When I was little, sometime around third grade, I wanted to be a martyr. Not that I wanted to die a martyr’s death, or even be remembered as having a martyr’s courage or faith or unyielding hope. In all honesty, I’d heard a religion teacher say that anyone who was martyred got a ticket straight to Heaven.
And I wanted Heaven.
St. Catherine of Alexandria was a virgin and martyr who became a Christian when she was 14 years old, after a vision of the Child Jesus. She was born around 287 A.D. and grew up as a royal, the daughter of the governor in Alexandria, Egypt. She was well known for her intelligence.
When the Roman Emperor Maxentius began a massive persecution of Christians, Catherine presented herself to the emperor. She scolded him for his cruelty, at the same time eloquently defending the Christian faith.
Maxentius brought in 50 of the best pagan philosophers to debate with her, hoping to make a fool out of Catherine and convert her back to paganism. However, Catherine spoke so convincingly in the debate that many of the pagan philosophers instead became Christians and were immediately martyred for their faith.
Emperor Maxentius then ordered Catherine to be tortured and imprisoned. While she was in prison, many came to visit her, became Christians, and were killed. Maxentius later asked Catherine to marry him, but she refused, telling him she was already mystically married to Jesus Christ as a consecrated virgin.
In his rage, the emperor then ordered Catherine to be put to death on a breaking wheel. The wheel broke when she touched it. He then ordered her to be beheaded. At her death, angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where Moses first encountered God in the burning bush. To this day, a monastery stands there in Catherine’s honor.
But as with all the saints, St. Catherine’s story doesn’t end with her death. Several hundred years later, Catherine, along with St. Margaret and the Archangel Michael, appeared to St. Joan of Arc and offered her friendship, encouragement, and protection throughout the mission God had set for St. Joan to accomplish.
Catherine of Alexandria is a model of perseverance in faith, whatever our age or background. And she reminds us that God gives us gifts in order for us to make Him known and glorified. Our Beloved Lord wants us to bring others to know His love with such certainty, and with such a strong conviction, that we would be willing to lay down our lives.
If in His wisdom, God were to offer me the crown of martyrdom, I hope I would be ready to accept it. But I’ve also learned that in a sense, we’re all called to smaller forms of martyrdom in our everyday lives. If the word “martyr” means “witness” then aren’t we all called to be witnesses to the faith? Maybe not to make that ultimate act of martyrdom, or to be outstanding apologists for our faith, but to be those who prefer heaven, who choose fidelity to God, over all the riches and fame the world can offer.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us.