Each year, about this time, the Vatican produces an updated martyrology, a list of those clerics, religious and laypeople who are known to have died for the faith in the previous year. These martyrologies have been growing of late, and while no one is going to torture or imprison us for what we believe in this country it does us well to remember that there are many parts of the world where our brothers and sisters are suffering active persecution and that the shedding of blood for Christ’s sake is not something from a bygone age.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say. “Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness unto death. The martyrs bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom they are united in charity. The martyrs bear witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. They endure death through an act of fortitude” it continues – “the Church has painstakingly collected the records of those who persevered to the end in witnessing to the faith. These are the acts of the martyrs. They form the archives of truth written in letters of blood”.
What a telling phrase that is: “the archives of truth written in letters of blood”. And it could not be more apt a description of your own Patron Saint in this place. Agatha is believed to have died in the Sicilian city of Catania in the year 251 – and nearly eighteen hundred years later the memory of her having made the supreme sacrifice is still kept fresh – indeed her inclusion in the Roman Canon has meant that she is daily held up as an example of Christian virtue at altars all around the world. A life lived wholly for Christ has a significance which cannot be limited by time – it attains an eternal quality. St Agatha and the long line of martyrs down to our own times can echo the Letter to the Romans, when it claims: "we can boast about our sufferings. These sufferings bring patience, as we know, and patience brings perseverance and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”. (5:4-6).
The word “martyr” means “one who witnesses” and in its early usage in the Book of Acts it referred to the Apostles meeting opposition and facing up to conflict as they began the preaching of the Gospel; only later, as the official persecutions grew more intense and bitter, was martyrdom reserved as a term for those who had paid the ultimate price – even then, there were still those called “white martyrs” whose heroic life style and perseverance was reckoned to them for righteousness, even though they were forced to shed no actual blood.
This responsibility, this duty, of witness, of proclamation, of sharing, is of course not restricted to the few. By virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation, there is no one who is not called to testify to what they believe, in their own circumstances: the witness given by the child in the playground and the adult in the workplace, necessarily, may be offered in a different idiom from that of the theologian and the preacher, but none of us is freed form the obligation to speak up and speak out, when and where we can, of the wonderful mysteries of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. President Kennedy expressed this truth when in his inauguration address to the American people he declared: “a man does not have the right to live, unless he has first found something for which he is prepared to die”. In our case, of course, “Someone” has to be substituted for “something”.
In the accounts which have come down to us, St Agatha had to endure an extended period of assault, both moral and physical. In those terrible hours and days she must often have reflected on the words of Jesus: “I tell you most solemnly unless a wheat grain falls in the ground and dies it remains only a single grain, but if it dies it yields a rich harvest". Any one who loves his life loses it: anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life”(John12:24). It has always been true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, and wherever the individual wheat grains have fallen, there has been a rich harvest, and the roots of Christ’s mystical Body have been embedded deeply in society after society.
But Jesus’ promise that the Church would be indefectible until the end of time, that not even the gates of Hell would prevail against it, gives no room for complacency. I remember a conversation with Graham Leonard while he was Bishop of London in which he made just this point. As a young man he had been much impressed by the vigour and zeal of the Church in North Africa which had produced Perpetua and Felicity, Cyprian and Augustine, but when he had been able to visit the cities associated with this great flowering of Christian culture he was hugely disappointed to find no trace of what had been. Not a church, not a convent, not even a ruin – the sands of time had swept it all away. The Catholic Church will continue to be the vehicle of salvation until the end of time – we know that – but its individual components, local churches, may well have only a limited shelf life. Some, like those in Eastern Europe smothered by atheism, have been destined to rise again, while others, apparently sink without trace: a memory - no more.
At risk of moving where angels fear to tread, I think I ought to say something about the idea of the Ordinariate which is on all our minds at present. It seems to me – and this a purely personal reaction – that there is an invitation here, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to allow much to fall into the ground and appear to die, in order that a greater harvest may be reaped. In thanking God for so much that has been achieved – and in this building we think of the pastoral ministry of Father Dolling and his like – we need to see where the example of the great witnesses to the Faith is pointing.
There is a legend of St Peter visiting St Agatha after dreadful torture to heal her wounds. Perhaps Peter is reaching out to us today drawing us closer to Christ and to one another. The Ordinariate is an entirely new and radical initiative – it cuts through so much that had been perceived as the ecumenical norms and says that if you see communion with the Successor of Peter as of the "esse" of the Church and if you can accept the Catechism as the norm of faith, then you are virtually free to write your own cheque and establish your own parameters. We have here a fresh model for reconciliation whose implications have yet to be tested and understood. May it help towards the fulfilment of Christ’s prayer that all should be one, that the world may believe.
That great English writer, Edith Sitwell, once said: "all in the end is harvest". In Christ’s own way, in Christ’s own time, may that harvest become a reality for us all – aided by the example and intercession of St Agatha.