MARTYRS OF THE FAITH — THEIR VIRTUES
It was still more marvellous to behold so many Gentiles embrace a Religion difficult to believe and difficult to practise. It was a Religion difficult to believe, for it taught Mysteries beyond the reach of human reason; for example, the Trinity of One God in Three distinct Persons Who have but one Nature, one Power, and one Will; the Incarnation of the Son of God Who came upon earth to die for the salvation of mankind; and many other Articles regarding Original Sin, the spirituality and the immortality of the soul, the Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. It was difficult to practise because the Religion of Jesus Christ commanded things contrary to the inclinations of nature corrupted by sin and repugnant to the libertinism in which the pagans were living, accustomed as they were to follow their passions and to give themselves up to the pleasures of the senses. Nothwithstanding these obstacles, the Christian Religion was embraced by so many nations! From this universal consent of the nations St. Augustine argues the divinity of our Religion, saying that had not God illuminated by His powerful grace so many people — civilized and barbarian, learned and illiterate, noble and plebian, all immersed in the superstitions of their country, imbued from their earliest years with maxims so opposed to the sanctity of Faith — how could they have embraced it?
Besides the interior lights of grace, there were many other causes that induced the people to embrace Christianity and to remain firm in professing it. Miracles contributed much to inflame their zeal; for from the moment in which the Apostles began to preach, the Lord caused miracles to abound in testimony of the Faith, as St. Mark says: They preached everywhere, the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed (Mark xvi. 20). It is certain that the great miracles that had been wrought by the Apostles and their disciples contributed largely to the conversion of the world. In vain the adherents of idolatry tried to make men believe these prodigies were the effect of magical incantations: every one well understood that God would never permit them if they were to serve the purpose of giving support to diabolical agency or to a false religion. The proof of miracles was therefore a truly Divine proof by which the Lord confirmed the Christian Religion and the Faith of believers.
The Faith became further strengthened by the constancy of Martyrs of both sexes, of every age and condition; men and women, the aged and the young, the noble and the plebian, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, married and single. They were seen to renounce their homes, their parents, their titles, their fortunes, and everything they possessed, to embrace scourges, racks, fire, torture, and to encounter death under its most horrible aspects; and all this, not only with courage, but with joyfulness and thanksgiving to God, Who made them worthy to suffer and die for His love. St. Justin, who was himself a Martyr, confessed that this heroic virtue of the Christians had been to him a powerful stimulus to embrace the Faith.
The Martyrs received great courage in their sufferings from the desire of quickly arriving at the fruition of the promises made by Jesus Christ to His followers: Blessed are ye when they shall revile you and persecute you … Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven (Matt. v. 11). Every one therefore that shall confess me before men I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven (Matt. x. 82).
But what above all filled the Martyrs with courage and ardour and made them wish to die was their great love for their Divine Master Whom St. Augustine calls the King of Martyrs, Who wished to die on the Cross in pain and in desolation for the love of us, as St. Paul says: He hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us (Eph. v. 2). Actuated by this love, they went with joy to suffer and to die for Jesus Christ; so that, not content with enduring the pains that were inflicted upon them, they besought, they provoked the executioners and the tyrants, to obtain from them an increase of torture, in order that they might show themselves more grateful to God Who died for love of them.
Hence it came to pass, according to St. Justin, that in the course of three Centuries the whole earth was filled with Martyrs and Christians. “There is no nation, Greek or barbarian,” writes the holy Martyr to Trypho, “that does not offer prayers and thanksgivings to the Creator of the universe by invoking the Name of Jesus Christ.” St. Irenaeus, in like manner, attests that at his time the Faith of Jesus Christ was extended over the entire world. Pliny, in his celebrated letter to the Emperor Trajan, declared that the Christian Faith was spread to such a degree that the temples of the gods were abandoned, and that victims were no longer offered to the idols. And Tiberian also wrote to the same Emperor that it would be unwise to put to death all the Christians, since the number of those who were anxious to die for Jesus Christ was incalculable.