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A Few Last Words

via Catholic Answers

by Michelle Arnold

michelle arnoldOn April 6, 1252, two Dominican friars hurried along a deserted road. They were in hostile territory, populated by religious extremists who wanted them dead because of their success in convincing those under the sway ofthe extremists’ heresy to return to Catholic orthodoxy. Despite their precautions, the two were ambushed by hired assassins. One of the two, named Peter, died on the spot, but not before managing to write the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed in his own blood; his companion, named Dominic, died of his injuries a few days after the attack.

Less than a year later, St. Peter of Verona, also known as St. Peter Martyr, was canonized in the fastest papal canonization in the history of papal canonizations. One of the assassins, Carino Pietro of Balsamo, repented, confessed, and became a lay Dominican brother; eventually he was beatified. And what about Peter’s faithful companion, Dominic? So far as I know, his sacrifice has been largely forgotten, except in the context of recounting St. Peter’s martyrdom—perhaps because Friar Dominic did not die immediately and was unable to scrawl out the Credo in blood.

The story of Peter of Verona is a classic tale of martyrdom, containing all of the elements Catholics commonly attribute to the martyrs: We have the renowned holiness of the martyr (including miracles attributed to him during his own lifetime, not just after death); we have the clear hatred of the faith (Latin, odium fidei) of those who contracted with the hitmen to murder the martyr (although the hitmen’s motive may merely have been personal gain); we have the explicit witness to the faith by St. Peter (can’t get much clearer than sacred words written in your own blood).

Such a serendipitous confluence of all necessary factors for an indisputable Christian martyrdom may be one reason St. Peter was able to be canonized so quickly. Not all saints venerated as martyrs, either officially or unofficially, have had such a providential set of circumstances indisputably pointing to their glorious witness to Christ to the point of death.

The Maid of Orléans

St. Joan of Arc is often considered in the popular imagination to have been a martyr, mostly given the horrific nature of her death—burning at the stake after a sham trial that found her guilty of heresy. The trialincluded questions that clearly put Joan’s faith to the test:

The transcript’s most famous exchange is an exercise in subtlety. “Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.'” The question is a scholarly trap. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have been charged with heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt. Notary Boisguillaume later testified that at the moment the court heard this reply, “Those who were interrogating her were stupefied.”

Nonetheless, despite her later rehabilitation and eventual canonization, St. Joan has never been officially enrolled as a recognized martyr, but is instead venerated by the Church as a virgin. One reason might be that Joan was tried by Church officials who allowed their strings to be pulled by their English puppetmasters, and therefore it cannot be proven that she died in odium fidei.

A Martyr for Purity

At the beginning of the twentieth century, we find St. Maria Goretti, the twelve-year-old girl who fought off rape by a neighbor’s son, maria gorettiAlessandro Serenelli. During the course of the attack, she was stabbed over a dozen times and died the next day in agony. Her brave defense of her chastity and her final words of forgiveness for her attacker, including her desire to meet her attacker in heaven, captured the popular imagination. Maria was beatified and canonized so quickly that her own mother was able to attend both liturgies, to date the only mother of a saint to witness her child’s canonization.

Surprisingly, given that the knife attack by Alessandro was perpetrated out of rage over Maria’s rebuff of his sexual advances and not out of clear odium fidei, St. Maria Goretti has been venerated as a martyr for sexual purity. At her canonization, Pope Pius XII stated:

Martyr on earth and angel in heaven, look down from your glory on this people, which loves you, which venerates, glorifies, and exalts you. On your forehead you bear the full, brilliant, and victorious name of Christ. In your virginal countenance may be read the strength of your love and the constancy of your fidelity to your divine Spouse. As his bride espoused in blood, you have traced in yourself his own image.

Like Peter of Verona, Maria Goretti was granted the grace of living long enough and under the right conditions to make an overt witness to her faith. Where St. Peter used his final words to begin the Credo, St. Maria used hers to witness to the mercy and forgiveness of God.

The Prisoner of Auschwitz

Later in the twentieth century, we would see yet another form of martyrdom in St. Maximilian Kolbe, and this time an explicit debate over what constitutes Christian martyrdom.

Many of the ingredients for a classic case of martyrdom were present when St. Maximilian sacrificed his life to spare the life of another prisoner in Auschwitz. Like Peter of Verona, there was a renowned holiness during his lifetime, including a childhood vision of choosing martyrdom; there was clear hatred of Christians and other human persons by his killers (although the question of odium fidei was up in the air, as we shall see); and there was clear witness to the ideals of the faith, such as laying down one’s life for another.

Nonetheless, Maximilian was beatified as a confessor, not as a martyr, although he was given unofficial recognition as a “martyr of charity.” When it came time for his canonization though, Pope John Paul II simply chose to declare that St. Maximilian would henceforth be venerated as a martyr. By his own authority as pope, and overruling a commission established to study the matter, John Paul decided that “the systematic hatred of . . . humanity propagated by the Nazi regime was in itself inherently an act of hatred of religious [Catholic] faith, meaning Kolbe’s death equated to martyrdom.”

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