It’s Dangerous to be Spattered by the Blood of the Martyrs – St. Edmund Campion, pray for us

By Rev. Spencer Howe –

220px-campionI want to focus on a story that has profoundly affected me, on the martyrs as an impelling force for us to give ourselves totally to doing God’s Will. The story finds its setting in England, in the year 1581. The stage is a gruesome one as human eyes can see it, but glorious for the angels looking on in the spiritual realm. The mob of spectators are gathered around jeering in a sort of encore to the Crucifixion – a young missionary priest is acting in the ‘divine’ role, dying for his people and the nation that he loves.

It all looks like defeat, like a life thrown away, as Fr. Edmund Campion is dragged through the muddy streets of London behind horses to the Tyburn Tree – a gallows for the execution of criminals and of Catholics (especially of hunted down priests). Campion was not the first, nor would he be the last in one of the most terrible and long-lasting persecutions the Church had ever experienced since the Coliseum and the martyrs of the Roman Canon.

In such a seemingly hopeless situation of savagery and the cruel torture of this hero, who was for underground Catholics in central England their only hope for the Sacraments, great fruit was about to be born, starting with the heart of a single onlooker…a young man, an Anglican, hardly older than me.

I refer to this quote from Evelyn Waugh’s remarkable biography of St. Edmund Campion, a book which played no small role in convicting me of a call to serve the Lord one day as a priest:

“[Henry Walpole] secured a place at Tyburn; so close that when Campion’s [intestines] were torn out [of his body] by the butcher and thrown into the cauldron of boiling water, a spot of blood splashed upon his coat. In that moment he was caught into a new life; he crossed the sea, became a priest, and, thirteen years later, after very terrible sufferings, died the same death as Campion’s on the gallows at York.” (Waugh, 213-4)

Consider this a warning for all the fainthearted. If Henry Walpole reveals one thing, it is that it’s dangerous to come too close to the martyrs – you might get spattered by blood, your heart might be inflamed, you might be convicted, you might realize that we can’t be half-hearted or timid in our response to God’s call. If you want to remain unconverted and unchanged, my suggestion is to ignore the martyrs, stay far away from them.

Tertullian’s expression, from the 2nd Century, helps us understand why the martyr’s witness is so profound: “Sanguis martyrum semen est Christianorum” – “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” If we are cut off from the stories of the martyrs we are cut off from a great source of inspiration – inspiration that we desperately need. We often let ourselves be convinced that “our world doesn’t need religious ‘fanatics’ and instead it needs nice people.” In fact, our world needs Saints, Disciples, Witnesses – men and women ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit, with faces glowing like St. Stephen’s in the Acts of the Apostles.

We sometimes long for martyrdom as an easy way to heaven,
which would save us from all the hard work of holiness
and having to repeatedly choose to do the right thing in difficult situations.

We often excuse ourselves from living the Faith radically by saying, “today is not the age of martyrs” – “I will never be faced the decision to accept or reject Christ.” This is to be naïve. In fact, we do live in a Church of the martyrs: the 20th century saw more martyrs than all the centuries before it.

On the other hand we seem to think that if only the opportunity presented itself to me, I would be courageous in standing up for my belief in Christ. We sometimes long for martyrdom as an easy way to heaven, which would save us from all the hard work of holiness and having to repeatedly choose to do the right thing in difficult situations. But, it is precisely in these daily struggles that we take on the virtues that train us for martyrdom, whether or not a day comes where we come face to face with death for Jesus’ name.

We talk plenty about imitating Jesus and the Saints, but how do we do it? How do we die daily? By being patient, by seeking purity and chastity, by loving those who aren’t easy to love; by honoring our parents, teachers, and coaches, humbly admitting that we don’t know everything, by doing what we know needs to be done, especially when no one else is doing it.

We are all called by our Baptism to obtain martyrdom by a daily struggle for holiness, an ongoing battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. In every Eucharist we receive the same food that sustained and inflamed the hearts of the martyrs with courage to lay down their lives joyfully. At every Mass we are not only spattered with the martyrs’ blood like Henry Walpole, but invited to take and drink the Blood of Christ. In the Book of Revelation, the martyrs wash their robes in the Blood of the Lamb.

As Catholics we should have a Spirituality of Martyrdom by which we seek to give our whole self, to the point of pouring out our blood – in contrast to half-hearted devotion, that asks how can I “just barely” make it to heaven while loving the things of this world, by sacrificing as little as possible; “what can I get away with.”

Martyrs don’t count the cost; they have undivided hearts. Martyrdom is not easy, it is the taking up of Jesus’ promised Cross daily, in season and out of season, whether we feel like it or not.

The actual moment of martyrdom is nothing apart from the life leading up to it: instead it is the total offering of an entire life that has already been martyred long before.

To love the martyrs is not simply to be fixated on blood and guts, but to be reminded that if Christ is worth dying for, He is also supremely worth living for.

Mary, Queen of the Martyrs, Pray for Us!

Rev. Spencer J. Howe is Associate Pastor at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Community in Wayzata, MN. He wrote and delivered this reflection to fellow his seminarians and those discerning the priestly call while at St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas, in 2008. December 1st is observed at the Venerable English College in Rome as “Martyrs’ Day’ wherein a number of relics from the holy martyrs of Tyburn are venerated. During Fr. Howe’s five years of study and formation at the North American College in Rome, he made an effort to be present each year for ‘Martyrs’ Day’ at the English College. May the witness and valor of the martyrs stir your heart to boldness in this Advent Season of grace.

 

 

 

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5 Comments
  1. I have noticed that Mother Angelica’s priests have a great devotion to the martyrs. I have prayerfully asked the Lord why are these holy priests so devoted to the martyrs? Thank you, Fr. Howe for explaining why the blood of the martyrs matters so much in my life. I have been to York’s Cathedral. I felt an inner compulsion to speak up for what had been built by the Catholic Church and stolen by Henry VIII. I wish I had known I was standing on the blood of the martyrs, too. They changed my life that day, just as you have done today.

  2. Father Howe! You are amazing! What a fantastic history lesson fir me, and talk for Seminarians! We were so blessed to have had you at St John Neumann for two years. Although a cradle Catholic, you have taught me so vey much! Thank you for everything you do for Jesus’ one true Church!

  3. Father Howe! You are amazing! What a fantastic history lesson for me, and talk for Seminarians! We were so blessed to have had you at St John Neumann for two years. Although a cradle Catholic, you have taught me so very much! Thank you for everything you do for Jesus’ one true Church!

  4. Ahhh the blood of the martyrs and the stories of the blood of the martyrs. May it touch my sons and daughters. Off to be the book now….

  5. Thanks Fr. Howe! The story of the English martyrs never fails to inspire me to go the extra mile! Please write more articles about the saints, it helps to have their examples before our eyes and you do such a great job relating their stories. God Bless you!

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