Eleven of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ were martyred. So was St. Paul. 30 of the first 33 popes of the Catholic Church were also martyred, along with many of the first bishops, priests, and deacons. In the Book of Acts, St. Stephen was martyred shortly after Christ’s Ascension. Thousands of Christian disciples have followed the path of his martyrdom.
The word martyr simply means witness, and, in one sense, we are all called to the martyrdom of witness—to live our entire lives in witness to Jesus Christ, in witness to his passion, death, and resurrection. To be sure, we will face obstacles—we will be challenged, or marginalized, or ignored because of our faith. Faith in Jesus Christ seems foolish to the world. It always has. The confidence of believers in the truth of the Gospel provokes outrage. Our fidelity to God is an affront to tyrants. Our prophetic voice makes sin uncomfortable. Our witness to charity, even, when juxtaposed with greed and evil in this world, is seen as a threat by those who seek to advance themselves by immorality or selfishness.
Believers live in this world, but they do not live like the world lives. For that, since the first days of the Church’s life, we face trials and challenges.
Some Christians, though, are called beyond the martyrdom of witness in their lives. Last week in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass for Father Jacques Hamel, who was killed in July while celebrating Mass in Rouen, France. The pope said that “this is a story that repeats itself in the Church, and today, he said, there are more Christian martyrs than there were at beginning of Christianity.”
The death of Father Hamel was shocking, but not surprising. And his death called to mind the recent killings of the Missionaries of Charity Sisters who operate a nursing home in Yemen, and the 30 Ethiopian Christians beheaded on a beach last year by ISIS. The image of this killing is horrific, and unforgettable.
But while those killings made headlines, and drew attention, Christians are martyred around the world, with startling and sobering frequency, and very rarely are we aware of it. Low estimates suggest that seven or eight thousand Christians are killed because of their faith each year. This means that today a Christian is killed for his faith nearly every hour of every day!
Martyrdom has been a part of the Church’s life since the beginning. And as believers, there are three things that Christian persecution requires of us.
The first is that we pray for Christians in parts of the world where persecution and martyrdom are common: the Middle East, of course, especially those places governed by the barbaric ISIS; also parts of Asia, where Christians also face serious persecution at the hands of governments, and the hands of militant extremists. In fact, we need to pray for believers in every part of the world: the death of Father Hamel demonstrates that dangerous and violent anti-Christian ideologies do not confine themselves to regional or national boundaries.
Our prayers are an expression of solidarity with persecuted Christians, an act of entrusting their needs to Almighty God. Our prayers are a source of unity and a plea for their safety to the Lord. And our prayers have real effect on their situation. Scripture says that the fervent prayers of the righteous bear true fruit. Our prayers help the persecuted Christians around the world bear their circumstances with courage, grace, and the truest kind of freedom.
The second is that we work to help end Christian persecution through the democratic and political tools available to us. As Americans, we live in the most influential nation in the world. We are free to contact our lawmakers and leaders to express our concerns for persecuted Christians around the world. We are free to expect our nation to help find solutions for persecuted Christians, and to hold them accountable to that expectation. The leadership of our own Congressman, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, has already impacted the situation of Middle Eastern Christians for good. Our obligation as Christians is to use the political influence and opportunities we have for the welfare of persecuted and martyred Christians.
Finally, our obligation is to build the kind of robust Christian culture that helps to defeat the ideologies and efforts of anti-Christian terrorists and organizations. The French philosopher Pierre Manet says that “The universal Church alone is up to the task of holding together a… form of life that has the capacity to offer hospitality to Judaism, Islam, evangelical Protestantism, and the doctrine of human rights.”
The Church has the fullest view of the common good, and the fullest view of what human rights really are. In a society shaped by real Gospel truths, in which real freedom is paramount, and human dignity is at the forefront of social and cultural life, the appeal of anti-Christian terrorism and persecution rings hollow. In a vision of the world shaped by the vision of Jesus Christ, murders like those of Father Jacques Hamel make no sense. And in a world confident in the truth of Gospel, the evil of Christian persecution is named and addressed quickly, without the hand-wringing characteristic of relativism.
In the second century, the Christian author Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity.” He meant that when martyrs are unified in death to the cross of Christ, grace abounds. In that grace is the spread of the Gospel. But we should do all we can to protect the right of Christians to practice the faith freely and safely. We need to continue to pray for persecuted Christians, to work to end religious persecution, and to build robust and free societies, rooted in the truth of Jesus Christ.