|Jean-Leon Gerome, The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer|
Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery
Not too many images of this episode in early Church history have been produced. Certainly none were produced at the time. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to have been memorialized artistically until the 19th century. One such is the painting by Jean-Leon Gerome. His painting of Christian Martyrs at Prayer in the Arena shows a group of Christians kneeling together in the center of the Coliseum, surrounded not only by the spectators, but also by other Christians who have been crucified and some who have, as Tacitus suggests, been burned alive to provide light in the evening. Gerome was a late 19th-century academic painter, with a fondness for the exotic and for imaginative reconstructions of historical events. In this case, imagination is certainly in play. For one thing, the Coliseum wasn’t built until after the death of Nero.
However, whatever the reality of the settings in which the first martyrs met their deaths, or how many of them there were, they stand, nobly, at the head of a long and still growing list of martyrs for the faith and at the head of the Litany of the Saints, one of the great treasures of the Catholic faith.
In 2005, in the days between the death of Pope John Paul II and the inauguration of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, we heard the invocation of the saints in the repetition of the Litany of the Saints several times. Pope Benedict even mentioned it in the homily he delivered at the Inaugural Mass. And, what he said on that occasion is worth repeating.
|Procession of Female Martyrs|
Byzantine Mosaic, second half of 6th century
Ravenna, Basilica of Sant'Appollinare Nuovo
|Jacques de Besançon, Court of Heaven, the Martyrs|
from Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 244, fol. 156
In the ordinary life of a Catholic Christian the Litany is seldom heard. It occurs annually during the Easter Vigil. Otherwise, it is confined to special events such as confirmations and ordinations. In some ways, this is sad, because it restricts the hearing of this listing of the names of the “cloud of witnesses” to these events. On the other hand, perhaps hearing it more often would somewhat diminish its impact when heard.
For it does have impact. As one friend, a convert from a non-religious vaguely Evangelical upbringing said to me about her memories of the Easter Vigil on which she entered into full Communion with the Catholic Church, “The Litany of the Saints really packed a wallop for me. Here was something my Evangelical upbringing had no room for, here was my family history as a Christian. The knowledge that all these people of the past were alive and were praying for me, along with the people in the church that night was overwhelming.”
Moreover, when we pray the Litany of he Saints we are reminded that we are joined in the fellowship of prayer with those thousands of years of living faith. As Pope Benedict said, “We are not alone.” All of us are united in an eternal ‘now’ of God that destroys the barriers of time and space.
© M. Duffy, 2011