The noted Abbot Prosper Guéranger comments on a passage from Saint Bernard’s Sermon of the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Saint Bernard notes:
“In Saint Stephen, we have both the act and the desire of martyrdom; in Saint John, we have but the desire; in the Holy Innocents we have but the act…”
This comment is a bit complex but can be easily understood. Saint Stephen wanted to be a martyr and became one by his death. Saint John wanted to be a martyr but was not killed for the faith. The Holy Innocents, who were the children, killed by Herod to see if he could kill the Messias, did not want to become martyrs, and were martyred by an outside force. Indeed, by their infancy, they had no will and no understanding of what was happening. However, they became unintentional martyrs.
Are They True Martyrs?
Thus, Saint Bernard raises the problem of whether these children should be recognized as martyrs:
“Will anyone doubt whether a crown [of martyrdom] was given to these Innocents? … If you ask me what merit could they have that God should crown them? Let me ask you what was the fault for which Herod slew them? What! Is the mercy of Jesus less than the cruelty of Herod? And whilst Herod could put these Babes to death, who had done him no injury, Jesus may not crown them for dying for Him?”
This is a well-disputed and triumphantly-reasoned argument.
“Stephen, therefore, is a martyr by a martyrdom of which men can judge, for he gave this evident proof of his sufferings being felt and accepted, that, at the very moment of his death, his solicitude both for his own soul and for those of his persecutors increased; the pangs of his bodily passion were less intense than the affection of his soul’s compassion, which made him weep more for their sins than his own wounds.
“John was a martyr, by a martyrdom which only angels could see, for the proofs of his sacrifice being spiritual, only spiritual creatures could ken them.
“But the Innocents were martyrs, to none other eye save Thine, O God! Man could find no merit; angel could find no merit; the extraordinary prerogative of Thy Grace is the more boldly brought out.”
They Are Martyrs Due to God’s Goodness
Thus, men saw the martyrdom of Saint Stephen but not that of Saint John because it was an interior desire that only angels could see. Where is the merit of the Holy Innocents, which not even angels could see since no act existed on their part? Angels cannot see what does not exist.
The merit is found in a pure act of God’s goodness. It was His gratuitous kindness, whereby He granted them the condition of martyrs because they died for Him. Saint Bernard says this in poetic language that is very well analyzed and very beautiful.
Peace Also to Men Without Wills
Saint Bernard continues:
“‘Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise (Ps. 8:3).’ The praise the angels give thee is: ‘Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will (Lk. 2:14).’ It is a magnificent praise, but I make bold to say that it is not perfect till he cometh who will say: ‘Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such (Mt. 19:14),’ and in the mystery of my mercy, there shall be peace to men that cannot even use their will.”
This is a most beautiful thought that the peace to men of good will is extended even to men without wills. This displays the exuberance of God’s mercy, whereby the Holy Innocents are saints.
Thus, a legion of Innocents is in Heaven and continually prays for us.
God’s Salvific Plan for Humanity
This perspective helps us understand a little better how the world fits into God’s salvific plan for humanity. Despite the great number of sinners who die unrepentant, there are still huge numbers of children who die baptized and guiltless and go straight to Heaven. Thus, in great cities like Brazil’s São Paulo, where very bad people continually die, many souls also go to Heaven daily. As the population grows, so also do the number of holy innocents who are baptized and go to Heaven.
Thus, the thrones left empty by the angels that sinned, continue to be filled according to God’s plan. Considering this plan on a global scale, we can imagine a high number of righteous souls going to Heaven.
The massive campaigns against child mortality have fortunately resulted in fewer such deaths. However, such are our times that even this possibility of righteous souls going to Heaven is significantly reduced. Attacks upon innocents have increased with people killing them through abortion. Many more innocent souls will grow up and be corrupted through immorality and sins that will most likely send them to Hell. Outside of the chastisement foreseen at Fatima, I see no remedy for this problem.
Pray to the Natural Patron Saints of Your Families
On this occasion, we should remember that those that have canonized saints in their families should be very devoted to them. However, not all families have canonized saints. In almost all families—if not among siblings, at least among cousins or somewhat distant relatives—there have been children baptized shortly before dying, who are in Heaven. In Heaven, these children enjoy the full lucidity of a saved soul living with God face-to-face. We can be absolutely sure of their salvation and should pray and recommend ourselves to their prayers.
Thus, when you have difficulties, remember the children who may have been born in your family and died shortly after their baptisms. They are the natural patron saints of your families. It is very reasonable, useful, and worthwhile to pray to these children to protect you. This is an opportune suggestion on the feast of the Holy Innocents.
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on December 28, 1965. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.