Martyrdom and the Laity

The suggestion that models for the Christian are to be found in far-off “martyrs” may exhibit confusion both about martyrdom and about how most Christians live.

I have been thinking a lot lately about martyrdom. In part, this is because one reads about martyrdom with increasing frequency in the Catholic media. Archbishop Romero usually is called a martyr. The four religious women in El Salvador and now the priest and the Christian brother in Guatemala are seen as martyrs. There are efforts to designate 1982 as “the year of the martyrs.”

Not long ago, Peter Schineller, S.J., wrote an article entitled “The Challenge of the Martyrs” (America, October 11, 1980). His thoughts on the subject have remained with me, perhaps because Peter is a friend of mine whose views I value very highly. Also, though, there is something about “the challenge” of martyrdom that is troublesome to me, especially as a Catholic layman.

Schineller, in his article, asks the following questions: “What is worth living for today, and what is worth dying for? For what cause dare we expend our energy, time and talents, our lives and even our deaths? Where is God speaking today? Where is His creative and redemptive presence? What is the model of the saint or holy one as we move toward the end of the 20th Century?”

He answers these most important questions in the following words. “The growing phenomenon of martyrdom reveals the clearest and most concrete answer, an answer that should be examined by the Church and by individual Christians. In the martyrdom of Christians such as (Archbishop Oscar) Romero and (Father Rutilio) Grande, we see the clearest sign from God, the loudest voice telling Christians where we must move to find God.”

Without for a moment wishing to call into question the character or saintliness of Archbishop Romero or of Father Grande, one wonders if the public image of Romero “martyred by the assassin’s bullet as he celebrated the Eucharist in San Salvador,” or of Father Grande, “martyred for his support of the peasants in a rural village of El Salvador,” is indeed the clearest example for us North Americans of what it means to be a good Christian in the modern world.

The overwhelming majority of assassinations in El Salvador have happened not to priests or to nuns but to lay people. According to figures provided by the Legal Aid Office of the Archbishop of El Salvador, in 1980, of the 8,054 political deaths counted, ten were priests or religious. One hesitates to even mention such numbers, as if death and human suffering could be quantified. But the fact is that for every priest or nun murdered, a thousand lay people are killed.

After the deaths of the four American religious women, we both grieved and were inspired when we saw pictures of their smiling faces and read their biographies. How they reflected the nobler aspects of ourselves — enthusiasm and bravery and purity of purpose. We grieved also when Archbishop Romero was killed. Yet how inspiring his death seemed — to be shot in a cathedral while celebrating the Eucharist.

Somewhat reluctantly, one must ask, why have we read so little of the lives and deaths of the common people of Central America, the Catholic laity? Why is it so difficult to imagine the ones killed while at work in the fields and factories, while at a union meeting, while campaigning for political office, while at college, while sleeping with one’s spouse, while caring for one’s children? Have these important moments in a lay person’s vocation become so desacralized that they have lost their symbolic power, especially in comparison with, for example, the death of a priest while organizing peasants?

One problem with accepting the “challenge of the martyrs” is that a “martyr” is an idealized type — a stereotype at least, an archetype at best. The martyr is like the king, knight or “everyman” in medieval morality tales, or the capitalist, revolutionary and compesino in modern ones. Although these general categories —including that of martyr — might serve some sociological and theological purposes, one doubts if they help us to understand the actual lives of people in concrete situations, such as good literature does. The martyr as a type, like the saint, suggests someone who is less than an angel, but also, because of the lack of specificity, someone who is less than a human being.

Archbishop Romero, like Archbishop Thomas Becket, was locked in a struggle concerning the relative powers of church and state. Because of this, the image of an archbishop killed in a cathedral is probably more evocative for priests, nuns and professional church workers whose daily lives center on the institutional church. However for most laity, in North America as well as in Central America, the struggle is not one primarily of church vs. state, but of humanity, authenticity and survival in the face of inhumanity, falsehood and meaningless death.

Schineller, in his America article, relegates St. Thomas More (among other saints) to a time in the past when his example was more suitable. Not so many years ago, More was the popular saint “for all seasons.” When Eugene McCarthy was a leading presidential candidate in 1968 — running on a platform of peace and justice — reporters noted that in his senate office was a large print of Holbein’s portrait of More. They did not know what to make of it, but most lay Catholics did: Thomas More — husband, father, lawyer, scholar, citizen, saint — knew how to live by his wits, to seek the common good, to embrace life joyfully, and to defend his faith. However, as are most ethical stances of those who strive with political people, his martyrdom was completed.

In the beginning of Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons,” Richard Rich, who will betray More, tells him that everyone has a price for which he will sell his soul — if not for money or pleasure, then for “titles, women, brick-and mortar, there’s always something.” More strongly denies this, saying that such an idea is foolish. Rich then suggests that in suffering a person will submit. This idea intrigues More: “Buy a man with suffering?” Rich: “Impose suffering, and offer him escape.” More: “Oh. For a moment I thought you were being profound.”

Bolt raises an interesting question. Can a person be “bought” with suffering? Can there be in voluntary, conscious suffering the wrongful desire to simplify one’s focus, as in a game, to escape the complexities and compromises, dependencies and ennui of everyday life? If one can be bought by suffering, can one be bought by heeding the call to be born again, to die a martyr?

Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” is visited by four tempters who also assume that everyone has a price. The Fourth Tempter, the most dangerous, urges Becket to “Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest on earth, to be highest in heaven.” Becket, somewhat shaken, responds, “The last temptation is the greatest reason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason …. Sin grows with doing good.” This is a terrible paradox, especially for a Church leader. Becket explains his insight:

A servant of God has a chance of greater sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: the striving with political men
May make the cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.

When Schineller in his article quotes Pope Innocent III — “He who prays for a martyr does him an injury” — he implies with Innocent that martyrdom is not complex, that it is the same as sainthood, that there is no need for a Devil’s Advocate. Eliot knows better. He has Becket try to overcome his Tempter by saying the following in a Christian morning sermon just before his anticipated murder:

A martyr, a saint, is always made by the
design of God, for His love of men, to warn
them and to lead them, to bring them back to
His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of
man; for the true martyr is he who has
become the instrument of God, who has lost
his will in the will of God, not lost it but
found it, for he has found freedom in
submission to God.

Becket seems to overcome his Tempter, but given the fact that Becket focuses on the glories of martyrdom before his own impending death, does not the danger still exist that he is doing good — the right deed — but for the wrong reason? That he has a false sense of superiority over the common “children of God” (i.e. the laity)? That he has triumphantly assumed that he does know the design of God and that his will is the will of God? That he is surer of his fate and the correctness of his cause than was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani?

Becket confesses that he knows but does not know that “acting is suffering and suffering action.” Is there an answer to Becket’s question: “Can I neither act nor suffer without perdition?” One might begin to fashion an answer by re-reading Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine and its sequel, The Seed Beneath the Snow.

As many will recall, Bread and Wine is the story of Pietro Spina, a young socialist revolutionary, who, after years in exile, secretly returns to Fascist Italy and is given the disguise of a priest. As he goes from town to town, he tries to raise the political and social consciousness of the peasants he encounters but they react ambivalently to his rhetoric. Nobody knows better than they the oppressive nature of their existence. They demand from him as a priest not leadership but the solace of the sacraments and understandable explanations of God’s mysterious ways.

The turning point of the novel comes when Spina, while still trying to recruit peasants into his political movement, sees one quiet man who seems more serious than the others, more receptive to new ideas. The man leads Spina to his home — a filthy, smoky pigpen. There Spina tries to politicize him with simple stories of grand social experiments until he is informed that the man is both deaf and dumb. Feeling a bit foolish, Spina’s first impulse is to leave. But, in a moment of silence and grace, he stays and, with a smile, accepts a meal of stale, coarse bread and half of a dirty onion from Infante. It is a communion that leads Spina away from political action towards revolutionary friendship, and to his eventual death, i.e. martyrdom, at the hands of the Fascist police.

Unlike Romero and Grande who, as good pastors, are seen as laying down their lives for their sheep, Spina becomes one of the sheep. Unlike the recently celebrated American martyrs, he does not go to the “missions” to find where God is speaking today. He goes back home, to the Abruszzi, where he is known and where his family lives, where he has a past and where he will be buried. God speaks where one most is.

Spina, though never ceasing the political struggle to bring about justice, rises above political consciousness. Rhetoric gives way to dialogue, dialogue to communion. He gives his life not for a cause and not for “the people” or for “the poor,” but for a particular person, the deaf mute who is the poorest of the poor. His radical love is the “seed beneath the snow” which will grow despite the winter of political oppression.

His martyrdom is harsh, dreadful and anonymous, unlike the deaths of Becket, More and Romero, and so like the thousands who are dragged from their homes before dawn to have their throats slit before the eyes of howling dogs.

Although Spina’s solidarity with the poor and suffering is heroic, it is far from uncommon. How many of us know someone close to us who suffers from alcoholism, cancer, mental illness or despair? How many of us know those who unselfconsciously care for them, who suffer with them, who are martyrs — Monday morning martyrs — dying with a sad joy for the love of others, like Pietro Spina?

The death of Spina for Infante suggests the unheralded martyrdom of the laity. It is the quiet martyrdom of the parent for the child that precedes the examples of the deaths of St. Thomas More, St. Thomas Becket and even St. Peter. It is modeled on the Pieta.


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