The concept of martyrdom
In Vincentian spirituality martyrs are those persons who are violently deprived of life, who freely hand over their life in imitation of Jesus Christ and as a consequence of proclaiming the kingdom of God through works (charity) and words (mission).
In our Vincentian literature we will not find some systematic development of the concept of “martyrdom”. Vincent de Paul expressed his thoughts and convictions about this theme on specific occasions that reminded him of the early martyrs of Church, occasions when he received news about the violent death of an individual who was known to him (a death that came about at the hands of the enemies of the faith), occasions that were crucial to the life of the institutions that were established by our Founders.
Vincent’s unique contribution to our understanding of the concept of martyrdom is found in his expansion of the concept to include those who die during and/or as a result of performing some charitable work, as a result of serving the most poor or as a result of proclaiming the Good News.
Martyrdom in the Christian vocation
Vincent frequently referred to the early years of the primitive Church when martyrdom was frequent and habitual (CCD:X:443-444; XI:17-18, 335-336, 338, 367-368). Vincent also knew people who gave their life in witness to Christ. Every historical era is aware of the martyrs because martyrdom is a constitutive element of the Christian life.
The proper vocation of all Christians is to make their life a following of Jesus Christ. This following of Jesus Christ promotes the imitation of Jesus Christ which, through the active presence of the Spirit, is not simply some external mechanical movement but rather is a reproduction of Jesus’ gestures and profound sentiments and attitudes in front of the world, society, people and those situations of conflict that are so frequent in our daily life. Therefore we are also speaking about the reproduction of Jesus’ death which was determined and decided in the midst of a conflictual situation. Thus Jesus became the first martyr who marked out the path that others would follow. To be Christian is to follow Christ, doing what he did while he was with us on earth; this decision includes the option of giving one’s life with Him and as He did for the sake of others. Is there anything more reasonable than to give our lives for Him who has given His life so generously for each and every one of us? And if Our Lord loves us to the point of dying for us, why should we not desire to have this same disposition with regard to Him and to put it into effect, if the occasion were to present itself (CCD:XI:335).
Even though martyrdom is a constitutive element of the Christian life, it is also a grace that men and women cannot merit on their own accord. It reveals the action of God in the human person and God’s love for all people, thus reinforcing the witness value of giving one’s life for others (CCD:IV:17-18; XI:289-290, 326ff.). In this sense, as in any other reality related to faith, we are confronted with the reality of mystery. There must be something great that the understanding cannot comprehend in crosses and sufferings, since God usually follows the service rendered to Him with afflictions, persecutions, prison, and martyrdom in order to raise to a high degree of perfection and glory those who give themselves perfectly to His service (CCD:XI:167).
Martyrdom is a source of happiness and incredible joy which is verified by the Beatitudes as recounted in the gospel of Matthew: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12). Those who die as martyrs give witness to this reality and do indeed communicate joy to those around them (CCD:II:156ff; IX:442-443; XI:166-167, 365-366).
Martyrdom leads to that full and definitive union with Christ which is the object of all Christian life. Through baptism we have become one with Christ, resulting in a communion of life which has to be made real during the course of one’s life. Thus, we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ (CCD:I:276). Martyrdom brings together two well defined perspectives. On the one hand, there is the active and free attitude of the individuals who “hand over” their life; on the other hand, the passive reality of “being condemned”. Since this is a decisive moment in the life of the human person there can be no bargaining … but also there can be no imprudence, that is, no over-reliance on one’s own strength. In this line of thought Vincent counseled one of the Missionaries: Take care of your poor life. Be content with consuming it little by little for Divine Love. It is not your own; it belongs to the Author of life, for love of whom you must preserve it until He asks it of you, unless an opportunity arises to offer it, like a good priest, eighty years of age, who was just martyred in England after a cruel torture (CCD:II:211-212).
In light of Christ’s call which invites Christians to live with Christ and like Christ, martyrdom can be the ultimate consequence of following Christ. Yet the death of Christ was precisely the consequence of his life; therefore the entire life of the followers of Jesus should be enlightened by this perspective of “self-surrender” and their commitment should guided by this same perspective. The lifestyle of Christians should be characterized by simplicity and they should flee from applause and fame and comfort; they should find themselves attracted by humility and poverty for this will give them strength and vigor to confront ridicule and persecution and even death itself (CCD:I:276; III:614-616).
Thus, Vincent, admiring the death of the young man from Majorca who was martyred in Algiers, exclaimed: That is what a Christian is made of, and that is the courage we must have in order to suffer and to die, when necessary, for Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:290).
Forms of martyrdom
In accord with the Church’s thinking, Vincent de Paul gave martyrdom a broad context. He stated that there are various forms of martyrdom (CCD:XI:166-168).
In the first place there are martyrs for the faith and this is the form of martyrdom par excellence. This form of martyrdom consists of dying for the name of Jesus Christ as a consequence of one’s faith and one’s relationship with Jesus. In this case the martyrs hand over their lives while professing the name of Jesus and expressing their great love for Jesus. Martyrs who die in this manner do so at the hands of the enemies of the faith who will often inflict on them cruel tortures. Throughout history we have witnessed this form of martyrdom. During Vincent’s lifetime we know that he received notice of at least four persons who died in this manner (CCD:II:213-215; IV:341-342; XI:167-168, 288-290).
There is a second form of martyrdom that results from the death of those who hand over their lives in defense of virtue, like John the Baptist or those persons who spend their life in the exercise of virtue. When Christians distinguish themselves for their gospel values and for clothing themselves with the attitudes of the Beatitudes (all of which should be proper to the followers of Jesus), when they accept all the consequences that result from this option, then it can be said that these persons are martyrs. They are martyrs because by living in this manner God appears as the only Absolute, that which is preferred over all other realities. They are martyrs because they persevere in their proper vocation, that is, in living in a radical way all the demands of the gospel and their vocation. Yes, such persons are martyrs.
The charism of charity and martyrdom
In addition to the two forms of martyrdom that were noted above, Vincent added another form of martyrdom that is unique to the institutions that were founded by him. In this other form of martyrdom, death does not result from defending the faith or morality but rather involves accepting every opportunity to serve Jesus Christ in those persons who are most poor, even if this means placing one’s life in danger.
The option of every disciple of Vincent de Paul is one of love and charity: a passionate love for Jesus Christ and the poor … affective and effective love. Love also guided the life of Jesus who moved through the world doing good. His goal in life is expressed clearly in the text from Saint Luke’s gospel: Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Luke 7:22).
In this vocation of charity, martyrdom is a logical consequence since it is the greatest act of love of God that one can offer and the greatest act of love that one will ever have to make (CCD:X:443).
Their nearness to the poor places Vincentians in a situation in which they freely desire to maintain themselves because of their love and their desire to imitate Jesus Christ. This demands a lifestyle that in itself will present many critical moments. Vincent expressed this symbolically in the following manner: Very often we see clear danger; we are going to perish; the enemy lies in ambush in the very place to which we are being sent … yet we march forward, although we are almost sure to die (CCD:IX:202).
Certainly the Daughters of Charity frequently find themselves in situations in which their service of the poor places their own life in danger. Their ministry is difficult and intense and often involves engaging in the most basic forms of service. In the places where they are missioned they often find people afflicted by war and hunger and disease, etc. … thus death will find them with arms in hand. Therefore they are martyrs: What are you going to do, Sisters? You are going to take the place of the Sister who died; you are going to martyrdom, if God is pleased to dispose of you. As for our very dear Sister, I believe she’s now receiving the reward of the martyrs, and you will have the same reward if you are happy enough to die, arms in hand, as she did. O Sisters, what happiness for you (CCD:X:442-443)
The Missionaries dedicate their life to the proclamation of the Good News to the poor. They live an apostolic form of life. They have consecrated their life to God and they want Jesus Christ to be known and served in every part of the world. They are resolved to minister and die for this purpose just as Jesus did (CCD:VII:347-449). They are motivated by love. Charity also strengthens them in their ministry on behalf of the salvation of all people. Therefore they accept the reality of finding themselves in difficult situations and places where many dangers await them. Their love leads them to put their lives in danger as they bring the gospel to people throughout the world. The salvation of nations and our own is so great a good as to deserve to be won at any cost; it does not matter whether we die sooner or later, provided we die arms in hand; we will be all the happier for it and the Company will be no poorer, for sanguis martyrym semen est Christianorum (CCD:XI:366; cf., II:369ff; VII:347ff; XI:374-375; XII:46-47). All missionaries ought to be willing to minister and die for people in the same way that Christ did … and those who live in this manner are martyrs.
There is a spirit of martyrdom that animates those who have received the charism of charity. It consists of the ability to joyfully risk one’s life for the glory of God and the salvation of the neighbor. It is a willingness to remain in the midst of danger, preferring to risk one’s life rather than abandon those who poor (CCD:II:360-370; IV:17-18, 132-133; XI:166-168, 334-335). This spirit is a grace that must be requested from God, one that all the Daughters of Charity and Missionaries [and members of the Vincentian Family] ought to have.
At the beginning of our history there were wonderful examples of men and women, Missionaries and Daughters of Charity, who were animated with this spirit.. The first of these was Marguerite Naseau and many others followed her. Missionaries were sent to Madagascar but few arrived there because the journey was very difficult and many died during their travels to that place. They were replaced by others who voluntarily offered to go to this foreign mission. Daughters of Charity were missioned to Calais to care for wounded soldiers. Some died from fatigue and others from one disease or another … immediately other Daughters, beginning with the eldest, offered to go to this mission. There are many other examples where there is very clear witness to the option of love in which so many people for so little earthly recompense and so little honor risked their life. This is all the more applicable to those who dedicate their lives to serve Jesus Christ in those persons who are poor and who dedicate their lives to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout the world (Cf., CCD:XI:334-334; XII:44-47).
The spirit of martyrdom is a companion to the charism of charity. Fruit cannot be produced without offering one’s life. To love is to give of one’s self without measuring the cost, to be willing to die if necessary. Death in this manner is not an isolated event but rather it is the culmination of a process in which one is continually giving of self. Only those who do not fear death can give of themselves in this manner and as a result their life achieves ultimate success. This spirit of martyrdom is accompanied by a spirit of prudence (CCD:IV:17ff.).
Martyrdom and new vocations
As occurred at the time of the beginning of the Church so also now people can ask the question if the Company [the Church and the Vincentian Family] will not be weakened by the death of persons who are martyred? In this regard Vincent’s conviction is unwavering: For one who will suffer martyrdom, many more will come; his blood will be like the seed that brings forth fruit, and fruit in abundance. The blood of our Sister will bring others to the Company and will merit for those who remain the grace of God to sanctify themselves (CDD:X:443; XI:338-339, 365-366, 367-368). This affirmation has been confirmed in every era and in all countries.