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Ask the Register: What does it mean to be a martyr?

Q. Across the globe, Christians are suffering unspeakable violence. Many are displaced from their homes, and many are killed. Are they martyrs? What does it mean to be a martyr in the Catholic Church?

A. The word martyr means “witness.”  Traditionally, the Church uses that term to describe those who have given their lives as a consequence of the faith.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude.”

The moral theologian Dominic Prunner, OP, says that “Martyrdom is the endurance of bodily death in witness to the Christian religion. Therefore three conditions must be verified for martyrdom: a) actual death; b) the infliction of death by an enemy out of hatred for Christianity. c) the voluntary acceptance of death.”

By that definition, many Catholics around the world suffer martyrdom.  We should pray and fast for them—that persecution around the world cease.  We should be aware that the suffering of martyrs is a conduit for untold grace— since the early days of the Church, we have believed that the suffering of martyrs brings growth to the Church.  In the third century, the theologian Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” 

We should pray for the grace of fortitude in our own lives—that even if we are not called to death for Christ, we would still die to ourselves, choose to become “witnesses” with our own lives, out of love for Jesus Christ, and for those in need of the Gospel.

Write to Ask the Register online or at 3700 Sheridan Blvd, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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