Tag Archives: martyrs

Teach us to love

St. Alphonsus Ligouri, whose feast is celebrated today, is notable for the place he gave to love in his moral teaching. It flows, I believe, from his understanding of God.

In a sermon, found in today’s Office of Readings, he tells us:

Since God knew that man is enticed by favors,  He wished to bind him to his love by means of His gifts: “I want to catch [humans] with the snares, those chains of love in which they allow themselves to be entrapped, so that they will love me.”

Today is also the anniversary of the killing in 1996 of the Dominican bishop of Oran, Algeria, Pierre Claverie. He was a proponent of dialogue and solidarity with Islam.

In a letter, shortly before his death, he wrote:

“That is probably what is at the basis of my religious vocation… I wondered why, throughout my Christian childhood when I listened to sermons on loving one’s neighbor, I had never heard anyone say the Arabs were my neighbors.
“It is my conviction that humanity can only exist in the plural. As soon as we claim to possess the truth or speak in the name of humanity we fall into totalitarianism and exclusion. No one possesses the truth; everyone seeks it.
“So that love vanquishes hate, one must love to the point of giving one’s life in the daily combat from which Jesus himself did not escape unscathed.”

In a world filled with hate and resentment, in a world that fears the “other” – especially if the other is a migrant or the other is from another religious tradition, these words need to help us grow in love.

It is not easy because it sometimes demands a change in us. As the martyred bishop reminds us:

“There is no life without love. There is no love without letting go every possession and giving oneself.”

May God give us the strength and the courage to love.


Saint Alban and World Refugee Day

June 20 is the feast of Saint Alban, an early English martyr. He is also the patron saint of refugees.

He was living in Briton when a Christian priest appeared on his doorstep, fleeing from persecution. He was very impressed by the prayer and holiness of the priest and received instruction from him. The local authorities began to suspect that Alban was harboring a Christian and searched his house. Alban had helped the priest to escape and had put on the priest’s clothes.

Alban was arrested and when his real identity was known he refused to renounce the Christian faith and was subsequently tortured and martyred.

But it all started with welcoming a stranger.

May we follow the example of Saint Alban – even risking imprisonment and death to save the refugees.

Today let us pray especially for the Chaldean Catholics arrested in Detroit who face deportation to a situation of intense violence and persecution.

Saint Albam, pray for them and for us.



Twentieth century martyrs

Today is the feast day of several twentieth century martyrs.

St. Toribio Romo (1900-1928) was a Mexican priest who was killed during the time of the Cristero rebellion. He was not involved directly in the rebellion but had continued his ministry despite the prohibitions of the authorities. On February 28, 1928, soldiers broke into his room and shot him.

His short life has been overshadowed by a ministry that he has assumed after death. A number of migrants from Mexico to the United States have be assisted by a young priest when they were in dire circumstances who identified himself as Toribio Romo. A few stories can be found here. He is thus invoked as a protector of migrants, many of whom visit his shrine in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, Jalisco.

Today is also the feast of Blessed Franz Jägerstëtter (1907-1943), an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army, despite the admonitions of friends and clergy. He saw Nazism as a train headed to hell and refused to be part of this. His story would have been forgotten if the US Catholic sociologist Gordon Zahn had not published his life and some of his letters in the early 1960s in the book In Solitary Witness. His witness against war influenced many, including me, in our opposition to the Viet Nam war and to war in general.

Today is also the anniversary of the martyrdom in 1996 of the Trappist Martyrs of Our Lady of Atlas in Algiers. Their story is beautifully portrayed in the films Of Gods and Men. Their witness has inspired me since I first read their story in John W. Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria.

Especially poignant is the last testimony of the prior, Christian de Chergé which he wrote several years before his death. The full text can be found in several languages here. In the last sentences he addressed his future killers:

And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD-BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Amen! In sh’ Allah!”

His words of love for those who killed him are an inspiration in a time when we demonize our opponents and enemies.

These martyrs – and many others – can teach us about the love of God who does not leave us orphans and which calls us to care for the migrant, to refuse to kill, and to love our enemies.

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

Come to the light

Whoever loves the truth comes to the light.
John 3: 21

“Years of terror and death have reduced the majority of Guatemalans to fear and silence.
Truth is the primary word that makes it possible for us to break this cycle of death and violence and to open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all.”
Monseñor Juan Gerardi  (1922-1998)

Juan_gerardiNineteen years ago today, April 26, 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi was killed in Guatemala City. A few days before he had released the TEMHI report, the report of the archdiocesan human rights office on the recovery of historical memory in Guatemala, which laid bare the truth about the violence that had ravaged Guatemala for decades.

The report found that about 90 percent of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances were done by the Guatemalan military. This truth was too much for some who tried to hide this by killing the messenger.

Bishop Gerardi’s memory lives on – and, I pray, inspires many to speak the truth and recall the memory of those who have died in defense of life.

In a world where the powers that be bring death to the poor and others, speaking the truth is not valued. Some speak about “fake facts,” but how many seek the real truth?

The early followers of Jesus were put into jail for speaking the truth of his  death and resurrection. But they were released, not by the authorities of the temple or the other powers that controlled life in their day. In only one of a few jail breaks recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the angle of the Lord released them and, instead of going home and hiding, they went to the heart of the temple and preached.

How do I let the truth come to light in the way I live? How do I speak up, in the midst of violence, injustice, racism, and all that keeps people from living as children of God? How do I respond to the truth of God which is the truth of a God who so loves the world that He comes in person (John 3: 16)?

Choosing life amid the Nazis

Choose life, that you and your children may live.
Deuteronomy 30: 19
Take up the cross and follow me.
Luke 9: 23

On March 2, 1945, a day after his thirty-fourth birthday, Father Engelmar Unzeitig died in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich.

Blessed Engelmar wanted to be a foreign missionary. But his forceful sermons defending the Jews landed him in Dachau in 1941, after only two years as a parish priest in Austria.

Together with thousands of other Catholic priests and Protestant clergy, he spent four years there. He learned Russian so that he could give pastoral care for prisoners form eastern Europe, even dialoguing with Marxists.

In 1945 he and nineteen other priests volunteered to serve in a barracks for those who were dying of typhoid. He contracted the disease and died there.

For him choosing life meant taking up the cross, speaking the truth to the powers that be, defending those who were being persecuted. It also meant attending the dying.

Responding to God for Blessed Engelmar meant being truthful, forthright, and compassionate. He was an angel of mercy.

As he wrote to his sister from Dachau, he did this from his deep faith in a God of love and grace:

Whatever we do, whatever we want, is surely simply the grace that carries us and guides us. God’s almighty grace helps us overcome obstacles.

Love doubles our strength, makes us inventive, makes us feel content and inwardly free. If people would only realize what God has in store for those who love him!

Even behind the hardest sacrifices and worst suffering stands God with his Fatherly love, who is satisfied with the good will of his children and gives them and others happiness.

He is a martyr, a witness, a sign for our times.

Will we speak up against persecution of Jews and Muslims?

Will we attend those who suffer from disease and poverty?

Will we, as Bishop Robert McElroy said so pointedly, be disrupters and rebuilders?

Blessed Engelmar was a disrupter, almost without wanting to be one, as he critiqued the Nazi regime and spoke up for the Jews. But he was also, I believe, a rebuilder as he attended the needs of other prisoners, dialoguing even with non-believers, serving even in the hideous barracks of the victims of typhoid.

May we be angels of mercy, messengers of truth, disrupters of all that is unholy, rebuilders with our sights on the Kingdom of God – a Reign of “justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit.” (Romans 14:7)

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.