“...nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are cut down by you, the more numerous we become. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
-Tertullian, The Apology: A Letter to the Emperor (around 200 A.D.)
Every year, between June 22nd and June 29th, the Catholic Church honors five martyrs: St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, St. Irenaeus, St. Paul and St. Peter. These saintly martyrs have shown that there is something worth dying for- and consequently something worth living for –that is more important than life itself. And that something is Christ and his heavenly kingdom.
However, what Martyrs die for and what Saints live for does not fall under the jurisdiction of the State. It is something that political rulers cannot lay their hands on; nor do they possess the power to regulate it. Indeed, the dignity, the immortality and the destiny of the soul is forever outside the reach of political rulers. As St. Thomas More said before his execution, as long as he is faithful to Christ, the King can do no real harm to him.
In a way, martyrdom also testifies to the limitations of the joys in this life. That is to say, the shedding of one’s blood gives witness to the anticipation of an everlasting life in heaven. Every martyr was of the conviction that he or she would be compensated in full measure for all of the sacrifices they made for Jesus. As our Lord said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive back an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come.” And again, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
To be sure, the martyrs did not court death; but when it was a choice between death and infidelity to God, they welcomed death as a bridge to their heavenly homeland. As such, there was no melancholy or need to look back. Their resolve was unbreakable because their destiny was certain. And this is precisely what the worldly minded person does not understand: the moral and religious certainty of those who witnessed for Christ!
The Catholic Faith reminds us that our freedom and the responsibility of governing the people is not without consequence. Eventually every person and every ruler has to come to terms with the fact that there will be an accounting for the failure to observe God’s law. The book of Wisdom reminds rulers that their power will be scrutinized and held accountable by a Higher Power: "Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!" (6:2-3)
What is more, the martyrs and their witness calls attention to a world beyond the grave; a world that cannot be ignored! But those who pursue power and pleasure at any expense are threatened by this authentic Christian witness. The reason is that those who follow Christ are a Sign of Contradiction to the ways of the world. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “For we are the aroma of Christ for God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the latter an odor of death that leads to death, to the former an odor of life that leads to life.”
Perhaps this is why, from the very beginning, it was the unbelieving State- whether it be in the person of a Egyptian pharaoh, Roman emperor, king or a dictator –that has routinely contested the expansion of God’s kingdom. And the more godless this State was in any given era, the more it sought to eliminate godly men and women.
Martyrs from St. Peter to St. Thomas More have testified with their blood that the power of the State is not absolute; that there is a higher authority and a heavenly Jerusalem that exceeds the narrow limits of every political regime. And it is to this Higher Authority where our unconditional loyalty lies. To be sure, when every citizen or the at least the majority of citizen's loyalty is given to God first, then those circumstances which give rise to an all-powerful State will be laid to waste.