The Great Cloud of Witnesses in the Roman Martyrology

Last week I spoke of my attachment to Prime, one of the “little hours” of the Divine Office, and why Catholics today should consider taking it up as the backbone of their morning prayer. Today I turn to the Roman Martyrology. What is this book, and why do I connect it with Prime [i]?

The Roman Martyrology is an official liturgical book of the Catholic Church, with ancient origins, that lists the martyrs, confessors, virgins, and other saints, each on his or her dies natalis, or birthday into eternal life, as well as major feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady. The last editio typica of the traditional Martyrology was published in 1922, with additions down to a fourth edition in 1956 [ii].

While only a relatively small number of saints are celebrated or commemorated with full liturgical honors at Holy Mass and in the Divine Office, a great many other saints [iii] are recorded in, remembered through, and called upon by the reading of the Martyrology each day, which is done either right after the Office of Prime, as part of the so-called “capitular office,” or in conjunction with table reading (both practices can be found in religious communities). As an oblate living in the world, I have found that the best time to read it is directly after Prime.

How Do We Use It?

The Martyrology has a simple ritual that goes with it. If you are reading it alone, you will say everything that follows; if reading it in a group, you will alternate with the others in the usual manner.

After praying the final oration of Prime (“Domine, Deus omnipotens, qui ad principium huius diei” / “O Lord God almighty, Who hast brought us to the beginning of this day”) and the “Benedicamus Domino / Deo gratias,” you open the Martyrology to tomorrow’s date. (It is a longstanding custom to read the saints of the date following today, since the celebration of a saint begins the evening before with First Vespers, which, for most of the Church’s history, was given greater weight than Second Vespers. For example: on the morning of September 13, we announce the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, because its First Vespers will take place that evening.) You begin by announcing the day (“The 12th of February”), then read the entries under that date. At the end you say:

And elsewhere, many other holy martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins.

R. Thanks be to God.

V. Precious in the sight of the Lord:

R. Is the death of His saints.

(Then immediately, without saying “Let us pray”)

May holy Mary and all the Saints intercede for us with the Lord, that we may merit to be helped and saved by Him who lives and reigns forever and ever.

R. Amen. [iv]

The traditional Martyrology is available in English translation either in deluxe hardcover or as a compact paperback [v].

This Is a Liturgical Book?

In my first encounter with it years ago, I wasn’t sure at all why the Martyrology should be considered a liturgical book. Apart from a few momentous days of the year when the text becomes rhapsodic (e.g., All Saints, All Souls, and Christmas), it looks mostly like a long list of names and places, most of them obscure, with a variety of deaths, natural and unnatural, including a stunning spectrum of ghastly tortures. How is this supposed to fit into our daily prayers?

But I figured if the monks and nuns had been doing it for so many centuries, as an oblate I should give it a try for a while.

With time and familiarity came an increasing appreciation of the Church’s wisdom in putting these great heroes, exemplars, and intercessors in front of our eyes each day. It is a dramatic respice finem, “look to the end!,” as we march on our pilgrimage through this world to our home in the fatherland. When we are praying Prime, we align ourselves with the Church Militant preparing for another day of battle; when we recite the list of the saints, we are rejoicing in the presence of the Church Triumphant [vi]. The entire vista of the Church opens out before us, stretched between Heaven and Earth, humbling, inspiring, challenging, and consoling. It has been astonishing to learn about such a host of saints, particularly the ancient martyrs who suffered incredible, unspeakable torments for love of Jesus Christ. No less timely is the reminder of our spiritual communion with the host of martyrs to Islam, who come up every month of the year.

Entries in the Book of Life

Let me share a few of the entries in the Martyrology, chosen almost at random, to give you a sense of what I’m talking about:

(January 19) At Smyrna, the birthday of blessed Germanicus, Martyr, who, in the flower of his youth, under Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius, overcame, by the grace of the might of God, the fears of bodily weakness, and of his own accord, when he was sentenced by the judge, deliberately provoked the wild beast prepared for him; and being ground to pieces by the teeth of the beast, merited to be made one with the true Bread, the Lord Jesus Christ, by dying for his sake.

(February 21) At Damascus, St Peter Mavimenus, who said to certain Arabs who came to him in his sickness: “Every man who does not embrace the Catholic Christian faith is damned as Mohammed, your false prophet, was,” and was slain by them.

(August 25) At Rome, St Genesius, Martyr, who while he remained a heathen was an actor. When he was mocking the Christian mysteries in the theatre in the presence of the Emperor Diocletian, being inspired by God he was suddenly converted to the faith and baptized. Forthwith by the Emperor’s command he was cruelly scourged with rods, then stretched upon the rack, and tormented by the long-continued tearing of his flesh with hooks, and also burnt with torches. But he continued in the faith of Christ, saying: “There is no King but Christ, and though I be slain a thousand times for him, yet you cannot take him from my mouth or my heart.” He merited the palm of martyrdom by beheading.

(August 29) At Constantinople, the holy martyrs Hypatius, a bishop of Asia, and Andrew, a Priest, whose throats were cut, under Leo the Isaurian, after their beards had been smeared with pitch and burnt, and their heads flayed because of their defence of the veneration of holy images.

(October 28) At Rome, St Anastasia the Elder, Virgin, and Cyril, Martyrs. The former was bound with chains in Valerian’s persecution under the prefect Probus, smitten with blows, tortured with fire and scourges, but since she remained immovable in the confession of Christ, her breasts were cut off, her nails torn out, her teeth broken, her hands and feet cut off, and being beheaded, adorned with the jewels of so many sufferings, she passed to her Spouse; but Cyril, who offered her water when she begged for it, received martyrdom as his reward.

(November 4) At Bologna, SS. Vitalis and Agricola, Martyrs, the former of whom was previously the slave of the latter, but afterwards his companion and fellow in martyrdom. The persecutors used all kinds of torments against him, so that in all his body there was no place unwounded; but he bore them with constancy to the end, and gave up his spirit to God in prayer. They slew Agricola by fixing him with many nails to a cross. St Ambrose was present at their translation and relates how he gathered up the nails of the martyr, his glorious blood and the wood of his cross, and buried them under the sacred altars.

(December 14) In Cyprus, the birthday of blessed Spiridion, Bishop, who was one of those confessors whom Galerius Maximian condemned to the mines, after tearing out his right eye and severing the tendons of his left knee. He was renowned for the gift of prophecy and the power of miracles, and in the Council of Nicea he overcame and brought to the faith a Gentile philosopher who spoke against the Christian religion.

But How Is This Helpful?

In a time of massive ecclesial crisis, when we can so easily feel helpless, even psychologically tortured and played with like mice by a cat, it is heartening and encouraging to remember “the vast multitude whom no man can number” (cf. Rev. 7:9) who fought the good fight, kept the faith, and persevered unto the end, no matter how horribly they were treated. Says St. Bede the Venerable:

If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God. [vii]

In June 2019, Steve Skojec published a dire piece, “The Disastrous State of Things.” As much as I try to find silver linings on dark clouds, I can’t disagree with him. We are deep in the muck, with no easy escape. The men who have been appointed by God to lead us in the Catholic Faith have abandoned the flock: they either actively espouse heresy and moral corruption or remain utterly silent in the face of deviations of every kind.

But can we really say we have suffered as much as our forebears in the Faith, as the great heroes who are set before us to imitate, as they imitated the Lord Jesus Christ in His path from Bethlehem to Calvary to glory? In a prayer he wrote while still a student in Rome, St. Robert Southwell, one of the great English martyrs of the Reformation, prayed to God for a martyr’s end: “For Thy sake allow me to be tortured, mutilated, scourged, slain and butchered. I refuse nothing. I will embrace all, I will endure all, not indeed I, dust and ashes as I am, but Thou, my Lord, in me” [viii].

Can we pray this prayer? Dare we? Maybe the Martyrology will prepare us to do so.

In words that could be taken as a perfect summary of the content and value of the Martyrology, Timothy Flanders writes:

Our fathers faced armies, tortures, and death for the Faith, and they won the victory because the Faith survived. In the midst of this terrible crisis, hear the words of St. Paul and all the saints: you have not yet resisted unto blood (Heb. 12:4). The saints and angels are fighting in Heaven for us, obtaining for us all the graces to conquer as they did. Let us take up the mantle of the saints willing to suffer for the Faith.

More than that, they rejoiced to suffer for the Faith. As it is written, they rejoiced that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41). …

As we said, our fathers gained the victory because the Faith outlived their executioners. The Faith outlived the pagan Roman Empire. It outlived the Muhammadans in Spain and at Lepanto and Vienna. It outlived the Japanese persecution. You have the Faith because our fathers died to pass it down to you. In the same way, see the victory in your children. Raise them and pass down the Sacred Tradition into their hands. Raise them to take up their cross and overcome through Jesus Christ. Perhaps their children, or their children’s children will see the liberty and exaltation of Holy Mother Church. Without any doubt, this triumph will come in time. And every soul will see the coming of Christ in glory. In that hour, all flesh shall bend the knee.

Lift Your Drooping Hands and Strengthen Your Weak Knees (Heb 12:12)

Praying Prime and reading the Martyrology each morning have shaped the way I think of my life, the day ahead, the battle we are waging, the persecution we can expect not only from the world, but from a Church that imitates the world. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers who make use of ruthless human agents, yet we wage war with the invincible aid of divine grace under the banner of the Gospel, surrounded by saints whose labors, sufferings, and deaths are rightly celebrated as triumphs.

In company with all of the saints, I desire to fight the good fight, keep the faith, and persevere unto the end, come what may. My “daily dose” of Prime and the Martyrology renews this desire within me. For this grace, I give thanks to Jesus Christ, King of Martyrs, Lord of Hosts.


[i] Some of what follows has been adapted from an article at New Liturgical Movement entitled “How to Incorporate the Traditional Roman Martyrology into Daily Prayer.”

[ii] This is the edition that matches the other liturgical books in force according to the provisions of Summorum Pontificum — i.e., the Missal of 1962, the Roman Breviary of 1960, etc. It will not contain saints who were canonized after 1956. There is a revised Martyrology from 2001 (revised in 2004) that corresponds to the Novus Ordo Missae of 1969 and the Liturgy of the Hours of 1970. It is, needless to say, considerably different, in just the sort of ways one would imagine (see this article for more information). The new version remains exclusively in Latin; an English translation apparently exists but has not been approved by ICEL. Ironically, the older Martyrology is not only more traditional, but more accessible, since it is available in English in both hardcover and paperback editions.

[iii] Not all saints venerated by Catholics are included in the Martyrology; in particular, there are many saints on Eastern calendars, both pre-schism and uniate, who are not present in its pages. On the other hand, there is a surprising amount of overlap between the traditional Roman calendar and many Eastern calendars, a feature that is sorely lacking in the reformed (Novus Ordo) calendar.

[iv] (In Latin:) R. Deo gratias. V. Pretiosa in conspectu Domini: R. Mors sanctorum ejus. [Lector:] Sancta Maria et omnes Sancti intercedant pro nobis ad Dominum, ut nos mereamur ab eo adjuvari et salvari, qui vivit et regnat in saecula saeculorum. R. Amen. Those who wish to do the full capitular office (of which the Martyrology is a segment) will find it in the Breviarium Romanum and in older editions of the Monastic Diurnal. Unfortunately, it was removed from the newer editions of the Monastic Diurnal.

[v] The paperback, which is designed to be as small and lightweight as possible, does not contain the front matter or the indices, just the daily entries (which is what you need in order to use it with Prime). To read more about the contrast between the hardcover and the paperback, see this article.

[vi] Those who continue into the last part of the capitular office, which recites the De Profundis for the dead with an accompanying oration for the souls in Purgatory, add a remembrance of the Church Suffering.

[vii] St. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, cited in Roy Peachey, 50 Books for Life: A Concise Guide to Catholic Literature (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2019), 104.

[viii] Ibid., 65.

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