Understanding Martyrs

The news media, like the Washington Post, keeps referring to those radical Islamic terrorists in Iraq and other places as “martyrs.” This seems confusing — especially to children — when many of our saints were martyrs. What is the best way to explain the difference?



While certain radical Moslem insurgents or other terrorists may identify themselves as “martyrs,” they could not be farther from the true definition. These insurgents and terrorists are really instruments of evil: they commit suicide, they kill the innocent and they are filled with hatred. There is nothing virtuous or redeeming about their actions, at least not from a Christian viewpoint. One must really wonder what kind of a god they believe in who would look upon these actions favorably.

On the other hand, the true meaning of martyrdom is found within the context of Christianity. Martyrdom according to the Catechism is “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death” (no. 2473). Rather than renounce his faith, the martyr bears witness with extraordinary fortitude to the belief that Christ suffered, died and rose from the dead for our salvation, and to the truths of our Catholic faith. (The word martyr itself means “witness.”)

Sacred Scripture attests to the courage of men and women who were willing to die as martyrs rather than renounce their faith or be unfaithful to God’s law. In the Old Testament, Susanna preferred to die rather than yield to the sinful passions of the two unjust judges (Dn 13). John the Baptizer refused to compromise with evil and never ceased professing the law of God; in the end he “gave his life in witness to truth and justice” (Opening Prayer for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John). St. Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church, was also the first martyr (Acts 6:8ff), followed by the Apostle St. James the Greater (Acts 12:2).

The witness of these martyrs coalesces in the apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelation. Here, St. John saw the angels and saints from every nation and race, people and tongue, standing before the throne and the Lamb. They cried out, “Salvation is from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” When asked who they were, the answer came, “These are the ones who have survived the great period of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (cf. Rv 7:9-17).

The spiritual rationale which undergirds the act of martyrdom is one that each Christian must accept. In teaching the conditions for true discipleship, our Lord asserted, “If a man wishes to come after Me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in My footsteps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. What profit would a man show if he were to gain the whole world and destroy himself in the process?” (Mt 16:24-26). Yes, the Christian must be prepared to bear the Cross of our Lord, even if it means forsaking life in this world.

In doing so, however, such a Christian will be blessed in the eyes of God. In the Beatitudes, those right attitudes of living that bring blessed union with God, the eighth beatitude is repeated, “Blest are those persecuted for holiness’ sake; the reign of God is theirs.” Moreover, Jesus personalized this beatitude: “Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of Me.” Nevertheless, the point is not just the suffering here and now for the faith, but the courageous perseverance, which gives way to everlasting life: “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in Heaven” (cf. Mt 5:10-12).

This spiritual rationale is reflected beautifully in the testimony of the martyrs of our early Church during the time of Roman persecution. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110), who was the third bishop of Antioch following St. Evodius (who had succeeded St. Peter the Apostle), and who had been a student of St. John the Apostle, was condemned by the Emperor Trajan and sentenced to being devoured by beasts in the arena. On the way to Rome where he would die, he wrote seven letters, including one to the Romans, in which he reflected on his pending death: “Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ”; and later, “Neither the pleasures of the world nor the kingdoms of this age will be of any use to me. It is better for me to die in order to unite myself to Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. I seek Him who died for us; I desire Him who rose for us. My birth is approaching…” (Letter to the Romans).



Another great witness to the faith during this time was St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, who was a friend of St. Ignatius and who had also been a student of St. John the Apostle and had been consecrated a bishop by him. For refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods and to acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor, St. Polycarp was condemned to death by burning at the stake at the age of 86 during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. As the pyre was about to be lit, St. Polycarp prayed, “I bless you for having judged me worthy from this day and this hour to be counted among your martyrs…. You have kept your promise, God of faithfulness and truth. For this reason and for everything, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through Him, who is with you and the Holy Spirit, may glory be given to you, now and in the ages to come. Amen” (The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp).

In defense of the martyrs, Tertullian (d. 250) later wrote in his Apology, “Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us. Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this. When recently you condemned a Christian maiden to a panderer rather than to a panther, you realized and confessed openly that with us a stain on our purity is regarded as more dreadful than any punishment and worse than death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

Without question, despite the worst persecutions, the Church has continued to survive and to grow, due greatly to the courageous witness and prayers of the holy martyrs. In his recent apostolic exhortation Ecclesia to the Churches in Asia, Pope John Paul II noted the persecution of the Church, and echoing Tertullian, proclaimed: “May they stand as indomitable witnesses to the truth that Christians are called always and everywhere to proclaim nothing other than the power of the Lord’s Cross! And may the blood of Asia’s martyrs be now as always the seed of new life for the Church in every corner of the continent” (no. 49).

Pope John Paul II has been very mindful of the witness of the martyrs in our Church, with a special emphasis on those that have died during this century, especially during the persecutions waged by the Nazis and communists. Every continent has been touched by the blood of martyrs. He has described martyrdom as “the most eloquent proof of the truth of the faith, for faith can give a human face even to the most violent of deaths and show its beauty even in the midst of the most atrocious persecution” (Incarnationis Mysterium, no. 13).

According to the Holy Father, this “proof of faith” is evidenced in three ways: First, martyrdom affirms the inviolability of the moral order — both the truth and holiness of God’s law and the dignity of the human person. Second, martyrdom attests to the perfect humanity and true life of the human person: Here the Holy Father quoted St. Ignatius of Antioch: “Have mercy on me, brethren: do not hold me back from living; do not wish that I die…. Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man. Let me imitate the passion of my God” (Romans). Finally, martyrdom attests to the holiness of the Church, presenting witnesses committed to the truth. In sum, “by their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church’s saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense” (Splendor of Truth, no. 93).

As we begin a new liturgical year, we must be mindful of the martyrs of our Church, for their witness encourages us and gives us great hope. By the grace of God, may we be as committed to our Lord, His Church and the faith as they were. Let us take to heart the words of St. Paul, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us and persevere in running the race which lies ahead; let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith” (Heb 12:1-2).

Discussion: Has the example of a Christian martyr ever strengthened your faith in a time of trial? Encourage your fellow Catholics at the CE Roundtable.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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