Anselm, Judith, Marguerite, Reginette. These are the names of sisters of the Missionaries of Charity killed in Yemen on the first of March, this year. “They shed their blood for the Church,” the Pope has proclaimed. “They were killed in hatred of the faith,” said the Vatican’s Secretary of State. In a word, martyrs.
I was in elementary school when I heard about martyrdom for the first time. My teacher spoke of a Polish priest, Maximillian Kolbe, who had offered his life for a fellow prisoner in a Nazi work-camp, and was about to be proclaimed a saint. His figure provoked a bit of fear in me. However, I also found him to be heroic and fascinating, even if I didn’t understand why the life of a priest should be worth less than that of the father of a family… I began to understand a bit more some years later. I was eighteen when that same teacher of religion, don Isidoro Meschi, died at the age of forty-six, killed in the courtyard of the house for recovering drug-addicts that he himself had founded. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Gv 15,13), I heard on the day of his funeral, and, for the first time, I felt the desire to be like him, a priest, and to give my life for my friends.
Why does martyrdom fascinate us? It fascinates because it reveals the desire that lives in the heart of each one of us: the desire for a life full of meaning, for an existence spent for a great ideal. All of us want to be capable of a love without reserve, of a life lived with authentic radicality. Balthasar said that the life of a Christian cannot but arrive at the availability of martyrdom. Not just priests, therefore, nor just those in the consecrated life. Every person who truly loves is called to this radicality, because martyrdom is a dimension of love, as love fulfills itself only in the totalizing offer of one’s own life. Love is as strong as death, recites the Song of Songs. “I love you to death” as lovers say to one another. And it’s true, because a love that does not arrive to the point of desiring to give his life for the beloved is not complete. For this reason, I always say that marriage is a martyrdom. It seems like a joke, but it isn’t. Matrimony is giving one’s life to another, putting it into the other’s hands, a giving of oneself without reserve and forever. It seems like an enormous sacrifice, but at the forefront is the love, not the sacrifice. If a husband cares for his wife who is ill, why does he do it? If a father and a mother give up a more comfortable life in order to have another child, why do they do it? Certainty not because they relish suffering in some strange way. The only plausible reason remains their love. As Balthasar says, “Rendering testimony, in Greek, martyrion, is not so much a question of death, as it is a question of life in every moment. One’s death for Christ is just the most extreme manifestation of the vigorous, daily fight for Christ.”
What fascinates us about the martyrs is their freedom: they are free men because they are men who are certain. It is the truth that sets us free, as Jesus said the Gospels, and the truth that He has revealed to us is that the meaning of life is to give oneself totally, and that every life given in this way becomes a stone that builds up the Church, which is the beginning of a new world. Only such a discover will allow us to offer a witness free from compromise every time it is asked of us, even if such a witness provokes opposition or even hate, which, at any rate, Jesus has already announced to us in advance: If the world hates you, know that it has hated me first (Jn 15,18). Péguy is right when he says that “every Christian, nowadays, is a soldier. What was proposed to our fathers is now imposed on us. They had to take up the cross by themselves, and move it themselves from place to place. God gives the cross to us (what a test of faith!) for an uninterrupted Way of the Cross in our own home. We are all at the front.” Nothing that is authentically Christian could ever be confused with violence, nor with the desire to impose one’s idea of the truth. Instead, what moves us is only our love for the other and our love for Christ. For this reason, when we, in our various missions, come up against the figures of the martyrs, we cannot but desire to live and to love as they did, we who want to be a testimony of that same love in every part of the world.
photo: Roger Sanderson