Category Archives: martyrs

A martyr’s tribute to another martyr

Before the current wave of martyrs in the Middle East, most recently those killed in Egypt on Palm Sunday, there were a good number of martyrs in Algeria in the 1990s.

The most famous of these are the Trappists of Tibhirine who were kidnapped on March 27, 1996, and then killed. John Kiser wrote The Monks of Tibhirine; Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria. The moving film Of Gods and Men is one of the most moving films I have ever see.

Their prior, Fr. Christian de Chergé, OCSO, wrote an incredible testament, available here in English and French.

But there were many others.

On May 8, 1994, two years before his martyrdom, Fr. Henri-Barthelemy Verges, Marist brother, and Sister Paule-Hélène Saint Raymund, Little Sister of the Assumption, were killed in Algiers, Algeria.

On July 5, 1994, Père Christian wrote this about Père Henri-Barthelemy:

“I was personally very close to Henri. His death seemed to be so natural, just part of a long life entirely given to the small, ordinary duties. He seemed to me to belong to the category that I call ‘martyrs of hope,’ those who are never spoken of because all their blood is poured out in patient endurance of day-to day life. I understand ‘monastic martyrdom’ in the same sense. It is this instinct that leads us not to change anything here at present, except for an ongoing effort at conversion. But there again, no change!”

Martyrdom is not always something extraordinary. It is often the closure on a life given over in love to the tasks of daily life.

This reminded me of what Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero wrote in his retreat notebook, in March 1980, shortly before his martyrdom,

“My disposition should be to give my life for God, however it should end. The grace of God will enable us to live through the unknown circumstances. He aided the martyrs and, if it should be necessary that I die as they did, I will feel him very close to me at the moment of breathing my last breath. But more important than the moment of death is to give him all my life and live for him and for my own mission.”

What is important is the daily martyrdom, the giving over oneself to God and others. This is the witness – the martirio – of those who seek to follow the Cross of Christ to the Resurrection – a life of continual conversion

My cloud of witnesses

This morning as I read today’s first reading from the lectionary (Hebrews 12: 1-4), I began to think of the “great cloud of witnesses” that challenge and sustain me. I began to list them and came up with nineteen. I am sure that I could add many more – including some witnesses who are family members and some who are still alive. But here are those who have passed on to the Lord who help me be who I am called to be. (I have linked each witness to a meditation I wrote on this blog.)

  1. Mary, the Mother of God

Mary in her canticle, the Magnificat, challenges me to live God’s Reign among and with the least of God’s people, for “God lifts up the lowly.”

  1. St. Francis of Assisi

Identifying with the poor crucified Christ, Francis calls me to love God and the poor.

  1. Dorothy Day

A living sign of God’s love and God’s call for peace, Dorothy Day calls me to open my heart to all the poor.

  1. Blessed Charles de Foucauld

The hermit of the desert, Charles de Foucauld, challenges me to be a person of contemplation in the midst of the poor, willing to give my life for them.

  1. Thomas Merton

The Trappist monk, Father Louis [aka Thomas Merton], challenges me to uproot the roots of war and violence in my heart, reminding me that the “root of war is fear.”

  1. Blessed Oscar Romero 

The martyred archbishop, Monseñor Romero, calls me to be willing to be the seed that falls to the ground and dies.

  1. Blessed Franz Jägerstätter

The Austrian peasant martyr, Franz, reminds me to say “No” to all that opposes God, as he refused to serve in Hitler’s army.

  1. Blessed Jerzy Popielusko

The Polish priest martyr, Father Jerzy, reminds me that the call to Solidarity is central to our lives, even if it means suffering and death.

  1. Trappist Father Christian de Chergé

Killed by Islamicist extremists in Algerian, Father Christian challenges me to love even those who wish me ill and to open my hearts to all people of faith.

  1. St. Benedict Joseph Labré

This poor beggar, a street person in Rome, St. Benedict challenges me to accept all persons, even those who smell terrible.

  1. St. Benedict the Black 

This humble African-Italian Franciscan, St. Benedict the Black (sometimes called St. Benedict the Moor), has challenged me to recognize and defend all persons, no matter their race or economic condition.

  1. St. Martin of Tours

This early bishop, Saint Martin, challenges me to share with the poor and to refuse to kill.

  1. St. Thomas More

This lawyer martyr, St. Thomas More, a “Man for All Seasons,” challenges me to be faithful to my conscience, even as he tried to make reasonable compromises.

  1. Father Alfred Delp, S.J.

This Jesuit priest, Father Delp, challenges me with his writings from a Nazi prison to be a voice in the wilderness.

  1. St. Brigid of Kildaire

This Irish nun, Saint Brigid, inspires me to see Heaven as a “Lake of Beer,” with a special place for the poor.

  1. St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

This woman, Mary of Magdala, the first to witness the risen Lord, challenges me to listen to the Good News from the mouths of women.

  1. Pastor André Trocmé

This Reformed Church pacifist pastor, Pastor André Trocmé, challenges me to open my heart and my life to the stranger and the persecuted, as he help the village of Le Chambon, France, rescue hundreds of Jews.

  1. St. Alberto Hurtado, S.J.

This Chilean Jesuit, Padre Hurtado, challenges me to be a person of faith seeking justice.

  1. St. John the Baptist

The precursor of Jesus, Saint John, challenges me, so that I may decrease and the Lord may increase.

There are hundreds more surrounding me, but these are those whom I most cherish on this day.


 

I would also like to refer you to my meditation on prostrating before the altar during the Litany of the Saints on the day of my ordination as a permanent deacon.

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The subversive power of virginity

dsc00821Today is the feast of St. Agnes, a virgin–martyr who was killed at the age of thirteen about the year 304.

The opening prayer of the liturgy notes that God chooses the weak in the world to confound the strong, a belief deeply embedded in the theology of the incarnation and in the reflections of St. Paul in his letter to Philippians (chapter 2) and throughout his second letter to the Corinthians, where he notes:

 “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”(2 Cor 11:30)

In his reflection of Saint Agnes in  All Saints, Robert Ellsberg reveals the subversive power of this virgin martyr:

In the story of Agnes, however, the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worshiped sets an altogether different value on her body, her identity, and her human worth. Espoused to God, she was beyond the power of any man to “have his way with her.” “Virgin” in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.

May this free woman, Agnes, move us all to worship not a God of power and violence, but a good of weakness and love.


I will return to this theme later, but I have to leave early this morning for the celebration of the closing of the centennial year of our diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima.

Poverty, contemplation, and Charles de Foucauld

One hundred years ago today, on December 1, 1916, Charles de Foucauld was killed by Tuareg rebels in Tamanrasset, Algeria.

DSC06472My white diaconal stole bears his symbol of the heart of Jesus with the Cross. Why does he appeal to me so much?

When I lived in New York City in the early 1970s, I came across the Little Brothers of the Gospel, a community inspired by his life and spirituality. Their life of contemplation combined with living and working among the poor, inspired me. Their simplicity and their evangelization by the witness of their lives still challenge me.

This combination of accompanying the poor and living a contemplative life can be found in other heroes of mine – Saint Francis of Assisi, Servant of God Dorothy Day, and Saint Benedict the Black. There is no opposition between a life with Jesus and a life with the poor.

I hardly live a life like the poor, even though I live among them. I also fail to spend enough time in contemplation with the Lord. But these are the challenges of my life. These are the challenges that Blessed Charles de Foucauld gives me.

But I believe that I cannot respond well to these challenges until I can pray with conviction Charles de Foucauld’s Prayer of Abandonment:

Father, I put myself in your hands;
Father, I abandon myself to you.
I entrust myself to you.
Father, do with me as it pleases you.
Whatever you do with me,
I will thank you for it.
Giving thanks for anything, I am ready for anything.
As long as your will, O God, is done in me,
as long as your will is done in all your creatures,
I ask for nothing else, O God.
I put my soul into your hands.
I give it to you, O God,
with all the love of my heart,
because I love you,
and because my love requires me to give myself,
I put myself unreservedly in your hands
with infinite confidence,
because you are my Father.

 

Missionary martyr

The word martyr means “witness.”

Forty years ago, on November 20, 1976, Maryknoll missionary Father Bill Woods died in a suspicious plane crash in Guatemala. Even if it was not a deliberate attempt to kill him (and those with him on the plane), Fr. Bill is a martyr, a witness to the God who takes the side of the poor.

But this “Texas cowboy for Jesus,” (as his friend Bishop Mc Carthy called him) had been receiving death threats and had been warned by the US ambassador to Guatemala that his life was endangered.

But Padre Guillermo did not leave his beloved people, the indigenous whom he served in Ixcan, Guatemala, developing a new way of life for these people.

Before he died, he wrote a letter to the president of Guatemala:

“I love Guatemala and especially those peasants who are putting so much effort into developing a new life in the Zona Reina [in the Ixcán]. It would break my heart to have to leave the country. I repeat, my only interest is to help make the peasants better Christians, better Guatemalans, and thus help them produce more for themselves and for their country.”

Padre Guillermo is one of the witnesses of the love of Christ for the poor, a witness to the mercy of God, and a sign of the all for justice.

Surrounded by saints

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses…
Hebrews 12:1

I have since my youth been fascinated by the saints. I remember having these little books with a story of a saint and a colored picture on the opposite page.

As I grew older I began reading more and more of the saints, running across some obscure saints who became very important for me, including Saint Benedict the Black and Saint Benedict Joseph Labré. Saint Francis of Assisi was one saint who began to enchant me from my grade school days and still moves me.

Later I began to encounter other holy men and women, only some of whom were canonized. The commitment to the poor and the spirituality of Monseñor Oscar Romero and Brother Charles de Foucauld challenged me and still sustain me.

And so, as I lay prostrate before the altar last Friday in the Mass of ordination, I felt myself surrounded by so many witnesses – saints in heaven and saints around me. I felt myself sustained and challenged by them.

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The Litany has a healthy number of saints but in special events, such as ordinations, the Church encourages us to add special saints.

I added these:

  • Saint Raphael the Archangel, who guided Tobias on his journey, and was the patron of the church where I was baptized as well as the Archdioceses of Dubuque where I served for 24 years.
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas, the patron of the church and student center in Ames, Iowa, where I served and which is the sister parish of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.
  • Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who run two universities where I studied: the University of Scranton and Boston College.
  • Saint Bonaventure, a great Franciscan leader and writer, whose feast was that day.
  • Saint Scholastica, whose brother Benedict is already in the litany, but whom I added to recall the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who made my dalmatic.
  • Saint Clare, the founder of the women Franciscans, who should be joined with Saint Francis in the litany, recalling the Franciscan Sisters who sustain me here.
  • Blessed Oscar Romero was already added to the litany but I added Blessed Charles de Foucauld immediately after him.

As I lay on the ground before the altar, I found myself feeling the presence of all these great witnesses. But then Romero was called upon to pray for us, followed by Charles de Foucauld.

I had dedicated my ordination to Romero when I visited his tomb a few weeks ago.

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His deep faith, profound spirituality, and courageous accompaniment of the poor have inspired me for years.

At the ordination of a transitional deacon, Jorge Benavides, on August 15, 1977, he said:

Beloved deacon, we are going to impose our hands on you and we are going to see in you an image of the Church that serves, the deacon. Would that you understand that all your theology, all your studies, the beauty of your vocation mean bringing to the world the face of that Church which serves, loves, and hopes.

Charles de Foucauld, the little brother who lived among the poor in Algeria and was killed there, inspired me by his commitment to live with and for the poor – being there with them. My white diaconal stole bears the image of the cross and the heart that he wore on his simple white habit.

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As Monseñor Romero and Brother Charles de Foucauld were asked to pray for us, my body was rocked with deep sobs – not of sorrow but of an experience I cannot define. It was partly joy, but as I look back it might have been a feeling of the mercy of God and the challenge of these holy men to live as a servant of God and the poor.

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Yesterday I came upon this quote of Brother Charles, which expresses that challenge so beautifully:

Jesus came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of the ordinary life, of family life, of prayer, work, obscurity, silent virtues, practiced with no witnesses other than God, his friends and neighbors. Nazareth, the place where most people lead their lives. We must infinitely respect the least of our brothers… let us mingle with them. Let us be one of them to the extent that God wishes… and treat them fraternally in order to have the honor and joy of being accepted by them.

I pray that I may live my calling as a deacon, in the image of Christ the Servant, might be lived as Romero and Foucauld did – giving one’s life very day with the poor.

 


The quote from Charles de Foucauld is taken from Charles de Foucauld: Writings Selected by Robert Ellbserg, p. 28.

Like stars in the darkness

In the midst of the terror in Paris and Beirut in the past week, while thousands flee the violence in Syria, while many remember the terror and the killings in Kenya and Nigeria, while war and bombing continues to kill many in the Middle East and elsewhere, while hospitals are bombed, while violence and hunger leaves many victims throughout the world, many feel as if the end of the world is at hand. Many feel, as we read in today’s first reading from the prophet Daniel 12: 1-3, that we live in a time “unsurpassed in distress.”

Many have felt this throughout history. The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem felt like the end of the world to the Jews. The fall of Rome to the “barbarians” felt like the end of civilization. The black plague led many to think that the end of the world was at hand.

But Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, Mark 13:32, that no one, but the Father, knows the day and the hour.

Yet, I ask, what can we do in the midst of the darkness?

The last line of the reading from Daniel can give us hope and also challenge us:

Those who lead the many to justice
will shine like the stars forever.

There are many voices that would lead us to the supposed justice of vengeance and extermination of our “enemies.”

But there are voices that urge us to the justice, the righteousness, of God, a justice that seeks to offer a different vision of the world, that refuses to demonize even those who commit terror, that challenges us to be creative, loving, and merciful.

The violence of terror is meant to leave us paralyzed by fear. But the justice of God is meant to guide us to new ways of living and loving.

I don’t have answers, but I think that we do have a guide – Jesus. We also have guides among us who offer us a different vision of justice.

Last night I noted that several persons have recalled the Last Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé, one of the Trappists kidnapped and killed by extremists in Algeria in 1996. The full text can be found here, but a few phrases might help us to meditate in the midst of the darkness

I ask them to associate [my] death
with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference
or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value.

I should like, when the time comes,
to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart
the one who would strike me down.

Dom Christian is one of those stars who can guide us to the true Justice, the God of mercy and all-embracing love.

May we see his light and follow him on the way to real peace.