Catholic Teaching


The word martyr is derived from the Greek martyros, which means, "witness." In general, a martyr is a person who willingly endures great suffering and who chooses to undergo even death rather than renounce his beliefs. St. Augustine clarifies the salient point that "men are made martyrs not by the amount of their suffering but by the cause in which they suffer." The true Christian martyr not only is willing to suffer and die for the cause of his Christian faith, but he must also follow this belief in Christ by living a life of charity. Martyrdom without charity, then, is not Christian martyrdom. St. Cyprian of Carthage makes this argument, stating that one "cannot show himself a martyr who has not maintained brotherly love." St. Cyprian argues further that the self-proclaimed Christian martyr who is without charity would not attain salvation, notwithstanding his suffering and death. In order to be true Christian martyrs, argues St. Cyprian, persecution must be suffered by one who abides in the love of God and suffers because of this love. One who loves God loves the Church, which His Son established. Father Boniface Ramsey in Beginning to Read the Fathers (New York / Mahwah : Paulist Press, 1985) quotes St. Cyprian: "Those who have refused to be of one mind in the Church of God cannot be abiding with God." St. Cyprian concludes that the martyrdom of one who separates himself from the Church will have no lasting merit for it is motivated by the wrong reason: "A person like that can be put to death, but crowned he cannot be."

St. Irenaeus adds that the "Church alone sustains with purity the reproach of those who suffer persecution... on account of their love for God and their confession of his Son." St. Irenaeus argues further that, because of the pervasive love of God which the Church has as a whole, the Church is able to encourage the witness of the faithful from which God will provide a "multitude of martyrs" and, even though she is "often weakened indeed," yet she recovers miraculously - "immediately increasing Her numbers and becoming whole again." The inspiration always found in the Church, who also held up the martyrs for admiration and love, is bound up with the faith, which Christ gave to his followers, viz., eternal victory over death. Tertullian could already claim at the beginning of the third century that "the blood of Christians is the seed" because Christianity provided the most vibrant faith with which to overcome the fear and dread of death. Father Ramsey expresses the insight of yet another Church Father, St. Athanasius, who viewed death as no longer "an object of terror" making men "play the coward;" but, rather, men who give themselves over to "Christ's faith and teaching" grow in a "contempt for death" which makes them eager to be "witnesses for the Resurrection."

Willingness to die for Christ was also bound up with the early belief that one's martyrdom was an offering to God which was bound up with Christ's own truly meritorious, sacrificial death. St. Ignatius of Antioch expressed the belief that the martyr for Christ is more perfectly united to Christ's sacrificial death and in becoming more perfectly God's sacrifice of "purest bread" which is "His wheat," the martyr is also more closely united to Christ in the Eucharist. Ignatius also saw martyrdom as a means of realizing man's redemption in Christ through a baptism of blood. Tertullian similarly taught that man is to be "baptized by water, glorified by blood." Further, Tertullian states that man is "called by water, chosen by blood" and that "these two baptisms He sent out from the wound in His pierced side." So efficacious is baptism of blood that Origen takes this idea, writes Father Ramsey, and "expanded [it] in a rather remarkable way: martyrdom profits not only the martyr himself but atones for many others as well." Those who suffer a martyr's death are more perfectly conformed to Christ in His sacrificial act and thus are more pleasing in the Father's eyes so that the Holy Spirit might bestow even more generously the Son's merited grace to those who need it most. Father Ramsey adds, moreover, that the martyr for Christ does not only do battle with those agents of evil on earth who persecute him, but he is also united with Christ and the Communion of Saints in battle with Satan and his legions. In combating evil, the martyr helps the faithful on earth, facilitating their efficacious utilization of grace in pursuit of Christ by "completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, the church." Col 1:24. Martyrdom can then be made the means of satisfying the need to atone for one's own sins and the sins of others, which need God had chosen for man to participate in fulfilling by joining in Christ's sufferings and death.

However, this does not mean that the Church encourages persons to seek martyrdom. Father Ramsey cites the anonymously written Martyrdom of Polycarp: "Blessed, then, and noble are all the martyrdoms that have taken place according to the will of God." This is based in Christ's own teaching not to court martyrdom but, rather, "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next." Mt 10: 33. Failure to abide by Christ's directive would not only be a foolhardy act but might also indicate that such a person in rashly aspiring to martyrdom is actually succumbing to the devil's temptation to become presumptuous with respect to God's grace. Being anxious for martyrdom in itself, instead of being motivated by a true love of Christ and a desire to do God's Will as a witness to the Gospel, could instead be motivated by a proud Pelagian self-reliance which delights in the view of oneself as being the source of one's courage; or, anxiousness for martyrdom could be motivated by a desire to gain the admiration and praise of others. Even more perversely, Satan can slowly and subtly tempt one with a degeneration of one's willingness to die as a witness to Christ into a nihilistic and self-hating surrender to the power of evil. Notwithstanding this responsibility to prudently refrain from deliberately provoking or inviting persecution and Christ's instruction to flee to the next town, that authentic martyrdom is an act of heroic virtue in obedience to God's will cannot be seriously disputed by true Christians. In order to bear witness to Christ, even while not encouraging one's persecution, one sometimes needs to put one's self, to a greater or lesser extent, in harm's way because of one's vocation in life. Examples abound. Even now in 1999-- at the end of a century that has arguably claimed more Christian martyrs than all the centuries combined since the time of Christ-- the Vatican recently confirmed the deaths of 18 priests who were killed by violent gangs opposed to independence for East Timor which has been part of the nation of Indonesia.

All Christians have a vocation to evangelize by word and example, in whatever ways possible, no matter what their station in life. Christ calls His followers to "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" Mt 10: 16 while, at the same time, each disciple of Christ must be willing to "deny himself and take up his cross and follow" Him. Mt 16: 24. But only through the grace of Christ, given by the Holy Spirit, can one come to fortitude which enables one to bear up under suffering and torture, even unto death. Father Ramsey takes note of instances of early martyrs, while being cruelly slain, experiencing the joy of Christ's presence. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp the author writes that Christians, while being put to death, "attained such a degree of heroism that not a grumble or groan escaped their lips, demonstrating that the martyrs of Christ had passed out of the flesh even in the very moment of being tortured-- or rather they were in the company of and in conversation with the Lord." This experience of the Lord's presence is made possible, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, by the Holy Spirit's "acting in his capacity as Comforter." "This union with Christ," states Father Ramsey, is "so overwhelming that it obliterates any sense of pain," and the martyr is no longer in his body. Quoting the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he adds that the martyrs are "no longer human beings but already angels."

But what of other Christians who are not called by God to be martyrs? An excellent way of Christian self-sacrifice may be found for the unmarried in that state of intentional and perpetual chastity which, in its purest form, involves a total abstinence from lustful sensation as well as from sexual intercourse-- which state is virginity. Unlike most cases of martyrdom where suffering and pain are endured "for a short period of time," virginity, writes Methodius of Olympus [as cited by Father Ramsey], "consisted in a steadfast endurance throughout [a] whole lifetime." The virgin was determined to "stand firm against the torments of pleasure, fear, sorrow and other vices," engaging in a "truly Olympian contest of being battered in the practice of chastity." Virginity may be linked to martyrdom because those with the courage to abstain from sexual relations in a certain sense die to their own selves, i.e., they deny themselves any pursuit of their own passionate desires. And while "Augustine says, no one would dare consider virginity greater than martyrdom," nonetheless the heroic struggle to overcome the erotic passions requires a similar type of effort. Sexual indulgence may become a habitual vice encouraged, in some instances, by a failure to find the true meaning of life.

For the ancient pagans, celibacy, or virginity, was, says Father Ramsey, "either a kind of heroic achievement or an escape from the burden of married life," but for "St. Jerome and others" virginity was distinguished by grace, i.e., it was "primarily a divine gift with the love of God and Christ as its object." Father Ramsey notes that Methodius of Olympus observes that by omitting one letter in the Greek word for virginity -- parthenia -- i.e., the letter "n," the word becomes partheia which means "nearness to God" which suggests that virginity "alone makes divine the one who possesses it and who have been initiated into its pure mysteries." Gregory of Nyssa is seen as further developing this notion of deification, or trinification, made possible by the sanctifying effects of virginity. Virginity leads to one's being made holy or set apart because it renders one "uncorrupted" and frees one from the enslavement of the body and the obsession with physical beauty and, thus, opens one to divine life and spiritual beauty. The virgin is one who not only abstains from sexual pleasures but also who pursues purity of heart in loving God, the source of all purity and all love; and the virgin's love, as can all human love which has been divinized, can only be manifested by purely loving one's fellow man with Christian charity, i.e., without pride or self-seeking gain. The goal of Christian love for the virgin is to uplift and direct the other to be closer to Him Who is the source of all good. Such a love is rooted in humility because it does not seek to aggrandize one's self, i.e., one's ego, in a parasitical exploitation or use of the other's body, mind and soul but, rather, humbly submits to God's love and grace as revealed by Christ to show the way to true love for others. St. Augustine exhorts the chaste soul to pursue Christ Who is "not unrighteousness but charity made humble; charity which rivalleth not, is not puffed up, seeketh not her own."

Michael Petruzzell

Michael Petruzzell is a guest writer for The Defender. Mike is the Coordinator of Religious Education at St. John Baptist de la Salle parish in Hyattsville, Maryland and he also teaches the High School level of the religious program there. He is currently working on a master's degree in Religious Studies at Catholic Distance University in Hamilton, Virginia.


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