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Discipleship, Martyrdom, and Preparation of the Mind

Discover why preparing for martyrdom is a response to the demands of discipleship.

by Fr. Timothy Laboe

St. Margaret Clitherow liked to make what she called her “pilgrimage.” She would set out barefoot in the evening with two or three of her friends and walk the mile or so to an area outside of York known as Knavesmire, which was the site of public executions. Gallows had been erected there centuries before, and during St. Margaret’s era, Catholic priests had been executed by the state during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. St. Margaret liked to go there to pray. According to her biographer, Father John Mush, St. Margaret would kneel and pray at the gallows as long as her companions allowed. St. Margaret was a devout Catholic during a time when Catholics were persecuted in England. The threat of death was very present, and she went to the site of martyrdom for inspiration and to pray for the grace of martyrdom should she have to face death for the sake of her faith. She eventually received that grace and was martyred on March 25, 1586.

St. Margaret exemplified what Archbishop Vigneron called for in his pastoral letter Unleash the Gospel: “That in imitation of Christ, martyrdom is the pattern for fulfillment as a disciple of Jesus, so preparation for this heroic witness is the measure of Christian formation.” Here, the archbishop is not setting the standard for formation but simply acknowledging the standard that Christ has set for his disciples. We are called to prepare for martyrdom, but martyrdom, in fact, is rare for Christ’s disciples. The vast majority of Christians throughout history were not martyrs. Why then should we prepare for martyrdom if only very few would have to face it?

Moreover, is there a problem in wanting to be a martyr? St. Thomas Aquinas posed this question in the Summa Theologiae (ST 2-2.124.1 ob 3). It seems rather presumptuous to want martyrdom, and it certainly is not good to provoke potential persecutors so that a person could become a martyr. Why then seek to prepare oneself for an act that seems presumptuous to want and dangerous to court? Does it make sense to prepare oneself for martyrdom as a goal for Christian formation if it is highly unlikely that a person will be a martyr and possibly presumptuous or dangerous to want to be one?

In answering his own objection, St. Thomas recognizes that whenever Christ commands us to do something, he is commanding us to do a virtuous act. Some of these commands of Christ, which are part of the New Law, “are to be understood in reference to the preparation of the mind in the sense that man ought to be prepared to do such and such a thing whenever expedient” (ST 2-2.124.1 ad 3) In other words, there are things we are expected to do as God’s children according to the New Law of grace when certain circumstances are present. In the case of martyrdom, when the right circumstances are present we are expected to confess the truth of our faith even at the cost of our own lives. Because of that expectation, there is a need to be prepared for it should that ever happen. This preparation of the mind involves a recognition of the demands of discipleship (the cost of our lives) as well as the need for the necessary grace (martyrdom) from God should those circumstances arise. Regardless of the fact that very few are called to martyrdom, it is true that any of us could be. We are all called to follow Christ in his martyrdom, so we are all potential martyrs.

Discipleship as followers of Christ and God’s children also calls for preparation of the mind in other areas demanded by the New Law. Jesus commands us to love our enemies. How do we keep this precept if we don’t have any enemies or, at least, are not aware of them? Because we don’t have any enemies today doesn’t mean that we won’t have them tomorrow. The same goes for forgiveness. Christ told us to forgive others their wrongs against us not “seven times but seventy times seven times” (Mt. 18:22), a limitless amount. We might not be aware of anyone that we need to forgive today, but that does not mean that the same won’t be true tomorrow. Because we know we are called to love and forgive in the most difficult of circumstances and continuously, we must prepare our minds to do those virtuous acts. We have to pray for that grace when we need it even though we don’t need it today. Why? First, we have to pray for it because that is what it means to be a child of God and a disciple of Christ. From a practical perspective, however, until you have been unjustly treated and hurt badly, it can be very difficult to know how hard it can be for us to forgive someone. Until you become persecuted and encounter people who try to destroy you at every turn, it can be difficult to know how hard it is to love your enemies. These acts require supernatural help for they exceed our natural capacity to perform them. We cannot love and forgive on a God-like level on our own, so these acts require God’s grace. If we don’t recognize that, we won’t pray for these graces and won’t be ready when the time comes.    

Discipleship requires divine strength and complete commitment. It also requires preparation for those extreme moments of struggle that might not ever come but are always a possibility. We need to pray for the grace to love our enemies so that when we discover we have enemies we are open to the grace to love them. The same goes for forgiveness. We have to pray for the grace to forgive generously and without limit, so that when the time comes to forgive we are open to the grace to forgive. The New Law of Christ requires the highest standards to keep, and every disciple must be ready to keep them.  

Saints like St. Margaret Clitherow can help us in the necessary preparation of the mind for discipleship because they give us both the immediacy of the circumstances that require God’s grace and the right example to imitate. She was a young wife and mother who could have rationalized several reasons for not standing fast to her Catholic faith, but she did not. She knew that she might have to confess her faith at the cost of her life, and she prayed earnestly for that grace should the need arise. That day did come and with it the grace she needed. To be formed as true disciples of Christ, it is necessary to recognize that we are already potential martyrs by virtue of our baptism who need to pray for the graces to be faithful to the New Law. If we prepare for the highest measure of discipleship, we can be sure to be ready for all of the demands of following Christ. Martyrdom, St. Thomas says, “is the greatest proof of the perfection of charity” (ST 2-2.124.3 resp.) Perfection of charity in Christ is the goal of every disciple, and we do well if we follow the example of the martyrs. In order to do that, we should be prepared.  

Father Timothy Laboe is Dean of Studies and Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

by Fr. Timothy Laboe

Fr. Timothy Laboe

Fr. Timothy Laboe is Dean of Studies of Sacred Heart Major Seminary

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.