As a University student, who does not want some University swag? As a first-year undergraduate student, within my first month, went to the University of Toronto’s Bookstore to pick up a navy-blue sweater with that says, “University of Toronto – Established 1827” with the university’s crest in the centre. I proudly wear it frequently, especially during the spring and autumn seasons.
I was struck when I came across the year “1838” while reading the life of St. Thomas Thiện. When I came across the year 1838, I really put things into perspective: As the University of Toronto was celebrating its 11th year of establishment and 18, 19 year-olds were starting to pick up their textbooks to go to school, on the other side of the world, in Vietnam, an 18 year-old seminarian was put on trial, brutally tortured and strangled to death. There were likely many others of the same age who were tortured and martyred during this era.
A couple months ago, in preparation for the celebration of my local Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement’s patronal feast day on September 21, I was reading through the life of St. Thomas Thiện Trần, one of the 117 Canonized Vietnamese Martyrs. St. Thomas Thiện is the only canonized seminarian in the group of 117 martyrs consisting of laypeople, missionaries, priests and bishops. He was only 18 years of age when he was martyred by means of strangulation alongside Fr. Francois Jaccard on September 21, 1838. Both were beatified in 1900 by Pope Leo XIII and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
It came to my mind that the rhetoric of persecution of martyrdom is not something of medieval times. In Vietnam, the bloody deaths of faithful Catholics went well into the 19th century. However, that did not mean the end to persecution and martyrdom. Today, as a communist country, Catholics are still being persecuted constantly by the government. Those who speak out against the government would have their mouths shut in a variety of means.
As we celebrate the memorial of the Vietnamese Martyrs, I think of the reality of own faith life. Sometimes, I take it for granted that I can take out my phone or breviary to do Morning or Evening Prayer on public transit without being questioned by authorities, do the sign of the cross without being arrested or attend Mass without being monitored by the government. Meanwhile in other parts of the world, Catholics are risking their lives practicing the faith. I am at times guilty of taking my opportunities to live faith for granted. While many like myself may take these opportunities such as Daily Mass, prayer, adoration, Bible study or youth ministry for granted, those in persecuted countries find all means to fetch these opportunities.
I look to the lives of young martyrs such as St. Thomas Thiện, St. José Sánchez del Río and Bl. Rolando Rivi and cannot help but think of their strong faith. I always keep in mind the fact how these were young people just like myself and while they had a future in front of them, they understood how earthly things could never substitute for their spiritual wellbeing and in God alone would they find strength and refuge. Then, I look to my own life during this pandemic and see that I really have nothing to lose – I can comfortably go to school (online for now), participate in youth ministry, have a part time job, connect with friends… yet I still complain about all sorts of things. Maybe I am too selfish at times or am I living too comfortably and need to challenge myself more in various aspects of life. Moreover, there are times when I may be hesitant to even be witness to my faith, whether it be doing the sign of the cross in public or speaking of Catholicism publicly on University campus.
Living in a more secularized society, Catholicism is not favoured by all. It may be said as too “old fashioned” or “not keeping up with the times.” However, looking through the history of Christianity, that has been said so many times by others and this “old-fashioned” religion is what has costed the lives of so many. Yet, I question myself, even in the midst of persecution and martyrdom, what has made the Catholic Church stand firm through all the ages? What is it about Catholicism that young people even young people my age today and centuries ago have been willing to lay down their lives for?
People follow the Catholic Church not because of a specific thing, or priest, bishop, cardinal or pope, or a saintly model… people are willing to lay down their lives because Catholicism is not focused about the earthly things that the secularized society speaks of. Rather, people are willing to die for their faith because they believe that the Church is built on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ who is a True God and True Man, who out of love for the sins of many. If the Church did not have a firm foundation of Jesus Christ, then there would be really no reason why people would die for a hoax for the past centuries, since the early times of the Church. It is because the Church’s firm foundation of Jesus Christ that people draw their faith, refuge, and strength from in hope to gain eternal life, and see God face-to-face.
However, to truly do so, one must have an intimate relationship with Jesus and get to know him. This is fostered through a life rooted in prayer and virtue practiced day-by-day. On my part, I have a lot of work to do still, but I believe to be attainable. I know that because the voices of the young martyrs echoed that with their very lives.