Spoiler alert on Rogue One for the second half of this blog post.
Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Catholic Church. His martyrdom is found in Acts chapter 7 and it contains the jarring testimony of a young deacon who chooses God’s religion over man’s intertwined religious games. Although engaging the high-powered Jewish religious leaders of Christ’s own time, St. Stephen is fearless in proclaiming how Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all the Hebrew Scriptures. Before being stoned to death, Stephen recounts to the Pharisees all of Salvation history. Then he accuses them:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”—Acts 7:51-53
Why did Stephen die? The obvious answer is out of love for Jesus Christ. In fact, every martyr dies for love of Jesus Christ. But there’s a second reason that is not as obvious or ecumenical: Stephen died for the full deposit of the faith. “Deposit of the faith” is not a romantic term but we should face the facts: Most martyrs of the early Church (especially in the Byzantine East) died for the transmission of the deposit of the faith to remain pure against heresy. Think about it: If the early Catholic martyrs of Rome and Palestine and Byzantium had not died to maintain the purity of the Apostolic Christian faith, there would be no Catholics. Actually, there would be no Orthodox or Protestants. There would be no Christians. It’s quite a fragile system of Apostolic succession that God put in place.
Do not think that any particular heritage or bloodline is the sole guarantor of your Faith. For example, no English or Irish Catholics reading this post would be Catholic if Italians like St. Gregory the Great had not sent missionaries to the isles up north. Gregory was born in Rome, and he himself owes his faith to more individuals than Christ: He would never have been baptized a Catholic, had not the Roman martyrs for hundreds of years before him maintained the courage under fire to keep the pureness of the faith. Pope St. Gregory the Great learned about Catholicism only because it was preserved by the martyrs of the Roman empire for a full five centuries prior to his own baptism.
2 Maccabees chapter 7 relays the account of the martyrdom of a Jewish woman and her seven sons. They die not for a pure emotional love of God but to keep even the smallest of dietary laws. So also, the martyrs died not only for Christ, but for the fullness of the Catholic faith. Every little bit. Did every little bit really matter? Jesus said: “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 5:19. The Apostle John urges the Churches of Turkey to “return to their first love” and the Holy Spirit warns through him that there will be consequences to watering down the faith. Today, the faith is all but dead in Turkey. Similarly, we must avoid any presumption that would lead us to believe that God would “owe us a living,” so to speak, in the Church in the West today.
I’ve gone to see Rogue One twice now. What struck me is that all the good guys in the movie die. At least the ones we learn by name, perish. They are either blasted or nuked by the Imperial forces. Why? Because the Rebel Alliance chose to sacrifice their lives for one single piece of information: The digital plans for the DeathStar. Americans usually don’t like movies where all the good guys die. Europeans can handle it. But Rogue One took a risk with us Americans in wiping out almost every significant member of the Rebel Alliance against Darth Vader and his DeathStar pioneers.
Was it a good idea for Lucas Films to force us to watch our heroes die for the transmission of a single piece of information? Yes, because this is how the martyrs of the early Church saw things: The Catholic Faith was worth their blood for every single one of those small pieces of “information.” Yes, they received the courage and charity to die, primarily because they were given grace and mercy by the Blessed Trinity in their hour of agony. Yes, they died out of love of Jesus Christ. But if you look closely, many of early martyrs of Byzantium and the Roman Empire actually died to also maintain the pure deposit of the faith against certain “small” heresies that wouldn’t even be recognized by the post-modern reader.
Nowadays, people are taking sides between Cardinals on issues of doctrine that are finally making the mainstream news. The group on the left claims that their Cardinals are pastoral and merciful. The group to the right claims that their Cardinals are traditional. But many traditionalists do not understand just how traditional we are talking. We’re not lining up behind a Cardinal because he dresses like someone at the Council of Trent. We’re lining up behind men who are not only maintaining the Apostles’ Faith but also the blood of millions of “little people” to preserve it. Literally millions.
Like Rogue One, many “little people” died to bring us this pure, untouched information. For me to deny any single tenet of the Catholic faith has little to do with the liberal/conservative spectrum. For me to deny any single tenet of the Catholic faith would trample the blood of martyrs like St. Stephen. St. Stephen is known as the proto-martyr because he was the first martyr of the Catholic Faith. St. Stephen proto-martyr is first Rogue One against lawyers’ manmade religion of popularity when St. Stephen presented them with Divine Revelation.
The martyrs that followed Stephen died for Jesus Christ, yes, but let’s examine a less ecumenical truth: Jesus didn’t need those martyrs as much as we Catholics in future generations needed those martyrs to stay strong under torture. It was a torture for your children to know the fullness of truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The whole truth. Surrender without content is usually not worth dying for. Neither was an ambiguous “deposit of faith” (unromantic though it be) transmitted in apostolic succession or the martyrs of the early Byzantine and Roman Empires. I am only a priest. Too many men, women and even children died for me to learn the Catholic faith for me to tamper with that deposit of the faith with political terms like “liberal” or “conservative.”
St. Stephen was the first Rogue One. He chose truth over the false-peace contained in man’s laws. So also every martyr is a rebel against the kingdom of man; he is a Rogue for God in an enormous community of the Catholic Church. Every one of them played a small part in brining us not only Jesus Christ and His sacraments, but also the full and saving doctrine His Church—a doctrine without which the sacraments would contain no power to live…or to die.