity or Unity?

Sunday, January 22, 2012
In the 16th and 17th centuries it is a sad fact that, amidst a complex religious and political situation, at various points Protestants and Catholics executed each other in connection with the specific form of a person’s faith in Jesus. The Church has seen fit, after due examination, to officially recognise a number of these Catholic martyrs, canonising or beatifying them. When the Church does this, she proposes them to us as models of Christian life to be learned from and imitated. God may call us to imitate them in our deaths as actual martyrs but in the first place we are firstly to imitate them in the manner of our lives. How are we to do this? Some may think that it ought to be by a firm rejection of and opposition to current Protestants; or, if not this, by as much distance and as little contact as possible. Even if ignorance tends to breed contempt, and distance may tend to harden our hearts which may in turn lead to indifference, disrespect or worse, some may nonetheless consider it a strategy worth risking, as a ‘softer’ approach might dishonour our martyrs and the wishes of the Church that canonised or beatified them.

But the declared wishes of the Church challenge this and point in another direction. The Church, most authoritatively in the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II, and in more recent documents and in the ministry of Popes since then, has recognised that Protestants are real Christians, live in the grace of Christ and are our spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to recognise them as such, and to work towards unity with them, a unity Christ prayed would be among all his disciples. We are to pray and reflect together and also practically co-operate where possible. By committing ourselves to such ecumenism in authentic ways we become more Catholic and not less Catholic, more loyal to the work of Christ and the Church and not betrayers of it. How then are we to imitate our martyrs? We do not need to ignore them but can learn from them to positively engage ecumenically. We may do so now by our lives as the manner of our deaths are in God’s hands.

The martyrs in general offered their deaths as the final act of a life lived in love of God and neighbour, as an instrument of God to bring salvation to those around them. Thus they lived and died seeing others as made in and for Christ, they lived and died encouraging fellow believers to a generous and risk-taking, costly love. Do we?

Many of them died, expressing their own sinfulness, and seeking God’s mercy: we need to be the same and to seek mercy for any hostility or disrespect to other Christians on our part. We need to be mindful of the contribution, sometimes sinful, by Catholics to the problems in church and violence in society of that period of history. We live with the legacy and need God’s mercy. Do we seek it and to remove the plank from our own eyes?

The martyrs witnessed to the truth of the Christian faith. Our witness to the fullness of our faith matters too, and the strong convictions of martyrs should be noted, shared and learned from. At the same time, we need to appreciate that many Protestants died for what they sincerely believed to be Christian truth and good practice. When examining the execution of Christians by Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries, we should also seek to understand the way the political and cultural issues of the times polarised Christian views and convictions and shaped actions. Error does need to be pointed out on occasions but we also need to listen and to appreciate that Truth has many aspects and there are often different ways of articulating and living it, and also that truth can be packaged with error. The Truth is Jesus, the saving love of God for us; the martyrs, spoke that Truth in love, in keeping with its nature. Do we?

They invited and challenged persecutors to come to faith, but did not impose their faith and did not use violence or political machinations to defend themselves. They witnessed to the power of forgiveness. Some specifically prayed at the scaffold for the unity of the Church to be restored, though, among other factors, the politics of their situation made that very difficult to envisage indeed. If we are to imitate them we need to forgive and to seek reconciliation at various levels. We have far more opportunity for practical co-operation than the martyrs did due to the politics of their time. Will we make ourselves vulnerable and take risks to bring reconciliation?

The martyrs looked to heaven for God to reward them and to vindicate them in his own way. We too are called to look to heaven and to trust God’s providence. But in looking to heaven, we need to realise we will share it with all whom God has called, justified, sanctified and glorified and that will most likely include Protestant brothers and sisters, including ones from this bloody period of Christian history. We will be fully reconciled in Heaven. This should encourage us and give us hope, and inspire us to seek to build a church that not only looks to this, but seeks to build it upon earth and so witness to just how much reconciliation and unity God wants to bring about among people.

The situation facing the martyrs was complex and presented them with difficult and often conflicting emotions. Their legacy and our situation of disunity and the call to unity creates a complex situation with difficult and conflicting emotions. Let us be inspired by their compassion and also candour, their courage and also good cheer, their constancy and also courtesy, and by Christ-like integrity, humility, sensitivity, generosity and wisdom which bind these together and direct them, so that we may renew all of the Church, and deepen its visible unity, that Jesus Christ may be seen the more clearly in our world.

Andrew Brookes OP

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