The word Martyr means “witness” in Latin language. Martyrdom according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death” (#2473). Christians from the earliest times, following the suffering and death of Jesus Christ showed extraordinary courage and fortitude in renouncing their lives for what they believed. Down through the centuries Church history records ‘cloud of witnesses’ who willingly and joyfully laid down their lives for Christ and his Church.
As long a Christian faith exists and lived according to the way it ought to be lived there will be martyrs. Because Christian faith it is ‘the way of the cross’. That is the only way to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus has put it plainly, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24); “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His footsteps. (1 Peter 2:21) The first century Christians understood it clearly, “…And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12),
Pope St. John Paul II, who himself went through tremendous hardships in the hands of Communists and Nazis would describe martyrdom as “the most eloquent proof of the truth of the faith, for faith can give a human face even to the most violent of deaths and show its beauty even in the midst of the most atrocious persecution” (Incarnationis Mysterium, #13). Christ’s own violent death gave human face to Christian living. And it is being enacted by martyrs to our own times. The feast of Uganda martyrs gives us opportunity to examine our faith year after year.
Martyrs Yesterday and Today
A report by Open Doors USA finds that 7,100 Christians were killed in 2015 for “faith-related reasons.” That’s up 3,000 from 2014. And CNN report by William J. Cadigan as on January 17, 2016 says Christian persecution reached record high in 2015. We have seen in the social media the scenes of heading of Orthodox Christians in Syria in early 2015 and most recent being cruel slaughter of four Missionary Sisters of Charity and kidnapping of a Salesian priest during the Lenten period.
In defence of the martyrs, third century theologian Tertullian later wrote in his Apology, “Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this. When recently you condemned a Christian maiden to a panderer rather than to a panther, you realized and confessed openly that with us a stain on our purity is regarded as more dreadful than any punishment and worse than death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion.”
There is a current of thought and behaviour has been maintained in Christian martyrdom from the time of the apostles. There is a joy in offering oneself as a martyr, it is even considered as a privilege and grace, it is a gratitude to the gift of faith received, it is a commitment to the Church and to brothers and sisters in faith, it is a witness offered to the coming generation and above all it is a purification of one’s own Christian life.
We have martyrs in various ages, scholarship, and position. St. Polycarp who was a bishop and advanced in age. In offering himself he would say, ‘to the Lord who has been faithful to me all these years, how could I betray him, and he would pray, “I bless you for having judged me worthy from this day and this hour to be counted among your martyrs…. You have kept your promise, God of faithfulness and truth. For this reason and for everything, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son.” In the same way the Martyrs of Uganda through their vivid faith challenged their unpurified customs of their culture, evils of the regime, and other immoral practices of the time.
It is an accepted story that the time of persecution is the time of growth and holiness in the Church. The blood of the martyrs is not only seed of faith, it is also the apt nutrients for the growth of the church. The absence of “bloody” martyrs necessitated White Martyrs who “suffered” martyrdom through their total self giving, a kind of immolation, dying to oneself, to the world and its allurements.
It also includes agony, distress and afflictions brought by lack of religious freedom, presence of unfavourable condition for sacraments, prayer and worship, and hardships in ministry through hostile laws and deprivations. Surely it is suffered by the ministers of the church and lay Christians in their own capacity.
White Martyrdom can also be brought about through challenging relationships within ecclesiastical settings, religious communities and other committed relations in family life and other settings such as working in corrupt environments, unchristian atmosphere. They all call for deep faith and patience exercised in sense of Christian resignation. They often call for person commitment to faith and Christian morals.
Martyrdom and Personal Relevance
White Martyrdom makes Christian faith relevant in personal lives. In the words of C.S. Lewis, In the moment personal challenge to faith… “Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your resources and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked–the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: My own will shall become yours….'”
Perhaps we will not be called to offer our like in a cruel martyrdom like the martyrs of Uganda but we are often called to suffer white martyrdom silently, patiently and courageously. It could be as hard as the bloody martyrdom our holy men and women suffered.
Do the Uganda Martyrs challenge our daily life or remain only as something to admire and venerate? As we consider their act of faith as extraordinary, do we have something special to show in our faith? How much has their courage and sacrifice affected our moral living? Is our Christian life has a witness value? These are not just rhetoric statements and polemic of words; they are daily challenges in our life calling us to take our faith and moral living seriously.
(Article published in Monitor, newspaper in Uganda, 3 June 2016)
(Themes: Martyrdom, Sacrifice, faith and morals, Uganda)