Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” He means that when pagans tortured and killed a Christian, instead of making Christianity smaller or less powerful, the result was the opposite. The martyr’s spilled blood was like seed scattered on fertile soil. Christian faith sprang up with greater vibrancy, proliferating throughout the secular world.
An example of this is the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The Bible records the young Saul, faithful Jew and hater of Christianity, witnessing this stoning. The event moved Saul’s heart, and his conversion followed soon thereafter. Saul, now Paul the Apostle, converted thousands to become followers of Christ. They, in turn, burst forth into a vast, powerful next generation of Christians. Most Christians today trace back to Paul. And Paul traces back to the martyrdom of one man. How could Stephen have known that his martyrdom would yield such abundant fruit for so many millennia?
As Catholic mothers who are open to life in a society that has no ability to imagine the logic of our morality, we often suffer what might be called a “spiritual martyrdom.” We endure hardships for the faith: the wearing down of our bodies with another pregnancy; nursing complications, mastitis, infections; family and friends not understanding our choices; loss of income, professional advancement, and expertise. The humiliations and diminishments in our lives can be substantial.
My friend Katie had four children, four years old and younger. She was up to her eyeballs in dirty diapers and a sink full of dishes. When she found out she was expecting her fifth child, she felt like it was someone handing her a baby while she was drowning. “No one understands what I am going through,” she felt. She had a nervous breakdown and needed medication. Her choice to be a faithful Catholic regarding the teaching for openness to life cost her her mental health and the loss of many nights sleep for many years. Does her story make the teaching wrong? Not at all. But it does underscore the great sacrifices demanded by motherhood and our imperative to support one another in our vocation.
In an age that is against openness to life, being generous with having children is counter-cultural. It can bring about a kind of spiritual martyrdom. I believe that it is right to think of Tertullian and pray: “Lord, may my sacrifices be the occasion for the flourishing of my family and the Church at large for many generations to come.”
2 Tertullian, Apologia, 50.