How many martyrs have there been in the history of the Catholic Church? This turns out to be a more complicated question than one might think.
Take, for example, the group known collectively as the First Martyrs of Rome. Each year, on June 30, the Catholic Church commemorates the Christians who died in the city of Rome in the year 64 A.D. Each year, Catholics are reminded how a devastating fire destroyed two-thirds of the city and how the Roman emperor Nero, without any evidence, blamed Christians for starting the blaze. These Christians were killed in extremely brutal ways,1 and their deaths inaugurated more than two hundred years of official persecution of the Church by the Roman Empire.
But we have no idea how many Catholics were killed in that persecution. The Romans didn’t keep track, and the Catholics who weren’t arrested were too busy trying to avoid the same fate. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the history of the Church. There are fifty-nine other groups of unnamed and unnumbered martyrs acknowledged by the Church. For these groups, we may be certain about the location and date (or century), but we cannot be certain about the total number of people who died for Jesus Christ.
However, even after setting aside those unnumbered groups of martyrs, it is possible to calculate a fairly accurate minimum number of people who have been martyred throughout Church history and who are now acclaimed as saints or blesseds. Using data from the Church’s official liturgical calendar of saints and blesseds—the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum—and data from the Dicastery of the Causes of the Saints, my calculations show that 14,154 men, women, and children2 have been recognized as martyrs over the centuries.
How can we grasp the suffering of those thousands of individual lives? We can start by looking at the details in the lives of the martyrs. The stories of some of the saints who are remembered by the Church just during recent weeks can help us understand why ordinary Catholics would face execution because of their faith.
On January 19, the Church remembered four family members who died in the fourth century. According to tradition, Saints Maris and Martha were husband and wife, and Saints Audifax and Abauchum were their sons. Originally from Persia, the family moved to the city of Rome. When persecution increased in Rome and Christians were being executed, these four sought out the bodies of the Christian martyrs and gave them a Christian burial. Performing a corporal work of mercy is a Christian duty, but it also led the authorities to realize that they were Catholics. All four were arrested and executed.
Most Catholics are familiar with Saint Fabian, the twentieth pope of the Church who died a martyr in the year 250. Saint Fabian, whose feast day was celebrated on January 20, shows us that being the pope can be dangerous to your health. At least twelve popes have died as martyrs over the centuries.3 Regardless of the exact number, one can certainly say that before the end of the persecution of the Church around the year 313, every man who accepted the papacy did so knowing that martyrdom was possible for him at any moment.
Most Catholics also know about another saint celebrated on January 20. Saint Sebastian was a soldier who famously survived execution by arrows but was recaptured and executed more successfully during a second attempt. His death occurred in the year 288. Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom reminds us that while the occupation of soldier may not generally be considered a path to great holiness, 426 saints and blesseds in the Church’s calendar served as soldiers at some point during their lives. Granted, some of them, like Saint Martin of Tours, left military service when young and later became hermits, monks, and bishops. But 402 soldiers—not all of them from the early days of the Church—showed their bravery off the battlefield by being willing to die rather than renounce their faith in Christ.
On January 21, the Church celebrated Saint Agnes, that well-known consecrated virgin who died in Rome in the third or fourth century. But Agnes is certainly not the only martyr in the Church’s calendar on that day. Other martyrs celebrated on January 21 include: a wealthy layman who died a martyr in third century France; four men who were executed in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the crime of being Catholic priests; and a farmer who was killed for his Catholic faith in South Korea in 1867. All these men died as martyrs for the same reason that Agnes was killed: being a Christian was considered an act of treason.
Saint Meinrad, also celebrated on January 21, is considered a martyr for a different reason. Meinrad was a ninth century German monk and priest before he chose to live as a hermit in Switzerland. A group of thieves approached his hermitage, pretending to be in need, and Meinrad took them in, fed them, and showed them hospitality. They rewarded that hospitality by killing him because they (mistakenly) thought he was hiding some treasure they could steal. For this reason, Meinrad has been acclaimed a martyr for centuries due to his Christian charity.
On January 22, the Church remembered Saint Anastasius. According to tradition, Anastasius was a soldier serving in the Persian army when he learned about Jesus Christ and converted to the faith. He returned to his native city (in what is now Syria) and sought to bring his countrymen to Christ. When the king of Persia instituted a persecution of Catholics in his territory, Anastasius was arrested along with seventy other Christians, many of whom he had helped to bring to the faith. In the year 628, they were all tortured and killed. The Persian king—like all the other perpetrators of Christian persecution over the centuries—was certain that eliminating Christians in his territory would eliminate Christianity. Clearly, he was wrong.
Perhaps fourteen thousand martyrs seems like a rather small number in comparison to the billions of people who have been baptized as Catholics in the past twenty centuries. Of course, it is quite certain that many more unnamed but faithful Catholics have been killed for their faith.
But that is the point of remembering the martyrs. The very ordinariness of their lives reminds us that anyone, of any vocation, in any country, may face opposition for being a follower of Christ. Persecution is the norm, not the exception. Just like them, we may find ourselves being ridiculed or punished for performing works of mercy, living our vocations in a Christlike way, refusing to bow to unjust government pressure, living a virtuous life, or for simply explaining our faith to others.
The martyrs of the Church show us that we ordinary Christians, by God’s grace, can imitate Christ in our daily lives. And we might even be given the additional grace to die as He did.
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