The names of the Franciscan friars Berard of Carbio, Otho, Peter, Accursius and Adjutus are not as familiar as that of Francis of Assisi, who said that they had become the prototypes of what he called the Friars Minor. After his own failed mission to convert the Muslims of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in 1219, he sent them on a similar mission to Morocco where they were tortured and killed in 1220. That was exactly 800 years ago. Clearly, Saint Francis did not spend his days talking to birds. Nor did he and his friars risk their lives to engage in meandering "inter-religious dialogue."
This column is being published on the fifth anniversary of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians. All martyrs believe, as did St. Peter when filled with the Holy Spirit: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). This perplexes flaccid minds and scandalizes the morally compromised, but it is the engine of heroic virtue.
Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote in 1967:
Enamored of our present epoch, blind to all its characteristic dangers, intoxicated with everything modern, there are many Catholics who no longer ask whether something is true, or whether it is good and beautiful, or whether it has intrinsic value: they ask only whether it is up-to-date, suitable to "modern man" and the technological age, whether it is challenging, dynamic, audacious, progressive.
About a century earlier, in his Grammar of Assent, St. John Henry Newman had already explained: "Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma. No man will be a martyr for a conclusion." Saint Paul disdained rhetoric and mere speculation "so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:5).
By one estimation, and it is by necessity approximate, over the centuries there have been about 70 million Christian martyrs and, astonishingly, half of them have been in roughly the last century. It is also a fact that in our present culture, one in six 18- to 64-year-olds, and one in five aged 65 and over, depend on antidepressants. The example of the martyrs is better than any chemical cure for sadness, for they testify that Christ has made life so worth living, that living and dying for him makes sense.
When the ransomed bodies of those five Franciscan martyrs were brought from Morocco to Portugal, a young priest in Coimbra was so moved by their mute witness that he consecrated his life to proclaiming the gospel as far and wide as he could. We know him as St. Anthony of Padua.