DEFINITION OF MARTYRDOM
Thomas Aquinas developed a very interesting theological viewpoint on martyrdom in his Summa Theologiae1. He considers martyrdom as “the shedding of one’s blood for Christ’s sake”2 and “the right endurance of sufferings unjustly inflicted”3. These affirmations imply that these unjust sufferings are not just something imposed on the subject, but they are also accepted by him “for Christ’s sake”. Therefore, he states that the merit of martyrdom lies “in the voluntary endurance of death, namely in the fact that a person willingly suffers being put to death”4. Aquinas makes it clear that in order that a person be qualified as “martyr” he must endure death; for “it belongs to martyrdom that a man bear witness to the faith in showing by deed that he despises all things present.... So long as a man retains the life of the body he does not show by deed that he despises all things relating to the body”5.
Pope John Paul II emphasizes two dimensions of martyrdom as witness. First of all, it bears witness to the holiness of God's law insofar as it is an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order. Secondly, it also shows in a very special way the personal dignity of man. “This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved”, for “martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever human meaning one might claim to attribute, even in exceptional conditions, to an act morally evil in itself”6.
Thomas Aquinas deals with martyrdom in his treatise on the cardinal virtue of fortitude, because “fortitude strengthens man in the good of virtue” and in martyrdom man is firmly strengthened in the good of virtue, since he cleaves to faith and justice notwithstanding the threatening danger of death”7.
But the very word “martyr” means witness, therefore the martyr is the one who bears witness to his faith; and Jesus’ words: “Greater love than this no one has, that a man lay down his life for his friends”8 lead us to consider martyrdom as the supreme expression of love for Christ. Therefore, while considering martyrdom as an act of fortitude, Aquinas relates it also to faith and love. For it is “related to faith as the end in which one is strengthened”9 and “charity inclines to the act of martyrdom as its first and chief motive cause”10. Hence “of all virtuous acts martyrdom is the greatest proof of the perfection of charity”11.
THE CAUSE OF MARTYRDOM
Is it true that only faith can be the cause of martyrdom? This is a very important point to consider, since from this depends the criteria whether a person who has been killed for any good cause can be deemed a martyr. Aquinas says that “the truth of faith includes not only inward belief, but also outward profession, which is expressed not only by words, whereby one confesses the faith, but also by deeds, whereby a person shows that he has faith... Thus, all virtuous deeds, inasmuch as they are referred to God, are professions of the faith whereby we come to know that God requires these works of us and rewards us for them; and in this way they can be the cause of martyrdom. For this reason the Church celebrates the martyrdom of Blessed John the Baptist, who suffered death not for refusing to deny the faith, but for reproving adultery”12. And he continues: “A person is said to be Christ’s not only through having faith in Christ, but also because he is actuated to virtuous deed by the Spirit of Christ.... Hence to suffer as a Christian is not only to suffer in confession of the faith, which is done by words, but also to suffer for doing any good work for Christ’s sake”13. He had already stated that “many holy martyrs, through zeal for the faith or brotherly love, gave themselves up to martyrdom of their own accord”14.
Here we have to mention the case of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. For a long period of time the Congregation for the Causes of Saints interpreted martyrdom in a very restricted sense, to include only those who were explicitly killed in odium fidei, out of hatred of the Christian faith. For this reason, when Maximilian Kolbe was to be beatified by Pope Paul VI, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints determined that Kolbe was not a true martyr. This was held even though Pope Paul VI, in the ceremony of Kolbe’s beatification in 1971, called him a “martyr of charity”. This term however had no standing in church law. In fact, he was not then called officially “martyr”, but “confessor”. When Pope John Paul II decided to canonize him, however, he insisted that the systematic hatred and extermination of peoples, propagated by the Nazis, was in fact an act of hatred of the Christian faith. Consequently, Kolbe's death equated to martyrdom.
MARTYRDOM IN TODAY’S WORLD
In the homily on the occasion of the canonization of St Charles Luanga and companions, on October 18th, 1964, Pope Paul VI commented: “This is a page worthy in every way to be added to the annals of Africa as in earlier times which we, living in this era and being men of little faith, never expected to be repeated”. However, Pope John Paul II stated that Christian martyrdom “has always accompanied and continues to accompany the life of the Church even today”15. He stated this on August 6th, 1993, long before the birth of ISIS and of other anti-Christian movements that had emerged in the past decade.
In a discourse of Pope Paul VI he asked: “What does the Church need today?” And he replied that in the present circumstances “the Church needs strong men”16, that is, men endowed with the virtue of fortitude. St. Paul had already warned the Christians of Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world”17, which implies that Christian life always implies a struggle against a worldly mentality. Jesus’ “priestly prayer” shows very clearly this contrast between the spirit of the “world” and the spirit of his disciples18: “I pray not for the world, but for those whom you have given me ... I have given them your word; and the world hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that you should take them from the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world even as I am not of the world”19.
In contemporary society, martyrdom acquires a still greater and particular importance. In a world that is torn by a secularized mentality, martyrdom tells this world that there are true values which make it worthwhile to sacrifice one’s life. The motive of this self-sacrifice, namely love for Christ and for truth, distinguishes radically Christian martyrdom from the kamikaze of fundamentalist Muslims, which is suicidal and aimed at revenge towards those who are different.
Moreover, contemporary society is indoctrinated by a new culture, the “media culture”. As Bishop Crispian Hollis has affirmed: “We are introduced into a plastic world of ‘soap’ and romance, in which gratification is instantly and painlessly attainable; we are inveigled into a world of sex and violence which leaves its devilish imprint on fragile human life”20. Mass media are proposing new models of life. The models proposed by the media are no longer the saints, the great thinkers, the heroes; they are the film stars, the youths of “Big Brother”, the sexiest lads and lasses. In honouring the martyrs, the Church is running counter to this new way of thinking. She tells us that there are true models of life, persons who sought the truth, lived for the truth, and even died for the truth.
Again, I quote Pope John Paul II: “The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one's own life”21.
THE ALBANIAN MARTYRS
In Albania, Catholics and Orthodox honour the first Albanian martyr, Saint Asti, who was bishop of Durrës and was tortured to death towards the end of the first or beginning of the second century. However, in this context I am going to refer to those who suffered martyrdom during the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Enver Hoxha, a paranoiac Stalinist, imposed a special form of communism, in the sense that it was not an a-theistic, but rather an anti-theistic communism. A very interesting book in French about the persecution of the Catholic Church under his regime is entitled Ils ont voulu tuer Dieu, translated into Italian under the title Hanno voluto uccidere Dio, which means “They wanted to kill God”. The very title tells us a lot about Hoxha’s anti-theistic communism.
Hoxha displayed a special hatred towards Catholics. To illustrate his prejudice against Catholics I think it is wise to read to you a passage from a talk he gave in the Conference of Peza in 1984: “Catholic priests ... were men without a homeland, who depended on the Vatican even for the smallest thing.... Their incomes, their salaries and everything else came from their plunder of the believers in the forms of donations, or even through compelling their believers to bequeath their liquid and fixed assets to the Church. All the clergymen of the Catholic Church ... were learned people who had gone through theological schools with iron discipline, had learned the methods and tricks of suppressing the will of people through the fear of God.... The Catholic Church and its clergy were extremely obscurantist and conservative... always in alliance... with every foreign occupier of Albania, including the Austro-Hungarians, the Italian fascists and the German Nazi.... The senior priests were double agents of the Vatican and the Italian occupiers”22.
At present a process for the beatification of forty Albanian martyrs is under way, all but two killed under the communist regime. All of them were priests (or clerics), with the exception of a twenty-two year old female, Maria Tuci, killed barbarously because she was a catechist. There has been a very attentive and strict selection in the choice of these forty martyrs. In fact, priests killed during the regime were far more than thirty eight, but the Episcopal Conference wanted to be sure that the victims were truly martyrs, killed “for Christ’s sake”. For this reason, from the list of martyrs, were excluded those who were executed because of political sympathies with, for example, fascism; that is to say, for reasons other than Christian faith.
First listed among the martyrs is Vinçenc Prendushi, the last Bishop of Durrës. He died in prison, but was not directly killed. I have already quoted St Thomas, who stated that “the perfect notion of martyrdom requires that a man suffer death for Christ's sake”. However, referring to Pope St Marcellus who died in prison, he replies: “A person is not called a martyr merely for suffering imprisonment, or exile, or forfeiture of his wealth, except in so far as these result in death”23. And such was the case of Vinçenc Prendushi. He was accused of being “enemy of the people”, “reactionary”, “spy of the Vatican”, and condemned for twenty years’ imprisonment, where he was tortured, mocked and humiliated in so many different ways, until he died. For which reason he was duly numbered among the other martyrs.
I would like to conclude this talk quoting again Pope John Paul II: “Fidelity to God's holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem, so that the splendour of moral truth may be undimmed in the behaviour and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities. By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendour of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church's Saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good, they are a living reproof to those who transgress the law”24.