(The following is adapted from a homily delivered by Fr. Cush on April 12, 2019, at the Roman Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome, Italy at the Station Church Mass for the English-Speaking Pilgrims)
We are surrounded today, in this unique church on the Caelian Hill dedicated to both Saint Stephen the proto-martyr as well as Stephen I of Hungary, with images of the martyrs. This basilica, build in the round, resembles the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and was most likely dedicated by Pope Saint Simplicius around the year 470. The frescoes of the martyrs did not come into this Basilica until Pope Gregory XIII entrusted this church to the Society of Jesus who, in turn, commissioned the artists Pomarancio and Tempesta to paint them.
I urge you today to examine these paintings. They are brutal, they are grotesque, and they are disturbing, but, then again, so too can life be, especially life in our contemporary world. These images are meant to shock us, to wake us up from our this-worldly slumber to the reality of what the world is for Christians, those who are in the world and yet not of the world. As Flannery O’Connor commented:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.
The world, by and large, does not hold the same beliefs as you and I do. It does not speak the same language as the Christian does. So, this Basilica of San Stefano serves a powerful purpose — to scream at us Christians, urging us to wake up! The martyrs depicted here are meant to inspire courage in the hearts of Christians, imploring those who are able to do so to perceive beyond the values set by this world, begging us to grow in an openness to the supernatural in our all-too-natural, fallen world.
These martyrs depicted here speak to us today. These martyrs make the faith credible. They are the ultimate expression of the credibility of Divine Revelation. This was true in the past and it is true in the present. To give a contemporary example, when ISIS savagely murdered 20 Egyptian men and one Ghanaian man on Jan. 15, 2015, and then later had the audacity to release the video on Feb. 15, 2015, stating that “Rome is next,” their plan backfired. Instead of provoking fear into the hearts of the Christian world, for those that believe, these 20 Coptic Christians and one Muslim, were and are inspirations. The Muslim man, Matthew Ayariga, was, by his actions, baptized in blood, convinced of the truth of the Christian faith due to the witness of his fellow workers. “Their God is my God. I will go with them,” he uttered even when he could have been pardoned by his executioners.
In an essay released on April 10, 2019, entitled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI sagely notes:
It is very important to oppose the lies and half-truths of the devil with the whole truth: Yes, there is sin in the Church and evil. But even today there is the Holy Church, which is indestructible. Today there are many people who humbly believe, suffer and love, in whom the real God, the loving God, shows Himself to us. Today God also has His witnesses (martyres) in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them.
The word martyr is taken from procedural law. In the trial against the devil, Jesus Christ is the first and actual witness for God, the first martyr, who has since been followed by countless others.
Today's Church is more than ever a "Church of the Martyrs" and thus a witness to the living God. If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering. It is an inertia of the heart that leads us to not wish to recognize them. One of the great and essential tasks of our evangelization is, as far as we can, to establish habitats of Faith and, above all, to find and recognize them.
If we are to be Christian in the world today, really Christian, we will suffer daily martyrdoms. The Lord Jesus, the King of Martyrs suffered, and so will we. He suffers both in His blessed Passion, but in the pre-Passion misunderstandings and calumny which we heard proclaimed in the Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 10.
Most likely, our martyrdoms will not be physical, but subtler, and we see it played out in the last acceptable prejudice, anti-Catholicism, and in a broader sense, in this generally secularist society which pervades. When someone stands for objective truth and natural law, in the age of subjective reality, that someone is called a bigot. If we stand true, in every aspect of our faith, we will suffer.
We read Saint John’s Gospel:
The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.
Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from my Father.
For which of these are you trying to stone me?
The rocks are in hand; get ready to be pummeled. And be careful that we ourselves do not have the rocks in our own hands, ready to hurl them at each other. We can be our own worst enemies. To state it again, we as Christians are in the world, but not of the world.
Truth is truth and caritas in veritate (our charity in truth) is what matters. The daily martyrdoms, the blows we will no doubt feel will hurt, but we know that the Lord has won.
Jeremiah, the Prophet, in his 20th chapter, tells us:
But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion:
my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.
In their failure they will be put to utter shame,
to lasting, unforgettable confusion.
The ultimate credibility of the faith is martyrdom. The Roman Basilica of San Stefano Rotondo reminds us of this fact. Have faith that the Lord will support us, even in these martyrdoms of daily life.