For most of those elected Pope in the earliest years of the Church their choosing meant almost certain death at the hands of the Roman state which was vigorously trying to supress the new religion. The Roman Canon gives a long list of those Bishops of Rome who were martyred for their faith. Surprisingly, the last Pope to be martyred was St. Martin in 655 AD, long after the Empire has adopted Christianity as its religion. We celebrate his feast on Wednesday.
Martin was born in Umbria in Italy. He fell foul of the Byzantine Emperor, Constans II, for his vigorous opposition to a heresy favoured by this ruler. He was starved and banished and died in exile in the Crimea.
Christians will never sit completely easily with any state. As St. Augustine said: ‘here we have no abiding city’. Tyrants and dictators fear the Church because it commands a loyalty beyond their craven desires for complete service. The history of the Church is scattered with countless numbers of saints like Martin who, in the words of St. Thomas More, were ‘the king’s good servant – but God’s first’.
The strength of the martyrs comes from their Easter faith. They know that Christ has lordship over death, and so they are prepared to die if need be.
We will probably not be called upon to die for our faith, which is all the more reason to live it as a proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead.