Witnesses to the Truth: The True Martyrdom of the Servants of God

The Notion of Martyrdom

The word "martyr" – from the Greek word for "witness" – in Catholic theology designates one who voluntarily suffers death for refusing to renounce his or her fidelity to Christ and His teachings.

From the very beginning of the Church the testimony of such witnesses to Christ has been recognized as a most convincing argument for the veracity of the Gospel-message, and one of the strongest proofs that the Church is God's own foundation for the salvation of mankind. The Apostles themselves witnessed to the message of Christianity more eloquently by their death in testimony to the teachings ofJesus than they did through their preaching.

Those who in subsequent times do not know Christ in person but know Him through faith are, in an extended sense, witnesses to Him and His teaching. Sealed with the shedding of their blood, that profession of faith in Christ's Gospel is the highest possible expression of acceptance of Him and His teachings. From the earliest era of the Church's history, consequently, it has been recognized that the constancy of the martyrs who, when challenged, sacrificed life rather than deny any of the truths of Christianity, is an incontrovertible proof of fidelity to Him who is the Savior of Mankind. As a miracle of the moral order, moreover, the sacrifice oflife by the martyrs attests to the divine source of the Truth in defense of which they voluntarily die. No one is willing to give his life for teachings or principles which in his opinion may or may not be true. Sealing that profession with the shedding of blood, the martyr gives the ultimate testimony to Christian truth, to Christ who is Truth. He or she dies, because that is the only alternative to the demand of the persecutor that Christ be abandoned or His teaching be denied.

The superhuman courage of the martyr in the totality of his or her sacrifice can be explained only as a benign manifestation of the power of God acting in and through the heroism of the one who dies in defense of the Truth. Above all else, the willing sacrifice of one's life for Christ or His teachings is the supreme proof oflove for Him, the highest practice of the cardinal virtue of charity. It is the ultimate seal of Christian perfection. The Second Vatican Council assures us solemnly: "Since Jesus, the Son of God, manifested His charity by laying down His life for us, no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and his brothers. From the earliest times, then, some Christians have been called upon – and some will always be called upon – to give the supreme testimony oflove to all men, but especially to persecutors. The Church, therefore, considers martyrdom as the highest proof of love."1

In further comment on this exceptional grace and privilege of martyrdom, the same Vatican Council proclaims the glory of the one to whom God vouchsafes the privilege of witnessing to the Truth by the sacrifice of temporal life. That gift, if it is the highest proof of the creature's love for the Creator, simultaneously is the greatest sign of God's love for His creature. "By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of the Master, who freely accepted death on behalf of the world's salvation; he perfects that image even to the shedding of blood."2 The dispositions of the martyr's soul must therefore be conformed with those of the Savior, the Divine Prototype.

That the dying of the victim be a sacrifice in witness to Christ and His faith, there must be some form of external manifestation of that disposition on the part of the one being put to death. Proof of his or her willing acceptance of death for Christ would be the patience with which the victim accepts the persecutor's mistreatment. The immediate preparation for death – by prayer or the reception of the Sacraments, by acts of kindness toward the torturers, as well as an expression of forgiveness for the tormentors – would be signs of accepting martyrdom. Though death for Christ must be accepted willingly, it is not required that there be an explicit acceptance at the moment of immolation: one who habitually intends to preserve the faith at any or all cost is properly disposed to accept even death. A clear preparation for the crown of martyrdom is a virtuous life, though in causes of martyrs no special investigation of heroic virtue is required. The heroism of death for Christ dispenses with any need for further proof.

The persecutor, for his part, must act out of hatred toward Christ or the Christian Faith, or in rejection of some Christian virtue. Personal revenge toward the victim for some imagined or real wrong would not constitute hatred for Christ or the Christian Faith. The persecutor may be a physical or a moral person, an individual or a collegial body. He can carry out his intention personally or by commanding another to do so in his name. He must act freely and with full deliberateness. His act can be either a direct one or the result of his placing in motion the events which lead to tlie victim's death. The death of the victim need not be instantaneous; it suffices that the perpetrator give rise to a cause – such as a fatal wound or total starvation – which, of set determination, at least mediately but certainly effects the death.

The persecutor need not be an infidel: he may be a bad Christian, a lapsed believer in Christ. He need not be a potentate or a supreme authority. He may be a judge, for instance, hiding behind an evil law or a false accusation moved by a hatred of Christianity.

Death alone does not make the martyr. As St. Augustine teaches, the cause, the motive on the part of the perpetrator, is what determines that the death is indeed an act of witness to Christ.

To summarize, for a true martyrdom the following conditions must be realized:
1. a victim who
2. for loyalty to Jesus
3. willingly accepts
4. immolation at the hand of
5. a despot who
6. out of hatred for some Christian value
7. maliciously inflicts his misguided revenge.

We submit that Fray Pedro de Corpa and his Four Companions, the Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia, gave their lives in defense of the sanctity, the unity and the permanence, of Christian Marriage.

Lumen Gentium, 42

Ibid. See also Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 92: "Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God's law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God's image and likeness. This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved. Jesus warns us most sternly: "What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? (Mk 8:36)."

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The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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