Thoughts on the Irish martyrs

Blessed Margaret Ball, one of the Irish martyrs whose feast we celebrate today

I have long had the feeling that, since the world is growing so rapidly worse and worse and God has lost His hold, as it were, upon the hearts of men, He is looking all the more earnestly and anxiously for big things from those who are faithful to Him still. He cannot, perhaps, gather a large army around His standard, but He wants everyone in it to be a hero, absolutely and lovingly devoted to Him. If only we could get inside that magic circle of generous souls I believe there is no grace He would not give us to help on the work He has so much at heart: our personal sanctification. Every day you live means an infallible growth in holiness which may be multiplied a thousand times by a little generosity.

COMMENT: Yes, it seems to be true that, in the West at least, a smaller army is gathered around Christ than in the past. In fact, that army seems even smaller now than when Fr Doyle wrote these words a century ago. Pope Benedict refers to this as a kind of creative minority. This means that there is an even greater need for those who adhere to Christ to strive for heroic virtue. Complacency is no longer an option. We may not be successful in our attempt, but the main thing is that we try.

We must also remember that the past was not necessarily a golden age. There have been many crises in the history of the Church, but in all of those crises the Holy Spirit has inspired heroes to witness to the truth of the faith. Today in Ireland we celebrate the feast of the Irish martyrs – 17 men and women who lost their lives because of their faith in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s and who were beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1992. Whatever crisis of aggressive secularism we now face in Ireland, we are at least not losing our lives for our faith. Yes, we may be belittled, we may have our sanity or our decency questioned. We may even lose out financially or in our careers due to a subtle discrimination against those of faith. In a sense, this is also a persecution, but a bloodless, psychological one. The Irish martyrs remind us of what our ancestors suffered to preserve the faith in Ireland. From this small land, many missionaries went out to evangelise the new world, especially in Africa, America and Australia. These 17, plus the hundreds of other unrecognised martyrs, and the other unknown multitudes who suffered in other ways, have played a significant role in the evangelisation of the English speaking world by preserving the faith for future generations. How well are we doing in preserving the faith for future generations?

Today is a day of remembering these heroic men and women, and being thankful for their sacrifice. It is also a day on which those of us in Ireland might well examine our consciences, myself included. What is to happen with these 17 Irish martyrs? Is there any interest in having them canonised? Is there any attempt to promote devotion to them? Do we pray through their intercession for miracles? Are we happy that they, and the hundreds of others who could be beatified, are largely forgotten?

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