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Drawing inspiration from Catholics who died for their faith

By Mark Schmidt

Special to The Witness

There are many stories of those who have gone before us in faith over the course of the 2,000 years of the church. There are stories of piety and sadly some of plunder. But perhaps the most intriguing and inspiring ones are those of the martyrs for the faith. Two stories in particular that have always struck me, not because the martyrs went out in a blaze of glory like John Wayne, firing both pistols, holding the horse’s reigns in his mouth, but because they left this earthly life in a way that our society, politicians and pop culture would think weak, cowardly and small.

I think of St. Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England under the reign of Henry VIII. Henry and Thomas were great companions; Thomas was not of noble birth but was raised to the office of Lord Chancellor, the right hand of the king, because of this close relationship with Henry. His was truly a rags to riches story; this grandson of a baker became a lawyer and rose in the ranks to the top of English politics. When Henry VIII decided to break from Rome and establish the Church of England, with the king at its head, he demanded all people swear allegiance to him, denying the pope’s authority. Thomas More refused. He was imprisoned, threatened and left in poor living conditions for months on end. Still, he refused. He had allies and was well respected by many throughout the kingdom; he could have attempted to inspire a revolt. He did not choose such a path. He chose to put himself at the mercy of the king. He was executed for his refusal to deny the Catholic Church, giving his life for the faith. He was noted as saying before his death, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first,” asserting that his loyalty lies first with God before anything else.

Another martyr that has inspired me is Blessed Miguel Pro, a Jesuit priest who was martyred by the Mexican government during the “Cristero Wars”; a civil war that began when Mexico’s President Plutarco Calles enacted sweeping laws against the practice of Catholicism. Priests, nuns and lay faithful were executed by the government. Blessed Miguel Pro was just a novice when the persecution against the church began. He escaped Mexico and finished his seminarian studies in Europe. Upon his ordination he chose to return to Mexico to serve the people that they not go without the sacraments. Miguel Pro had a knack for disguises in order to fool the authorities so he could carry out his work as a priest. He was dedicated to bringing the sacraments and corporal works of mercy to the people – dressing up as a beggar one day and sneaking into a prison the next dressed as a police officer in order to serve the prisoners. Eventually, the government caught up with him and ordered his execution. He was stood up against a wooden pole in front of a firing squad. In his final moments he outstretched his arms, and his final words would become a rally cry for the Mexican people “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” “Long live Christ the King!”

What is remarkable about these two martyrs is that in their refusal to submit to the persecution in front of them they became far more powerful than the armies, the executioners or the politicians could ever be. These martyrs, and the thousands like them, especially those offering their lives in the face of persecution and genocide around the world today, united themselves to the life and death of Christ; rather than deny Christ, they became even more dedicated to him. Christ allowed himself to be crucified for our sake. His was not an act of cowardice or weakness but of triumph; the power over sin, over death, over violence and oppression.

Most of us will never be called to offer so much but we are all called to become martyrs in smaller but no less heroic ways. We most often speak of a red martyrdom, those who die for the faith, but there also is a tradition of speaking about a white martyrdom, those who offer their whole life to the service of God without shedding blood. We are all called to this martyrdom regardless of our place in society. When we are tempted to sin and we hold fast to Christ, avoiding the temptation, we die unto ourselves and rise with Christ. When we remain faithful to the church in spite of pressures from family, friends or even government decrees demanding we disobey the teaching of Christ, we offer our life for love of him. When we willingly and eagerly struggle with the challenges of the day, when we prioritize the works of mercy above our own personal pleasures, when we treat the least among us as if they were our own flesh and blood, when we offer forgiveness and mercy to those who seek to harm us or deny us our rights, these are ways in which we can offer our own white martyrdom. In so doing, we help to stand firm against the powers that would seek to limit our religious freedom. Ours is a lived faith. It is not a faith in ideas but in a person, Jesus Christ.

We are called to live out that faith in every act of our day and night. The more we grow in our ability to do this, the more dedicated we are to becoming more and more like the person God created us to be, the stronger we are against sin and slavery in this world. We can spread religious freedom by practicing our faith as public witnesses to Jesus Christ.

Schmidt is director of Peace and Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. This article is his second in a series for The Fortnight for Freedom. The annual two-week event started by the United States Catholic Bishops, is being held this year from June 21-July 4. Everyone is asked to pray and fast for the preservation of religious freedom in the United States and for those suffering persecution for their faith around the world.