The Apostles of Virginia
In 1849, the English priest Fr. Frederick William Faber wrote a now famous hymn entitled “Faith of our Fathers” of the English Martyrs. The first verse and the refrain go as follows:
Faith of our Fathers! living still
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword:
Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.
I often think of these words whenever I think of any of the many scores of martyrs who have died across the world and through the ages in defense of the Faith and in beautiful imitation of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Jump back a few centuries before this excellent hymn was composed and we find a particularly noteworthy company of martyrs beginning their own march toward destiny and glory. For on September 10, 1570, a company of Spanish Jesuit Missionaries lead by one Fr. Baptista de Segura arrived in the vicinity of modern Williamsburg. These missionaries were the first witnesses of the true Faith in our beloved homeland, and thus, can rightfully be acclaimed as the Apostles to Virginia. Despite beginning with the greatest of expectations, and an overabundance of joyful zeal, the missionaries were faced with a grim situation once they arrived. The land had been decimated by drought and plague leavening the region depopulated and barren. Worse trouble would befall them when their indigenous sponsor and companion, known in Spanish as Don Louis, abandoned them, leaving them unable to effectively communicate with the already cautious locals.
The accounts tell of how Don Louis, despite having been earlier described as the most zealous of converts, apostatized in order to take multiple wives. The cautionary warnings against this course of action and the pleas for his promised assistance by the missionaries only spurred hatred to grow in his heart. Thus, it was that only a few months later the now starving and dejected missionaries were murdered by Don Louis in ambushes on February 4th and 9th.
On one hand these missionaries might seem like complete failures. They had come to this land to set up a successful mission and evangelize the whole province, but they seemed to have made no converts. And today they are no more than a historical footnote. Yet, with the eyes of Faith one might glance anew upon this world with a supernatural outlook and see that there is more to the missionaries’ story. And indeed that it is not over.
The blood of all the martyrs spills forth upon the Earth like the blood of Abel the Righteous in testimony against the sins of the wicked, and so, gives voice to the sufferings of the innocent. Moreover, this precious blood flows out like the blood of Christ upon the cross. As the blood of Christ dripped upon the Earth the world was purified. So, too, the blood of the martyrs participates in this redemptive action. So close is their imitation of Christ that the martyrs become like Eucharist for the Church. (C.f. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans) The martyrs suffering and torments are thus to the gain of the Church who is nourished in a profound spiritual way. Thus, the actions of the martyrs, both great and small, remembered and forgotten, transcends time.
In antiquity, the blood of the martyrs was compared to the special drinks taken by gladiators and other athletes to build strength and rejuvenate themselves. We the faithful of today can, should we desire and ought to desire, to drink this ourselves, and through it be strengthened and find new vigor in our journey in life. Then we too might find the fortitude and moreover the faith and hope to overcome whatever difficulties we face whether it be dungeons, fire, or sword!
“Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith! We will be true to thee till death.”
Lastly, since the Church has so recently celebrated the Nativity of Our Lady, I thought it appropriate to consider one more verse from Fr. Faber:
Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.
Mary, our Mother, is titled Queen of Martyrs and also Queen of Apostles for she is preeminent among both categories. If we wish to imitate Christ, we will find no greater model and indeed coach than her. Moreover, if we wish for our homeland to find the true peace and prosperity that can only be found in Christ Jesus, then let us turn likewise to the intercession of Mary. Virginia might have been named for a virgin queen, but let us rename it for the Virgin Queen of Heaven and Earth! Replace merry old England in the last verse with Virginia and we are set: Virginia shall then indeed be free!