Tag Archives: martyrs

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.

The trials of a missionary martyr

To me, the very least of all the holy ones,
this grace was given,
to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ…
Ephesians 3: 8

Noël Chabanel was among the seven French Jesuits missionaries who are remembered today as the North American martyrs. St. Noël was killed in what is now Canada on December 8, 1649.

I didn’t know much about him before I came across this remark on his life in Franciscan Father Leonard Foley’s Saint of the Day:

Fr. Noel Chabanel was killed before he could answer his recall to France. He had found it exceedingly hard to adapt to mission life. He could not learn the language, the food and life of the Native Americans revolted him, plus he suffered spiritual dryness during his whole stay in Canada. Yet he made a vow to remain until death in his mission.

St. Noël wasn’t dumb; he had been a teacher of rhetoric in his native France but for some reason he could not master the native languages – and was mocked for this, even by children. His fastidious tastes found the food revolting. He experienced dryness in his spiritual life.

But he persevered, even making a vow to remain in mission in 1947:

“My Lord, Jesus Christ, who, by the admirable dispositions of Divine Providence, hast willed that I should be a helper of the holy apostles of this Huron vineyard, entirely unworthy though I be, drawn by the desire to cooperate with the de-signs which the Holy Ghost has upon me for the conversion of these Hurons to the faith; I, Noel Chabanel, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament of your Sacred Body and Most Precious Blood, which is the Testament of God with man; I vow perpetual stability in this Huron Mission; it being understood that all this is subject to the dictates of the Superiors of the Society of Jesus, who may dispose of me as they wish. I pray, then, 0 Lord, that You will deign to accept me as a permanent servant in this mission and that You will render me worthy of so sublime a ministry. Amen.”

He like many of his fellow Jesuits had a desire to give his life for the native peoples, even to the point of martyrdom. He endured the difficulties, until death.

In the face of difficulties in mission, I find it encouraging to know of a saint who suffered while on mission – and a suffering that in part came from within himself. All is not joy and roses and the presence of God, even in mission. There is tasteless or salty food; there are customs of the people that drive one crazy (especially the way people drive); and there is dryness of spirit. God sometimes seems so far away, so silent.

But St. Noël offers an example of perseverance, presence, and openness to the will of God.

Shortly before his death, before being sent to another mission site, he told one of the other Jesuits:

“I am going where obedience calls me, but whether I stay there or receive permission from my superior to return to the mission where I belong, I must serve God faithfully until death.”

When I was asked how long I’d be here in mission in Honduras, I responded (when asked in English), “Until God calls me somewhere else.” In Spanish it’s “Hasta que Dios quiere”.

St. Noël, help me be faithful in my mission.


An interesting account of St. Noël Chabanel can be found here.

Martyrs and the Ministry of the Cup

The beheading of John the Baptist is one of my favorite feast days. There is something compelling about the witness of my patron saint and his willingness to give his life for truth and justice, as the prayer at Mass today reads.

I have been fascinated by martyrs for many years. I deliberately use the word “fascinated” which comes from the Latin word which means “bewitched” or “spell-bound.”

The willingness to give one’s life is bewitching, compelling me to look closer.

For me, several twentieth century martyrs hold me spell-bound – Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero who gave his life for the people of El Salvador, not flinching from speaking the truth and being a voice for those without a voice; Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army because he saw Nazism as a hell-bent movement; Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who died in the Algerians desert, living as a poor man among the poorest.

But I have been deeply moved by the Trappist martyrs of Tibhirine, who lived among their Muslim brothers and sisters in Algeria and stayed in the face of threats. Their death by extremists is a witness to love for all. The Testament of their prior, Christian de Chergé, is a witness to the power of forgiving love.

Yesterday, during Mass in San Agustín, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, I raised the cup of the Blood of Christ – as the deacon is called to do.

At that moment I recognized that Jesus is calling me to give my life – even to the point of death – for Him and for the People of God.

It was not a moment of fear – but of consolation.

Yet, as I reflect this morning, I realize that giving one’s life is not a question of a last minute decision in the face of the executioner. It is a question of a daily dying, a daily giving, a daily putting of myself at the service of God and all, especially the poor.

In the rite of ordination of a deacon, I was asked

“¿Quieres imitar siempre en tu vida el ejemplo de Cristo, cuyo cuerpo y sangre servirás en el Altar?”

Are you willing to always imitate in your life the example of Christ, whose Body and Blood you will serve at the altar?

The response is:

Si, quiero hacerlo, con la ayuda de Dios.

Yes, I am willing to do so, with the help of God.

It is the only response in which I said “with the help of God.”

Perhaps because it’s only with the help of God that I can witness – that is be a martyr – for the love of God.

May God give me the courage to live this witness every day – not only in the hour of death.

 

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A panel in the baptistery in Florence.