It was the year 1535. For almost a millennium England had been a Christian nation, its culture, traditions, and morality informed by the faith. Marriage, like most things, was understood according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as preserved and taught by His Church down through the generations.
About fifteen years earlier, rumors began to circulate of a renegade monk in Germany who railed against abuses in the Church and used these faults to challenge the authority of the Church herself. This made waves among political leaders looking to increase their power, among Church leaders concerned for their flocks and the welfare of the Church herself, and among the common folk who, much like people today, were simply trying to make sense of the issues amidst a sea of catchy slogans, songs, and the print propaganda circulated by those advocating for change.
Reports of such rumblings on the Continent slowly made their way across the Channel. The well-educated may have encountered the writings of these Reformers, as they called themselves, and of well-known literary figures such as Erasmus and England’s own Sir Thomas More, who sought to defend the Catholic faith. But for the average person, English life remained much the same as it had. After all, King Henry VIII himself had written a book defending the sacraments of the Church and had been honored by the Pope as a Defender of the Faith. England was soundly her Catholic self.
However, things changed rapidly–and most English Catholics probably didn’t see it coming. Soon there was a new Queen, Anne, and a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, both of whom were sympathetic to new ideas. The government issued an Act of Succession, supporting the legitimacy of the King’s divorce and his marriage to the new Queen, and an Act of Supremacy, declaring the King head of the Church in England. The King forced his subjects to support these acts even while he, himself a rebellious son of the Church, was excommunicated by the Pope. A number of monks were executed for dissenting.
Now, in the summer of 1535, two well-respected figures, Bishop John Fisher and the former Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, were publicly executed in London. Their only crime had been to hold fast to the traditional faith and understanding of marriage that had so abruptly fallen from grace in English society. There was no room for debate in the public square. The law of the land had claimed supremacy over the law of God, and faithful adherents to the latter were branded treasonous.
Certainly, to be a faithful Catholic in such times demanded heroic faith, the faith of the martyrs. But it can be hard for us to relate to such heroic virtue. That’s because such virtue is overtly public, and exercised against clearly recognizable external threats. Our faith, however, tends to be more private. The kind of virtue we most commonly practice is in our personal struggles against the usual temptations to seek lesser goods than God: to sleep in instead of going to Mass on Sunday or to neglect nourishing our relationship with God through prayer, spiritual reading, and charitable acts instead of slothfully succumbing to another Netflix series or binging on Facebook.
But there is another, more public level of spiritual warfare we must be attuned to. We Christians on earth are the Church Militant and, just like any other army, we must be prepared to recognize and respond to threats from the enemy, Satan. The challenge is to recognize that we live in trying times–times as volatile as those that Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More saw. But we often view martyrdom, and the social and political challenges that inspired the witness of the martyrs, as something set in the distant past. We are largely ignorant of the fact that around two-thirds of all Christian martyrs died only recently, in the 20th century.
Are there threats on the horizon in the United States that will require heroic virtue from Christians here? No. They aren’t on the horizon; the threats are already here. Fifteen years ago hostility toward the faith was present on certain politically-correct college campuses, for example. Coming to college in 2001, I saw for the first time posters declaring “zero tolerance for intolerance,” which I discovered was Orwellian for “zero tolerance for dissent.” I realized that one day there might be zero tolerance for traditional American values and Christian beliefs, for myself and other dissenters. This day came quickly.
While no one here is currently facing martyrdom as in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, jobs are being threatened and people face legal, media, and social harassment for following the teachings of Jesus Christ–teachings that are, with increasing frequency, labelled as bigoted, hateful, and intolerant. To live one’s Christian faith is considered treasonous to society. Not only do public figures and religious leaders face such treatment, but average Christians do as well.
Heroic virtue is required here and now.
Let us pray that God may give us the grace to heroically live and preach the faith “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), following the witness of the martyrs throughout the ages (including those from our own age) and the two great saints we honor today.