Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Saints Cornelius and Cyprian. They are two of the early Church martyrs, one a Pope and both Bishops who helped the Church withstand the errors of Novatian who held that those who had denied the faith during earlier persecutions could not be reconciled to the Church. One of the things that I found interesting in reading about these two saints was this bit of trivia on the numbers of the Church of Rome during the middle of the third century when Cornelius and Cyprian lived. The Church of Rome in the mid-third century had 46 priests, seven deacons, seven subdeacons and about 50,000 total members of the faithful. Those numbers are not that different than the Church of Knoxville, where I serve.
As we were celebrating a feast of two early martyrs, and particularly because these two saints are commemorated in the Roman Canon, this is the Eucharist Prayer I chose for the mass. Something struck me during the prayer that I had never really paid close attention to. These words seemed to jump off the page at me:
For ourselves, too, we ask some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs, with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia and all the saints.
In the early Church, it was pretty rare for someone to become a saint who had not died some sort of horrific death. The good news for those who sought after sainthood is that there were plenty of persecutions to go around. The thing that stood out for me in the prayer that we use so often is the fact that we are asking to share fellowship with the martyrs, meaning we are asking God for suffering and ultimately we are asking to die. This shouldn’t surprise us, as our life as Christians requires taking up the Cross of Christ, but I wonder how many of us, like myself, fail to hear what it is we are praying each week for the simple reason of being too familiar with the words of the prayers. Perhaps one of the blessings that will come with the implementation of the new Roman missal will be an opportunity for Catholics to hear the prayers anew and to let their meaning be heard in our hearts again so that we may more readily follow Christ through death to eternal life.