Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Books of Martyrs: Example and Imitation in Europe and Japan, 1597-1650

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Books of Martyrs: Example and Imitation in Europe and Japan, 1597-1650

Article excerpt

Catholics in the United States have recently been reminded of the ancient cult of martyrs by news stories from two unlikely places, Oklahoma and Hollywood: Oklahoma because Father Stanley Rother's status as a martyr was recently announced by the Vatican.1 In early December 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized that this priest from the archdiocese of Oklahoma City was murdered in Guatemala in 1981 "in odium fidei' [in hatred of the faith]. Rother thus entered the long list of martyred men and women that the Church has kept for nearly two thousand years; his distinction is to be the first American citizen added to that roll. But if this news from OKC has not yet reached a wide audience, the narrative from Hollywood certainly has. Renowned director Martin Scorsese has released a film titled Silence about the mid-seventeenth century anti-Christian persecutions in Japan. In it, odium fidei fills the silver screen for more than two hours as scores of Japanese Christians are shown being martyred by drowning, crucifixion, immolation, and decapitation. In recreating the trials of that mission church, Scorsese has reminded us of the brutal suffering of individuals put to the test for their beliefs. Some met death at the hands of their tormentors; others, through apostasy, chose life. At the center of Silence is Cristóvao Ferreira (c. 1580-1650), a Portuguese priest who renounced Christianity during the gruesome torture of the pit, and two of his Jesuit brethren who, refusing to believe that such an act of betrayal was possible, risked all to confront him.2

These stories from Oklahoma and Hollywood attest to the continuing presence of martyrs within the Christian consciousness and to the vitality of this ancient form of church history. By officially recognizing those who died for the faith, by invoking their memory on the calendar, and by soliciting prayers for their intercession, the Church has preserved and promoted the cult of martyrs since Roman times. So important was the designation of martyr that the cult endured even through the Middle Ages, as it became difficult to court death for "hatred of the faith." Only if one traveled to the Dar al-Islam or ventured into the wilds of northeastern Europe with the intention of provocation, or used coercion to extinguish heterodoxy within the bounds of Christendom, was it possible to be killed for professing orthodox beliefs. It is therefore no surprise that during the age of religious renewal which saw the emergence of mendicant orders, the new bands of friars quickly sought to associate themselves with the pious heroes of the past: the Franciscans, for example, promoted the cult of their Five Martyrs of Morocco, and the Dominicans that of their confrere the Inquisitor Peter of Verona (later known as Peter Martyr).3 The venerable badge of bravery that had marked true confessors of the faith was therefore affixed to the friars' cowls within Francis's own lifetime and within a few decades of Dominic's death.4

New martyrs were nevertheless rare until the early modern period. It was only with the recovery of classical scholarship, the rending of the Church, and the discovery of new worlds that martyrdom and its cult returned to the forefront of the Christian consciousness. Seeking ancient pedigrees for Church traditions, as well as classical models of eloquence, Renaissance scholars pored over the writings of Eusebius, Lactantius, and Tertullian. The wars and persecutions that accompanied both Protestant and Catholic Reformations greatly increased the risk that men and women would suffer death for their religious convictions.5 And the exploration and settlement of unknown lands beyond Europe, with the concomitant desire to transmit the gospel to new populations, led to a surge in missionary activity among peoples who at times reacted violently. The religious turmoil of the Reformations combined with the effects of European Expansion to produce seemingly inexhaustible wellsprings of martyrs, while the Renaissance engendered celebrations of the heroic deeds of moderns at home and abroad which ceded nothing to their ancient counterparts. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.