by Micah Murphy
Whenever I tell someone I am concerned about the growing anti-Catholicism in the United States, I see two different, opposite reactions arise. The first is generally an understanding nod, coming from someone who is well aware of the history of our faith and the radical nature of our calling. The second is an immediate, incredulous shaking of the head, an insistence that I am simply being dramatic.
Yet we find ourselves in the midst of dramatic times. Never in America’s recent memory have we as a Church sat on the brink of so disastrous a battle as this we now wage. Other nations have had their turns. Germany had the Lutheran Reformation, Switzerland the Calvinist. France had the so-called Enlightenment and a tumultuous bout of revolutions. England had the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I. It was during her father’s reign that St. Thomas More lived and provided for us an example. It was he who, in the brilliant classic, A Man for All Seasons, showed before his friend, the Duke of Norfolk, the same anguished fear of persecution we now share. His friend the Duke retorted, “Man, you’re ill! This isn’t Spain, you know. This is England!”
A lot of people figure that because this is America, the land of the free, the home of the brave, we will never see persecution here. These people are not students of history. Of course, I hope and pray that we do not see persecution on the order of what occurred in 16th century England. We have every reason to hope that this anti-Catholic mandate will be overturned or repealed. Even if persecution continues, it is unlikely we will be called upon by God to die for the faith. Nevertheless, we must remember that “martyr” means witness, and there are more ways to be martyr than just to shed blood. We must proclaim the faith and defend the Church. We must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes. We must consider the calling of martyrdom, not to flatter ourselves, but to realize the radical undertaking of following in Christ’s footsteps. If nothing else, studying martyrdom will prepare us to give better witness, to be faithful to Christ, ready for whatever weather we encounter in the storms of worldly strife, to be a Church for all seasons.
Over the following weeks, months, and years, we may find ourselves increasingly challenged as the autonomy of the Church is continually threatened. We may find ourselves following the spiritual growth of St. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. For this reason, I recommend every Catholic sit down and watch it today. It is available as a streaming movie on Netflix, for those who have it.
When St. Thomas first encountered the possibility of ongoing persecution of the Church, he assured his wife, Lady Alice, that “this is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.” Might we see ourselves in this statement, either confident that persecution will not find us or afraid we will not have the strength to withstand it? This is the beginning of our training as witnesses. We must pray for the courage to stand up in the face of evil and resist. We must pray for the grace of detachment, so that when we are given a choice, we may choose the next life over this present one. This is why priests more than anyone should be waging this battle from the pulpit. They have foregone the pleasures of worldly life to be wholly dedicated to God. St. Thomas, however, was married. He had many things to be concerned about.
Henry VIII had promised to leave St. Thomas out of it, but as Dr. Edward Peters recently pointed out on a related issue, wicked men feel the need to be affirmed in their evil and to believe they are justified. Henry VIII could not leave the topic alone, and continually pressed St. Thomas for his approval. Through the ongoing pressure of the government, St. Thomas lost his reputation and his career. When he lost his livelihood, his employees lost theirs. He could no longer provide for them or for his family. In time, he would be imprisoned. Are we willing to lose all things to stand fast and gain heaven?
St. Thomas was no longer a great man in the eyes of the world, but he could rest knowing that he had not spoken against the king. He was a lawyer, and a brilliant one. He knew that silence meant his freedom. As he said in the trial scene, silence betokens consent, and so, if he remained silent, it must be assumed that he consented to Henry VIII’s actions. If only he could remain silent, he thought, he would be safe. You may try to be silent on this issue we now face, but the Church cannot afford to be. For men to be silent in a democracy is to allow the wicked to dominate the public discourse. What will be your plan: will you work silently to change our situation or will you shout from the rooftops?
In the end, silence did not work for St. Thomas. They arranged a kangaroo court, bribed a former friend to proclaim false witness against him, and sent him to his death. By this time, St. Thomas had lost all his rank and stature in society, his public voice, his job, his family, his freedom, and his home. It was not much, then, to lose his head. It is unlikely that martyrdom will find us shedding our blood, rather than being living witnesses, but what if it came to that? Are we ready? Are we enough detached from our worldly things that would say, “thy will be done,” if God makes it clear that, for love of Him, our souls must be detached from our bodies?
You and I must begin now to make of our selves the stuff of which martyrs are made. We must pray and fast. We must study the law and the teachings of the Church. We must learn when to speak and when to be silent. We must practice justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence. And we must do all this by the grace of God Most High. We do not wish to be martyrs of blood, but we must be prepared to be witnesses, whatever that brings.