The Glorious Company of Martyrs

In the Catholic tradition, much value is placed on the lives of the martyrs. We all hear stories about the martyrs—specifically in recent days about the 498 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War beatified last Sunday in the Vatican—but what does it mean to be a martyr? Etymologically, the word in Greek, «martyros», means “a witness.” Obviously, this is quite a broad definition and the way modern language uses the word is usually much more specific; however, this basic significance is the root of all other uses of the word.

In the normal, Catholic sense, a ‘martyr’ is a person who dies for one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Simply put, shedding blood for the faith is nothing more than the purest form of ‘witnessing’ to the faith. Certainly, though, not all of us are faced with the threat—or better the opportunity—to give our very life for Christ in such a manner; “not everyone is called to face a cruel martyrdom,” said Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday. However, in reality, as Christians abiding loyally to the faith we profess, we are all called to be prepared to be martyrs in some way—whether it be in blood or in some other sacrifice. “Martyrdom is not an exception reserved only to a few individuals,” said the Holy Father, “but a realistic eventuality for the whole Christian people… Those who have given the supreme witness of their blood have been men and women, young and old, from all walks of life and every position of social standing.”

The pope went on to describe the life of faith as “a peaceful battle of love that every Christian, like St. Paul, must wage tirelessly. It is the race to spread the Gospel to which we are committed even unto death.” To me, this seems like a claim with a very counter-cultural and counter-intuitive message. At first it seems a bit passive—a “peaceful battle” doesn’t exactly incite much zeal by itself. However, a peaceful “battle of love” provokes a much different response; it elicits the necessity for self-emptying and self-giving, “even unto death.” It is not too much to say that, as Catholics, we should be willing to empty ourselves even of our own blood, if the Lord so desires. This ‘witness’ to others of the veracity of the Church’s faith perfectly brings about a vision of Christ as the divine Savior, who has overcome death itself. It has long been taught that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith.” This is the “universal vocation to holiness” to which we are all called and this, I think, quite effectively sums up what it means to be a martyr.