Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
“What kind of martyrdom are you preparing for?” That seems an odd question—for two reasons. First, it suggests there’s more than one kind of martyrdom—something other than submitting to being killed for the Faith. Second, in North America at least, it seems alarmist to urge Christians to prepare for martyrdom, as if Christians were being herded for slaughter as they were in ancient Rome. Let’s look at both issues.
Strictly speaking, to be a true martyr, one’s blood must be shed unto death, by those who hate the Faith. More broadly speaking, drawing on some sources of Celtic spirituality, some speak of “red,” “white” or “blue” martyrdom. According to this tradition, red martyrdom is suffering unto death undertaken for Christ; white martyrdom is a renouncing of the goods of the world for the sake of purity and self-control; blue (sometimes translated as “green”) martyrdom is a life of tears, fasting and penance undertaken for the repentance of one’s sins. (Leave it to the Irish to work out a full taxonomy of suffering.) Love of God may afford us the opportunity to lay down our lives all at once (as in red martyrdom), or as a daily offering over many years (as in white or blue martyrdom).
In recent conversations with faithful Catholics, I’ve heard the term “white martyrdom” to refer to those living the duties of their state in life, at great cost, day by day: Parents caring for very sick children; students accepting the severe discipline that academic excellence may require; doctors and nurses who daily confront disease and death with no end in sight.
So understood, I think of a Jesuit who taught chemistry to high school boys for over 40 years—who knows what depths of resolve he had to call upon day by day. And I think of my father, who retired early and spent the last 15 years of his life caring for my sick mother. These men bit by bit, day by day, year by year—for great love, offered themselves in sacrifice. I must believe that God always blesses such offerings.
It’s easy to imagine Christians in the Middle East for example (but not only there) considering the real possibility or even likelihood of red martyrdom. In North America, at least, sectarian violence is still shocking because it is rare. Europe is somewhere between the two. Who has any assurance that anti-Christian hatred, both sporadic and systematic, will not spread and persist?
Meanwhile, cultural and civil animus against Christianity is heating up in North America. Even if Christians here are not subject to systematic violence, they are becoming more and more unwelcome in the post-modern, post-Christian West. It will require heroism, love, duty, honor, and a radical openness to grace to persevere during the storms that are about to break upon us. And how are we as a culture and people of faith preparing?
Apparently, our youth have become so delicate that at least one university is offering 24/7 counseling to students upset by Halloween costumes. The office of “campus ministries” of a self-identified Catholic school is offering a retreat and asking students to dress as their favorite Disney characters. In other words, exaggerated sensitivities and decorated fantasies are being offered our “best and brightest.” Can we expect them to endure times of trial and persecution? Can we honestly describe infantilized adults as the crowning achievement of our culture?
This was my father’s favorite Bible verse: When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in times of adversity. Cling to Him, forsake Him not; thus will your future be great. Accept what befalls you; in crushing misfortune be patient. For, in fire gold is tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and He will help you. Make straight your ways and hope in Him. You who fear the Lord, wait for His mercy. Turn not away, lest you fall. (Sirach 2:1-7)
We may well be called to martyrdom in one form or another. We must certainly take up our cross to follow Christ. Those who wish to distinguish themselves in the service of Christ the King can expect burning hatred from the world and purifying fire from Heaven. Saint Ignatius Loyola warned: “Nothing worthy of God can be done without earth being set in uproar and hell’s legions roused.”
Martyrs or not, we are all called to bear witness to Christ and to be faithful to the end. Knowing that, let’s take up what the Church has always offered to those who would be saints: Scripture, Sacraments, prayer, penance and fasting. With these, God has made many saints. With these, God can make saints of you and me.
When I write next, I will speak of Chesterton’s prophecy regarding Islam. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.