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To be a martyr is to allow ourselves to be changed in a miraculous manner that surpasses our abilities and even our imagination. “Martyrdom is essentially a testimony to Christ, to a new and greater reality that has penetrated into the lives of the martyrs and that, through them, deeply impacts the lives of fellow Christians and even pagans” (Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P.).
What defines martyrdom
What is important to remember is that the principal element defining Christian martyrdom is not the suffering itself that the martyr undergoes, but rather it is the cause for which the martyr accepts their suffering. St. Augustine spells this out:
It is not what one suffers, but rather the motive for which one suffers that makes one a martyr. Our suffering is not what makes us martyrs of God, but rather our justice.
The transforming union with God that comes from the highest grades of prayer produces several sanctifying effects. Chief among them is delight in persecution. St. Teresa of Ávila writes about this in Interior Castle. Her insights have been summarized in this way:
When the soul is persecuted, it experiences great interior joy and much more peace than formerly. It bears no enmity toward those who treat it badly or desire to do so. Rather, it conceives a special love for such persons, and if it were to see them in some affliction it would be deeply grieved and would do all in its power to relieve them. It loves to commend such persons to God, and would rejoice at relinquishing some of the favors it receives from God if it could bestow them on its enemies, and thus perhaps prevent them from offending God.
This is something every committed disciple of Jesus Christ is capable of!
The powerful witness of a martyr
The main thing about martyrs is not that they suffer — it is that they witness.
The principal element of martyrdom lies beyond mere suffering and rests in the witness one gives to a cause for which one accepts even death. What is specific to Christian martyrdom is the witness on behalf of Christ and the Gospel, which is the source of the spirituality of martyrdom. The object of the martyrs’ witness is the penetration of Christ’s presence in them (Pinckaers).
This is what sets St. Paul Miki apart. Born of a noble family in Japan around 1566, Paul Miki joined the Jesuits and completed his studies for the priesthood. He would, in fact, have been the very first Japanese priest but for the persecution that led to his arrest.
Along with twenty-five others, St. Paul Miki was tortured and then forced to march 300 miles through ice and snow to Nagasaki — the site of his crucifixion. He preached to the people who flocked to aid the chain gang of captives. He prayed the rosary and encouraged his sympathizers that such a martyrdom was an occasion of rejoicing, not of sadness. When the band of men spotted the hill of death in Nagasaki, it is said that the martyrs ran to their crosses, singing.
Penetrated by Christ’s presence
But most wondrous of all is what St. Paul Miki preached to his persecutors once he was nailed to his cross:
As I come to this supreme moment of my life, I am sure none of you would suppose I want to deceive you. And so I tell you plainly: There is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.
The world presumes that the last words of a person ravaged by persecution and torture will be wrathful, despairing words. But only someone truly in love with Jesus Christ — “penetrated by Christ’s presence” — spends his last agonizing moments on earth encouraging his killers — assuring them, pardoning them, and inviting them to the life of faith. And sometimes only faith-filled, appalling suffering can move hard-hearted haters to listen.
St. Jerome gives us this encouragement:
Let us not imagine that the shedding of blood is the only form of martyrdom; there is martyrdom in everything. Passion persecutes youth; passion wants to pour out the blood of the soul. When your soul is in peril, gathering, as it were, all its forces for the contest, then Jesus stands at the right side of the Father and fights for his young warrior.