Europe covers the widest span of time and influence, because it was here that the link between the church and the social and political institutions became closest. The term “Christendom” could loosely be applied to Europe, or large parts of it, from the 8th century to the 19th, with preludes back to Constantine and remains of it down to the present day in the cultural and religious shape of modern Europe.
The saints and martyrs cover all walks of life and every century. There were the missionaries who extended the gospel message, first across the lands of Europe itself and then beyond: from Patrick and Columba, to Cyril and Methodius, to the expansion of European missions to the Americas and China by the Jesuits and Francis Xavier, to the outreach of the Protestant movement and the Wesleys in the 18th century, and to the enormous upsurge of missionary endeavours by all the European churches in the 19th century, some of which directly affected the development of the churches in the Pacific. They preached the gospel in season and out of season.
In the wake of the missionaries, came the leaders and organisers of the churches; from Bishops to spiritual leaders who kept the vision bright: from Julian of Norwich to Mechtild of Magdeburg; from Catherine of Siena to Evelyn Underhill. They prayed and meditated and wrote and counselled.
Many of the rulers and political leaders were themselves Christians shaped by the gospel. Others were advisers to king’s and leaders who shaped policy, like Thomas Becket. More re-cently, the impact of the gospel on society has been led by dedicated individuals pressing for reforms of one kind and another: William Wilberforce’s fight against slavery; Elizabeth Fry and prison reform; Florence Nightingale and nursing.
Monastic and religious vows have played a significant part, St Francis and St Dominic added another dimension with their bands of brothers (friars) and their impact on the growing cities of Europe in the late Middle Ages. Religious communities of many kinds have grown up all over Europe, from the Brethren of the Common Life in the 14th century to the Taizé Community in the 20th.
Christian thinkers were at the cutting edge of the emergence of the west as a significant intel-lectual force, and then there were those who humbly lived out the gospel without leaving a record for the historian. And many of them died for the sake of Christ.
Sometimes their opponents were non-Christians who sought to stop them proclaiming the gospel. From the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome about 64 CE to the death of Dietrich Bon-hoeffer in 1945 and Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland in 1984, many have preferred death to sub-mission to an alien system of faith and action. But often the martyrs have been internal to the church. Their deaths have been occasioned by the inability of the church to accept differences of opinion within its ranks. Joan of Arc, Jan Hus, Thomas More and Thomas Cranmer were all victims of the church itself.
By their lives and deaths the saints and martyrs of Europe have shaped our heritage and are all witnesses to the power of the gospel.