Today we remember two Jesuit priests who died heroically for their faith. They were Stephen Pongracz and Melchior Grodziecki.
Stephen was born in Transylvania, in central Romania, about the year 1582 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1602.
Melchior was born into the Polish aristocracy in Grodiec, near Cieszyn in Silesia, Poland, about 1584 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1603. He met his companion, Stephen Pongrácz, in the Jesuit novitiate at Brno in 1603.
In 1619 both Jesuits were sent to the Kosice region (then in Hungary) to care for the religious needs of Catholics living there. The king of Hungary had requested the services of Jesuits to care for Roman Catholics neglected during the 30 Years War of the early 17th century.
Pongracz worked with Hungarians, while Grodziecki evangelised Slavic and German speaking peoples. Their ministries were so successful that they became targets of those who were jealous of their success.
In July 1619 they were falsely accused of intentionally causing a fire, and on 7 September 1619, were thrown into a dungeon as punishment for this fabricated crime. They were urged to repudiate their faith in God. However, they stood firm and refused to do so.
Because of their steadfastness they were tortured and finally killed. Stephen Pongrácz was tortured with the soldiers twisting a rope around his head and almost crushing it. They hung him from the ceiling and cut him deeply before finally turning to Melchior Grodziecki who was beaten and beheaded. The soldiers threw the three bodies into a sewer ditch outside the house but Stephen Pongrácz did not die for another 20 hours.
The news of their martyrdom spread with the speed of lightning and they were already regarded as Saints. Today, their graves are in the Ursuline church in Trnava.
They were canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1995 in Košice during a pastoral visit to Slovakia. They are remembered for their unflagging faithfulness to God that led them to choose martyrdom rather than apostasy.
The Gospel text chosen for the feast of these saints is from Matthew’s Mission Discourse (10:1-42). These sayings found in Matthew’s Mission Discourse here are found in the Eschatological Discourse of Mark (Mk 13:9-13). This is an indication that for Matthew, Mission is already eschatological. The punishment, which is referred to here, is not random, but official punishment from members of organised authority. Even in this difficult situation the disciples are offered encouragement. They will depend not on their own strength, but on the Holy Spirit. They are to be missionaries even in the courtroom. Their imprisonment and trial must be regarded as an opportunity to make mission known. Mission takes priority even over family ties and if family ties have to be broken because of mission then so be it. The affirmation of the coming of the Son of Man is probably meant to provide succour to the missionaries in their distress.
Jesus is not calling us here to be sadists and look for suffering, persecution and pain. Rather he is challenging us to go about doing what we have to do, to be as prudent as possible about it and if despite that persecution, suffering and pain come, to be prepared and ready for it and not to be afraid. Stephen Pongrácz and Melchior Grodziecki did not look for suffering or persecution, but when it did come their way, they faced it squarely without flinching. They knew that even if they died, they would live. The fact that we remember them even today five centuries after their death is proof that they live.