Martyrdom Revisited

We live in an era of new martyrs and new questions about the nature of martyrdom. In Libya, in mid-February, the windswept beach was a scene befitting a tourist poster—except for the line of kneeling men in orange suits and their anonymous executioners wrapped in black: 21 Coptic Christians marched to their deaths. These were simple workingmen who died with “Jesus” on their lips, according to accounts that sprang up on the Internet.

The tale of the murdered American James Foley has undergone a few revisions since the dreadful news of his execution—and the gruesome video that documented it—was released by those who had for years held him captive. The story of the death of Mr. Foley, first depicted as a devout, courageous Catholic graduate of Marquette University who kept the faith to the end, became muddled by the surprising revelation that at the last he may have yielded to his captors’ coercive demands to convert.

Advertisement

It probably surprised the people of El Salvador, who long ago informally canonized Óscar Romero, that it took the Vatican more than two decades to confirm his martyrdom. But in his death, as in his life, Romero was swept up in larger political and ideological forces. Within the Curia his cause had been “blocked,” and his martyrdom denied.

He could not be a true Catholic martyr, some argued; he was merely the victim of a political assassination. He preached agitation, not the Gospel, others charged.

According to church tradition, martyrdom cannot be declared unless the victim was targeted out of hatred for the church and refused an opportunity to renounce his or her faith. That would seem to put a natural limit on the number of people who may be considered martyrs, even as during these troubled times, according to some accounts, thousands of Christians die each year because of the simple fact of their faith. Indeed, that understanding of martyrdom has come to appear sadly deficient. How else, if not as martyrdom, is one to describe, for instance, the self-sacrifice of a Maximilian Kolbe? In Auschwitz, Father Kolbe offered his life in exchange for that of another Polish prisoner when Nazi soldiers came looking for someone to murder in a reprisal execution.

This year, the readings for the Sunday before the 35th anniversary of Óscar Romero’s martyrdom, March 24, included the Gospel verse the archbishop put to such eloquent and prescient use in his last homily: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Óscar Romero said then: let them take my life, I offer it up freely; he would be raised up in his people. He had already given over his life on behalf of the campesinos, catechists, union organizers and academics of El Salvador and, yes, even on behalf of the rebels and landholders and soldiers, too. In this instance, the blood of the martyr is not just the seed of the church but of justice.

If we might recover the original meaning of the word—that is, to understand martyrs as witnesses to their faith—and join to it Kolbe’s and Romero’s model of self-offering, especially on behalf of others, we could become more generous in our understanding of martyrdom. Surely just as important as the way martyrs died is how they lived, the witness they gave to their faith by their lives (understanding that even our saints are far from perfect beings).

Whether James Foley died a Catholic martyr, saying the name of Jesus, or murmuring a forced prayer to Allah, he died true to his vocation as a journalist, a commitment that grew from his Catholic upbringing: to be, like Óscar Romero, a voice for the voiceless, to tell the stories of the ignored to the indifferent, that they might be shaken from their indolence.

And these 21 men from Egypt, they did not go to Libya and to their deaths because of their faith, but because of their families. Did they understand the danger they were exposing themselves to in the chaos of Libya? It was a risk they considered worth accepting; they had been offering themselves up long before they reached that beach by the Mediterranean.

Without the church’s demand for justice and human dignity, Romero would not have been a threat that required stamping out. Indeed, Óscar Romero was killed out of hatred of the faith, dying a martyr’s death—not because he was shot through the heart while saying Mass, but because he dared to make real the Gospel demands for dignity and justice on behalf of the defenseless and marginalized in El Salvador.

And while some may fret over liberation theology in discerning the nature of Romero’s martyrdom, the liberation that he offered was meant for both oppressed and oppressor, a gift for all. It was the Beatitudes, not revolution, that compelled him.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 6 months ago
Augustine was the first to adulterate the meaning of martyrdom. Martyrdom has not recovered since. When John Paul II refused to recognize the martyrdom of Romero, he did what Augustine did; he declared it invalid since he did not approve of Romero's actions. The Donatists and Romero were not part of the club. Augustine might not have started the first cultural war in Christendom. But he sure started the biggest and most pivotal. Because of actions like Augustine the fourth century has been called "The Age of Hypocrisy." The reason is that power became more important than service and obedience more important than truth. The political central American bishops did not want to disturb the dictatorial powers. They made no protest over the murder of Romero. Augustine encouraged the use of force against the Donatists. He favored the bishops who abandoned the faith and then returned to power under Constantine. Augustine developed the charge that the Donatists were against forgiveness while they were for accountability. Augustine knew that martyrdom had a certain cachet and sought to minimize it in his opponents. As did the Vatican in the case of Romero who differed with the papal nuncios. The church is now recognizing Romero in the rank of martyrs. Will the Donatists be next? The apologetics are rife with how Romero has been cleared of Marxist beliefs. The truth is there is a Bishop of Rome now who prides service over domination who is behind the new outlook.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
This is a great comment although I would like to see where John Paul II refused to recognize the martyrdom of Romero because he did not approve of his actions. Any positive proof of this statement would be appreciated.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
There is no evidence of which I am aware that St John Paul II “did not approve of Romero’s actions”. The recurrent theme of one group of partisans in the Church, which see things almost entirely in terms of “conservative versus liberal”, or “reactionary versus enlightened”, makes that sort of allegation, but the evidence is lacking altogether. Augustine was not personally responsible for the use of force against the Donatists. The source of their problems was primarily their close cooperation with the Circumcellions, Berber heretics in North Africa who condemned property, and advocated free love, canceling debt, and freeing slaves. The Circumcellions regarded martyrdom as the true Christian virtue, and disagreed with the Episcopal see of Carthage on the primacy of chastity, sobriety, humility, and charity. Instead, they focused on bringing about their own martyrdom. Members of the Circumcellions assaulted Roman legionnaires or armed travelers with simple wooden clubs while shouting "Laudate Deum!" to provoke them into attacking and martyring them. Others interrupted courts of law and verbally provoked the judge so that he would order their immediate execution (the normal punishment at the time for contempt of court). Of course this resulted in repression by the imperial authorities, and the authorities made little or no distinction between the heretical Circumcellion zealots and heretical rigorist Donatists. Their end came with the Arab conquest of the from the 7th to 8th centuries.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
http://www.ewtn.com/vexperts/showmessage.asp?number=329572 check out this link EWTN...where someone not on the left castigates Romero.....
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
I am very sure your post meant something to you .....
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
What it mean was "not all nuts are on the left"
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
Just because there is no public evidence doesn't mean that Romero sainthood was not put on the back burner by Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger, (who wrote extensively dismissing Liberation Theology as heresy). Sometimes the lack of action speaks for itself. Long live Pope Francis !
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
Certain forms of liberation theology were condemned. The topic appeared to be Oscar Romero, not liberation theology. The "just because there is no public evidence" comment reminds me of the old joke that "Just because I am paranoid doesn't mean people are not out to get me."
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
Lack of action can be the same as sins of omission. As usual your logic and analogy above escapes me.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
On the politics of Sainthood: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/24/john-paul-ii-oscar-romero-and-the-politics-of-making-saints_n_3150713.html the church even the Magisterium is human all too human...
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
Yes, when I want real insight into the Catholic Church, the Huffington Post is right up there with the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Gary Wills. Back in February Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia told reporters that Benedict XVI "gave the green light" for the canonization of Oscar Romero, not Pope Francis, after concerns about Romero's orthodoxy were resolved.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
Please show me the link for this information.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
"Benedict XVI "gave the green light" for the canonization of Oscar Romero, not Pope Francis, after concerns about Romero's orthodoxy were resolved." Glad to see a man killed while saying Mass and teaching that killing went against God' commandment was found to be orthodox by Benedict XVI. That is really a reassuring and refreshing perspective on the Magister.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
Tim Reidy closed comments on one editorial today, so I am not going to participate in mucking yet another up with ephemera.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
Agree. Usually when only two or three people are carry on the conversation and they said everything that needs to be said he cuts it off. Won't happen again here.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Activists with Planned Parenthood demonstrate in support of a pregnant 17-year-old being held in a Texas facility for unaccompanied immigrant children to obtain an abortion, outside of the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.
Texas bishops: "No one -- the government, private individuals or organizations -- should be forced to be complicit in abortion."
Catholic News ServiceOctober 23, 2017
It is time for the laity to speak out and act like true disciples of Christ in spreading the joy of the Gospel. 
Thomas J. ReeseOctober 23, 2017
Pope Francis speaks from the Vatican as he addresses Canadian youths in a video message that was included in a Salt and Light Television program on Oct. 22 (CNS photo/courtesy Holy See Press Office).
“The world, the church, are in need of courageous young people, who are not cowed in the face of difficulties," the pope said.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 23, 2017
Men walk near destroyed buildings as thousands of Somalis gathered to pray at the site of the country's deadliest attack and to mourn hundreds of victims at the site of the attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 20. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
Mogadishu was rocked to its core on Oct. 14 by a truck bombing that left 358 dead and hundreds wounded. The missing are still being sifted for among the scorched rubble.
Kevin ClarkeOctober 23, 2017