Martyrology before Meals

During the summers of 2016 and 2018, I attended seminars hosted by the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies. These seminars take place in Norcia, Italy and provide participants with an opportunity to experience the liturgical life of the Benedictine Monks who live there. The seminars include study sessions on Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on a particular book of Sacred Scripture as well as leisurely, convivial multi-course Italian meals.

Needless to say, this experience gave me a shock of culture – even of a culture that is already my own.

One of the new experiences for me was praying the Roman Martyrology each day before meals. Whoever was leading Grace would read from the Martyrology, an example of which is below:

THE Festival of St. Titus, bishop and confessor.— At Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the birthday of St. Dorothy, virgin and martyr, who was stretched on the rack, then a long time scourged with boughs of the palm-tree, and finally condemned to capital punishment, under Sapricius, governor of that province. Her noble confession of Christ converted a lawyer named Theophilus, who was also tortured in a barbarous manner, and finally put to death by the sword.—The same day, the holy martyrs Saturninus, Theophilus, and Revocata.—At Emesa, in Phoenicia, in the time of the emperor Maximian, St. Silvanus, bishop, who, after having governed that church forty years, was delivered to the beasts with two other Christians, and having his limbs all mangled, received the palm of martyrdom.—At Clermont, in Auvergne, St. Antholian, martyr.—The same day, the holy bishops Vedastus and Amandus, who were illustrious by many miracles, both in life and death. The former governed the church of Arras, the latter that of Maestricht.—At Bologna, St. Guarinus, bishop of Palestrina and Cardinal, renowned for holiness of life.

And elsewhere many other holy martyrs, confessors and holy virgins.

To this everyone would reply, “Thanks be to God.” The leader would then say, “Precious in the sight of the Lord” to which the others responded, “Is the death of His Saints.”

With fresh bread, world-famous pasta, red and white wines, and more set before us, it was startling to have our attention drawn to scourging, torture, mangled limbs, and beheadings each day before we ate.

In this First Things article, George Weigel encourages a rediscovering of the Roman Martyrology in order to deepen our solidarity with Christians suffering much greater persecution than we do as well as reminding us about life’s ultimate aim and end. Always one to offer practical suggestions, Weigel recommends reading John L. Allen’s The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution as a means to prayerfully contemplate the lives and deaths of martyrs.

Peter Kwasniewski, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center who led sessions and gave lectures, has also written a piece on cherishing the Martyrology in which he writes:

With this sweep of names and lives from Abraham to Mother Teresa, the cumulative effect of praying the Martyrology day after day is to make real what the Epistle to the Hebrews says about the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us. Every day, anywhere from ten to thirty heroic predecessors in the faith are brought to mind, both their lives and their often difficult ends. […] As a record of all those whom the Church has declared to be citizens of heaven, the Martyrology resembles that “book of life” mentioned in Scripture, in which God is said to have written the names of all the saved. Just as the printed name is a sign of the saint commemorated, so the book as a whole is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem, our eternal home. To hold it in one’s hands is to think of life’s end and goal.

Being introduced to the Roman Martyrology in the context of a Thomistic seminar in Italy was a great gift, and learning of the witness of those martyrs gave me something to savour with appreciation long after we had finished dessert.

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