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Dear visitors: This Catholic Answers website, with all its free resources, is the world’s largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. We receive no funding from the institutional Church and rely entirely on your generosity to sustain this website with trustworthy, accessible content. If every visitor this month donated $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. If you’ve never made a gift, now is the time. Your donation will be matched dollar for dollar this week only. Thanks and God bless.
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Are Martyrs Navy SEALs or Little Flowers?

Martyrs aren't necessarily braver than us—they're more open to God's grace

I was listening recently to the account of martyrdom read on the feast of St. Dominic Ibáñez and companions, who were martyred in Japan in the seventeenth century. If you have not heard this text before, it’s grisly. In the reading, St. Dominic Ibáñez is recounting the ways in which various Christians had been killed for the Faith: some buried in the ground up to their waists and then slowly sawed in half over the course of several days, some burned alive suspended over the fire to make their death longer and more painful, and still others crucified.

Stories such as these, while gruesome, are also edifying and inspiring tales of Christians totally dedicated to Christ. However, as I listened to these tales, a disturbing thought, only half-formed, shot across my mind: could I have done that? Or would I have caved?

Ever since our Master himself suffered a brutal death on a cross, the spirit of martyrdom has always been a part of the Christian faith. From the beginning of the Church, some Christians, including almost all the apostles, witnessed to their Faith by shedding their blood and giving a wholehearted yes to the Father’s will, even unto death, as did Christ himself. Virtually every age of the Church has its martyrs, and a glance through the liturgical calendar will reveal that we often have the opportunity to celebrate a martyr’s feast.

But it is one thing to understand and even admire the martyrs and quite another to desire martyrdom for oneself; deep down, it’s likely we’re afraid to die for our Faith. We’re a little like parents who pray for priestly and religious vocations yet who are apprehensive at the thought of giving one of their own children to the service of the Church. We love martyrs, but do we love them at arm’s length?

The grace of God

I wonder if most of us have felt the way that I felt when I heard that martyrdom reading. Maybe you yourself have listened to the tale of a martyr such as St. Edmund Campion, or the North American Jesuit martyrs St. Isaac Jogues and St. John de Brebeuf; maybe you marveled at their courageous dedication to Christ and the truth, even in the face of certain suffering and death; maybe you even thanked God for such courage.

But perhaps a voice within you said, “I couldn’t do that. I’m too weak. I’d probably cave in and deny Christ when the flames got too close or the axe was unsheathed.”

Is this the voice of the devil? Probably. Nonetheless, there is a point here: the truth is, left to ourselves, we would fail in the face of suffering, and we would certainly give up on the Catholic faith when torture threatened, and we would certainly cave when we could avoid death by rejecting Christ.

This brings us to what is so unique and distinctive about Christian martyrdom: the martyr’s victory is not his own but the victory of the grace of God. A Christian martyr is not necessarily someone who has a forceful personality or who is naturally courageous or who has a high tolerance for pain. Rather, a martyr is someone who has received a very special gift from God—the grace to believe in Christ, even when it means suffering and death.

This is powerfully expressed by one of the prefaces provided in the Roman Missal for feasts of martyrs: “You [Lord] are glorified when your saints are praised; their very sufferings are but wonders of your might: to their endurance you grant firm resolve, and in their struggle the victory is yours.” You are glorified . . . your might . . . you grant firm resolve . . . the victory is yours. Over and over, we see that the victory of the martyrs is not so much about the martyrs but about God.

The martyrs themselves realized this. Countless martyrs chanted the Te Deum, that great hymn of praise of God, as they went to their place of execution. The martyrs did not congratulate themselves—rather, they praised God for the privilege of dying for him and for the grace they were given to stay true to him, even in the ordeal they faced for believing in him.

Grace versus pride

What is this grace of martyrdom, exactly? The text just quoted from the preface sums it up nicely: it is a gift God gives that enables a person to have firm resolve in the face of suffering. This grace makes it possible for the martyr to love God so much as to say yes to him, no matter the cost, no matter the suffering. Just as gas gives a car the ability to move, grace gives the martyr the ability to stay true to God.

This may sound pretty straightforward. If so, then why do we hear that voice of fear when we think about martyrdom? If God gives the grace of martyrdom when it is needed, why are we afraid of caving in if we find ourselves faced with the opportunity to die as martyrs? Why are we troubled by the thought of our weakness in the face of suffering for Christ?

Sadly, the answer, quite likely, is pride. The sin of pride makes us think we can save ourselves and that we are capable of serving Christ perfectly without the help of his grace, whether in the extraordinary situation of martyrdom or the ordinary daily life of following Christ. The person with a proud heart relies on himself and his own resources.

Thus, the prideful person likely thinks of the martyrs as the Navy SEALs of the Christian faith: men and women who have undergone extensive preparation and who have unique personality traits, physical strength, and extraordinary grit and thus are able to face frightening situations with courage and confidence.

This idea of the martyrs may sound attractive, but it is not Christian. Remember: in Christian martyrdom, even if we honor the martyrs, we praise and thank God, who made their martyrdom possible in the first place.

Rather than pride, we are called to a deeper spirit of humility. True humility will help us rely on God and not on ourselves. St. Thomas Aquinas nicely sums up humility as the virtue “to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately” (Summa Theologiae, 2:2, q. 161, objection 5).

In other words, humility keeps someone from striving for greatness by his own strength. Striving for greatness is fine—after all, we should all strive to be saints! The problem is not striving for greatness but rather striving to be great by our own powers.

The little way

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, desired martyrdom. She famously prayed, “Jesus, may I die a martyr for you. Give me martyrdom of heart or of body, or rather give me both.” Yet Thérèse joined this bold and courageous prayer with a deep spirit of humility.

“When I compared myself to the saints,” she reflected, “there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passersby.”

The unique character of Thér­èse’s holiness is the combination of three elements: a great desire for holiness, a profound knowledge of her own inability to accomplish this without the assistance of grace, and boundless confidence in Jesus, whose arms would be “the elevator” that brought her up to him. Although Thérèse did not die the death of a martyr, she certainly had the heart of one.

This brief portrait of St. Thérèse of Lisieux helps us understand the paradox that is at the core of all the saints. They are great, incredible, and awe-inspiring; yet it is precisely their humility that made them so great, for their humility opened the floodgates of their hearts to allow the grace of God to flow within them in such great torrents.

This paradox is characteristic of our Christian faith—the proud are humbled, and the lowly are raised up. Therefore, the best preparation for martyrdom is not strength training or interrogation endurance exercises but rather the practice of humility of heart. The proud person could never endure suffering and torture for the sake of Christ—not because he is weak or has a low pain tolerance but simply because his heart is too proud to allow God to work in his weakness. For the follower of Christ, humility is the path to victory, because the victory is not ours—it belongs to God.

The martyr’s heart

Our age is not an easy time to be Catholic. The Church seems to be under constant attack by the powerful and cultural elite of our nation. It is not difficult to find an article or a headline in the news declaring some setback suffered by Christians or Christian values. What is more, the Church even seems to be under attack from the inside as accusations surface and leaders we trusted are exposed as apparent frauds.

In the face of so much opposition, it is easy for our hearts to become fearful and anxious. We can be slowly subdued into thinking that our defeat is certain, that eventually we will just lose the will to fight, and the forces of error and evil will have the upper hand. We hear that little voice: if we are under attack by the powerful, by the rich, and even by forces within the Church, how can we possibly survive this war of attrition? If enough time goes by, will all Church leaders eventually be exposed as frauds?

This is the voice of the devil. He tempts us to despair and discouragement, yes, and to compromise with the world, definitely. However, he also subtly tempts us to pride by convincing us that the battle is completely up to us and that we have only human resources and arms at our disposal.

This is a dangerous temptation, because if we become guilty of pride and therefore trust in our own powers, then we are certainly lost; for left to ourselves, we will not stay true to Christ in our difficult age any more than Peter could walk on water by himself.

Do we need confident proclaimers of Christ today? Definitely. Do we need Christians who faithfully and boldly live the Catholic faith? Absolutely. But what we all need is the heart of a martyr. The martyr’s heart is not a proud heart, and a martyr is not a model of self-reliance; rather, the heart of the martyr is a heart with unshakeable faith that Jesus has already won the victory and chained the power of the Evil One.

Indeed, the martyr believes in his very bones that this victory is not his but rather the victory of the One who said, “Take courage, I have overcome the world.”

Sidebar: Benedict XVI on Martyrdom

In an audience in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on martyrdom:

Where does the strength to face martyrdom come from? From deep and intimate union with Christ, because martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of human effort but the response to a project and call of God, they are a gift of his grace that enables a person, out of love, to give his life for Christ and for the Church, hence for the world.

If we read the lives of the martyrs, we are amazed at their calmness and courage in confronting suffering and death: God’s power is fully expressed in weakness, in the poverty of those who entrust themselves to him and place their hope in him alone. Yet it is important to stress that God’s grace does not suppress or suffocate the freedom of those who face martyrdom; on the contrary, it enriches and exalts them: the martyr is an exceedingly free person, free as regards power, as regards the world; a free person who in a single, definitive act gives God his whole life and in a supreme act of faith, hope, and charity abandons himself into the hands of his Creator and Redeemer; he gives up his life in order to be associated totally with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In a word, martyrdom is a great act of love in response to God’s immense love.

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