June is traditionally known as the month of the Sacred Heart, but it could also be known as the month of martyrs because there are so many great witnesses to the faith on the Church’s calendar for June.
The month ends with the First Martyrs of Rome, the title given to the Christian men and women who died during the Roman emperor Nero’s persecution of the Church in Rome in the year 64. It is possible—perhaps even probable—that Nero ordered a fire to be started the city of Rome. He had not been shy about his desire for more imperial real estate, coincidentally right on the spot where the great fire started. Unfortunately, the fire got out of control and burned down two-thirds of the city, causing incredible damage and loss of life. To avoid a riot and possible assassination, Nero blamed the Christians, executing them in horrible ways for ghastly effect. He also issued a famous edict, which declared that Christians were traitors to the Roman Empire; this law was in effect for more than two hundred years and created many more martyrs, several celebrated in June.
The month of June also includes commemorations for men and women who died as martyrs in modern times. Blessed Jacques Berthieu was a French Jesuit priest who was a missionary to Madagascar and was killed in 1896 when pagan rebels resented his success in bringing people to Christ. In 1915, Blessed Ignazio Maloyan was the Armenian archbishop of Mardin, Turkey, when he and four hundred other Christians were marched into the desert and executed because they refused to convert to Islam. When Nazis chose to execute random citizens of a town in Poland in 1943, Blessed Marianna Biernacka offered her own life in exchange for her pregnant daughter-in-law’s.
Most people have never heard of those saints, but many have heard of the following martyrs of June. The man commonly known as Saint Justin Martyr did not have the last name of “Martyr”: he was a second century philosopher who embraced Christianity and wrote convincingly about the truths of the faith. He was so convincing that he became dangerous, so he was executed in 165. Saint Boniface is considered the Apostle of Germany for his success in bringing so many Germans into the faith during the eighth century; he was attacked and killed in the year 754. Saints Thomas More and John Fischer were, respectively, the lord chancellor of England and the bishop of Rochester. They lost their titles and their lives when they refused to capitulate to King Henry VIII’s demands in 1535. Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions were killed in 1886 by an immoral, cruel Ugandan leader who resented conversions to Christianity in his household and country.
But Catholics do not celebrate martyrs because we enjoy tales of blood and gore or because we have a vengeful streak. The Church celebrates martyrs because they are the ones who imitate Jesus Christ most perfectly: by laying down their lives for their friends as Christ did. Every one of these martyrs had a choice; they could have been less obviously Catholic in their daily lives, gone into hiding when things looked dangerous, or renounced their Christian faith when they were arrested. Instead, they laid down their lives for their friend, Jesus Christ.
Even the great Saints Peter and Paul could have lived quiet lives in obscurity and safety somewhere on the fringes of the Roman empire in the first century. Instead, they lived Christ-centered lives that regularly put their lives in danger. According to tradition, the two men were executed on the same date, though in different places in the city of Rome.
How many people have been drawn to the Christian faith because of the witness of the martyrs? Only God knows. But doesn’t their courage in the face of imminent death make it easier to face those little deaths we all die daily? For example, we can choose to turn to God in prayer instead of toward a distraction when things get tough; we can control our tempers and not yell back at an angry child; we can decide to not share a friend’s secrets; we can have the courage to admit our mistakes. Every martyr-saint started on the path to holiness by making small sacrifices like those in their everyday lives. We can do the same.