Martyrs and Saints: A History of Witness & Holiness in the Church

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by Cheryl H. White, Ph.D.

The earliest centuries of Christianity are punctuated by periods of severe persecution of the faithful in the Roman Empire, beginning in earnest under the reign of Emperor Nero, when the Church was just decades old. The very first persecution was of Jesus Christ, followed of course by the Apostles. The word “martyr” in Greek was applied to describe the Apostles, both who they were, and what they had done, for the word literally translates as “witness.” By their deaths, they provided the ultimate witness to the Truth they had seen and known in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the pagan culture of the Roman Empire, there was a civic expectation that people would recognize the gods worshipped by others, and the refusal of this in Christianity naturally made its followers suspicious to Roman authorities. Through the first three centuries of the Church, generalized edicts condemning Christianity were common, and resulted in many Christians going to what was often a sentence of horrific torture and death. This did not deter or discourage the faithful. In fact, martyrdom became the model and ideal for the Christian, as it has been likened to “the narrow gate” by some scholars. Tertullian of Carthage, a prominent theologian of the second century, expressed this concept well when he wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The persecuted Church only grew in numbers.
Martyrdom became such an identifiable aspect of the faith that when active persecutions ended during the reign of Constantine the Great in the fourth century, Christianity sought new ways to find the highest possible calling in other expressions, such as asceticism and monasticism. Still, to die a martyr’s death remained an ideal for centuries to come, as Christians continued to identify with the sacrifice of the persecuted faithful of the earliest era. Those early martyrs quickly became recognized as the first saints of the Church, and the willingness to lay down one’s life for Christ became a clear path to holiness.

In the first centuries of the Church, there was no formal process of canonization as there is today, with elevation to sainthood usually occurring at the level of the local bishop. By the sixth century, the names of the most well-known of these were being commemorated in the liturgy, evidenced by the Roman Canon. Martyrdom, while the first ideal of the Church, eventually gave way to the recognition of other models of exceptional holiness, heroic virtue, and rigor of life, as equal potential for sainthood. By the tenth century, it became standard that all such canonizations took place at the level of the papacy, and the formal process known today has existed since the sixteenth century creation of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The stages of the canonization process are defined as: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and Saint. To be recognized as a Servant of God states that the Church has begun the process of official investigation into the life of a potential saint; to be declared Venerable is to have been associated with heroic deeds; to be Blessed (beatified) is to have one miracle confirmed through the intercession of the person in question; and finally, to be a Saint (the final step) requires the confirmation of a second miracle.

In 2017, Pope Francis articulated another way to beatification in an apostolic letter, Majorem Hac Dilectionem, or “greater love than this,” drawn directly from the Gospel of John. The pope stated that besides martyrdom and heroic deeds, the offering of one’s own life out of charity is yet another pathway to the Church’s recognition, with the same requirement of at least one miracle for beatification. “They are worthy of special consideration and honor, those Christians who, following in the footsteps and teachings of the Lord Jesus, have voluntarily and freely offered their lives for others and have persevered until death in this regard.”

Pope Francis went on to say in the apostolic letter, “It is certain that the heroic offering of life, suggested and supported by charity, expresses a true, full and exemplary imitation of Christ, and therefore deserves the admiration that the community of the faithful usually reserves to those who have voluntarily accepted the martyrdom of blood or have exercised in a heroic degree the Christian virtues.”

From the persecutions and martyrdoms of the earliest Christians, to the countless heroic and selfless acts on the part of many other saints throughout history, the Church has always formally recognized holiness. By the new guidelines offered by Pope Francis, the Shreveport “martyrs to their charity” of 1873 seem particularly worthy of this consideration, as they all knowingly offered the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives in the service of others.

Picture: St. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr. The objects around his head and body are the rocks, which were used to kill him.

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