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By Dominic Altakchy
The fact that the Catholic Church is still standing today testifies to its divine institution.
From its beginnings and throughout the centuries, its unity and existence have been threatened by internal conflict and externally fueled hostility. Yet, two millennia later and against all human expectation, the Church continues to subsist as the mystical body of Christ on earth.
Of course, this will come as no surprise to believers, for it was Christ himself who promised that “the gates of hades shall not prevail against him” (Mt 16:18).
“In the Maronite Church, on July 31, we commemorate the feast of the 350 monks of St Maroun who, in 517, were ruthlessly massacred for supporting the Christology of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.”
But it is also true that the Church would not be here today without the first martyrs who, with their courageous witness and their defense of the faith, preserved the Apostolic Tradition in all its truth, its beauty and its goodness for the future believers. For, as Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is seed for the Church”.
In the Maronite Church, on July 31, we commemorate the feast of the 350 monks of St Maroun who, in 517, were ruthlessly massacred for supporting the Christology of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
Unlike the Monophysites who recognized only one human-divine nature in Christ, the Maronite monks of Beit Maroun and its confederate monasteries, affirmed the conciliar decrees of 451, that two perfect natures, divine and human, were united in the unique divine person of Christ.
The Maronites had been strong supporters of the Chalcedonian position before and after the Council. In the years after the Council, they were persecuted by high-ranking clerics from Antioch, notably Patriarch Severus, who had espoused the Monophysite heresy.
Hostility towards them was only exacerbated by the fact that the Maronite monks waged a preaching campaign against heresy.
In 517, as a group of Maronite monks were heading towards the monastery of Saint Simon Stylite in Aleppo, they were ambushed and 350 of them were killed. Some monks managed to escape injured.
“First, the Maronite martyrs remind us – and our clerics – that we are not masters of the Apostolic Tradition.”
The events of 517 were recounted in a detailed letter written to Pope Hormisdas by the superior of the monastery of Beit Maroun, Alexander, and the superiors of neighboring monasteries.
In their correspondence, the monks described the afflictions suffered by the martyrs, as well as those who were expelled from their monasteries and imprisoned at the hands of Emperor Anastasius’ army.
They subsequently received a letter of encouragement from the Pope in 518 which praised the faith of the martyrs, and which exhorted the surviving monks to persevere in the Catholic and apostolic faith.
As bulwarks of fidelity to the dogmatic teachings of the Church, the 350 Martyrs have much to teach us about our own responsibility to bear witness to our faith in today’s society.
First, the Maronite martyrs remind us – and our clerics – that we are not masters of the Apostolic Tradition. We are simple beneficiaries and guardians of the Revelation that Christ entrusted to the Apostles, and it is our duty to support it.
Contrary to what many individuals and groups in the Church today believe, we do not have the authority to change the Church’s definitive teachings on moral, theological, or ecclesiological matters.
No matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable these teachings may be, we, as martyrs, must be prepared to live and fervently defend the revealed truths of our faith despite all obstacles.
We must die to our own preferences and opinions and obediently consent to the one revealed truth that safeguards our ecclesiastical unity.
“The 350 martyrs illustrate an unshakeable conviction with which we must respond to such challenges.
The 350 martyrs also show us how to persevere and remain faithful in the face of challenges, persecution and confusion.
The time of the martyrs was fraught with theological controversy. It was also a time when adherence to Orthodox beliefs brought relentless persecution.
This context, although distinct, nevertheless resembles the situation in which we find ourselves today. Inside and outside the Church, a plethora of competing voices claim the truth.
It is also becoming increasingly difficult to reveal one’s Christian identity in an increasingly secular society.
“Following their example, we must stand firm in the truth in a time of hostility and relativism.”
The 350 martyrs illustrate an unshakeable conviction with which we must respond to such challenges.
Like them, we must endure suffering with faith, hope, and love, and stay focused on our heavenly purpose (as the Feast’s entrance hymn reminds us). We must make sacrifices in union with and for the love of our Lord. And following their example, we must stand firm in the truth, in a time of hostility and relativism, so that even our small sacrifices and our sufferings may bring some more seeds for the unity and unity of our holy Mother the Church.
Dominic Altakchy is a Maronite Catholic currently serving as Sacramental Coordinator at Ryde-Gladesville Catholic Parish in the Archdiocese of Sydney.