- Martyrdom, Truth, and Trust
The anniversary of the publication of John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Fides et Ratio (1998) gives us the opportunity to reflect on a topic that may initially seem tangential but is of great contemporary relevance—namely, martyrdom.1 Pope Francis himself has noted that there are more Christian martyrs today than in the times of the early Church;2 such a fact may be reason for great hope in the future of the Church,3 for as Tertullian assured the pagan world, the tortures inflicted on Christians would accomplish nothing other than to entice people to the Christian religion, since the sight of those who were courageous enough to die for their faith would lead pagans to question the values and tenets by which they lived. As Tertullian says to the pagan persecutors, "We become more numerous every time we are hewn down by you; the blood of Christians is [the] seed [of the church]."4 [End Page 9] Martyrdom is thus considered by St. Cyprian to be a great virtue, for by it, persecutors and executioners are "constrained to believe."5 Of course, while there were pagans who did, indeed, want to know more about Christianity and turned toward the way of Christ, there were others who reacted very differently and who wished to root out a religion that seemed to prefer belief over life itself.6 History tends to repeat itself, and so we find currently both attraction toward and repulsion from Christianity and with respect to the latter, perhaps an outright attempt to uproot it from our culture and from society.
Our intent in this essay will be first to present the topic of martyrdom as it appears in the two aforementioned encyclicals in order to see how a new conception of life is afforded to us through martyrdom, for which faith and trust are needed. Second, we will see why the witness given by martyrs is important to our culture and society. In this second part, we will also consider other types of martyrdom besides the martyrdom of blood, and by thus broadening the notion of martyrdom, we will be able to appreciate the paradoxical life of martyrs, who in attempting daily to be "credible witnesses"7 to the truth will experience tribulations and suffering, no longer living for themselves but Christ living in them and radiating his light through them.8 Third, we will also make reference to the conception of God that makes true martyrdom possible, unlike the so-called martyrdom of suicide bombers. [End Page 10]
II. Martyrdom: The Inviolability of the Moral Order, the Dignity of Man, and Human Life as Self-Gift
In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II dedicates a number of pages to the topic of martyrdom. Given the title of the encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, this is not surprising, since the martyr bears witness to the truth and more specifically to the truth of the faith.9 As the encyclical also indicates, martyrs witness fully to the good—that is, the true good—and "are a living reproof to those who transgress the law."10 The encyclical presents us with examples of martyrdom from both the Old and the New Testaments. The story of Susanna is an eloquent example, for by refusing to succumb to the sinful passion of two unjust judges and thus preferring death to the defilement of sin, she is faithful to the law of God, for it is never right to do what the law qualifies as evil so as to derive some good from it. Susanna gives perfect witness to the truth about the good and to the God of Israel; as the encyclical says, "Susanna . . . bears witness not only to her faith and trust in God but also to her obedience to the truth and to the absoluteness of the moral order."11
Among the New Testament martyrs, Veritatis Splendor first points to the example of John the Baptist, who in proclaiming the law of God and refusing to compromise with evil bore witness to truth and justice; John experienced the darkness of prison and a brutal beheading in bearing...