Looking at what ISIS has been doing to our brethren across the Muslim world, in combination with the open hatred and attacks against the Catholic Faith in the formerly Christian West, it is clear that it’s only a matter of time before some Catholic faithful will be forced to choose between apostasy and martyrdom.
To die for Christ is to make the ultimate sacrifice of love for the sake of love itself, just as our Lord did. If God did not spare His only Son from torment and death at our hands, why should any Catholic not expect that, at some point, he might be asked to renounce the Faith or suffer as Christ did?
All of the disciples save St. John were martyred. And St. John would have shared their fate, had he not been preserved by God after the Greeks attempted to boil him alive. Instead, he found himself in exile on the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. Still, no exemption was given to others. St. Peter was crucified upside down. His brother, St. Andrew, was also crucified on an “X”-shaped cross. St. Thomas was stabbed to death. St. Mark was fed to lions. St. Bartholomew was skinned alive. Many throughout history have been tortured for their testimony of the Faith, just as today, there are new martyrs at the hands of ISIS and other Muslim groups across Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
Martyrdom is one of the most profound expressions of God’s love, as it shows both His mercy and His justice. Through the death of another in odium fidei, the martyr gives himself for the sake of Christ, and after but a temporary bout of suffering, undoubtedly wins the most precious prize – eternal life. The murderer also earns another prize: lest he repents, he will certainly be condemned to eternal hellfire.
Martyrdom is a vocation for select individuals and groups at specific times. If dying for Christ is the ultimate sacrifice, and because man can only die once, it is only for those chosen by God. All are supposed to make small sacrifices, such as with fasting and other penitential acts. However, if all Christians were supposed to suffer martyrdom, there would be no Christians left. Not only are some Christians are NOT supposed to be martyrs, but to pursue this fate for the wrong reasons or without His blessing can be a direct violation of the Divine Will.
In the 13th century, a young Portuguese Franciscan Friar named Antonio Martins de Bulhoes saw the Franciscans going to Morocco and being martyred by the local sultan for testifying to the Faith, and he wanted to follow their example. The first time he attempted to travel he became violently ill and could not go. The second time he set off, his ship was blown across the Mediterranean by a violent storm and crashed in Italy. Disappointed and frustrated, the young Franciscan stayed in the city of Padua and became known as the “hammer of heretics.” Today, he is venerated as St. Anthony of Padua.
Contrast this story with an argument I heard between a Catholic and Coptic Orthodox priest several years ago. After a long discussion, the Coptic Orthodox priest said that with respect to the persecution of the Copts in Egypt, this was part of the suffering that the Coptic Orthodox Church was called to endure. It was to this that the Catholic priest responded, “Martyrdom is a calling for individuals and some groups. It is not the vocation for an entire people. That is suicide!”
Where would the world be if the Spanish docilely accepted the Islamic invasion of Iberia in 711 as a “vocation” for the Spanish people? Would the heathens of the Americas have been converted to true Faith, or saved from the horrors of continual human sacrifices? Would the Ethiopian Christians have been saved from the Somaili Islamic invasions of the mid-16th century? Who would have stood up to the Ottoman-supported Lutheran and Calvinist revolutionaries during the Protestant Rebellion?
Would half of the Church’s total population exist today?
When the Muslims invaded Spain, there were many Catholic martyrs, which I have written extensively about. Yet at the same time, there were also many great Catholic warriors who waged glorious battle against the raging Mohammedan hordes, fearlessly cutting down their armies and executing justice on the sons of perdition just as Moses did to the Canaanites in the Old Testament. For every man who laid down his life for the faith, there was another with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other, standing their ground on the bloody Spanish battlefields. Without these latter, Islam would not have been brought to submission in 1492. Consider that St. James himself, one of Jesus’ own disciples, was portrayed regularly on horseback leading Catholic armies to victory, while trampling the Muslims beneath his horse’s hooves:
A Catholic understanding of martyrdom today is bound up inseparably from God’s mercy and justice. If some of us are called to give our lives for the Catholic Faith, then we are also to fight — not just spiritually, but militarily too — for its preservation and propagation. We are to be particularly vigilant against heretics, apostates, and deviants, because the Faith is of such sublime beauty and value. Indeed, if there is no salvation outside the Church, then those who have designs to destroy the Church and her people must not only have prayers and sacrifices made for them and their conversion, but they must also be opposed by all available means, up to and including deadly force.
John Lennon sang in “Imagine” of a world where there is “Nothing to kill or die for.” If there is nothing to kill or die for, then there is nothing to live for, and as such, if there is something to die for, there is something to live, and yes, even to justly kill for.
German-Jewish born American artist Emanuel Leutze beautifully captured this contrast in his 1848 painting The Storming of the Teocalli, which portrays Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs. One can notice that while an Indian on the right is preparing to sacrifice and infant, the Spanish bravely charge forward and smite the heathen priests, while a Franciscan friar on the left tends to a dying Indian, attempting to guarantee his eternal salvation:
There is a great spiritual and temporal struggle coming to the West. Martyrdom is one potential outcome, and for those called to it, it is truly a blessing from heaven. But for the rest of us, we must prepare, not just to die, but to live, to protect and spread our Holy Faith, and to defend the lives of the innocent, even, if necessary, by the force of arms.
Andrew Bieszad has an MA in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with concentration in the Islamic equivalent of Dogmatic Theology. He is the author of Lions of the Faith: Saints, Blesseds, and Heroes of the Catholic Faith in the Struggle with Islam and 20 Answers: Islam. He is a sought after writer and speaker on Islamic topics.