In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI remarked that the essential functions of the church are three, for which he gives the Greek terms: leitourgia (worship), marturia/kerygma (witness/proclamation), and diakonia (service). He uses the word marturia (witness) in the original sense of the termthe public attestation of one’s faith. It is used frequently in that sense in the New Testament, although the meaning witness unto death, which is the way we often use the term today, also is found there. The Acts of the Apostles, for example, uses the term martyr (Greek martus) to describe St. Stephen.
In a letter written to the head of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints on April 24, 2006, the pope again brings up the designation martyr, but for a more technical reason. He does not wish the term martyr to be used so elastically as to attenuate its sense, common in the tradition, of one who dies because of hatred for the faith. He cites no example of a too generous use of the term, but he may well have had in mind the recent murder of an Italian priest in Istanbul at the hands of a young man, who killed the priest while shouting out God is great (Allahu akbar). The popular press described this priest as a martyr at the hands of a fanatical Muslim. In fact, he died at the hands of a mentally disturbed youth.
Benedict’s letter insists that the congregation, when it considers causes brought before it, should have a precise sense of what constitutes a martyr in the technical sense of the term. The pope argues that, according to the ancient tradition of the church, a martyr is one who dies, either directly or indirectly, out of hatred for the faithas the Latin has it, in odium fidei. The papal caution, expressed with the care one expects from a learned theologian, is simultaneously a gentle reminder to the congregation to be precise in its considerations and a reminder that the word martyr has both a loose and a precise meaning in church usage, which ponders the various senses of the term in the New Testament.
What constitutes martyrdom is hardly a new issue in Christianity. In the Middle Ages St. Thomas Aquinas defended the use of the term martyr for both St. John the Baptist and the Holy Innocents, even though neither died strictly in defense of the faith. Earlier, in the 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury argued that one of his predecessors was rightly honored as a martyr even though it was clear that he had been killed as part of a raiding party of Vikings, who were equal-opportunity murderers when it came to acquiring booty. In our own times, there was a furor when Edith Stein was canonized as a martyr by John Paul II. It was argued that she died in Auschwitz for being a Jew, not because she was a Christian. There were similar if more muted questions in the case of Maximilian Kolbe, who died there because he volunteered to replace a married prisoner who was chosen to die in a starvation bunker.
Martyrdom was a fundamental motif in the thinking of John Paul II. In his encyclical on ecumenism (Ut Unum Sint, 1995) he argued that the most significant ecumenical fact of our times was the common martyrdom of Christians at the hands of totalitarian regimes. In Veritatis Splendor (1993) he invoked the witness of the martyrs, who show by their willingness to die that some fundamental truths must be adhered to even at the cost of life itself. In his plans for the coming new millenium, the pope asked that a new martyrology be assembled to honor all those who died in the 20th century for their faith. If one can believe the research of Robert Royal in the United States and Andrea Riccardi in Italy, their numbers would be vastperhaps greater than those who died in the entire period of the Roman persecution of the Christians.
A New Dimension
One of the absolutely new dimensions of the contemporary world is that many people who died for the faith have met their fate at the hands of people who themselves were baptized Catholics. The roll of those Central American martyrsthe victims of the death squads, the activist religious and priests, the bishops (think of Oscar Romero)includes many who were killed by Catholics and, further, in some cases, by people who argued that what they did was in defense of Catholic civilization against the depredations of Communists and leftists. Some bien pensants of the contemporary right have offered that argument to slow down the beatification process of Oscar Romero, maintaining that his death was political and had nothing to do with religious belief. That line of argument seems tendentious, since, obviously, it could be turned against the cause of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by state security forces in Poland in 1984 because of his presence among those who supported Solidarity in their struggles against the Communist state. Such debate is part of the contemporary discussion on martyrdom. It is clear, as Karl Rahner and others argued in a series of essays in the periodical Concilium a generation ago, that a more nuanced understanding of martyrdom was needed if for no other reason than the fact that many have died for the faith in so-called Christian countries.
The key to a better understanding of martyrdom might be found in the refined distinction that Benedict XVI makes between direct and indirect hatred of the faith. When the Rev. Pino Pugliesi was murdered by a Mafia-hired killer in Palermo in 1993 because of the priest’s vociferous denunciation of corruption and crime in his poor parish, he was hailed by John Paul II as a martyr. It is clear that his murder was carried out to stop him from speaking against the crime syndicate. But a Sicilian Jesuit pointed out that what Father Pugliesi actually died for was his stout resistance to the burden put on the poor of his parish. It was for that reason, Bartolomeo Sorge, S.J., wrote, that he died not directly in odium fidei but in odium caritatisout of hatred for love. One can also safely say that he died as a violent protest, albeit indirectly, out of a hatred for the faith that impelled his love and solidarity for the poor.
The Cause Counts
Motive has always been a critical issue in martyrdom. When the Donatists in North Africa in the fifth century boasted of their distinguished ancestry of martyrs and the ways in which they died, St. Augustine responded with a terse statement of the case: non poena sed causait is not the pain but the cause that counts. However many posters laud the suicide bombers or however frequently they appear on Web sites or television, they are not martyrs in any Christian understanding of the term, because embedded in their act is the willful killing of others. As is clear in the writings of recent pontiffs, it is critical that martyrdom be an act of innocence standing against power, even at the price of one’s death.
One thing that is becoming abundantly clear, especially as we reflect on recent history, is this: the modern age has generated a whole new literature of martyrdom in both first-person and third-person accounts of persecution, imprisonment and execution. It is also increasingly the case that we need a new iconography to depict that modern version of reality. Our stained glass windows, icons and other plastic arts have provided us with a symbolic language to identify the martyr: Catherine with her wheel; Lawrence with his gridiron; etc. What our century will provide is a new visual vocabulary: the cattle prod, the bullet, barbed wire and the garrotte. However novel that iconic vocabulary may be, it still illustrates an ancient truth about the Christian tradition: certain ways of being a witness for Christ change, but the witness unto death is perennial, since it is founded on the primordial reality of Christianity: the cross on Calvary’s hill.
A final point made in a series of books and essays by Jon Sobrino, S.J., is worth recalling. While we single out those who for conspicuous reasons are held up as martyrs, it is crucial that we not forget the countless number of unnamed persons who have been murdered by death squads, in gulags and through judicial malfeasance, who will never be raised to the altars. They died, like Jesus, amid thieves and insurrectionists, because of hatred. To that hatred we can add any number of prepositional phrases: hatred of faith, of love, of justice. They too are martyrs, and like the Holy Innocents whose designation was defended by Aquinas, deserve the name even if the title will not pass muster after official scrutiny.
By Karen Sue Smith
The 20th century, with its antireligious totalitarian regimes and civil wars, produced more Christian martyrs than any other, and a million of them were Catholics. According to Robert Royal in The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (2000), they are among the stunning total of people killed, for example, by the Communists (50 million in China and 25 million in the Soviet Union) and the Nazis (20 million). The listings in this book of martyrs in Europe are more comprehensive than those in Latin America, Asia and Africa, because those records are available. That is true as well of the accounts of bishops, priests and nuns; institutional records seldom document the lay people who may have worshiped in the same parish and died in the same prison as their clergy.
A Catholic martyr is one who lives the faith to the end despite threats, expulsion, imprisonment, bodily or psychological injury, even torture. In his book Royal also looks for joy and forgiveness, the hallmarks of sanctity, as each Catholic faces death. It is striking how often they appear.
The best known 20th-century martyrs are Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe and Franz Jägerstätterkilled by the NazisArchbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and the six Jesuits at Central American University, along with their housekeeper and her daughterall killed by the Salvadoran militaryand Charles de Foucauld, a hermit monk in Algeriashot by a 15-year-old Muslim guard. Yet others also inspire, like the cheerful Jesuit Miguel Pro of Mexico, killed by firing squad; the Russian archbishop John Cieplak, condemned to death for anti-Soviet activity, whole convents of nuns and lay people sent to labor camps, tortured and executed. In Spain 6,832 priests and religious were murdered, most of them during the first six months of the war. In Albania thousands of Catholics were executed by the Communists after World War II.
In Asia Catholic minorities were persecuted by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, as well as by Communists. When Ignatius Kung, bishop of Shanghai, was arrested by Maoists, hundreds of Catholics were arrested with him; he was held incommunicado for 30 years. Atrocities against Christians in much of Africa were common. Muslims who converted have also faced the death penalty.
The record shows that Catholics have clung to their faith in a bloody age marked by secularism and interreligious strife. Yet these martyrs are not just models from the past; they are in communion with us still.