For my Quick Takes this week, I want to look at the martyrs whose feast days fall during this Fortnight for Freedom, as well as a couple of my favorite stories of martyrs, including some bad-ass last words, because if you’re serious enough about your faith to die for it, it helps to have a sense of humor about death.
1. First Martyrs of Rome- In 64, Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the large fire that damaged half of the city of Rome, leading to mass persecution. These were the first martyrs to suffer as communities; they were burned, crucified, or fed to animals.
2. St. Peter -Do I really need to do a bio on Peter? I mean, it’s all over the New Testament. The head of the disciples and chosen by Jesus as the foundation of the Church, Peter became the leader after Jesus’ death and resurrection. One of my favorite things about Peter is that he walked with Jesus for three years; he was probably as close and as loyal to Him as anyone, yet he still messed up and denied Him. Even the most shining examples have smudges. That’s why we need Jesus in the first place. Peter preached all over the Middle East, eventually settling in Rome, making Rome the seat of the Pope. Peter was crucified under the persecution of Emperor Nero. It is said that Peter requested that his cross be upside down because he viewed himself unworthy of dying the same way Jesus did.
3. St. Paul-Probably the most famous missionary, Paul started off as Saul, a Jew who persecuted early Christians. He had a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus and converted on the spot. After that, he traveled and established a number of churches, preaching to anyone who would listen, Jew and Gentile. He was arrested by Jews who didn’t believe in preaching to Gentiles. Later, he was arrested in Rome. During his second imprisonment in Rome, he was beheaded.
4. St. Thomas Becket-He was made Lord Chancellor by Henry II. They were close friends, and Henry believed that as archbishop, Thomas would aid in large reforms that the kings wanted. In 1162, Thomas was ordained a priest, and ordained a bishop just one day later. As archbishop, he became more religious; he fasted, wore hair shirts, and walked around barefoot. He and the king disagreed on a series of issues involving who had authority, the state or the Church. In 1170, a band of knights killed him during Vespers. It is not clear how strong a role Henry II played in the murder, but he did perform public penance at Becket’s tomb in 1174.
5. St. Thomas More- He was made Lord Chancellor in 1529 by Henry VIII. As the king began breaking away from the Church, More resigned his post. He spent the rest of his life writing in defense of the Church. (Earlier, he had also written defenses of the Church in reply to Martin Luther’s writings). Disagreeing with the king led to his conviction of treason and execution in 1535. He was one of the many people (on both sides) to die during the Catholic-Protestant battles in England. He chose his Church over his career. On the scaffold, he said that he was dying “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
6. Catherine of Alexandria- She lived and studied in Alexandria in the late third century and was known for her intelligence in science and philosophy. After a vision, she converted to Christianity. She tried to convince the emperor that Christianity was superior to Roman gods. He sent a group of pagans to debate with her, but she converted them all. The emperor was angry, but also impressed. He offered Catherine her life if she would deny her faith and marry him. She refused. He tried to have her torn apart on a rack and then a breaking wheel, but the wheel broke, and Catherine remained in one piece. She was ultimately beheaded.
7. Lawrence of Rome- He served as a deacon in Rome during the time of Emperor Valerian in the third century. Legend says that he was in charge of the material goods of the Church. Rome demanded that Lawrence give the Church’s treasures over to Rome. Lawrence presented the man with a group of lepers, widows, orphans, and poor and announced, “These are the treasures of the Church.” The Roman sentenced Lawrence to death for this display. Lawrence was placed on a large gridiron with burning coals beneath it. After a long, painful time, he famously said, “This side is done. Turn me over!”