Why the Holy Innocents Are Martyrs Due to God’s Goodness

By Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

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.


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Are They True Martyrs?

Thus, Saint Bernard raises the problem of whether these children should be recognised 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 analysed 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.