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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Martyrdom--Part of our Christian Call

Martyrdom of St. Stephen
   I can remember well being a student at St. William's School in the Dorchester section of Boston.  Our religious studies were based on the Baltimore Catechism but were fleshed out with brief lessons in Church history and stories of the saints.  I was always intrigued by the stories of martyrs who gave their life for the faith and was filled and filled with admiration for them.  I often wondered if I would have the courage to make such a sacrifice if placed in a situation where I had to profess my faith or die.

   As time went on I also thought of martyrdom as a remote possibility, especially for those of us living in the USA.  Yes, the sisters and later the friars who taught me in high school mentioned people in Communist countries who were martyred but it all seemed long ago, or far away, or both.

   I have had occasional encounters with the reality of martyrdom that were more close at hand.  I remember swimming at one of my province's vacation houses a number of years ago.  One of the friars there had served at our mission in China and was expelled by the Chinese government after a time in prison.  He had on his back and legs the marks from the whippings and beatings he endured.  Naturally no one of us wanted to bring up the fact that we had noticed the marks, but it did come up and he told us that he was privileged to have suffered for Christ.  I can't tell you how moved I was by that.

   While In Bolivia I saw several catechists in our mission who had been imprisoned under an oppressive regime there for preaching the Gospel and it's message of justice.  Their heroism to this day is an inspiration to me.

   Here we are today in a world where ISIS terrorists are slaughtering people just because they are Christian (or for that matter for being the wrong kind of Muslim).  In our own country we are not subject to that (yet) but we are often ridiculed for our beliefs in an increasingly secular world that is moving from tolerance of religion to hostility in many instances.

  The word martyr comes from the Greek martyros meaning witness. In that sense we are all called to be martyrs, not necessarily in the sense of laying down our life, but in having the willingness to stand up and speak up for the faith and for the justice that the Gospel demands even if it means rejection, social isolation, imprisonment, or even death.

   Are we willing to be martyrs?  How strong is our courage?  Our faith?  Can we pray that the spirit will give us these gifts if they are lacking to us.  Can we embrace martyrdom as a privilege?

   Jesus tells us, "Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven. (Mt 5: 10-12)

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