Dying Daily for Christ: Martyrdom Yesterday and Today


It was no accident that when Jesus challenged us to suffer in union with Him, He used the image of the yoke, which is an instrument not for one but for two. Christ gets into the yoke with us, and that is how the burden becomes light (cf. Mt. 11:30)! Yoked to Him, walking the via Crucis (Way of the Cross), leads inexorably to the via Lucis (Way of Light).

In third grade, Sr. Vera launched us on the road to lifetime reading by requiring us to read a book a month, write a report, and share the experience with the class. My first book was on the North American martyrs. At the end of my oral report, I indicated how impressed I was by their courage and love for Christ — and that I wanted to live and die like them. Now, having passed the half-century mark, it would seem that my childhood goal of dying a martyr's death will not be fulfilled. But what about living like them?

Even a casual reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus identified following Him with carrying one's cross. And while Matthew and Mark quote the Master's teaching in this regard, Luke takes that saying and, with typical Lucan precision, refines it by adding two little Greek words, "kath' he-méran" ("each day"). Therefore, we find, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk. 9:23, emphasis added). In other words, the carrying of the cross is inescapable if one wishes to be a true follower of Christ, but it is not a one-shot deal, contrary to what some Fundamentalists would have us believe. No, it's an ongoing, daily event. And while boyhood enthusiasm and romanticism could rhapsodize on the glories of martyrdom, its much more humdrum nature cannot be denied.

The Red Way

In the first years and, indeed, the first centuries of Christianity, the simple profession of faith in Jesus Christ put one under a death sentence, whether from Jewish religious authorities or from Roman civil authorities, since this confession (in the sense of "proclamation") constituted a threat to the established orders of religion and government. Death was a constant reality for the early Christians, and they made it a cornerstone of their lives. Their central act of worship, the Eucharistic sacrifice, was offered on the tombs of martyrs because these individuals had imitated in their own lives and deaths — to an extraordinary and heroic degree — the Paschal Mystery of their Lord. How fitting that their bodies, given up for Him, would serve as the resting place for the body and blood first given up for them.

With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jewish opposition to the Church was reduced to negligible proportions, but the Roman threat became more powerful, especially as the Gospel spread throughout the empire. Questions then surfaced, "Should I present myself to the authorities, thereby ensuring martyrdom for myself?" "Should I offer resistance if apprehended?" "Should I run and hide?" We even see this struggle in St. Paul (cf. Phil. 1:21-25) and in the charming Petrine legend of Quo Vadis. St. Ignatius of Antioch actually begs his disciples not to interfere in his march toward martyrdom, as he sees his impending consumption by the beasts in the arena as nothing less than becoming the grains of wheat ground up for the Eucharist.

While many Christians died inspiring deaths, we know that countless others cowered before such suffering and some even denied their faith to save their necks. This latter group was apparently no small fringe element, for they were given a name (lapsi, that is, those who had lapsed or fallen away) and precipitated a major crisis in the Church. When persecution passed from their area, many wanted to be reconciled with Christ and His Church. The response varied from place to place and time to time: no reconciliation possible, immediate reconciliation, reconciliation only on one's deathbed, reconciliation only after years of public penance. The See of Rome consistently favored the last option as an approach which united justice to mercy.

With the accession of emperors like Constantine and Theodosius, martyrdom became no more than a distant memory for believers which, in a strange way, precipitated yet another crisis: If suffering with and for Christ is a non-negotiable element of the Christian life, how is this to happen under these supposedly more congenial circumstances? Had Constantine unwittingly robbed Christians of a direct route to heaven?

The White Way

Slowly but surely the Church came to see — and to recall — that living for the faith could be every bit as meritorious as dying for it. After all, according to tradition, "the beloved disciple" did not die a martyr's death, nor did Our Lady, even though both had stood fast to Christ at the foot of the Cross. Thus, the "red way" of martyrdom effectively yielded to the "white way," exemplified by the "living martyrs," such as the ascetical desert-dwellers and consecrated virgins. These persons denied themselves basic human desires — goods in themselves if properly ordered — as a way of uniting themselves to the suffering Christ, replicating the pattern of His Passion in their daily lives, bearing in their own bodies what is still "lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Col. 1:24). How is that blasphemous-sounding verse to be understood? Surely, nothing could be lacking in the all-perfect, once-for-all sacrifice of the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father! Ah, but there is something missing. Although the head of the Body has suffered in total satisfaction, the members of the Body must participate, individually and collectively. And until that happens, something is still lacking in the sufferings of Christ.

Yet another group emerged as contenders for the "white way." Eventually dubbed "confessors," they confessed or professed the Catholic faith against nearly insurmountable odds. They lived the faith with consummate courage and fidelity, but were never given the ultimate gift of being able to die for the faith they so nobly championed. One thinks immediately of bishops like Sts. Athanasius and John Chrysostom, who endured persecution, revilement, and even exile for holding to the true faith. And even if everyone couldn't be an ascetic, consecrated virgin, or lifelong confessor, their witness (that is, after all, what mártyros means in Greek) emboldened the rest of the Church to live the Gospel with conviction and perseverance, even if in less dramatic fashion.

For well over a millennium, then, "white martyrdom" held sway until the Protestant Reformation again provided ample opportunity in so many countries for "red martyrdom." With the coming of the so-called Enlightenment, all of a sudden good, old-fashioned martyrdom was back in style with the French Revolution and then, in the "bloodiest of centuries," the persecutions of the Church in Mexico, Spain, Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China, Vietnam, and other countries. But even in the midst of untold carnage, we must realize that "confessorship" still undergirded "red martyrdom." For every believer who died for his faith, hundreds of others supported such actions by their prayers and sacrifices. In truth, short of a massive dose of courage, faith, and adrenalin, no one became a martyr without first being a confessor. Confessing the faith in arduous conditions was the tilling and fertilizing that prepared the ground for the seed of martyrdom when finally sown. That personal dimension was complemented, necessarily, by the communal element, as the would-be martyr was sustained in the awareness of being supported by the prayers of the entire Church and in union with the suffering Lord, whose grace would always be sufficient (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9).

Everyday Martyrs

Where does that leave us living in a country of relative religious freedom? I suggest that "white martyrdom" is more difficult than "red martyrdom." Why? Because the former requires the vision and endurance of the long-distance runner, and there is very little glamour or romance about it.

No one need be a masochist in endless pursuit of the Cross; "hanging around" this planet long enough will enable more than enough crosses to find their mark. In point of fact, just being open to possibilities of a daily walk with the Lord gives numerous opportunities for "confessing" the faith: the married couple who refuse to be sucked into the culture of death through artificial contraception; the university student who is ridiculed for his "benighted" adherence to Catholic truth; the priest who preaches the truth "in season and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2) despite opposition; the woman religious who bucks the trends toward secularization in her community; young professionals who refuse to be mastered by materialism; public officials willing to put their careers on the line to advance the culture of life; a person with a homosexual orientation who lives the chastity demanded by the Gospel; the family that opens its home and heart to a girl confronted with an unplanned (and unwanted?) pregnancy; the man or woman who won't stop loving an alcoholic spouse; priests, seminarians, and religious who preach the Gospel in the secular city by the silent message of their ecclesiastical garb. From this non-exhaustive list, one can see that occasions for "confessing" literally dot the landscape of contemporary life, even if they fall short of requiring bloodshed.

I don't know if the possibilities just offered would have captivated my imagination as a third-grader the way the story of the North American martyrs did, but I have come to understand that, absent clearer indications from Our Lord, this is the way I am going to have to walk the via Crucis (Way of the Cross). However, I've also learned that I don't walk that way of the Cross alone. It was no accident that when Jesus challenged us to suffer in union with Him, He used the image of the yoke, which is an instrument not for one but for two. Christ gets into the yoke with us, and that is how the burden becomes light (cf. Mt. 11:30)! Yoked to Him, walking the via Crucis leads inexorably to the via Lucis (Way of Light), as our faith assures us that having confessed Christ before men, we will find ourselves confessed by Him before His heavenly Father (cf. Mt. 10:32).




The Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas. "Dying Daily for Christ: Martyrdom Yesterday and Today." Lay Witness (July/August 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D. S.T.D. is the editor of The Catholic Response Magazine, publisher of Newman House Press, the executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation and founder of the Priestly Society of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman. He has written and edited many books, including Advent Meditations, Lenten Meditations, The Bible and the Mass, Priestly Celibacy: The Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and Psychological Roots, Constitutional Rights and Religious Prejudice: Catholic Education as the Battleground, The Catholic Church and the Bible, The Catholic Encyclopedia (available on CD-ROM), Catholic Dictionary, Mary and the Fundamentalist Challenge, Understanding the Sacraments: A Guide for Prayer and Study, and others.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness

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