The Church recalls the witness of St. Justin, one of the earliest martyrs. He was brutally killed in the year 165 AD, unwilling to offer worship to the emperor and gods of Rome. Fidelity to Christ was more important to him than even his own life.
Saint Justin was a man of prodigious intellectual gifts that he placed at the service of the Church's mission. The Church, faced with the opposition of the Roman state, had to struggle to survive. Professing the Christian faith was considered to be treason, punishable by death. Further, Christians were cultural outsiders, the elites of Roman culture had their own gods and values, and to many of the Romans, Christian faith just seemed odd, if not unintelligible. Justin took it upon himself to make the case for the Christian faith, presenting reasoned arguments as to the "what and why" concerning the beliefs and practices of the Church.
This made Justin a dangerous man to those invested in the Roman system of power and privilege. For those who opposed the Church, there was no god but Caesar and no way of life other than the Roman way, a way of life that valued wealth, pleasure, power, and honors above anything else.
We might not experience the Church as being dangerously subversive, but for Justin, the Church was considered to be a threat, and was dealt with as such. Christians were persecuted. Their property was seized. Their institutions were closed. Their worship was ridiculed. Bishops and priests were arrested. And men and women like Justin, who presented Christian beliefs as credible, and the Christian way of life as worthwhile, were considered public enemies.
The Church's way of life necessitated risk and sacrifices, and because men and women like Justin were willing to take the risk and make the sacrifices, the Church not only survived, it flourished and grew.
Central to Justin's witness was that the Church was a public reality, not a private club. The Church existed to engage and create public culture. The purpose of the Church was to be seen and heard, as it had a message and a mission that was for everyone, not just for a privileged few.
Justin's witness that the Church was a public reality grated on those who believed that Roman power was absolute and could have no rivals. For these opponents of the Church, the Roman way was the only way.
Justin believed that Jesus Christ is the way, and he would die rather than deny his faith in Jesus Christ. For this reason, above all, the Church remembers him and recalls his courage.
The Church suffers persecution in every age of her life. For us, we have the privilege of practicing the Church's faith in relative freedom, but many Christians struggle and many Christians will, like Saint Justin, suffer and die because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
On this day that we are asked to remember Saint Justin, let us also remember the many Christians today who will suffer and die for the faith they profess and the way of life they practice.
Father Steve Grunow is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He serves as CEO and Executive Producer for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire Catholic Ministries. He writes on theology, movies, and popular culture for the Word on Fire blog.
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