There is a longstanding liturgical and spiritual discipline practiced in Rome during Lent. It involves celebrating mass at the crack of dawn each day at a different church in various corners of the ancient quarter of Rome. A “station church”, as they are called, is usually the site of a great Christian martyr’s death, grave or an important relic preserved over the course of several centuries. Yesterday’s station church was the Basilica of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, who was skinned alive in one of the earliest and most brutal cases of Christian martyrdom.
The core reason for marching to 40 masses in 40 different churches at 7:00 am is not at all about exhibiting macho piety or spiritual obsessions. Rather it is about developing a habit which for most of the year is cast aside to laziness: to regularly venerate Christian “war” heroes who have died for their Commander-in-Chief Jesus Christ under the duress of many great anti-Christian persecutions. The benefit for attending all or most of the 40 masses is to earn the grace to persevere in one’s personal path to heroic virtue amid current forms religious persecution.
In 2000, the Cold War era Polish pope John Paul II – who was nearly martyred by the pistol of a Turkish communist partisan in 1981 – rededicated the Basilica of St. Bartholomew to the New Martyrs of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Hence, nowadays at various side altars we can visit relics of contemporary Christians who shed their blood while taking bullets, suffering beheading, and other savage causes of death while fighting the great enemies of the Christian faith – the horrific “isms” of the last 119 years: Communism, National Socialism (Nazism) and Terrorism.
We also find altars dedicated to different continents where these three ‘isms’ have had and continue to have their reign of terror: the Americas, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa.
As pilgrims kneel at each altar, they see dozens of personal effects of martyrs like Maximilian Kolbe (his prayer book at the Nazism martyrs altar) and Alexander Men (a rosary and communion paten at the Communism martyrs altar).
Most recently (2016), we find the relics of Jacques Hamel (a breviary) at the European martyrs altar.
It was the elderly French Father Jacques Hamel who had his throat slit by ISIS terrorists while celebrating morning mass and who received special attention during the priest’s homily at yesterday’s station mass. The priest said Hamel was a not-so-distant reminder of what could happen to Christian faithful today in the most peaceful moments of their worship of Christ while ideological persecutors rage in an outside secularized world, seeking to forcefully install their “isms” with ruthless force, mockery and execution of the innocent.
The celebrant also reminded the station mass attendees that France’s Catholic churches, a total of 50 in recent months, have been vandalized and desecrated by militant anti-Christian persecutors. He said the numbers of the church’s enemies were easily escalating in a soft non-believing society, especially by clever political and economic ideologues who seek to destroy religious freedom and ensnare naive non-believers in the “isms” of their false gods and false Utopian hopes.
Indeed, in the last few French church attacks the acts of sacrilege have reached the unimaginable: Christ’s image being beheaded from a bas-relief; a cross painted in excrement with bits of consecrated communion hosts attached; a church set ablaze; the Virgin Mary’s statue crushed and tossed in the streets.
What the tragic murders and heinous acts of vandalism have in common is exactly what Fr. Hamel had the courage to pronounce in his last words against the ultimate source of evil. We read in America magazine:
As [they] lunged at him with a knife, Father Hamel exclaimed, “Va t’en Satan!” (“Get away, Satan!”). The priest saw in this heinous attack not the work of merely confused youth or fanatic religious ideology but that of the Father of Lies. Indeed, what else could instill the hearts and minds of young men with such hatred as to murder a priest, unknown to them, in cold blood, while he was celebrating Mass?
Religious freedom will, therefore, only flourish when we are able to first unwaveringly believe in the single truth of Christianity, which promises not heaven on earth – like the “isms” want us to believe – but heaven in heaven as Christ promised to those heroes who die for his flag while leading virtuous, holy lives in the face of their enemies. In this way, emboldened by a firm faith, virtue and, like all martyrs, never fearing death we may resist the seductive lies of ideological belief systems which promise human fulfillment in the here and now but seek to eliminate all those who bravely stand in their way of progress.
Top image: “Nazi Propaganda – Martyrs”: Flickr
Center image: photo by author