Today the Church remembers the witness of Saint Agatha, who was killed because she would not deny her faith in Christ during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius (around 251 AD).
Biographical details in regards to Saint Agatha have been distilled over time into legend. Accounts of her testimony to the Church’s faith include that, having dedicated herself to Christ as a virgin, she angered a would-be suitor, who reported her to the imperial authorities and accused her of being a member of a seditious sect called the Church.
Agatha was arrested, tried, and convicted of treason and sentenced to be tortured (which included sexual abuse) and executed; she was burned alive.
She never wavered in her profession of the Church’s faith.
Secure in the legal protections that are intended to protect our own profession of faith from the power of the State, we might think that the sufferings of the martyrs are a matter of history. If we do, we are gravely mistaken. Our own religious liberties insulate us from the global experience of the Church, which is not one of freedom but of persecution.
While we have found comfort in our religion, history will remember the time in which we lived as the era in which cultural genocide was carried out against the ancient apostolic churches of the Middle East; the Christians of Africa languished under violent threats and murderous rampages; in Asia churches were desecrated, destroyed and burned; and the list of atrocities goes on and on. All real. All happening during our lifetime.
What will history say about those of us, Christians, who were safe and secure? What were our concerns? Redecorating our sanctuaries so as to conform to consumer expectations? Making sure our faith-based initiatives were generously endowed with surplus wealth? Quibbling about how to “modernize” and remain “relevant”? Will it be said of us that while our brothers and sisters in Christ were crucified, that we were distracting ourselves with a pseudo-Christianity that we created to serve our needs and that demanded little or no sacrifice and no real cross?
These are hard questions to ask and even harder question to come to terms with. Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced what he calls a “self-referential Church” one that has “turned in on itself.” The spin given to this in the media is usually that there is corruption in the Church’s hierarchy that needs to be rooted out or that the Church has to modernize its outdated views so as to conform to secular prejudices. This is such a distortion, and it is simply a way we use to defer asking ourselves the hard questions about our own relationship with Jesus Christ—whether or not we take the Gospel’s insistence on repentance seriously, or maybe are just playing with our religion or using it for our own benefit. It is easier to position the pope on the side of our causes than to actually listen to what he is saying.
Some will protest that there may be little we can practically do to help those Christians who languish under persecution, but perhaps the way we can help will be illuminated if we shift our focus away from ourselves and towards the peripheries where they suffer, and where their mere existence as a Christian is a daily act of heroic witness.
The Church recalls the memory of the martyrs throughout our year of worship, not so that we can be appraised of history, but to provoke us, even shock us, so that we might repent of our narrowness of mind and heart and accept there is no real love in this world without sacrifice, no real hope without the promises of Christ, and no real faith except faith in Christ crucified.