Last week I wrote about James Foley and the increasing use of the word “martyr” in the wake of his execution. I’m pleased to note that others are having similar conversations, including David Gibson of Religion News Services. One of his recent RNS pieces is online at Huffington Post: “Is James Foley A Martyr? Brutal Death Sparks Faith-Based Debate.”
Gibson noted an important shift in the discussion about martyrdom:
For example, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who lived under constant threat for his advocacy on behalf of the poor and in defense of human rights, was immediately hailed as a martyr in 1980 when he was assassinated by paramilitary forces while celebrating Mass.
But under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Romero’s canonization cause was repeatedly stalled because conservatives in the Vatican argued that Romero had become an icon of liberation theology and was killed for political rather than religious reasons.
Only this month, in fact, Pope Francis — who has long revered Romero – announced that the archbishop’s sainthood process had been “unblocked.”
Francis also indicated that he wanted the church to consider whether those who are killed “for performing the works that Jesus commands us to do for our neighbor” are martyrs just as those who are killed for professing the creed. If that happens it could mark a significant shift in the church’s understanding of martyrdom.
John Allen makes a similar point in his book, The Global War On Christians:
[T]he late Pope John Paul II stretched the concept of martyrdom to include not only those killed in hatred of the faith but also those who died in hatred of the church. many theologians today are increasingly willing to include also those killed out of hatred for the virtues inspired by the faith.
Allen then gives as an example St. Maximilian Kolbe who was not killed in odium fidei (hatred of the faith). He died in a concentration camp during World War II when he offered his life to spare the life of a man who was a husband and a father. Instead, when St. John Paul II canonized Kolbe he termed him a “martyr of charity.” Allen notes that he was killed for choices made on the basis of his faith.
Gibson surveys a variety of opinions and I’m honored that he included mine at the end of his piece:
“We don’t want to cheapen the meaning of the word ‘martyr,’” the Catholic blogger Pia de Solenni wrote in a detailed meditation on Foley’s death. “But this is real. It’s happening everywhere. It’s making extraordinary witnesses out of ordinary people. We should not cheapen their witness by ignoring the reality of their sacrifice, their martyrdom.”
As a theologian, I see the discussion of martyrdom advancing out of necessity. There are an increasing number of people dying for or because of their faith, including non Christians. What does their witness tell us about them and the type of people they were? Were they people who clung to the truth, insofar as they knew it, to the point of death? I think the conversation began with St. John Paul II. Pope Francis seems to be continuing it. Time will tell.
In the meantime, I hope the witness that these individuals give reaches us and makes us realize just how many people are being killed not simply because of their faith, but because of their consciences.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a profound reflection on conscience at n. 1776 (citing Gaudium et Spes, 16):
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”
It seems to me that the martyr is someone who is deeply connected to his or her conscience and, were it not for that connection – even submission – they would likely be in different circumstances that would not result in their unjust death.
The topic of martyrdom has to be an ongoing conversation. Feel free to continue it in the com-boxes below!