With the pope in the Czech Republic and with today's memorial on the horizon, I got thinking yesterday about Good King Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech people, wondering why he matters. I love the Christmas carol and only yesterday understood the logic: GKW went out / on the feast of Stephen. Of course, first martyr! Never thought of Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia as a martyr, or one who made a difference in my life.
This led to a broader thought about the two-thousand-year procession of Catholics who have made it possible for me to be a Catholic today, and they fell into four broad chronological categories:
Martyrs: In the beginning was Stephen, along with all those fair souls ripped up by lions and beheaded by Roman axes. When you think about how easily the whole Christian experiment could have folded its tents under Roman pressure, you begin to understand what a deep debt we owe these courageous souls.
Monks: About the time Christianity got legalized, and the purity and evangelical fervor began to die down, along came Benedict of Nursia and the rise of monasticism. Gotta go back and read Thomas Cahill on How the Irish Saved Civilization one of these days, but his message remains with me. Without all those scribes in lonely outposts dotting the frozen north, we not only wouldn't have Catholicism, probably, we wouldn't know Plato from Aristotle.
Mores: Things get established in the High and Late Middle Ages, the Church corrupts (though the Holy Spirit keeps throwing us Aquinases and Francises and Clares), and perhaps with some justification (though it's never about reasons), Luther and the lads rebel. Catholicism could have folded again, but this was the age of Thomas More and Bishop Fisher and the heroes of the Counter-Reformation who again stood against the tide, giving lives and testimony so that Holy Mother Church would not be just another historic relic.
McNiffs: This is a tribute to my darling Katie's Irish ancestors. I want to do a longer post on them some day soon, even though I never even met her parents. But the point is, the Irish and the Italians, and in smaller earlier numbers the French, brought Catholicism to this country and sometimes took their lives in their hands to do so. And if you don't believe me, move on over to Pat McNamara's great blog of Catholic history to read the stories of literally hundreds of Catholics who brought the Church, its schools, its hospitals, its creed, and its culture to these shores.
Without any of these four M's, I probably would not be a Catholic today.