The Martyrs' Love
The words of this Doctor of the Church are particularly fitting as we recall today St Paul Miki, a Japanese Jesuit and his twenty-five companion-martyrs of various nationalities and Orders who were martyred in Nagasaki, Japan (right). These saints were apostles to Japan and they preached the Faith and shed their blood for the Faith in that country.
Writing in eleventh-century Japan the Heian courtesan, Sei Shonagon, said that a saint is one "who has really given up all thoughts of the world". In 1597, her compatriot, Paul Miki, would show the extent of true sainthood. The saint and martyr is, in a sense, one who has renounced the world, but only for love of the world. By this, I mean that it is love for souls and the passion for their salvation which leads a saint like Paul Miki and his companions to forsake self, life and all for Christ Jesus. As St Therese reminds us, it is love that motivates the martyr to shed his blood and indeed, "greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend" (Jn 15:13); the saint is the friend of humankind, giving up the lure of the flesh, the world and the Devil and eventually even life itself. In that sense, Sei Shonagon is right, because the saint is focused on the world to come.
But I rather suspect Sei Shonagon expressed her admiration for the saint within the context of the Buddhist concepts of self-denial, renunciation of the world and self-immolation for one's personal and individual transcendence; it is auto-salvific. There is no hint of this in the Christian understanding of sainthood and the act of Christian martyrdom, for the Christian saint is motivated entirely by love which by its very nature is for others, embraces others and forgets self. Thus, the saint is paradoxically most world-embracing when he renounces the world by giving himself to the world to the point of death.
Today's saints were the first martyrs to be canonized in East Asia; they were crucified and then stabbed with spears. Their executioners sought to mock them in doing so, but they were amazed and astounded upon seeing the saints' joy at being martyred in a manner which imitated Christ's saving Passion. The martyrs' embrace of the Cross, in perfect imitation of Christ, witnessed eloquently to their perfect charity and union with Christ whose blood saves the world. Thus, they share in Christ's sacrifice and its fecundity from which the Church was born. Hence Tertullian said, "the blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the Church", for this kind of love is a witness to the truth of the Gospel that bears lasting fruit in and for the Church.
Indeed, charity that is perfected in sanctity - and this is most eloquently so in the witness of martyrdom - is the most credible and convincing expression of the Christian faith and its truth. The Holy Father in his recent encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, expounded on this. However, I would like to quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose ideas in 'Love Alone is Credible' seems to have influenced the writings of this pope and his illustrious predecessor. The Swiss theologian writes:
"The saints experienced something of the heat of [divine love]; we see it in their lives and actions. It is in them that Christian love becomes credible; they are the poor sinners' guiding stars. But every one of them wishes to point completely away from himself and toward love... But the genuine saints desired nothing but the greater glory of God's love; this alone is the condition of possibility of what they do... The saints are lost in the depths of God; they are hidden in him. Their perfection grows not around the centre of their ego, but solely around the centre of God, whose inconceivable and incalculable grace it is to make his creature freer in himself and for himself to the extent that he becomes freer for God alone. We can resolve this paradox only if we understand, in the light of God's self-gift, that he is love, which is just as jealous as it is without envy, so that it can gather exclusively to itself just as much as it casts itself out to all.
The sole credibility of the Church Christ founded lies, as he himself says, in the saints, as those who sought to set all things on the love of Christ alone."
It is to this standard of loving that we are called and the martyrs of Japan stand as witnesses who lead the way. It is in their path and footsteps, the via Dolorosa, that we too must tread. May they assist us every step of the Way!