Prayer in Memory of the Martyrs
Palm Sunday, St. Matthew Cathedral
In this prayer service on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, we remember the Christian martyrs of recent times. These modern-day martyrs remind us that the Passion of Jesus is not just an event of the past. Members of His Body, the Church, are united with Him in His suffering and death. Today we remember those disciples who, imitating their Master, have carried the cross and loved to the end. The martyrs teach us in the most vivid way what it means to live the Eucharist. Their bodies broken and their blood poured forth are an eloquent sign of the self-giving love, the sacrifice, of Jesus which we are privileged to share at the altar of the Lord.
Every form of Christian holiness passes through the way of the cross, the way of self-denial, because that is the way of Jesus. The way of love is the path to glory. The saints followed this path. The holy martyrs followed this path to the point of the sacrifice of their lives, the ultimate act of love. In the supreme test of love and faith, they followed Jesus to the very end, accepting death for the salvation of the world.
It’s amazing to read in the lives of the martyrs how many were so calm and courageous in the face of suffering and death. Some even faced their martyrdom with joy. It seems superhuman. But we know that it was the Lord who gave them the grace that enabled them to give their lives for Him. And they freely responded to that grace. They entrusted themselves to the Lord and placed their trust in Him alone. Like Jesus who abandoned Himself on the cross into the hands of His Father (“Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit”), the martyrs abandoned themselves into the hands of their Creator and Redeemer. They associated themselves, united themselves, totally with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Theirs was a great act of love in response to the great love of Christ.
I just finished reading the biography of Father Stanley Rother who will be the first U.S. born priest and first U.S. born martyr to be beatified in the Catholic Church. This priest of Oklahoma City who served as a missionary in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, fell in love with the people he served there, the Tzutuhil Indians. He knew his life was in danger during the Guatemalan civil war in the late 1970’s. Some of his beloved parishioners, including his catechists, were kidnapped and killed. Father Stanley’s name appeared on a death list. Many tried to coax him to return to the United States. While visiting home, he prayed about what to do. The message came to him pretty loud and clear: the shepherd cannot run. So he returned to Santiago Atitlan to be with his people who were in need and suffering persecution. In July 1981, three masked men broke into his rectory. They attacked him and Father Stanley valiantly fought back. The Church considers him a martyr, a martyr for the love of Christ, for the love of the flock entrusted to His care. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” Following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, Father Stanley did not run away and abandon his flock. His body was brought back to Oklahoma for burial, but his heart was kept in the parish church of Santiago Atitlan. He is venerated today by the Indian people of Guatemala who consider him their saint. This coming September, Father Stanley will be beatified in Oklahoma City. Before Father Rother’s martyrdom, there were no indigenous priests among the Tzutuhil people. Now there are many. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians, Tertullian wrote in the third century. We can also say about Father Stanley Rother and Guatemala, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of priestly vocations.
Though we will probably not be called to martyrdom, we are called to holiness. And this entails taking up our daily cross. We can look to the martyrs for inspiration, especially when we are tempted to selfishness. They were not afraid to sacrifice their earthly lives for love of Jesus Christ. They teach us courage and they teach us love. They remind us of our duty to grow every day in greater love for God and for our neighbor. They teach us that no matter how harsh the trial or how difficult the problems in our life, or how acute the suffering may be in our life, we are always in God’s hands, the hands that created us and sustain us and accompany us on our journey through life, our pilgrimage to heaven. May the martyrs intercede for us and especially for all our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world who are persecuted and are suffering for their faith today!