On Martyrdom

The recent murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel by two Islamic jihadists while he was celebrating Mass has served as a stark reminder to those in the West the deathly reality that many Christians in the East face daily.  Nearly all the Catholic media covering the brutal act label him as a martyr.  While it is not unreasonable to think that he may in fact have been martyred, it is premature to proclaim him as one.  Not everyone who is killed for the faith is a martyr, but instead the Church has several conditions she checks before declaring someone a martyr.  In the mind of the Church, martyrdom is not something we can manufacture ourselves but instead is a vocation or calling by God.  This means that we must be patient and allow the Church to play her role as Mother in discerning the authenticity of the vocation before calling someone a martyr on our own.

In recognition that there were those who were loosely bestowing the title of Martyr, Pope Benedict XVI in a letter to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints defined it as “(T)he voluntary enduring or tolerating of death on account of the Faith of Christ or another act of virtue in reference to God.”  He also reiterated the conditions for declaring a true martyrdom.

First there are the motives of the martyr himself.

“The martyrs of the past and those of our time gave and give life (effusio sanguinis [lit., ‘shedding of blood’]) freely and consciously in a supreme act of love, witnessing to their faithfulness to Christ, to the gospel and to the Church.”

The key to understanding martyrdom is connected to its literal meaning—witness.  A martyr accepts death voluntarily so as to witness to a good that is higher than life in the body.  He testifies by his actions the truth of the Gospel, most especially that Christ has definitively defeated death by His Resurrection.  Death has no sting for the martyr and therefore in steadfastness to his testimony of Christ, he is willing to endure it—“for to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

In this way Christian martyrdom is different from simply dying for a cause.  A martyr bears witness to the truth, and not just any truth, but a truth that is referred to God (i.e. we know He requires them of us and rewards us for them).  Faith requires both an inward belief and an outward expression and martyrdom becomes a supreme act of faith.

The reason why it is important to never lose sight of the fact that it is an act of witnessing is because death is not the goal.  Otherwise it would be akin to suicide.  In this way it is very different from something like Islamic “martyrdom” which usually consists in killing oneself (and taking others with you).  But Christian martyrdom is solely about witnessing even if that witness requires death.  This is why Peter and John after being chastised and beaten by the Jews were joyful in their witness to “obey God rather than men” even though they were not actually killed.

The second condition that Benedict XVI reiterated was related to the circumstances:

It is of course necessary to find irrefutable proof of readiness for martyrdom, such as the outpouring of blood and of its acceptance by the victim.

There is a certain amount passivity in the martyr that is akin to the passivity of Christ on the Cross.  Although the martyr is ready to suffer death, he does not seek it.  This ready acceptance of death in testimony of the Faith that is often the most difficult to establish.

Finally there is the intention of the persecutor.  He must show that it is a hatred of the faith that motivates him.

It is likewise necessary, directly or indirectly but always in a morally certain way, to ascertain the odium Fidei [“hatred of the Faith”] of the persecutor.

If we look at the case of Fr. Hamel specifically, it seems pretty clear that the killers were acting based on a hatred of the Faith.  Attacking a Catholic priest during Mass (assuming no other personal mitigating circumstances) would seem to be motivated primarily by a hatred of the faith.

Fr. Hamel

It is the other two conditions that would need to be established as well.  If the media reports of the incident are accurate, it appears that Fr. Hamel did in fact resist the attackers.  He apparently kicked at them just before they killed him.  An eyewitness named Sr. Danielle also said he resisted: “”They forced him to his knees and he tried to defend himself and that’s when the drama began,” said the nun.

This may seem as if this is just being a nitpick.  Clearly he was killed because he was a Catholic priest celebrating Mass.  Isn’t that enough?

In short, no, but it is important to understand what is being said.  If martyrdom is a vocation then to say that Fr. Hamel may not be a martyr is taking nothing away from him.  Nor is anything being said about his tremendous courage in facing his attackers and standing up to them.  There is nothing wrong with trying to defend yourself in that situation.  He should be lauded for his courage.

But, it is uncharitable on our part to refer to him as a martyr before the Church does.  It is akin to the habit of prematurely declaring someone a saint.  We should always act upon the presumption that the person is in purgatory.  Even if he is not, our prayers will have already been applied to him such that they will be part of the reason why he avoided it.  Because God is eternal, He knows of our prayers before we even pray them so that the merits can be applied retroactively.  Even if we are seeking his intercession, “our prayer for the dead is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (CCC 959).

There is another reason why we should have a clear idea of what true martyrdom consists in and that is because the Sacrament of Confirmation marks all of us are marked for martyrdom even if we may not actually be called to it.  The sacramental grace that is bestowed on us in Confirmation is the “power of the Holy Spirit” by which we are enabled to believe firmly and profess boldly the Gospel (i.e witness).  When the Bishop lays his hands on the Confirmandi’s head,  he is setting them aside as a sacrifice to God the same way that the Levitical priests always laid their hands upon the head of victim of the burnt offering sacrifice to God, they always laid their hands upon its head (c.f. Lev 1:3 and Exodus 29:10, 15).  In Baptism we are made as “sons in the Son” and in Confirmation we are made to share His lot as a sacrifice.

Just like the solder who trains as if he is going to battle even if he may never make it on the front lines, we must train as if God will call us to martyrdom.  As Aquinas says “the virtue of martyrdom consists in a preparation of mind should the situation arise.”  We must know exactly what we are training for—to witness to an unwavering faith in the power of the Resurrection even if it means accepting death.

All too often we treat martyrdom as some shortcut or something we just fall into.  But every one of the true martyrs readied themselves long before the actual event.  They were in the habit of building their love for God through a total self-denial.  This is why the distinction between red martyrdom and white martyrdom is misleading.  There is only one martyrdom.  The material of the so-called white martyrdom is simply preparation for the real thing.  We may not all be called to it, but most certainly we are called to prepare for it.

Are you ready?

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