Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington D.C., reflects on the plight and power of the Christian martyrs throughout the Church’s history in To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness.
Cardinal Wuerl takes us through the pages of Christian history in stages, from St Stephen in the book of Acts to those killed by the Islamic State. He powerfully makes the point that, while the age of martyrs can seem to be long ago and we may think “that can never happen here,” Christian martyrs are making the supreme sacrifice for the faith even today. In fact, being ready to become a martyr is expected of every Christian.
Cardinal Wuerl describes how the anti-Christian regimes of the past used their power to suppress the faith and how those same methods are being used by governments and regimes in our time. His insight into the past can give hope for the future as Christianity has always outlived those powers.
We are reminded that communion with Jesus Christ is the goal of all who follow Him. Christians accomplish communion by participating in the Eucharist and by emulating Christ. Those who are martyred enter into full communion because they emulate Him in suffering and dying as He did. Like Jesus' their deaths are live-giving. This essential tie between the Eucharist and martyrdom is beautifully made.
Another connection Cardinal Wuerl makes is that martyrdom is an unexpected source of unity among Christians. Those who kill them do not distinguish between denominations or care about doctrinal disputes. The leaders of the Catholic Church and of other Churches find unity when responding to the death of their members.
This book calls all Christians into unity with those who suffer and die for the faith. He challenges us to support them, pray for them and fight for them. We must also pray for their persecutors in the hope of their conversion. Those who receive the Eucharist but do not act in communion with their brothers and sisters participate in the injustice. This reminder of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged is a timely one.