A New Age of Martyrs

Six years ago I was privileged to be a delegate at the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, which met in Rome. The main work of the congregation was to revise the laws that direct Jesuit life, as well as to respond to questions raised throughout the Jesuit provinces about our life and mission today. Though people are aware now of the documents issued by the congregation, some of my most vivid memories are of the people attending and of the liturgies. For the first time since the onset of the cold war, Jesuits came in significant numbers from former Iron Curtain countries, along with representatives of the ever-increasing number of Asian and African Jesuits. Many of these brought not only wisdom but stories of a life of suffering for the Gospel. Father Emil Krapka, for example, with whom I worked on one of the commissions, had been an underground priest in Slovakia, his hands scarred by hard manual labor. Joseph Doan, the first Vietnamese representative, had spent a number of years in prison.

One evening we had a liturgy of martyrs, recalling not only those of our long-past history, but especially those of the past half-century. People from every part of the world processed in with banners listing those who had been killed, usually because of their dedication to the marginal and their opposition to injustice. Karl Rahner, S.J., once remarked that in this century the tradition of martyrs who die as witnesses to the faith is now supplemented by witnesses for justice. I knew of those who had died in El Salvador and Zimbabwe, where I had visited freshly dug graves in the summer of 1978, but the extent and number simply overwhelmed me. The faith and courage of my dead Jesuit brothers both inspired and shamed me. Recently I read through Robert Royal’s book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Crossroad, 2000), and realized that the Jesuit experience was but one patch in a multicolored mosaic of lives given for others throughout the world, including great numbers of women religious and lay women in countries ranging from El Salvador to Sierra Leone.


These martyrs came to mind as I reflected on the readings for this Sunday. After castigating the leaders for not obeying God’s word, Jeremiah is scourged and put in stocks by Passhur, the head of the temple police. Throughout his long career Jeremiah criticized the power elite for their neglect of the poor and their reliance on foreign entanglements rather than on God. Later he is thrown into a cistern to die (Jer. 38:1-13), and released only through the intercession of the Ethiopian court official Ebed-melech. According to later Jewish tradition, Jeremiah is martyred in Egypt.

Matthew 10, one of that Gospel’s five great discourses, is commonly called the Mission Discourse. Jesus instructs the disciples on the conditions and challenges of continuing his mission. Today’s Gospel is both sobering and consoling. The disciples will face lethal opposition but should not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul, because they are under God’s loving care and will have Jesus as their ultimate vindicator.

The church today is a community of martyrs (witnesses) no less than when Christians were thrown to the lions. Today’s lions are powerful figures and institutions who are unmasked by people who imitate the prophets and Jesus. Though most of us are not called literally to give our lives, the modern martyrs’ love of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and their concern for truth and justice, is a mandate for all of us.

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