Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

True and False Martyrdom

by Fr. Peter Joseph


Fr. Peter Joseph, S.T.D. provides excellent catechesis on the meaning of martyrdom, clearing up several misunderstandings on the subject.

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Publisher & Date

Christian Order, London, England, May 2007

Here is an eyewitness account of St Cyprian's martyrdom, A.D. 258, in Carthage, near modern Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, North Africa:

The next day, September 14th, a great crowd gathered early in the morning near the Villa Sexti at the command of the proconsul, Galerius Maximus. Then the same proconsul, Galerius Maximus, ordered that Cyprian be brought to him that very day as he was sitting in the atrium at the Sauciolum. When he had been brought forward, the proconsul Galerius Maximus said to the bishop Cyprian, "Are you Thascius, known also as Cyprian?" The bishop Cyprian responded, "I am." The proconsul Galerius Maximus said, "Have you presented yourself to people as the head of a sacrilegious movement?" The bishop Cyprian responded, "I have." The proconsul Galerius Maximus said, "The most sacred emperors have ordered you to offer worship." The bishop Cyprian said, "I will not." Galerius Maximus said, "Have a care for your own interests." The bishop Cyprian responded, "In so just a matter there need be no reflection."

After he had spoken with his council, Galerius Maximus hesitatingly and unwillingly pronounced the sentence in words of this sort: "You have lived for a long time in a sacrilegious frame of mind, have gathered very many other members of this impious conspiracy around you and have set yourself up as an enemy of the Roman gods and their sacred rites. Our pious and most sacred princes, the august Valerian and Gallienus and our most noble Caesar, Valerian, have not been able to call you back to the observance of their worship. Therefore, since you are the author and admitted leader of the most worthless crimes, you will yourself be a warning for these people whom you have gathered around you in your crime. Respect for the law will be confirmed by your blood." Once he had said this, he read out the sentence from the tablet: "It has been decided that Thascius Cyprian is to be executed by the sword." The bishop Cyprian said, "Thanks be to God."

After this sentence, the crowd of the brethren said, "Let us also be beheaded with him." On this account a great commotion broke out among the brethren and a large crowd followed him. Cyprian was led into the field of Sextus. There he took off his mantle and hood, knelt down on the ground and prostrated himself in prayer to the Lord. When he had taken off his dalmatic and given it to the deacons, he stood erect and awaited the executioner. When the executioner came, Cyprian ordered his attendants to give the executioner twenty-five gold coins. Linen cloths and handkerchiefs were spread out in front of him by the brethren [Note: to collect the blood, as the relic of a martyr]. After that, blessed Cyprian put on the blindfold with his own hands, but since he was not able to tie the ends by himself, the priest Julianus and the subdeacon Julianus tied them for him.

In this manner the blessed Cyprian suffered death and his body was laid in a place nearby on account of the curiosity of the pagans. Then it was taken up at night with candles and torches and brought with prayer and great triumph to the cemetery of the procurator Macrobius Candidianus, which is near the pools. After a few days the proconsul Galerius Maximus died.

The most blessed martyr Cyprian suffered on the fourteenth of September under the emperors Valerian and Gallienus, but in the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honour and glory forever and ever. Amen."

We note three elements of his martyrdom: 1. put to death, 2. for Christ: for the Faith, for refusing to apostasize and offer false worship, etc., and 3. further, Christian joy and gladness to die for Christ's sake (virtuous model).

The true approach to martyrdom is to see it as a triumph. So the early Christians rejoiced when one of their number was faithful unto death. Similarly, during the persecutions of the 16-17th century, seminarians at the English College, Rome, used to gather at the foot of the chapel's painting of the Holy Trinity to sing a Te Deum whenever news arrived that a former student had been put to death for the Faith. It is a victory over the world, the flesh and the devil — everything that opposes your Christian life. It is the greatest way to die; it is the highest form of Christian death. See the section on martyrdom in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2471-4.

Definition of martyrdom

The great moral theologian, Dominic Prummer O.P., says:

Acts of Fortitude. . . . these acts reach their peak in martyrdom. Martyrdom is the endurance of bodily death in witness to the Christian religion. Therefore three conditions must be verified for martyrdom: a) actual death; b) the infliction of death by an enemy out of hatred for Christianity. c) the voluntary acceptance of death. — Therefore the following are not genuinely martyrs: those who die by contracting disease in their care of lepers, those who suffer death for natural truths or for heresy, or who [indirectly] bring about their own death to safeguard their person. — The effect of martyrdom is the remission of all sin and punishment, since it is an act of perfect charity.

According to Christian doctrine, martyrdom renders the soul of the martyr worthy of immediate entrance into heaven. The Church prays to the martyrs but has never prayed for the martyrs.

Likewise, Dominican Fr Benedict Ashley says:

True martyrdom requires three conditions: (1) that the victim actually die, (2) that he or she dies in witness of faith in Christ which is directly expressed in words, or implicitly in acts done or sins refused because of faith, and (3) that the victim accepts death voluntarily. They are not martyrs who do not actually die, or die from disease, for the sake of merely natural truths, or heresy, or for their country in war, or through suicide, etc.

Fr Ashley explains:

'Martyr' is often used loosely of anyone who dies for the sake of any cause. But the Christian cause is in fact objectively true, and not a subjective illusion, as are many of the causes for which persons die sincerely but deludedly. Thus those who die for the sake of fanatical religious cults, or as terrorists, or for their own glory, however sincere, are not genuine martyrs, but are objectively suicides. Nor are those who die for a noble but merely human motive, as the parent who dies to save a child, or a soldier for his country, since such virtuous acts can pertain simply to the order of natural virtue.

In 2004, the Pope canonised Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian mother. During her pregnancy with her fourth child, she was diagnosed with a large ovarian cyst. Her surgeon recommended an abortion in order to save Gianna's life. She refused that, of course, and refused any operation, since that would threaten the life of her baby. So she died a week after childbirth, in 1962, at the age of 39, heroically caring more for her unborn child than for her own life. Today that child is a physician herself, and involved in the pro-life movement in Italy. Her mother is not a martyr, but a hero of love, and her mother's sacrifice brought forth a harvest.

The sacred name of martyr belongs only to one who renders testimony to divine truth. A heretic in good faith who dies for Christ may be counted among the martyrs, but a contumacious heretic who dies for his sect is not a martyr because he does not testify to divine truth but to a (false) human teaching.

Blessed Damien of Molokai is a hero (of charity), but not a martyr. St Pio of Pietrelcina suffered enormously over 50 years with the stigmata, but is not a martyr. In the Missal, a saint who is a martyr is always named such. M. is placed next to their name for Martyr.

We count as an exception the Holy Innocents, whom the Church, although they lack the usual element of acceptance of death, nevertheless honours as martyrs in the liturgy because they died in the place of the infant Christ and received the Baptism of Blood.

Abortion victims cannot be counted as martyrs; they are victims but not martyrs. There is a movement, originating in Surbiton, London, to get them officially canonised — but this is a mistake. If they are martyrs, then every murder victim dying in a state of grace would be a martyr. This is seen to be false from the investigation the Church conducts into a claimed martyr.

For a claimed martyr, the object of the initial diocesan inquiry is threefold: (a) the candidate's life (b) martyrdom (c) reputation for martyrdom. The crucial question to establish martyrdom is: was this person killed for the faith? Not simply: was he murdered? — which is usually obvious.

Death itself might not occur immediately, but if the sufferings inflicted lead to death within a reasonable time, then that will count as martyrdom. In English law, it has been the practice to deem an act "murder" (or manslaughter) if death comes within a year and a day from the injury inflicted.

The Church has always held that martyrdom is equivalent to baptism for those not yet baptised. Baptism of Blood is the name given to this. It is Catholic doctrine that the Baptism of Blood blots out Original Sin, and all actual sin, together with the punishment due to it. This is evident from the words of Christ: He has absolutely promised salvation to those who give their lives for the Gospel: "he who loses his life for my sake will find it"; and again He says, "So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven". Moreover, from the Tradition of the Church: the Church honours as martyrs in heaven several who were never baptised: the Holy Innocents massacred by Herod; St Emerentiana (c. 304); one of the 22 Ugandan martyrs, St Mukasa Kiriwawanvu, who was still a catechumen. St Augustine says, "it would be an affront to pray for a martyr: we should rather commend ourselves to his prayers." (Sermon 159)

"Today the term 'martyr' is applied very freely to all sorts of people; for example, the Japanese kamikaze pilots, the Buddhists who burnt themselves as a protest to communism, and the Shiite soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war are all called 'martyrs'. But this most honourable title, which means 'witness' has a specifically Jewish and Christian meaning."

The Blessed Virgin Mary, since she surpassed the martyrs in her sorrows, is called Queen of Martyrs, but strictly speaking she was not a martyr, since she did not die from her sorrows.

Witness and martyrdom in the Bible

The mission of Jesus was too difficult and too great to be accomplished by simple force. "It had to be accomplished through the much harder way of courageous suffering and dying in witness of the truth. Hence the New Testament model is not the warrior but the martyr, of which Jesus on the Cross is the supreme example, accompanied by his mother Mary, her heart pierced spiritually by the same lance that pierced the heart of her Son (cf. Lk 2:34-35)."

The strict concept of martyrdom is first clearly stated in the Bible in the story of the seven brothers and their mother (2 Macc 7) who died rather than eat pork which the Greek oppressors tried to force upon them to indicate their renunciation of the law and the covenant with God. But in the same persecution, Judas Maccabeus was not a martyr — although he died fighting for the Jewish Law — because he died fighting, not as one submitting to being killed.

Jesus Himself prophetically exhorted His disciples to be the witnesses of His life and His words. He even predicted in detail their lot: they will be chased from the Synagogue, betrayed by their own relatives, accused and hauled before kings and governors, and put to death for His name (Mt 10:17, 24; Lk 21:12).

The first Christian martyr after Jesus Himself was St Stephen, stoned to death in Jerusalem for preaching the Gospel. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them"; and when he said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60). Even during Our Lord's Public Ministry, St John the Baptist died a martyr's death, in witness to the law of God regarding marriage.

Thus the Christian martyr does not die out of hatred of the enemy as a soldier might, but out of love for his killers, as Jesus taught and lived (Mt 5:43-48). "No man has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn 15:13), but for the Christian our enemies are also our friends as long as their conversion is possible. After Stephen: St Peter, St Paul, and St James the Apostle (Acts 12:2) were all martyrs, and following them a "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1). In the liturgy of the Church, special honour is given to the Virgin Martyrs (women and men, Rev 14:4) who are models of both the virtues of chastity and courage.

Christians who do not die for the faith, may yet share in martyrdom, as the Virgin Mary did, by being ready to die for it. Christians are engaged in a spiritual warfare:

Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand. — Eph 6:11-13

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. — 1 Pet 5:8-9

The value of life and the value of martyrdom

Appreciating the dignity of man made in the image of God, we can appreciate the heinousness of the sin of murder (deliberate killing of an innocent) in any form: homicide, abortion, infanticide, or euthanasia. Human life is a sacred gift from God. No one may take his own life or that of another. From conception until death, innocent human life deserves respect and the protection of law.

However, sacred though life is, it is not the supreme good. We are not bound to do everything to save our life or that of another: in serious illness, one is not bound to accept expensive and burdensome treatments (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2278); in grave need, one may risk one's life to help others, or even make the supreme sacrifice. The Church honours the martyrs because they sacrificed their lives rather than give up greater and higher goods: the Faith, and union with God. The good of human life is ordained unto eternal life. The goods of bodily life are less in value than the good of spiritual life. Christ and the Church do not urge us to be ready to give up great things for lesser things: that would be an absurdity! It is our love for a higher good that justifies the sacrifice of lesser goods. At the same time, the high value of life tells us the value of martyrdom.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, martyrdom is the highest form of witness to the faith. One contemporary moral theologian writes: "The suffering and death of so many Christian martyrs up to the present time in confession of their religion is the most eloquent witness to the conviction of the Church that the faith may never be denied." Today, many people despise martyrdom. Why is that? Among other factors: loss of strong belief in the next life; loss of belief in the evil of apostasy, leading to the notion that pragmatically it is better to compromise even on essentials; lack of the virtue of fortitude, sapped by easy living; the belief that nothing is worth dying for.

The same moralist writes: "If a man is requested to deny God or to act against the divine will, e.g., to kill an innocent person, he must rather sacrifice his own life than contradict the supreme claims of God upon him. Martyrdom, by which a man lays down his life for Christ and his brothers, as Christ did for us (1 Jn 3:16), is the highest proof of love. 'Though few are presented with such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men, and to follow Him along the way of the cross through the persecutions which the Church will never fail to suffer' (LG 42)."

Interestingly, when Jews today complain of what Christians did, or did not do, to save Jews from round-ups and death camps in World War II, they are basing their complaint on this doctrine that men should have given up their lives rather than participate in such heinous deeds; that, no matter what the cost, even if it meant being put to death by Nazis, they should have refused to perform acts against innocent Jews; that they should have been martyrs, if necessary.

"Itaque martyres non facit poena, sed causa."

This is one of the countless great sayings of St Augustine, who said: "Now they are true martyrs, of whom the Lord said, 'Blessed are they who suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness'. Not therefore for the sake of iniquity, or for the sake of an unholy division of Christian unity, but they who suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness — these are the true martyrs . . . The Lord Himself was crucified with thieves, but they whom suffering joined, the cause separated."

"'Look upon my judgment, my God and my Lord, look upon my cause' (Ps 34:23). Not upon my penalty, but upon my cause . . . For the penalty is similar for the good and the wicked. Therefore the penalty does not make martyrs, but the cause. For if the penalty made martyrs, all the mines would be full of martyrs, all chains would be dragging along martyrs, all who are slain by the sword would be crowned."

If the cause did not matter, but the mere fact of death, then we should be ready to die for any idea, no matter how false or absurd — as long as holding it leads to martyrdom!

The truth for which you suffer is crucial! One can admire mistaken people who suffer for their beliefs — but one cannot imitate them or commend them. If the truth of the cause, or the goodness of the virtue, were in question, or mistaken, there would be no reason to suffer for them: it would be the height of absurdity!

The Catholic Church never publicly honours non-Catholic "martyrs", because there is a defective element, more or less serious, in the content of their virtue of faith. When canonising the 22 Ugandan martyrs (St Charles Lwanga and his companions), in 1964, Pope Paul VI said, "Nor should we forget those others, of the Anglican communion, who died for the sake of Christ." He did not officially pronounce the Anglican ones 'martyrs' (it was not his office to do so in any case, since they were not members of his flock) but they could rightly be deemed such, since they died for Christ and Christian virtue — and not specifically for the Church of England vs the Catholic Church.

Real martyrs vs false martyrs

The word martyr is often used loosely and even falsely. I want to summarise my main points in eight propositions, and explain each one.

  • Real martyrs do not kill themselves
  • Real martyrs suffer harm but never inflict harm
  • Real martyrs do not seek death but accept it when it comes
  • The Christian martyr does not die out of hatred of the enemy, but out of love for Jesus
  • Real martyrs die bearing witness to truth
  • Martyrdom properly involves death, not just suffering, however intense
  • Some people are victims but not martyrs
  • Some people are heroes but not martyrs

1. Real martyrs do not kill themselves.

Suicide protestors dousing themselves with petrol, e.g., Buddhist monks in Vietnam in the 1960's; prisoners who hunger strike unto death, e.g., Bobby Sands in Maze prison in Northern Ireland in 1981, and Terence McSweeney, the Mayor of Cork, in 1920, whose bishop (rightly) said he could not receive Holy Communion or be anointed; Palestinian suicide bombers — all these are not martyrs.

2. Real martyrs suffer harm but never inflict harm.

Japanese kamikazes, or the September 11 Muslim kamikazes: their courage is extraordinary, but their beliefs are wrong, and their virtue is misguided — the Japanese ones less so, since it was in warfare.

The title of martyr is only given to those who do not try to save their lives by resistance. Archbishop Michael Sheehan, one-time co-adjutor Archbishop of Sydney, wrote, "Christ was slain by the enemies of truth, the enemies of God, and offered no resistance. The martyr's death is like the death of Christ; hence its great fruitfulness for the soul. Resistance, so far as it spoils the likeness to our Saviour's Passion, is inconsistent with martyrdom; that likeness is not, of course, spoiled in the case of one who resists an unchaste assailant solely for the purpose of escaping sin and defilement. Soldiers who fall on the battle-field, fighting for God or virtue, may be martyrs, but since, in their case, it would be difficult to establish that there is no admixture of any merely human motive, such as self-protection or the desire of distinction, the Church follows the rule that those who die as combatants must not be honoured as martyrs."

3. Real martyrs do not seek death but accept it when it comes.

Some of the early Fathers told their more zealous parishioners, "Do not go to the officers of the law and denounce yourselves as Christians!" St Thomas More did not seek martyrdom: he had great courage and prudence.

4. The Christian martyr does not die out of hatred of the enemy, but out of love for Jesus.

Thus the Church as a precautionary measure does not honour combatants as martyrs. However, they can be praised for their heroic deaths and for showing "no greater love than to lay down their lives for their friends." There is no canonised martyr whose last words expressed spite or anger or vengeance. Many of the English martyrs prayed for Queen Elizabeth who had decreed their execution, e.g., St Edmund Campion, and their love of enemies was always a powerful testimony to their Christian virtue and holiness.

5. Real martyrs die bearing witness to truth.

The fact of dying in itself does not render one a martyr. The Anglican boys murdered in Uganda were martyrs who died for Christian morality — but not the three Anglican bishops put to death under Queen Mary in 1555 and 1556: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, who died while holding out against the Catholic religion.

For martyrdom, it must be ascertained: first, that the killer hated the Faith, and second, that the victim died as a witness to the Faith or a Christian virtue. The cause, then, must be either a belief or a virtue. St Maria Goretti died for the virtue of chastity, and also while warning her assailant, "No, Alessandro, it is a sin; you will go to Hell." She was more concerned for his soul than for her own safety. Her heroic virtue, as well as that of her mother, was evident when her mother said to her in hospital, "Maria, you must forgive Alessandro." And Maria replied, "I have already."

St Thomas More died for the truth, for the Papacy, for the Catholic religion; he was not a 'martyr for conscience' as some people like to say. Australian political activist B.A. Santamaria (1915-1998) explained so well why this is so:

The Protestant Reformation had established the fundamental distinction between the Protestant and the Catholic positions. The Protestant took his stand on the ultimate sovereignty of the Bible and, subject to that, the finality of the private judgment of the individual conscience on matters of both faith and morality. The Catholic position was that, when either Pope or Council spoke 'authoritatively' on matters of faith or morals, the content of those declarations was binding on the conscience of the Catholic. If a Catholic believed that such definitions were outrageously wrong then he must come logically to the conclusion that the Church which promulgated them could not be guaranteed in the rightness of its declarations by God Himself. It was difficult to see what point there was in belonging to a Church whose basic claim had thus been falsified in the event. If, however, the Catholic believed that the fundamental basis of divine guidance on this quite restricted list of subject-matters was established, he was clearly bound by what was thus guaranteed.

There are strong arguments for both Protestant and Catholic positions, both of which have been held by strong intellects animated by high principles. But they are basically opposed positions. . . . The binding force of this external authority is the exact difference between the Catholic and the Protestant positions. It is in fact what the Reformation was all about. It is why Thomas More and John Fisher went to execution.

. . . In one of the more ironic manifestations of the general mood, St Thomas More was invoked as authority for the dubious proposition that the private conscience was the supreme arbiter of a Catholic's religious and moral beliefs: that so long as it was done in good conscience the obligation of Sunday Mass could be set aside (if the ceremony 'did you no good'), or that pre-marital sex was permissible (so long as the couple genuinely loved each other).

Some five centuries too late, one began to feel a little sorry for the martyred Chancellor. It was bad enough to be beheaded in the sixteenth century. It was much worse to become a cult figure in the twentieth. Because of the dramatic brilliance of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, he came to be regarded as the patron saint of 'protest', in the name of individual conscience against external authority: a kind of sixteenth-century Jane Fonda.

. . . it became necessary to point out that Thomas More was nothing of the kind. His carefully framed last words — 'the King's good servant, but God's first' — indicated the opposite.

. . . It is now claimed, with increasing emphasis, that Thomas is not only, in Bolt's words, a 'man for all seasons', but the common property of all Christian religious persuasions. For, it is said, he died for conscience, and this is the only thing which really matters. For this reason, Thomas More is sacred to all Christians, regardless of denomination, just as are Latimer and the Anglican martyrs, who also died, equally and undoubtedly, for conscience.

In our own age, we have seen Marxists, anarchists, Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, all die bravely for conscience. Like all brave men who die for ultimate conviction, they are worthy of our admiration, however one may judge their principles.

But it is a very different thing to imply either that the principles for which men die are all equally valid, because heroic men have died for all of them; or equally unimportant, since what matters is not the principles but the tribute of conscience, regardless of the principle, in the martyr's final testimony.

Such a view seems to make a nonsense of their decision to die at all. Why die violently, when what you think you are dying for is not of ultimate worth at all?

Sir Thomas More refused to attend Henry VIII's second marriage and he refused to sign the Act of Parliament making the King head of the Church in England. He never said, "I die for my conscience". Conscience is like a watch — you have to set it to the right time. It does not have a primacy. Truth, the Word of God, the teaching of the Church — all the same thing — have the primacy. Conscience is subject to them; not they to conscience. Cardinal George Pell of Sydney said in 2003, "I believe strongly in the importance of individual conscience. It is indispensable. . . . In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so-called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped. I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected."

What about those who are sincere in their errors? God alone can judge them. However, we must remember that we have to give an account to God, not only of our actions but also of our beliefs, since we may have been guilty of refusing Him the obedience of faith. We are responsible for our beliefs; and there is culpability in rationalisation and seeking the easy way out of duty.

6. Martyrdom properly involves death, not just suffering, however intense.

Sometimes people say: "He was a martyr for the cause; he was martyred for standing up for his beliefs" — when a man loses his job or position or whatever, but not life itself. Sometimes the phrase white martyrs is used, meaning Christians, such as in China, who have endured decades of imprisonment or ill-treatment, e.g., Archbishop Dang S.J. who spent 22 yrs in prison in China, 7 of them in solitary confinement; Cardinal Francis Xavier van Thuan who died in 2002: he was imprisoned from 1975, at the fall of Saigon to the Communists, until 1988.

7. Some people are victims but not martyrs:

Victims murdered out of revenge or killed in a robbery. Blessed Mary of Jesus (Sr Deluil-Martiny) of Belgium, born 1841, murdered in 1884 by a freemason who had declared his intention to kill — but there was an element of personal revenge for losing his job as convent gardener.

8. Some people are heroes but not martyrs:

Policemen who are shot dead in the line of duty; firemen who die while fighting fires or trying to rescue people; rescue workers who perish while saving others or trying to do so.

The witness of the martyrs

The fortitude of the Church's martyrs has been miraculous: because some persecutions extended over decades or centuries (such as in the Roman Empire, or in recent centuries, China, Japan or Vietnam); because vast numbers of every rank and age have suffered, including little children; because they endured, without surrender, the most terrible tortures; because they were unmoved in the face of the attractive rewards promised them, if they yielded; because, in the throes of death, they gave a beautiful and superhuman manifestation of Christian virtue, of the joyful acceptance of death and suffering, and of the very spirit of Christ on the Cross, praying for the salvation of their enemies, and blessing their killers.

The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians

"Crucify us [Christians], torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent", says Tertullian to the Roman authorities. "Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is, rather, an incitement to us. The more often we are mown down by you, the more we grow in number: the blood of Christians is the seed."

Martyrdom today

And the martyrdoms continue: it is estimated that every two weeks at least one Catholic missionary somewhere is put to death. There were more martyrs for Christ in the 20th century than in all the previous nineteen centuries put together. These countless deaths have not been without fruit. Now as earlier, the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians: apart from that major fruit garnered by the martyrs themselves — undying glory in Paradise — the Church universal has continued to expand: in Africa, Catholics numbered two million in 1900, and now number 110 million. "Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!": "Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules!"

The lesson for us today is clear: we have so little to complain of when we read the lives of the martyrs. We are called to be ready to lay down our lives; and we prepare ourselves by giving our lives to Christ. In the meantime, we are called to endure what we might loosely call "the martyrdom of daily duty." Performing our daily duties; being honest and virtuous even when this means being ostracised or mocked; refusing to compromise on our Christian morality; refusing to sell immoral devices; never voting for evil in a club or association; refusing to take part in dishonest or obscene enterprises; being faithful to our marriage even when our marriage partner has abandoned us.

"Be faithful unto death," says the Lord in Revelations 2:10, "and I will give you the crown of life."

The author is the Chancellor of the Maronite Diocese of Australia and editor of the revised edition of Archbishop Sheehan's Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine (Saint Austin Press, London 2001).

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