Updated: Dec 5, 2022
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Scripture reading is the reading reserved for days in which we commemorate the holy martyrs in the Church. The language used is full of bold phrases: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” “Do not be conformed to this world.” “He who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” And so on. We read these words not just to commemorate the Holy Martyr Trophimus and those with him killed under Diocletian in the late 3rd century, but we also remember today a saint and martyr much closer to our time: Bishop Basil Hopko of the Byzantine Catholic Church.
Bishop Basil Hopko, like many clergy in Eastern Europe during the period of Communist oppression and persecution, suffered greatly at the hands of the enemies of God. Bishop Basil was imprisoned, tortured, abused, neglected, maligned, abandoned, berated—all because of his steadfast love of Christ and his faithfulness to the Church. One such torture occurred in 1950, when Bishop Basil was urged to renounce his Greek Catholic faith and become Orthodox. Failing to do this, Bishop Basil was confined to a dark cell and was forced to keep walking, without rest, for 122 days. By the end, his legs became swollen like logs. Describing his ordeal, Bishop Basil said: “In my mind, I already began to envision my own funeral. But I kept playing for strength to persevere and to remain faithful to the Catholic Church.” He was hereafter brought to trial and was given a sentence of fifteen years in prison, a confiscation of all of his property, and a fine of $20,000 for ‘subversive activity.’ And all of this because he would not renounce his Catholic faith.
This persecution was the result of the Communist government in Slovakia, which ‘liquidated’ the Greek Catholic Church on April 28, 1950, with the proclamation of an edict stating that the Greek Church “did not exist” and that all priests, bishops, Church funds and property were to be translated directly under the Orthodox Church in Moscow.
(And as an aside—this is not to say that the Orthodox Christians in Russia fared much better under the Communists. Tens of thousands of Russian Orthodox priests and bishops were shot and killed by the Soviets, and many churches closed or destroyed. Not to mention the millions who died by starvation, Gulags, torture, and so on. But Eastern Catholics in Eastern Europe were especially vulnerable—caught between a web of Communist persecution, centuries-old religious strife, Church politics, and geopolitical turmoil. It was a trying time for anybody who professed their Catholic faith unwaveringly and against all odds. Furthermore, the plight of Eastern Catholics under the Soviets is often a story little known and little told, yet to tell this story is well beyond the scope of my little sermon. (A phenomenal book I’d recommend for further reading is called The Forgotten: Catholics of the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin by Fr. Christopher Zugger.)
Bishop Basil Hopko went to the Lord finally in 1976. He was 72 years old. He lived a life totally dedicated to the faith. To Christ. To the Church. Thankfully, Bishop Basil was given the dignity to spend his final years in freedom, and he reposed shortly after celebrating his final Divine Liturgy on June 23, 1976.
On July 2, 1995, His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, gave a sermon on his visit to Slovakia, and he recalled all those, including Bishop Basil, who suffered for their faith. On Sunday, September 14, 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified Bishop Basil Hopko at a Mass in Bratislava, Slovakia.
As we recall the life of the martyric Bishop Basil Hopko, and as we listen to the scripture readings for the Holy Martyrs calling us to ‘take up our Cross,’ we must realize that we are truly, truly living in an age of martyrdom. Right now, as we speak and gather comfortably in this beautiful chapel in beautiful Redwood Valley, California, t
here are Christians around the world who are suffering and dying for their faith. CNN and the news don’t report it. It’s not trending on Twitter. But it is happening right now.
As for the 20th century, let me just put it into a little bit of perspective as to the magnitude of Christian martyrdom in that time.
Everybody knows that the time before Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire was the time of the great early Christian martyrs. By the year 325, when Constantine issued his Edict of Milan, thus legalizing Christianity, there was already about 7 million Christians in the world. And by 325, roughly two million Christians were martyred for their faith under the Roman Empire. Two million.
From 33AD—the time of Christ—until the year 1900, it is estimated that there have been about 14 million Christian martyrs. That’s 14 million through almost the entire of span of Christian history.
So how many Christians were martyred in the 20th century? In the 20th century alone, over 26 million men, women and children have lost their lives for confessing Christ. 26 million! That’s nearly double the number of martyrs of every previous century combined! It is hard to believe that this all happened in many of our lifetimes. But it did. And it is not over until Christ returns—and it could be soon! It could be tonight! “Lo! The ax is already laid at the root.” Are our lamps ready? Our wicks trimmed?
Out of such a century of death, destruction, and war—even through all of this—from this blood-soaked ground arose many great and new saints of the Church—their crowns of martyrdom shining out over the war-weary world. More martyrs than the world has ever witnessed! Interceding for us. Praying with us.
Writing from his gulag cell in the former Solovki Monastery in the far northern White Sea, the first exarch of the Russian Catholic Church, Leonid Feodorov, wrote: “The true messianism of the Russian Church is not what the Slavophiles have imagined [that is, romantic and triumphalistic notions of the Church in Russia], but rather it is the example of suffering. It is in this way that she shows that she is the continuation of Christ in this world.”
These words were penned in August of 1928. Now, nearly one hundred years later, the Russian Orthodox Church is in a much different position. And we see now, in real time, the “continuation of Christ in the world” in the suffering of the people and the Church of Ukraine. Yet we have all heard the accounts of the marvelous endurance and the firm faith of the people there. Against persecution and terror and against all odds—they have hope, and their hope is in Christ, our firm Rock of Salvation. Their faith is heroic. It is an example for all of us in the West. It is in no way romantic, such a struggle. Nobody asks us what crosses we would like to carry. But with faith in Christ, we can do all things. Endure all things. It is faith that can move mountains.
And even more so… we take up our cross with gratitude and love for God. There are many accounts of the early martyrs running towards their death singing hymns and glorifying God. Everything is a gift from God if we understand it properly.
And as a closing thought: this very liturgy that we’re celebrating now, and that we celebrate daily is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. One of the greatest saints and brightest luminaries of the Church, St. John “the Golden-Mouthed”—which is what “Chrysostom” means. St. John penned many of the prayers that we are praying at the altar even to this day. And yet even he was persecuted and died in exile. Yet he never lost his love and gratitude for God, as the last words on his lips were: “Glory to God for all things!”
Let us follow the example of St. John Chrysostom and the many martyrs before and after him in always giving thanks to God and confessing the Lord without reserve. Without fear. Without any sort of malice or ill-will, being an example of martyric Christian love in the world.
And someday, perhaps a hundred years from now, maybe more, somebody will give a sermon about us and say: “In those days there were men of faith—if we could only do half of what they did!” It’s possible! Because with God, all things are possible. And it is upto us to be an example of the faith for the generations who come after us. Perhaps our martyrdom will not be as dramatic as the saints in Soviet gulags or Roman arenas, but in the monastery, our martyrdom is everyday—everyday that we die to ourselves and truly live for Christ and love our brother. A living martyrdom. This is what the Fathers called monastic life.
Let us pray, then, for all the martyrs who went before us to intercede for us and ask God to give us the grace, the patience, the fortitude, the courage to take up our own cross and to follow Christ—wherever that may lead us. Come what may. Cost what it will. And even in our own small martyrdoms, everyday—from day to day—we give our own spiritual blood—united with the Blood of Christ—ever renewing the Church.
O Holy Martyrs pray to God for us!
Glory to God for all things!
Hieromonk Hilarion Heagy
Sermon delivered on 23 July 2022,
Holy Transfiguration Monastery
Redwood Valley, CA