On the Cause of Martyrs

As has been already observed, the various divisions of saints may be included under the two heads of martyrs and confessors. Martyrs were the saints who first received religious honor from the Church, this honor being afterwards extended to those who were confessors of the faith. In investigating claims to canonization the Church makes a wide distinction between the martyrs, and those who, not being martyrs, belong to the broad division of confessors. In the Processes hitherto described there has been question chiefly of confessors, and to complete the subject it is necessary to say a special word on the causes of martyrs.

At the outset it will be useful to explain the theological meaning of the word, martyr, and to draw attention to some points of Catholic teaching on martyrdom. Etymologically, the word "martyr " means "witness," and, in the earlier ages of the Church, the title of martyr was given to persons who were distinguished witnesses for Christ. Later on, the term was restricted to persons who were put to torture for the sake of Christ. But, according to modern usage, and almost from the very beginning, the word has a much more limited meaning in the Christian Church. Theologians define martyrdom to be: "Passio mortis vel cruciatus lethalis pro fide Christi aut vera virtute"; "the undergoing of death or sufferings which would naturally result in death for the faith of Christ or for some virtue which Christ taught." This definition, which is full and accurate, is gathered from a consideration of the various cases in which the title is bestowed by the Church. To earn the crown of martyrdom it is not necessary that a person should suffer death directly for Christ, it is sufficient to die for the preservation of some virtue taught by Christ. Thus, St. Thomas of Canterbury is held to be a martyr, though he suffered death in defense, of the immunities of the Church. In like manner to be a true martyr it is not necessary that death should follow immediately on the torture inflicted, it is sufficient if the sufferings issue in death. Thus St. Marcellus is a martyr; he died worn out by the prolonged menial labors to which he was condemned. And so too if the torture borne in a rightful cause is sufficient to cause death, but the victim is preserved by miracle, this does not deprive him of the martyr's title and reward. St. John the Evangelist is numbered amongst the martyrs, though he did not literally shed his blood; when thrown into a caldron of boiling oil at Rome he was saved by miraculous intervention, and God gave him back the life he had laid down.

The subject of martyrdom has inspired writers of every age and clime with the loftiest sentiments of admiration and reverence. During the persecutions of the first three centuries all contemporary writers, pagan as well as Christian, record that large numbers of Christians, preferring death to apostasy, sealed their faith with their blood, and that many of them suffered martyrdom in circumstances of the utmost heroism. The Church always regarded the day of martyrdom as the natal or birth day of the martyr, the day on which, every stain of sin being blotted out, he was born into eternal life. This is the grand idea that runs through all that is written of the martyrs. St. Fulgentius, in his discourse on St. Stephen, the first martyr, says: "Today we celebrate the triumphal suffering of the soldier of the King; today the soldier going forth from the tabernacle of the body enters Heaven in triumph." And the poet Ben Jonson, singing the praises of the martyr, says: "Who falls for love of God shall rise a star."

The courage and constancy of these heroic sufferers strengthened the faith of the brethren, and won from them the highest admiration and reverence. It was deemed a special honor and privilege to receive their blessing, to converse with them, to visit them in prison. Religious honor was paid to them immediately after death; their graves were visited for the purpose of asking their intercession; their bodies, clothes, books, were treasured as relics, and their feast days were celebrated with special religious services. No wonder St. Augustine observes that the persecutions of the faithful in the early times, so far from hurting the Church, were useful to it, and helped to propagate the Christian religion. There can be no doubt of the salutary influence of those who were witnesses in blood to the faith that was in them, and it has always been regarded as an axiom that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith."

It is a dogma of faith that martyrdom supplies the place of baptism, blotting out original and actual sin and all the punishment due to sin. In accordance with this doctrine, catechumens who died for the faith before baptism were genuine martyrs, being baptized, as St. Cyprian says, "with the most glorious baptism of blood." Furthermore, it is the teaching of the Church, based upon revealed truth, that any defects or shortcomings in the lives of martyrs were atoned for and blotted out by the actual fact of martyrdom.

A little consideration of these Catholic truths will enable us to understand at once the points of difference between the inquiry in case of martyr and the inquiry in regard to confessors. The essential difference is that proof of genuine martyrdom in martyrs is regarded as equivalent to the proof of heroic virtue in confessors.

How is the fact of martyrdom proved in regard to those who are placed on the roll of martyred saints? In the earlier ages of the Church there was, as has been stated already, no judicial inquiry before religious honor began to be paid to the deceased. The Church was a little flock, and the fact of martyrdom and its cause were public and notorious; hence there was but little danger of error or abuse. We have seen how with the lapse of ages and growing necessities of the times the discipline of the Church was gradually changing, until the present system was finally elaborated.

What then is the mode of procedure in causes of martyrs at the present day? Martyrs, like confessors, may proceed to canonization either by way of "the Excepted Case" or by way of noncultus. If the former the inquiry, as explained in the preceding chapter, is confined exclusively to the religious honor paid to the deceased.

But the vast majority of causes of martyrs proceed by way of noncultus, and in these the same Processes are held that have been already described in causes of confessors. The Church, however, makes some concessions in causes of martyrs, and the examinations are not all conducted with the same rigorous severity observed in causes of confessors. The reason for this relaxation is that it is much easier to prove the fact of martyrdom than to prove the existence of heroic virtue.

In regard to the Informative Process it sometimes happens that extrajudicial declarations of Bishops and statements which they have collected from other witnesses are accepted by the Congregation instead of the regular findings of this Process. Occasionally this modification becomes a necessity, for Christians are often put to death in distant and uncivilized regions, as in China, where material cannot be found for the formation of the Informative Process. In causes of martyrs the Informative Process inquires not into the reputation for sanctity and miracles, as in the case of confessors, but into the reputation for martyrdom, for the cause of martyrdom, and for miracles, or signs. The word "signs" here has a technical meaning. It signifies, not a miracle wrought through the intercession of the martyr, but some miraculous occurrence by which God illustrates the martyr's death, as, for example, a bright light surrounding the body of the martyr, or a supernatural odor proceeding from the wounds inflicted. In causes of martyrs there is no Process regarding virtues, nevertheless it is desirable and conducive to ultimate success that both in this Process and in the Apostolic Process on the cause of martyrdom some evidence should be given on the virtue of the servant of God, and especially on the manner in which he prepared for the final act of martyrdom.

The Process regarding noncultus sometimes differs somewhat from the same Process in causes of confessors. In causes of confessors the judge is required to visit the grave of the servant of God, and satisfy himself as to whether there are any signs there that religious honor has been paid to the deceased. But in the case of martyrs it is often difficult for any Christian to obtain access to the grave. In these circumstances the Postulator must procure the best evidence available to show that no public honor has been paid to the servant of, God; and the very difficulty of approaching the grave is an argument that the Decree of Urban VIII. has been observed.

In these causes the Process on the reputation for martyrdom is generally omitted; the Pope readily grants a dispensation to this effect.

In all inquiries regarding martyrdom it is obvious that by far the most important of all the Processes is the "Apostolic Process regarding Martyrdom and the Cause of Martyrdom." This Process holds the same position for Martyrs as the Apostolic Process on the virtues in causes of confessors. It has always been regarded as an axiom that it is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr. For this reason the examination in this Process is occupied chiefly with the cause for which the servant of God underwent the death penalty. Two points have to be juridically proved first, the violent death of the martyr considered as a material fact; and secondly, the cause of the martyrdom that is to say, that the servant of God was put to death on account of his faith. The first point is, as a rule, easily established; but the second presents features of grave difficulties, especially in civilized countries, where religious and political motives are often intermingled in the minds of the oppressors. The Process therefore inquires most carefully into the cause for which the oppressor inflicted death on the servant of God; whether the supreme penalty was inflicted for the faith, for some dogma or precept of faith, or for some virtue taught by Divine revelation. Inquiry is also made as to the manner in which the servant of God underwent the death penalty; how he prepared himself for the supreme trial; whether he suffered voluntarily, patiently, not for the desire of human glory, or through any unworthy motive, but for a supernatural purpose, being prepared to die rather than offend his Creator.

When the work of this Process is complete the acts and minutes are conveyed in the ordinary way to Rome, and in three congregations or meetings the question is discussed: Is there sufficient evidence of the martyrdom and the cause of martyrdom in the case and to the effect in question? This is the usual course; but, as causes of martyrs are carried through more rapidly than those of confessors, it is sometimes permitted that the question on the miracles and signs should be discussed in Rome at the same time as the question on the martyrdom. This course was actually adopted in the cause of Venerable Andrew Bobola.

In regard to the other Processes in the inquiry concerning martyrs it may be said that they do not differ materially from the corresponding ones in causes of confessors. But as the scene of the sufferings of those who die for the faith is often found in distant and barbarous countries certain modifications of the usual discipline become necessary in order to carry out the inquiries; and on just cause being shown these concessions are granted by the Holy See. With these exceptions the investigations in causes of martyrs are carried out with all the strict rigor observed in the causes of confessors.

It is interesting to note in this connection that a number of our own countrymen who suffered death under the penal laws of the last three or four centuries are undergoing examination with a view to their ultimate canonization. In their cause, as in that of most martyrs, the chief difficulty is to show that they suffered for the faith. It is objected that they were punished, not for religious, but for political reasons. For there are historians who assert that a scheme of state policy underlay and prompted the penal code in Ireland; and that the object of the penal legislation was to gain the allegiance of the Irish people and reconcile them to English rule.

To this line of argument it is replied that the legislation against the Catholic faith in Ireland was almost identical with the code framed against the Church in England. And since it can hardly be maintained that the persecution of Catholics in England was carried on for political purposes, neither is it necessary to look to politics for explaining its extension to Ireland.

Besides, even if it is admitted that English rulers wished to increase their own power and secure political advantages by forcing the Irish into the English Church, it is nevertheless true that those who suffered under the penal laws in that dark period of our history were put to death for their religious convictions. Every text of the penal laws shows that no matter what the ulterior motives in the minds of statesmen may have been the Catholics of Ireland were punished for their faith. In the earlier years of the persecution they suffered, as every student of history knows, for their belief in the Catholic doctrine that the Roman Pontiff is the supreme head of the Church of Christ; and if Irish Catholics rejected the headship of the Pope and accepted the teaching of royal supremacy in matters ecclesiastical they were offered life and liberty. The Act of Supremacy was passed by the Parliament of Dublin, in 1537, and is as follows: "The King, his heirs and successors, Kings of England and lords of Ireland, shall be accepted and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the whole Church of Ireland " In the next session another Act was passed against the authority of the "Bishop of Rome": "Any one commanded to take the said oath `that he accept the King to be the only ,supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland,' obstinately refusing to do so, shall suffer the pain of death and other penalties in cases of high treason." The very words of these enactments show that the persecution which Irish Catholics had to confront was directed avowedly against their faith.

The same is true of the other penal laws passed during these centuries of cruel persecution. And, as in the earlier centuries, though the Roman Emperors were actuated by motives of state policy, still those who suffered under their laws directed against the Church were genuine martyrs, so, in our own country, whatever may have been the ulterior motives of legislators, religion was distinctly the offense punished, and those who shed their blood according to the penal laws seem entitled to the martyr's crown.

The cause of Venerable Oliver Plunkett, the saintly Archbishop of Armagh, is more advanced than that of the other Irishmen who suffered under the penal laws. The Apostolic Process on the martyrdom and cause of martyrdom was brought to a conclusion at the beginning of the year 1908, and the acts and minutes were sent forthwith to the Sacred Congregation of Rites for final decision. His Eminence Cardinal Logue,: the venerated successor of Oliver Plunkett in the See of Armagh, was the presiding judge, and the work of the Process occupied about fifty sessions. Amongst the witnesses in this Process was the Most Rev. Dr. Healy, Archbishop of Tuam, who gave evidence as an expert in historical research. The Most Rev. Dr. Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin, was engaged, by special commission, to examine Lord Chief Baron Palles and another eminent Dublin lawyer on some judicial aspects of the cause.

The life and death of Oliver Plunkett must possess intense interest for every Irishman and Catholic, and a few of the more striking events are appended. He was born at Loughcrew, near Oldcastle, in Co. Meath, in the year 1629, just two hundred years before the Catholic Emancipation Bill was passed. He was a near kinsman of the Earl of Fingall, of Lord Dunsany, and of Lord Louth, and, on his mother's side, he was related to Dillon, Earl of Roscommon. In the summer of 1645 he made the journey to Rome; and, in the Irish College founded there twenty or thirty years before, he received his ecclesiastical training. His career in the College was most successful, as we can gather from the testimony of Father Edward Locke, S.J., who later became rector of the College, and bears witness that Oliver Plunkett "in this our Irish College, devoted himself with such ardor to philosophy, theology and mathematics, that in the Roman College of the Society of Jesus he was justly ranked amongst the foremost in talent, diligence, and progress in his studies . . . and everywhere at all times he was a model of gentleness, integrity and piety." The reputation which he had acquired as a theologian secured for him after his ordination the appointment of Professor in the College of the Propaganda. He was nominated to the See of Armagh in July, 1669, though several other names were proposed to the Pope; and he was consecrated Bishop in Ghent on the 30th November, 1669.

Oliver Plunkett has been fortunate in having as his biographers two most distinguished men Rev. George Crolly, of Maynooth, and Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, both of whom had uncles who were his successors in Armagh. These biographers tell us of his burning zeal for the salvation of his people, how in the first four years of his episcopate he administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to fortyeight thousand six hundred persons. They point to his noble efforts to educate the young ones of his flock, his eagerness to fill up the broken ranks of the clergy, his success in correcting abuses which had crept in during the strife of persecution, visiting nearly every diocese in his province, and holding synods in Dublin, Clones and Ardpatrick. And during all the years of his primacy his yearly income did not exceed sixty pounds, and his Episcopal palace was a little thatched cottage in an obscure part of the diocese!

After a period of ten years in the episcopate, during which he showed the most ardent zeal, mortification, courage and patience, the saintly Prelate was arrested, and cast into prison in Dublin Castle on the 6th December, 1679. His life was a model of the charity which Christ came to cast upon the earth; and now the end was near. The touching words of Lowell may well be applied to him:

He strove among God's suffering poor

One gleam of brotherhood to send;

The dungeon oped its hungry door

To give the truth one martyr more,

Then shut,and here behold the end!

He was first put on his trial in Dundalk, but the informers, two priests who imitated the crime of Judas, knew they would not be believed there and failed to appear against him. In the following summer he was removed to London, and, in the beginning of the year 1681, he was arraigned before a London jury. The perjury of the witnesses at the trial was so flagrant that, in spite of the outrageous partisanship of the judge, Chief justice Pemberton, the jury refused to find a true bill against him. But a new trial was obtained at the following Easter term and he was condemned to death. The indictment was for high treason, but there is extant a minute record of the trial, published with the imprimatur of judge Pemberton, which makes it abundantly evident that the only treason of the holy Archbishop was his zeal in defense of the Catholic faith.

Oliver Plunkett was executed at Tyburn, in the reign of Charles II. on the 1st of July, 1681, (11th July according to the new style). It is worthy of note that he was the last to shed his blood for the faith in England. The manner in which he prepared to meet his death was truly edifying, and is thus described by his fellow prisoner, the Benedictine Fr. Corker, who was his confessor and spiritual guide at the last. "He spent his time in almost continual prayer; he fasted usually three or four days a week with nothing but bread. The trial being ended . . . not only I but many other Catholics who came to receive his benediction and were eyewitnesses, can testify, there appeared in his words, in his actions, in his countenance, something so divinely elevated, such a composed mixture of cheerfulness, constancy, love, sweetness and candor as manifestly denoted the Divine Goodness had made him fit for a victim, and destined him for Heaven. His love had extinguished in him all fear of death . . . and he continually studied how to become more and more an entirely pleasing and perfect holocaust."

At the place of execution the venerable prelate spoke at some length, refuting the charges against him, and forgiving, like his Divine Master, the false witnesses who had spilled his innocent blood, and all who concurred in any way to take away his life. He asked forgiveness of all those whom he had ever offended by thought, word or deed, and ended thus: "Now that I have shown sufficiently (as I think) how innocent I am of any plot or conspiracy, I would I were able with the like truth to clear myself of high crimes committed against the Divine Majesty's commandments, often transgressed by me, for which I am sorry with all my heart, and if I could or should live a thousand years, I have a firm resolution and a strong purpose, by your grace, O my God, never to offend you. And I beseech your Divine Majesty, by the merits of Christ, and by the intercession of His Blessed Mother, and all the Holy Angels and Saints to forgive me my sins and grant me eternal rest."

When he expired he was cut down and bowled his heart and bowels were thrown into the fire. His body was begged of the king, and was interred, all but the head and arms, in the churchyard of St. Giles. Four years afterwards it was found entire, and sent to Lambspring in Germany. Later it was brought back and now finds a resting place in the Benedictine Monastery of Lambspring in England. His head was given to Cardinal Howard, and it now rests in the Dominican Convent of Drogheda, the first Superior of which was a grandniece of the martyr.

There is no member of the Irish Church, from the humblest Catholic in the land to the Primate of all Ireland, Cardinal Logue, who does not look forward with eager interest to the success of the cause, and pray that this saintly prelate may be found worthy to have his name inscribed on the venerated roll of martyred saints.

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