We Live in an Age of Martyrs


October 14, 2019

I have an elderly clerical friend who describes himself as a “martyr to his stomach.” Now, there are many reasons why one might become a martyr, but to bear witness to the needs of the colon seems fairly low on the list. He also goes to the pub and orders his beer in half-pint glasses, a worrying sign of moral turpitude.

The term “martyr” is used widely today. In militant Islam, the word is shahid—literally, “witness. It denotes someone who blows himself up while trying to kill as many innocents as possible. In the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul encourages Christians to persevere and run the race of the Faith precisely because we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses”—the holy men and women in the Old Testament and the true martyrs, who gave all for Christ.

Monsignor Ronald Knox once wrote that “a martyr means someone who dies, not merely to bear witness, but to bear witness to the truth.” That distinction is essential for a proper understanding of martyrdom, and it is the reason why Christians should be inspired, encouraged and edified by the martyrs, both those of bygone centuries and those of our own age. The Church has always taught that the purpose of canonization is, apart from honoring the saint and asking for his prayers, to be an exemplar to the faithful and a source of encouragement to live the Christian life fully. The martyr—the man, woman or child who dies because of his or her faith in Christ—is, perhaps, the greatest source of encouragement to “persevere,” as Hebrews says. In modern terminology, the martyrs are the very best of role models.

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If real martyrdom involves bearing witness to the truth then, a fortiori, you can be a martyr neither to your stomach nor to militant Islam. Indeed, you can’t be a martyr to any other cause or faith; a shahid cannot, in any sense except the semantic, equate with a Christian understanding of martyrdom. Someone who immolates himself for the sake of raising climate change awareness may have very profound beliefs, but he is not a martyr.

“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate (that most contemporary of politicians) when the Truth was standing in front of him. Bearing witness to the truth that there is no name under heaven by which we can be saved, except the name of Jesus Christ, and to be willing to die for that truth: that is what makes someone a martyr.

From the very beginning of the Church, the veneration of the martyrs has been an inspiration. That is why those first Christians gathered in the catacombs to celebrate Mass. Today, every altar contains relics of the martyrs, both to sanctify the altar and to connect us with that ancient witness.

The modern martyrs of the Faith—dying in their thousands in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan, to name but a few—are bearing witness to the truth, a truth that sets them free. Who can fail to be inspired by the witness to the truth of Asia Bibi, that illiterate Pakistani Christian woman just freed after all those years on death row in Pakistan for “blasphemy”? Similarly, the soon-to-be beatified Fr. Ragheed Ganni was martyred in Mosul in 2007 along with four sub-deacons after celebrating Mass. As his murderers approached, they demanded of Father Ragheed why he had failed to close the Church when they had ordered him to do so. His response is one of the most powerful witnesses in the modern age: “How,” he asked them, “can I close the House of God?”

In describing the martyr’s service to the truth, Knox also reminds contemporary Christians, especially in the West, why the martyr’s witness is so important in a post-truth world. “What the martyrs triumph over is not the fury of the persecutor, it is the spell of the things which persecution takes from them. They triumph over the attractiveness of peace, of ease, of liberty, of comfort, of companionship, of health and finally, the greatest attraction of all, of life itself.”

Solzhenitsyn wrote that the worst thing about the communist system was that it forced everybody to participate in what he called “the general conscious lie.” That participation in the “conscious lie” is becoming ever more present in secular societies, which deny eternal truths. It is the conscious lie of political correctness—the conscious lie of silence in the face of untruth. It is the forced silencing of opposing opinions on college campuses, the shaming of political opponents, and the increased attacks on free speech. What Murray has called “the madness of crowds” is, in reality, the curtailing of the truth. It’s the enforcement of the conscious lie.

The witness of the martyrs is the antidote to the conscious lie. It’s the inoculation that prevents the lie from taking hold and infecting society with a leprous plague of falsehood.

All of us, in moments of self-examination and humility, will admit to a fear of the things Knox lists being taken from us. Perhaps we might be willing to lose our peace or ease for the sake of the truth. But our liberty, or life itself? Surely that’s asking too much.

The one thing necessary that the martyrs give us is the courage both to persevere and to be joyful in the strength of the Holy Spirit. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,” the author of Hebrews writes. “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

St. Theodore of Tarsus came to Canterbury in Anglo-Saxon England as archbishop in the 7th century; many believe he was Syrian. Between 640 and 740, there were no fewer than six Syrian popes. We sometimes imagine that the modern Church is very open and multicultural, but I wonder if we are not really very parochial and it was the ancient Church that was truly “catholic.” What would happen, for example, if the Pope appointed as the next Cardinal Archbishop of New York a bishop from Damascus or Beirut? I would hazard a guess he would change a few priorities.

The past is with us by the memory and veneration of the martyrs, but the witness of the modern martyrs to the truth—especially those who suffered under the twin evils of Nazism and communism—should provide much-needed encouragement and inspiration for contemporary Christians. Attempts to ingrain the conscious lie into society will only grow in secular cultures, which tolerate everything except the intolerable practice of orthodox Christianity. Speaking the truth in love—Caritas in veritate—is the vocation of every Christian, without exception. Each martyr, each person who “dies, not merely to bear witness, but to bear witness to the truth,” is a beacon of light.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


  • Fr. Benedict Kiely

    Fr. Benedict Kiely is a contributing editor to Crisis and the magazine’s Middle-Eastern correspondent. He’s the founder of Nasarean.org, a 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to relieving the persecution of Christians in the Mideast. He is incardinated in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

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