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Martyrs of the Early Church

Today, in the Roman Calendar, features the memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr.  Yesterday, the Church celebrated two others: Pope St. Fabian and St. Sebastian; also both Martyrs for Christ.  This past Monday, St. Anthony of the Desert took the top step in the choir of saints; while not a martyr in the strictest sense, he certainly livd out the faith of the martyrs in a strong denial of self to be united wtih Christ.

While all four of these early saints are fairly well known, in the reforms of the Roman Missal that have occured since 2000, several of their contemporaries were re-added to the Universal Calendar by Pope John Paul II; their feast days showing up periodically throughout the calendar.

Why would JPII, who was so intent on making saints from every corner of the world, ‘resurrect’ the cult of these ancient saints?I think there are many things that went into his decision, but I would like to highlight just one aspect for consideration.

I think when JPII, and Pope Benedict has certainly continued the theme with his Wednesday General Audience Catechesis, looked at the Early Church, he saw a time and milieu not entirely unlike our own.  The Church was operating in a hostile environment, persecution was regular, if not frequent.  Unfair and harsh criticism was leveled at Catholic Christians: they were canabals for eating human flesh, they were only interested in the fall of the Empire, the were ‘separationists’ from the Empire, etc.

Yet, in the face the trials, so much of what was written and discussed in the earliest centuries was more on Church unity, exhortations to holiness, life in Christ, Sacramental celebration, etc.  Only with Justin Martyr did attempts begin to defend the Faith against the unfair accusations made against her.

In our own day and age, we have heard the call for the New Evangelization, new attempts to bring apologetics into the 21st Centurey, to renew the faith in a dynamic orthodoxy.  Yet, in looking back to the Early Church, the efforts of the martyrs only bore fruit because they first saught holiness and unity with Christ.  In their holiness, they found courage to lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Isn’t this what we need in today’s Church.

(For more, from For Your Vocation of the USCCB [1])

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