‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already.’
These are poignant words for any disciple, but they have a special significance for us. They inspired Durante Alberti’s Martyrs’ Picture. They are inscribed on the coat of arms of the Venerable English College. ‘Ignem veni mittere in terram’ – ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth.’ But in what sense are we to understand them?
Our Savour’s words indicate a baptism, an immersion in suffering, which He must receive, one that will bring distress until it is complete. And the Lord warns us that a consequence of this baptism will be division, a household, a family split and set against itself.
For the Early Fathers of the Church, this fire which the Lord Jesus casts is ‘the fire of the gospel that comes to us by the Holy Spirit in Baptism.’ It is the ‘Word of God,’ that fire which illumines the secrets of our hearts. It is the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a fire that both reveals sin and uncovers charity. This baptismal fire is Our Lord’s rite of passage, one that flows from His baptism in the Jordan and finds completion in ‘a bloody baptism on the cross.’ For St Cyril of Alexandria, ‘fire and baptism…refer to Jesus’ death on the cross and his glorious resurrection.’ ‘We affirm’ he writes, ‘that the fire that Christ sent out is for humanity’s salvation and profit.’ This fire ‘is the saving message of the gospel and the power of its commandments.’ The gospel ‘ignites all of us on earth to a life of piety and makes us fervent in spirit.’ The Holy Spirit must be a fire within us, not provoking us to division, but to union with the Father. Even more precious than the love we have for our nearest and dearest, is the love we have for God.
For St Ambrose, it is love that has ‘wings of burning fire that flies through the saints’ breasts and hearts and consumes whatever is material and earthy,’ testing ‘whatever is pure.’ ‘With its fire,’ he writes ‘love makes whatever it has touched better. The Lord Jesus sent this fire on earth. Faith shined brightly. Devotion was enkindled, Love was illuminated. Justice was resplendent. With this fire he inflamed the heart of this apostles.’ And so we can hear the Lord say to us: ‘I have come to bring the fire of my love to the earth, and how I wish it were already roaring within you.’
As we honour the Martyrs of the Venerabile, our forefathers in faith, we affirm again that theirs was not a martyrdom of hatred, but of love. It was because of their complete commitment to the Lord Jesus and His Gospel, with fidelity to the Church founded on Peter’s faith, that they loved usque ad mortem, up until the very end. Their mission was to ignite the love of Christ; to lead people towards eternal life, especially through the sacraments; to make hearts burn, on fire with the Spirit who never dies away.
Our Martyrs, in whose steps we continue to tread, were, like us in so many ways, weak people who were given supernatural strength. With love in their hearts, and fire in their bellies, they were persecuted as heroes of faith. If, and when, we struggle to be bothered, feel badly done to, or sense our entitlements have been curtailed, perhaps we should think on and focus on what’s really at stake. And, not least, because even today, there are brother priests, religious men and women, and lay faithful, who are paying the price of faith with their lives. I think of Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha who, with 17 other Catholics, were killed in April 2018 in Nigeria after gunmen opened fire at a funeral.
Our Martyrs’ experience was, in many ways, so radically different to ours. And, yet, at the same time, in other senses, it is incredibly similar. It was, I think, quite remarkable that the Prince of Wales, writing at the time of St John Henry Newman’s canonisation, should have referred to our newest saint as having given ‘the Catholic Church renewed confidence as it re-established itself in a land in which it had once been uprooted.’ A faith uprooted is the context in which our Martyr’s ministered, in which they were ‘pilloried’ and ‘flogged,’ ‘chained up in prison,’ ‘sawn in half or beheaded.’
In an obviously different situation, and in very different ways, our own ministry, can, nonetheless, feel like one in which faith is being uprooted: the abandonment of religious practice, the crisis of belief, the creep of secularisation, the assault on human life, the breakdown of the family, the loss of personal identity, the challenge to religious freedom and education. What would have been the response of our martyrs? What should be our response? Undoubtedly, to stand firm in the power of the Holy Spirit and continue to bring the fire of love to the earth by kindling faithfulness to Christ in the lives of our people. There is here a battle for minds; but even more so a battle for hearts, especially through devotion to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, to the Scriptures and to Our Lady.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld reminds us that ‘It was when He was reduced to nothing that Our Lord Jesus saved the world.’ Our predecessors, the Martyrs of the Venerable English College, knew what it was to be reduced to nothing. They experienced a baptism of fire. But in their nothingness, dying and rising united to Christ, they could proclaim: Iesu, Iesu, Iesu, esto mihi Iesus! (Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, be thou unto me Jesus!) – The last words of Saint Ralph Sherwin, martyred here at Tyburn on 1st December 1581.
As priest missionaries our inner being must burn with the fire of the gospel. Our priestly hearts must blaze with love for the Lord Jesus. The new evangelisation demands an increased and potent unity within the presbyterate, in our dioceses and nation, to win and souls to Christ. How does this begin? By accepting again, afresh, and each day, the fire of love that comes from personal intimate friendship with Christ. If we want to renew the Church, then we need to renew our priesthood. And if we want to renew our priesthood, we need to renew our discipleship.
‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already.’ May this fire of love so burn in our hearts, and through our priestly service, that the Lord Jesus may be unto us, and to our country, a Saviour. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, be thou unto me Jesus!
 See: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament III – Luke, Edited by Arthur A Just Jr, Intervarsity Press, Illinois, 2003, 216-219.