Reflections on Veritatis Splendor by Alfred McBride, O.Praem. To review books by Fr. Mc Bride: (The Millennium : End of Time? a New Beginning? (1998--$8.76), Father McBride's Family Catechism (1998--$7.96) or Father McBride's Teen Catechism (1996--$7.19) at our on-line book store, click on the blue.

Christ's Greatest Witnesses

The Church proposes the example of numerous saints who defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin (No.91).

St. Thomas Becket had such a moral law that he was willing to die rather than break it. In twelfth-century Europe, kings believed they should appoint bishops and thus control the Church, even subordinating it to immoral goals. Pope Gregory VII fought this practice. In Thomas Becket, the Church found a martyr for the cause.

As a young man, Thomas was drawn to the Church, not out of piety but as a path to power and money. He became a friend of the youthful monarch Henry II. Becket grew rich and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle.

But he continued to question his actions and motives and discovered within himself an attraction to God, one that he could not ignore. King Henry wanted to control the English Church and thought he had the perfect ally in Becket, whom he made archbishop of Canterbury.

He expected Thomas to keep the bishops and pastors in line with royal policies. Unexpectedly, Becket gave his fidelity to the Church instead of the king. He abandoned his self-indulgence and embraced a life of austerity and prayer. In the ensuing struggle the king gained the upper hand and Thomas fled to France for seven years of exile. In a complex turn of events, the king appeared to back down. Thomas returned to Canterbury where four barons plotted to kill him.

Perhaps no scene in medieval history is more vividly remembered. The poet T. S. Eliot has dramatized it for contemporary audiences in his play Murder in a Cathedral. Becket and his priests have assembled for evening prayer when the murderers approach. The clergy cry out: "Bar the door, bar the door. / We are safe. We are safe. / They cannot break in. They have not the force."

Majestically, the archbishop counters their command: "Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors! / I will not have the house of prayer, the Church of Christ, / The sanctuary turned into a fortress./ Give no stay. The Church shall endure."

The barons surge in and smash his skull. Before the final blow, Thomas manages to murmur, "For my Lord, I am now ready to die, that his Church may have peace and liberty."

Martyrdom is the greatest proof of the validity of the moral law. Lengthy discussions may help. Sharp arguments have their place. But nothing convinces the mind and heart more than the witness of blood shed on behalf of moral truth and fidelity to the lawgiver, Jesus Christ.

"By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church's saints light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good ... they make the words of the prophet echo ever afresh: 'Woe to those who call evil good and good evil. . . .' (Is 5:20)" (No. 93).

Martyrs affirm the inviolability of the moral order. They reject a "theology of compromise" that claims to find some meaning and goodness in a morally evil act. They realize this is a violation of one's own humanity. Martyrs are the greatest witnesses to the holiness of the Church. They are magnificent beneficiaries of civil society itself, especially when it plunges toward self-destruction in the most dangerous of all crises - the confusion between good and evil.

The voice of conscience has always reminded people there are moral truths for which one must be prepared to give up one's life. "The Church sees a single testimony to that truth which ... shines forth in its fullness on the face of Christ. As St. Justin put it, The Stoics, at least in their teachings on ethics, demonstrated wisdom, thanks to the seed of the word present in all peoples, and we know that those who followed their doctrines met with hatred and were killed'" (No. 94).

This is why people flock to Becket's shrine for moral renewal. "And specially from every shire's end of England to Canterbury they wend, the holy blissful martyr for to seek" (Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer).

Suggested reading on the subject of martyrs: Fools, Martyrs, Traitors : The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World by Lacey Baldwin Smith is available through our on-line book store,

These syndicated articles are copyrighted by Our Sunday Visitor and are purchased with donations made to the Friends of the Good News who support this newsletter. Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated. 1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by subcription. This article appeared in the April 1999 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046) a member of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.

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