Vatican City — In about a.d. 64, legend has it, Emperor Nero started a fire in Rome to raze the land and clear room for monuments in his honor. In the aftermath of the fire, which killed thousands of his own people, Nero blamed the early Christians, already a suspect and unpopular group.
During the subsequent persecution, historical accounts suggest, as many as 7,000 Christians died as martyrs in the Circus of Nero — some covered in animal skins and thrown to wild dogs, others doused in fuel and set on fire to light the night for the emperor’s parties. Others died like their Christ, crucified.
One man in particular met this last fate, but with a twist: He refused to be crucified right side up, because he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his Savior. He was crucified upside down. That man was Peter, the first pope, the apostle to whom Jesus entrusted his Church.
For many Catholics, the story ends there. But for the early Christians, Peter’s martyrdom was just the beginning. In recent decades, it has become clear that Peter was most likely taken down from the cross by his flock in Rome and buried in a pauper’s grave on the side of a nearby hill. Early Christians continued to visit in secret and pray for his intercession while their faith remained illegal.
In the middle of the 20th century, a set of bones was discovered under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and, according to the best archaeological evidence, it appears most likely that they belong to Peter. For these last 2,000 years, the center of the Catholic Church has been built on the remains of the man whom Catholics view as the rock and foundation of their faith.
As the global pro-life community reels from the loss in last week’s Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment, which had protected unborn human life with a prohibition on abortion, the story of Peter and the early Roman Christians should infuse Irish Catholics and discouraged pro-lifers in the Western world with a great deal of hope.
These early Christian stories teach the pro-life movement that ostensibly crushing defeat could very well be the seed from which a movement derives its strength — depending on how it handles that adversity. Because of the courage of early Christians, the brutal martyrdom of Peter furnished the entire history of Christian worship in the city of Rome, still the seat of Catholicism. The pagan historian Tertullian was speaking quite literally when he wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
In the case of Ireland, the blood being shed isn’t that of 21st-century pro-life people, but that of the unborn. And while Catholics won’t be lit on fire in arenas for opposing abortion, the light of the early Christian martyrs can turn this defeat into an opportunity for the Irish Church to revive itself and renew its commitment to the dignity of innocent human life.
Sadly, this vote has made clear that the dire situation is compounded by many Irish people’s estrangement from their inherited Catholicism. According to exit polls, more than two-thirds of those who voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment identified as practicing Catholics. Though a further breakdown reveals that many of those who consider themselves practicing rarely attend church, a full 15 percent of those who voted for repeal reported attending church every week.
Far from destroying the early Church, Peter’s martyrdom here on Vatican Hill established Rome as the Church’s earthly home, where it has amassed immense cultural capital over the ensuing centuries.
In another astonishing indication of how deep this problem goes, the Catholic bishops in Ireland played only a bit part during the ongoing debate, and some observers suggested that, if they had taken a bigger role, it might have been detrimental to the pro-life side.And although our own Nicholas Frankovich is probably correct that Pope Francis’s silence on the referendum was in keeping with papal precedent, it seems strange that a pope so vocal about human-rights controversies — and one who hasn’t been shy about expressing the Church’s pro-life stance in the past — wouldn’t comment on this grave matter in a country as historically Catholic as Ireland.
The challenge to the Church, then, comes from both within and without. In response, pro-life people in Ireland should take courage from the lives of the saints, even as nominal Catholics can be reminded by the martyrs of Christianity’s eternal value. During times of external persecution, “normal” Christians were forced to decide whether their faith was worth dying for — nothing clarifies the mind quite like the point of a sword.
When they decided to die like Peter rather than apostatize, they fueled generations of faith.
Catholics who visit Rome understand their Church in a new way when they see the juxtaposition between the city’s history of gruesome persecutions and centuries of Catholic architecture, art, and influence. Far from destroying the early Church, Peter’s martyrdom here on Vatican Hill established Rome as the Church’s earthly home, where it has amassed immense cultural capital over the ensuing centuries. That was possible precisely because Catholicism flourishes with uniquely powerful zeal under persecution.
For the Irish, the most obvious example of this took place during the fifth century, when Saint Patrick, a young Roman citizen, was captured by Irish pirates and enslaved for six years on the Emerald Isle. After he escaped and became a bishop, Patrick chose to return to Ireland, despite the threat of martyrdom, and converted thousands (according to most accounts) to Christianity from the local Celtic polytheism. Historians trace the long history of Irish Catholicism directly to his missionary work.
This reality should energize the pro-life movement, especially after the significant blow of the Irish referendum. The movement has faced days grimmer than the morning that dawned last Saturday in Ireland. And, in the case of the Church, the very grimmest days fueled its future victories.
NOW WATCH: ‘Ireland Votes To Lift Abortion Ban’