Friday, January 04, 2019 - Updated: 3:36 pm
“Atheists.” That’s what the pagan world considered Christians. With good reason. To the Christians, the pagan universe of gods and goddesses was all bunk. There was only one God. Not a God superior to the other gods. But the only God.
The Roman Empire didn’t care which gods you worshipped as long as you took part in the public cult that allegedly kept the gods happy. The Christians refused to take part and became public atheists. Which led to one of my favorite exchanges from the Age of the Martyrs.
In the first half of the second century, Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna. He knew St. John the apostle and, at 86 in the year 155, Polycarp was charged. With being Christian.
The Roman proconsul said to him, “Have respect for your old age, repent and say, ‘Down with the atheists!’” Polycarp, gesturing toward the mob surrounding him, cried out, “Down with the atheists!” And he was murdered. The “Acts” of Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the earliest accounts of Christian martyrdom.
According to Catholic News Service in late November, churches throughout the world “were bathed in soft red light” to honor today’s martyrs. The commemorative effort — sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need — is part of its Courage in Red Campaign. It calls on churches to stand up for faith and religious freedom.
As described by CNS, Aid to the Church in Need is an international papal charity that provides pastoral and humanitarian aid to persecuted and oppressed Christians. It supports various church projects in more than 140 countries. A quiet event took place at a vespers service at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Martyrdom is often quiet today. Nobody is screaming “atheists,” and many times the murder is of priests serving and protecting the poor during civil wars and terrorist attacks. In the last couple of years, 22 priests were murdered in Mexico and South America; 82 others were killed in terrorist attacks in Egypt and Pakistan.
In early November, Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of De La Salle Christian Brother James Miller, who was born in Wisconsin in 1944 and murdered in Guatemala at age 37. He had taught at Cretin High School in Minneapolis and was a football coach and maintenance guy. In January 1981, he was sent by the order to Guatemala, where he taught at a secondary school.
I didn’t know him. But I could have. I was a student at Manhattan Prep in the Bronx when he was teaching in Minneapolis. Manhattan Prep was taught and run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers when I was there.
Brother Jim was a De La Salle brother as I remember them — funny and serious all at once. Asked if he felt afraid about the shootings that were taking place around him, he wrote: “Are you kidding? I never thought I could pray with such fervor when I go to bed.”
Then he added: “I am personally weary of violence, but I ... have been a Brother of the Christian Schools for nearly 20 years now, and commitment to my vocation grows steadily stronger in my work in Central America.”
While on a ladder making repairs to the Guatemala school building Feb. 13, 1982, he was shot several times by three hooded men and died instantly. No one was ever arrested for his murder.
Class always began at Manhattan Prep the same way. The brother would enter, advise us to rise, and he would say, “St. John Baptist De La Salle,” and we’d respond, “Pray for us.” Then, “Live Jesus in our hearts,” and we’d conclude, “Forever.”
Brother Jim. A martyr for the faith. True courage in red. Forever.
Lockwood is former general manager of the Pittsburgh Catholic and diocesan communications director.