When I was in grade school, I would read a book at night about the lives of the saints. It read like a long story that men and women from all over the world had contributed to — each a character of sorts — detailing their lives, accomplishments, struggles, eccentricities and legacy. Of all the saints, I was particularly interested in the martyrs (admittedly, I was sort of a morbid kid.) Back then, martyrdom seemed like such a distant concept to me. I remember thinking nothing like that would happen now.
I wish I had been right.
As I grew older and began to learn about events like the Holocaust, I found out that dying for one’s faith is just as relevant today as it ever has been, which led me to ask myself the question: Would I die for my faith? It’s easy to respond with a knee-jerk reaction and say, “Of course I would.” But when I read about the brutality that accompanied the death of some martyrs, I grew, well, afraid. I grew equally in awe, too. Most martyrs knew that death and sometimes torture awaited them, yet they proceeded calmly, resolutely and sometimes even gladly. It’s a testament of faith I can still only attempt to wrap my mind around.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, it’s getting easier to understand what it means to be a martyr. In February, 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded on a Libyan beach by ISIS, a radicalized subgroup of Sunni Islam which has killed Christians as well as Muslims. Last week, a video was released showing ISIS operatives executing 30 Ethiopian Christians.
Events like these can seem distant when you live in the United States, which has freedom of religion written into its Constitution. But they might not seem so distant when you consider the recent killing of three young Muslims in North Carolina, which the family and Muslim activist groups have asked be investigated as a hate crime. Sadly, these examples point to the conclusion that being targeted and killed for one’s faith is not a distant idea at all.
Chances are that most of us alive today will not be called upon to die for our faith. However, we could be called upon to make smaller sacrifices for our faith in our everyday lives. Being Catholic isn’t always easy, especially in light of the Church’s history — which isn’t exactly without blemish — and the increasing secularization of society. We have to navigate the paradox of identifying with a Church that hasn’t always been right or even popular while forming our own sense of what’s right from its teachings.
One small sacrifice may be being judged for being Catholic. It may mean having someone else’s assumptions about Catholics or Christians unfairly placed on you. Or being mischaracterized as a prude, a bigot, old-fashioned, outdated or too idealistic. It could be feeling alienated while sticking up for someone or a cause you believe in that isn’t mainstream or popular, or navigating an increasingly secular world, which purports religious tolerance yet leaves you wondering what parts of your identity to make known to whom. These moments are certainly not as serious as losing one’s life, but they could mean hardship, such as a strained or lost relationship with a friend, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a family member or a coworker.
As Catholics, we must go about our daily lives in a world that is both favorable and unfavorable toward Catholics, never quite knowing which it will be. During these times we can look to the example of the martyrs, holding fast to their faith and even wrestling with it. That is what it means to be a modern day disciple of Christ.
As I looked at the photo of the 21 Coptic Christians shortly before they were beheaded, I lost myself in their calm and serene expressions. I still look upon the deep gaze of Oscar Romero and feel his commitment and his contentment amid chaos and threats. I look at photos from the lives of the three Muslims killed in North Carolina and think: they could have been friends of mine — around my age, smiling with positive energy and potential as they worked to make the world a better place. These are the faces of people whose faith has led them beyond being unpopular, beyond threat, to paying the ultimate price. We will tell their stories long after they’ve gone and pass them down through generations: their lives, accomplishments, struggles, eccentricities and, most of all, their legacies.