In his 2002 book “The New Persecuted”, Italian journalist Antonio Socci reported that two thirds of the Christians martyred in history were in the twentieth century. Persecution of Christians by German National Socialism, atheistic Communism and radical Islam made the last century an Age of Martyrs. Sadly, it seems as though it was simply a primer for what we are witnessing today.
Mass persecutions of Christians and others, accompanied by the horrific execution style murders of innocents in Iraq and Syria remind us that martyrdom is never out of season. The beheading of American journalist James Foley, a Catholic, is the most recent and vivid example of this. Other reports and videos show mass shootings, crucifixions and the all too common beheadings of Christians and other civilians by the Islamic State (ISIS).
With the Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist today, Holy Mother Church reminds us of the ultimate cost of Christian discipleship. Listed first among the martyrs in the Roman Canon, St. John the Baptist was greatly venerated by the earliest Christian communities. The story of his martyrdom is a familiar one:
For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (Mk 6:17-29)
In his 2012 General Audience address on the memorial of the saint’s passion, Pope Benedict XVI reminded the faithful that martyrdom is sometimes the price paid for simply proclaiming the truth. In defense of the Truth, silence and compromise have no place:
“As his last act the Baptist witnessed with his blood to faithfulness to God’s commandments, without giving in or withdrawing, carrying out his mission to the very end. In the 9th century the Venerable Bede says in one of his Homilies: “St John gave his life for (Christ). He was not ordered to deny Jesus Christ, but was ordered to keep silent about the truth” (cf. Homily 23: CCL 122, 354). And he did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely for love of the truth he did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path.
“Dear brothers and sisters, celebrating the martyrdom of St John the Baptist reminds us too, Christians of this time, that with love for Christ, for his words and for the Truth, we cannot stoop to compromises. The Truth is Truth; there are no compromises. Christian life demands, so to speak, the “martyrdom” of daily fidelity to the Gospel, the courage, that is, to let Christ grow within us and let him be the One who guides our thought and our actions.”
Looking at the example provided by St. John the Baptist, we must view the events occurring in the Middle East today through a distinctly Catholic lens. The beheading of the Baptist at the hands of Herod and the beheadings today at the hands of ISIS serve to remind us of the ultimate price paid in this perennial war, this spiritual battle, that we face as Christians.
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you…But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. (Jn 15:18-22)
In his 2002 book, Socci noted that an average of 160,000 Christians had been killed every year since 1990, mostly by Muslims in the Third World. These past few weeks have further revealed the bloodlust and satanic fury of those who oppose God and who seek to destroy all that is good. It may be time once again for the faithful to rediscover a devotion to St. John the Baptist. Faced with such evil, may we all ask for the courage, conviction and commitment for sharing the Truth that our baptism requires of us.
The Age of Martyrs indeed. St. John the Baptist, ora pro nobis.
(Image: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, 1607)