Pious tradition tells the extra-biblical story of Saint Peter as leader of the early Church encountering Christ near Rome. As the Vicar of Christ, Peter led the Church from Rome throughout the first Century. For about thirty years after the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, the Christian Church grew as the Apostles heeded the great commission to “make disciples of all nations.” However, after the fire of Rome under Emperor Nero in 64 AD, Christians became the target of a great persecution. 67 AD is traditionally held as the year of Peter's own martyrdom.
The story is that Peter, having heard that the Roman authorities were seeking him to be crucified, began to flee the city. As he was on the road traveling away from the great Eternal City, he saw Jesus pass by, walking in the opposite direction.
“Quo vadis, Domine?” Peter asked. Where are you going, Lord?
“Romam vado iterum crucifigi,” Jesus responds. I go to Rome to be Crucified again.
With that, Peter realized that it was the will of God for Him to turn around and accept martyrdom. It is said that Peter turned around and went right back into the city, where he would shortly be arrested and crucified upside-down.
This phrase, “Quo vadis?” is very often used today for vocations and discernment events. Quo Vadis Days are often summer events hosted to encourage young men to consider the possibility of a religious vocation. (Similar events for young women are held, often called Fiat Days in reference to Mary's response to the angel Gabriel.) Vocations directors often ask the retreat-goers to consider if Christ is calling them to walk with Him to Rome. This wonderful and often inspiring reflection motivates many to consider God's calling for them.
My reflection today is on something a little more specific than the call to the priesthood; the call to martyrdom. Just as not every man is called to the priesthood, neither is every person called to death by martyrdom.
Saint John the beloved Apostle did not die a “red” martyr. Yet, he is no less a saint than the other Apostles. Saint John is considered by the Church to be a “white martyr.” This is a distinction the Church has made since the Patristic Age. In the Early Church, Christians often suffered persecution, even to the point of death. Those who died for the faith were venerated and esteemed for their perseverance. Many Christians began to consider that if they did not die as witnesses to the faith, they were somehow not living up to their duty as Christians.
In response to this, the Church Fathers began to develop and teach the theology of martyrdom. Saint Ignatius of Antioch instructed that true martyrdom is found in the will to be united to Christ. The desire to act as a witness to the Jesus' pascal sacrifice is the authentic call to martyrdom. The way in which that is fulfilled was specified with the distinctions of red and white martyrdom.
A red martyr was one who suffered and died for the faith, uniting themselves to the will and deed. White martyrs were those who did not suffer death, though in their will, they united their daily sufferings to Christ. In this way, the Fathers taught that it was not necessary to be killed in order to grow in holiness. In fact, that the act of seeking out persecution was not itself virtuous.
In the modern world (considering particularly the United States), the idea of martyrdom can sound archaic. We may easily overlook the fact that the Christian faith in our own country was spread through at the the cost many missionary martyrs. The North American Martyrs were responsible for sewing the seeds of faith to the Native American peoples, often knowing that they risked their lives in the process. Even those who were not killed for the faith suffered for it.
Father Stanley Rother, a priest born in Oklahoma in 1935, died a martyr in 1981. He risked his life as a missionary of the faith in Guatemala. Father Rother's love for Christ caused him to willingly face even death in order to bring Him to the faithful.
This reflects what the Early Christian writer Tertullian meant when he wrote: "The seed of the Church is the blood of martyrs." For, just as Christ's own bloody sacrifice was the foundation of the Church, the sacrifices of martyrs united to Him widen that foundation. Of course, the martyrs do not by themselves achieve something. They do not die in their own name or for their own glory. Rather, Jesus works through them and uses their actions to reach the people and lands who witness His victimhood.
Where does that leave us? Are we all called to die as martyrs for the faith? Should we all go into danger to spread the Gospel? Well, no, not necessarily. God does not call everyone to die a martyr's death. Yet, we should be willing to go wherever it is He sends us. Saint Peter was not abandoning the Church by trying to protect his life. Neither are we failing God by doing what is necessary for our safety at times. However, when that extraordinary call comes, we should not refuse it.