Of what stuff are you made? Is it — to borrow a line from Saint Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons — “the stuff of which martyrs are made”? This is a question we would do well to ponder as we examine our commitment to the Faith.
To be sure, it is God who raises up martyrs out of our frail stuff. Without His grace, the weak could not be strong — and nobody, in and of himself, has the strength for martyrdom. That being said, it remains that our wills must cooperate with this grace. To do that, barring a miracle of grace, they must be acclimated to virtuous living, to the habitual practice of the moral virtues guided by the theological virtues and elevated by the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.
R. Cork Kirkwood, who spoke at our 2008 conference, recently penned an article for The Remnant with the provocative title, “Has The Persecution Begun?” The article probed the full-throttle abortion agenda of our new president, pointing out specific ramifications of FOCA (the Freedom of Choice Act), the signing of which Senator Obama, the candidate, promised the kill-mill industry would be “the first thing I’d do as President.”
This proposed federal legislation would, among other horrible things, force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions or face the only consequence — shutting down. Thankfully, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia went on record with some episcopal tough talk: “I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to close the hospital, you’re going to arrest me, go right ahead. You’ll have to drag me out, go right ahead. I’m not closing this hospital, we will not perform abortions, and you can go take a flying leap.’ ”
Other bishops were cited speaking in more measured language, to the effect that they were up to the challenge. (Don’t get me wrong. I very much appreciate Bishop Loverde’s gymnastic invitation to abortion-advocating public officials!) The thrust of Kirkwood’s piece was that the Obama presidency may force Catholics, including bishops, to engage in wide-scale civil disobedience to a murderous socialist politburo.
The article closed with a gripping passage from Hilaire Belloc’s Survivals and New Arrivals: “If I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the Faith is at hand, I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning.”
The thought is not original to Belloc. Tertullian’s famous remark about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of Christians has been echoed in different forms throughout the Church’s history. Cardinal Kung, who spent thirty-two years in a Communist prison, called persecution, “the fifth mark of the Church.” Concerning America, I can recall similar sentiments expressed by Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos (1819-1867), regarding our nation’s conversion. The book, Sincerely Seelos (pp. 163-163), contains the following paragraphs, from a personal letter that Father Seelos sent to his two blood sisters, who were also religious: Sister Damiana and Sister Romualda. After a brief review of the superficiality of the American populace and their indifference to the Catholic faith, he asks:
“How will this indifference be stopped? Who will be able to cure and heal this perversity? Only God alone. And further. If you consider the history of all the past centuries, you will quickly be convinced that this is not possible without a great persecution of priests and Catholics. Only when they seriously persecute us will God himself come to the help of his servants in a supernatural and wonderful way, and will himself exert his influence upon events so that the stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone. Catholicism is a stone of contradiction to them; and they find it easy to think that they can build up the whole edifice of their license and unbelief if they have only gotten this one stone out of the way.
“Accordingly, precisely this stone will be the cornerstone, but only through the shedding of much blood, just as this has happened in every country at the coming of our holy faith. I think it would be very pleasing to God, if we were to pray for such a persecution of the faith in America. Don’t you want to begin to pray earnestly for this? Maybe then you could honor your poor brother as a martyr, for otherwise he would hardly become holy no matter how earnestly he may desire it. Therefore, begin energetically right away. You will pray very fervently for this, won’t you, since I have explained and clarified so completely for you how martyrdom is connected with the conversion of America.” (Emphasis added.)
And Blessed Father Seelos was not alone. Another American apostle who spoke of persecution fitting the country for conversion was Orestes Brownson (1803-1876). Readers unfamiliar with Brownson should know a few things first. This lion of a man came to the Church through Calvinism, Universalism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism, to rise to the status of a leading protagonist of the Catholic cause in this country. Indeed, he championed the vigorously pro-papal cause of ultramontanism in America. He also defended the doctrine, “no salvation outside the Church,” writing articles exclusively on this subject in his widely circulated Brownson’s Quarterly Review — articles such as “The Great Question,” written in 1847, and “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus,” published in 1874.
Like Father Feeney and us, his followers, Brownson spoke of this doctrine and the conversion of America in one breath. It makes sense. After all, if you believe the Church is necessary, and if you have any charity at all, you will want your neighbors to enter her fold. Another pair of ideas he linked in his formidable Catholic mind were the conversion of America and the conversion of Russia. In light of the Fatima message, these lines from an 1860 article in Brownson’s Quarterly Review take on a deeper significance:
“The two great conquests now most important to religion and to civilization are the conquests of Russia and the United States…. The reconciliation of Russia with the Holy See would reestablish the reign of law in Europe, and secure the conversion and civilization of Asia; the conversion of the United States would secure the triumph of religion and its attendant civilization on this continent. To the reconciliation of these two young, growing, and already great nations, it seems to us, should be directed the labors and prayers, and the most ardent zeal of all who love the Lord our God, and seek the glory of the Church, His Body.”
But, according to Brownson, the American Catholics of his time were too insensible to the conversion of the nation:
“And yet to this the mass of Catholics seem to us to have been, and to be even yet, fearfully indifferent…. There is even a feeling, not seldom expressed in words, among our Catholic population, that Americans, Yankees especially, cannot be converted, as if Christ died, not for them as well as for others…. As a body, we have no hope of converting non-Catholics, and make not the slightest effort in that direction. We think it quite enough to retain and practice our religion for ourselves, in peace and quietness.”
Are we any better today? Hardly! And here we come back round to our point. Perhaps the curative Brownson saw for this sloth and indifference will come in our day, as it did not in his:
“If there is any one thing among us that will bring a blight on the Church, in our country, it is our lack of apostolic zeal, and our indifference to the salvation of our non-Catholic neighbors and fellow citizens. The Holy Father has written to us and admonished us again and again, but all to little purpose…. We are too prosperous, and are contracting the vices of prosperity. A little adversity, a little real persecution, would invigorate us, renew our zeal, expand our charity, and hasten the conversion of our country.” (Emphasis added.)
These words, penned almost 150 years ago, deserve serious consideration today. Our nation’s prosperity is beset with challenges now, as taxpayers foot the bill for numerous unjust wars of aggression and bail out one of the most depraved segments of society: unscrupulous Wall Street capitalists whose religion is greed. At the same time, a hostile anti-Christian regime is coming into power.
Knowing that God’s Providence works good out of such evils, we would do well to consider these facts in the light of history. The same barbarian hordes that brought the Roman Empire to its knees and eventually unseated the last emperor in the West, would later give us Clovis, Pepin the Short, and Blessed Charlemagne. The last of these would treasure a book written by Saint Augustine — a book finished shortly before the fall of Roman Africa — that was a blueprint for a Christian society: The City of God. Crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Saint Leo III, Blessed Charlemagne built according to these plans, fusing the societies of old Rome and its Germanic invaders into the thing we call Christendom.
It can happen again. The real question concerns whether or not we are up to it. Of what stuff are we made?