On the Martyrdom of Evangelization

I want to talk about the relationship of the word “martyr” and Evangelization in two ways. For the word martyr has two senses, and they both apply to Evangelization. On the one hand martyr is simply the Greek word (μάρτυς – martus) that means “witness.” On the other hand, in modern English, we think of the martyrs as those who suffered and died for their faith. Both concepts are essential for evangelizers (this means you).

Lets look first at the concept of “martyr” as one who suffers. – If you’re going to evangelize prepare to suffer. This explains a lot in terms of why most Christians don’t evangelize.

When I was training people in my parish to go door to door (we had fifty people), and also preparing others to go to their family members and summon them back, it was clear we had to get something out of the way at the very start.  And that was that we were all going to suffer for doing this. We would be rejected, scorned, ridiculed, have anger vented on us and be asked questions we couldn’t answer. And yes, we would also have people who were delighted to see us and were very friendly, even open to the invitation to come to Mass, or to find out more. But in the end, I wanted to be clear, we have to expect to get it with both barrels: POW!

Ready to Suffer? For, if you’re going to be a witness, you have to know that the Greek word for witness is μάρτυς – (martus) – “martyr.” Are you ready to suffer for Jesus? There are many who have go so far as to be killed for announcing Jesus. And how about us? Are we even willing to risk a raised eyebrow? How about laughter, scorn, derision, anger, rejection, or even worse, simply being dismissed or ignored?

These things are just part of the picture. In no way does it indicate failure. In fact, it may indicate success for Christ promised such things to faithful disciples and witnesses. Further, anger and protests does not mean a seed has not been sown. In sowing the seed, the ground must first be broken, and that is not often an easy task. For the ground often makes “protest” and we will only get fruit from it by the sweat of our brow.  Scripture says of such suffering:

  1. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. (John 15:20-21)
  2. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41)
  3. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14)
  4. If you suffer for being a Christian, don’t feel ashamed, but praise God for being called that name. (1 Peter 4:16)
  5. We are fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10)
  6. God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:21)
  7. As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:4-10)

How can we read texts like these and think that we will not suffer for speaking and living our faith? Some will accept us, many will reject us. But in rejection, derision, scorn, and being called a fool consider yourself in good company. Jesus, the apostles and martyrs, the saints and all the heroes suffered in this way. It is not failure to thought of this way, it is simply the lot of the faithful to be often considered as such. In this sense it is a sign of success. We do not go looking for a fight or to make people angry. But often they are, and this is to be expected. Suffering is an essential part of being and evangelizer, a witness (a martyr).

Here are few things to remember when being scorned or the object of anger:

  1. Don’t take anger and rejection personally. In most cases, it is not about you. Most people’s anger is really directed at Christ, or at God in general, or at his Church, or at organized religion. Some have been hurt by the Church, or feel hurt by God. It’s not about you.
  2. Just because someone is angry or takes offense, doesn’t mean you did anything wrong or gave offense. I have often thought that, in a primitive part of our brain, developed in childhood, we instinctively think that, if some one is angry or upset with us, we have done something wrong. Not necessarily so. In fact, anger is sometimes a sign we have done something right, for, if we are faithful, we are raising issues that, though uncomfortable, are necessary to consider.
  3. Do not give in to the temptation to retaliate or be personally hurt. Rather, rejoice that you have been deemed worthy to suffer for Christ.
  4. Do not be discouraged. Shake the dust and move on. (cf Matt 10:14).
  5. Remember that you are sowing seeds. You may not experience the harvest, but others may well bring it in. The fruitfulness of what you do may take years to come to harvest. Just stay faithful and keep sowing seeds.
  6. Remember too, an evangelizer is a witness and the Greek word for witness is martyr. Suffering is simply part of the picture.

When we understand and accept these things we are less resentful and anxious when it happens.  Don’t lose heart. Accept the martyrdom of evangelization.

And this leads us to the second notion of the word “martyr,” that of being a witness.

Now the word “witness” indicates someone who has seen or experienced the thing they are talking about. They are a witness because they themselves have personally seen or experienced and know what they are talking about. In English the word “witness” contains the sense of “knowing” for its etymological roots come from Old English and Germanic words such as “wit” and “wissen” meaning to know something, and also likely influenced by the the German verb “kennen” meaning to be personally familiar with someone or something. Hence, to combine these roots, a “witness” is someone who knows the facts and truth of something personally, by first hand knowledge. I cannot really serve as a witness in a court by saying what others saw. Hearsay is not admissible. I have to say what I saw and and personally know. This is what it means to be a witness.

In evangelization work too, we are called to be witnesses. That is, we are called to speak not only what we intellectually know, or have heard others say, but also what we have personally experienced. As witnesses we are called to have firsthand knowledge, and not only say what others have said. It is not enough to know about the Lord, we have to personally KNOW the Lord. A child knows if his parents are just going through the motions of teaching them a prayer, and whether they really know the Lord personally, and are actually praying. Congregants know if their priest is just giving an informational sermon or if he has really met the Lord and “knows” personally what and Whom he speaks of.

People know the difference. And frankly what people are most hungry for is first hand witnesses, not people who just quote slogans and “safe, ” “tested” sayings of others. What people need to hear is: God is real, and I know this because I just talked with him this morning, and I experience his presence even now. And, in the laboratory of my own life I have tested God’s teachings from the Scriptures and the Church, and I have found them to be true and reliable. I am talking to you from experience, God is real, and his teachings are true, and I know this personally for I have experienced it in my life.

Too often, what could be evangelical moments devolve into religious debates about whether Pope “so-and-so” said this or that in the 8th Century, or about why women can’t be ordained, or why the “evil” Catholic Church conducted the inquisition. These sorts of topics come up quickly because we talk only of issues, and not from personal experience. It is harder for a person to deny what you have experienced when you or I say, “I have come to experience that God is real, that what he says through his Church is true,  and I have staked my whole life on what he has revealed.”

What we need are witnesses more than apologetical experts who know every rebuttal. Intellectual knowledge is important, but personal witness is even more important. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” to some technical question, but it’s not OK to be incapable of witness. Even as a priest I sometimes have to say I don’t know the answer to that, I’ll try to find out and let you know…But Let me tell you what I do know, and that is that God is at the center of my life and I have come to experience his love for me and every human being. I have come to experience his power to set me free from sin and every bondage and root me in the truth of his Word. And whatever the answer to your question is, I know it will be rooted in that.

Yes, we need martyrs for the work of evangelization. Those who are willing to suffer, and also those who are willing to be first hand witnesses, who have a personal testimony to give of the Lord they have come to know by experience.You should be an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.

Photo Credit above: Paul in Jail by Rembrandt

Here is a video clip from Fr. Francis Martin wherein he beautifully described the second notion of the word martyr as “witness.” This clip is part of a longer series on the Gospel of John Series which you can see here: Gospel of John Series 3A

21 Replies to “On the Martyrdom of Evangelization”

  1. “What we need are witnesses more than apologetical experts–.”

    Amen Father, AMEN!!!

    From my personal experiences within various ministries leaders far too often only espouse/preach and/or display theology not “real-ology”—-(new word)?

  2. Epistle 242
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope talked about the martyrdom of evangelization.
    Here, according to Msgr. Charles Pope, martyrdom is martyr and martyr has two senses. Its first sense is witness, and its second sense is that martyr is who suffered and died for their faith.
    And evangelization (noun) or evangelize (verb) is “to preach Gospel”, and Gospel or good news is Jesus’ teaching.
    Thus, theme of the homily is martyr as a “witness”.
    Secondly, now permit me to say some my thoughts about the word “witness” hereafter:
    I was born on 28 June 1952. I became a party member of Vietnamese Communist Party on 1983. And I became a Doctor of Socialist Political Economy on 1996. These mean that I am an atheistic communist science.
    In Vietnam, most Communist Atheistic Sciences, my teachers, have censured strongly religions. But I see that there are billions of people on over the world having their religious faith.
    Therefore, from 2000 to this day, I have came Mosques of Islam, Pagodas of Buddhism, and the Church of Jesus in order to look for the truth.
    I knew some truths that Muslims and Catholics are brothers because Jesus is 24th prophet, and Muhammad is 25th prophet of Islam. And Buddha is close friend of Mr. Heaven (God) because the Books of Buddhism stated clearly so.
    My conclusion is that Communist Atheistic Sciences are Unlearned Sciences, and Theistic Sciences are Learned Sciences.
    Now I am a Theistic and Learned Science.
    I am a witness./.

  3. “I have come to experience that God is real, that what he says through his Church is true, and I have staked my whole life on what he has revealed.” – I won’t deny that this message may be effective sometimes, certainly if that’s what the Holy Spirit leads one to say, but Mormon missionaries, for example, on several occasions, have sincerely assured me of just this kind of thing, and it just doesn’t impress me. I can’t help but think: “If that’s how you know what you think you know, then I’m afraid you really don’t know what you think you know.” There are plenty of people, I guess, who are really just looking for that ‘burning in the bosom’ experience, but that doesn’t necessarily add up to looking for the truth, or looking for God.

    1. Exactly right — and not only the Mormons, but also the JW’s and any number of self-proclaimed Christians of various stripes.

      But here’s the thing – the Truth is the Truth. And this particular Truth is found fully in the Church that Christ founded. As for our personal experiences, you are also correct about the “burning bosom” thing, but it doesn’t usually happen that way. The truth of God finds its way quietly into our hearts, takes root, and blossoms. Well, ideally, anyway.

      The Catholic Church doesn’t have a history of evangelizing to believers. We were born and raised to attend Mass and listen to the priest and carry on. We’d hear stories about missionaries in 3rd world countries bringing food for the body and food for the soul in the name of Jesus, but that was a vague, dark thing, far-removed from our real lives.

      It seems to me that to ‘evangelize’ will be forever associated with ‘proselytize’ – which most people just can’t stomach – and a whole new mindset is going to have to develop before Catholics can successfully evangelize to Christian believers.

      No, Monsignor – that doesn’t mean “don’t bother”! It’s just going to take some time to figure out how to be effective.

        1. From personal experience, this wisdom from Mother Teresa is a healthy place to begin—“Speak tenderly to them. Let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.” Quote from the EWTN web-site.

        2. Some of what they say is true Msgr, but as you have asked, what do they recommend?

          Because what we have here in the above posts is clear evidence of the fact that most Catholics won’t even do as you suggest, which is the beginning step. You don’t whip out doctrinal issues on the first date. Yes door-to-door religions do the same… so what. I’ve had this argument with others before, including my wife. Her two best college friends are agnostic left-wing abortion rights people that frankly I have a hard time being around. I have repeatedly told her she needs to witness to them. Once her response was that I should leave that to a priest, but in the real world these two people are never, EVER, going to sit down any where and listen to a priest. And thus it is her job, most especially if she loves (and I know she does), to be concerned enough for their souls to witness to them.

          And that starts with her “feelings,” her “emotions,” when it comes to Almighty God.

          It does not start with God made the Earth, Jesus came to save us from our sins, Jesus established the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, you need to listen to what I say or you’re going to hell. You start with how God has changed your life, and that starts with your belief and that dwells in your heart.

          If that feeling deep inside sounds like a Mormon or JW its’ because they stole it from braver and holier Catholic missionaries who witnessed to the four corners of the earth.

          And if you’ve got a problem with that, then well, you need to take that up with God and the history books, because hello, “The Catholic Church doesn’t have a history of evangelizing to believers,” is a completely false statement. The whole reason their is a “continual sacrifice” is due to the fact that at anytime, anywhere on the face of the planet there is a Mass being celebrated. Thanks to the evangelization of the world by the Catholic Church, led by the Holy Spirit.

          1. It is largely a matter of what is most effective.
            And, in the United States in the modern day at least, the frontal assault is not effective and quite likely to end with driving a person away from Christ and His Church.
            Rather, as Jan suggests, a more effective strategy is needed. And that will entail more of a flanking movement and infiltration. That is what Blessed Mother Theresa did. Never did she overtly proselytize, asking people directly, “So, have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” Instead, she provided love. She brought people to Jesus by bringing Him, through her, to them.

            The indirect approach takes longer, and is harder to detect success, but you can’t pound faith into people’s heads. Unless and until you get folks voluntarily in the door, unless they themselves want to hear what you have to say, the most effective thing will be letting people come to know Jesus by merely loving others in truth, that is, you allowing His light to shine through you.

          2. Speaking of what is effective, I will tell you some of what has worked for me —

            For one, there is Sister Jean Marian, first grade teacher, who although she and her order have long since abandoned the habit, did still wear it when she taught me. Merely that visual sign has stuck with me throughout the years.

            Another is a former roommate. No, he never sat down with me in a theological discussion. In fact, usually we spent our time together drinking beer and playing cards and watching sports and complaining about this or that. As for a moral witness, he got his girlfriend pregnant. As many folks have (including some great saints). But he was not shy about being Catholic. He was not ashamed or embarassed to be Catholic. He never claimed to be a perfect Catholic, but neither did he run away from it or treat it as if it were unmanly and girlish.

          3. Will – what is your problem? Because I don’t write a full-length treatise on Catholic evangelization to believers you think you need to take me on? You didn’t even bother to ask what I meant by that before you charged.

            Why don’t YOU evangelize to your wife’s friends? If she’s having difficulty doing it, why don’t YOU step up to the plate?

            For the record, so you and everyone else here knows it – the comment I left at 1:40 appears to be in response to you – it wasn’t. It was intended for Monsignor Pope. I don’t think you are one of the smart guys.

          4. I wondered how that would be taken and if I sounded harsh.

            And no, no one is “taking you on.” This is an internet blog…

            My sister you said, “The Catholic Church doesn’t have a history of evangelizing to believers.”

            To answer your other question, I want to and have attempted it. It’s our purpose in life. Some people I pound on, some I offer subtle suggestions, such as an invitation to attend daily mass with me over lunch. But I can do better, I always must strive to do better.

            As to the general nature of this conversation I do not want to offer anymore, for it’s too easy for others to feel insulted, which was not my intent. It seems as if I hurt your feelings, for that I am sorry. I like the civility of Msgr’s blog and would hate it if it become something resembling the others out there.

        3. I’m a follower, not a leader — I wouldn’t recommend anything – heaven forbid it! That’s for the smart guys like you! 🙂

  4. This post is beautiful and fitting.

    In the spirit of this post, please pray for Stacy at Accepting Abundance.

    I am afraid this post will become more and more fitting over the near future.

  5. Thank you for an excellent post father! Do you think the above could also apply when evangelizing to non-Catholic Christians?

    I live in a predominantly Christian country, but one with a very small Catholic minority. Most Catholics simply try to “fit in”, and not step on any of their Christian brothers’ toes. This might be an attempt at humility and charity, but in the end the truth of Catholicism will remain hidden and the falsehoods and misconceptions concerning the Catholic Church will continue to prevail.

    Most of my Catholic brothers and sisters advise me to simply lead a good life and not necessarily tell others about the Catholic faith. Not sure if it’s enough.

    “How will they know if they have not heard.”

  6. I like this manner of evangelizing (the whole article deals with how to evangelize teens) but I admit that the hardest thing about evangelizing is WANTING TO DO IT and not learning how to do it. I quote:

    «This reminds me of something I saw on TV when I was a teenager. Many years ago, when Italy was about to legalize divorce, there was no minor row going on in Parliament between the advocates of divorce and those who opposed it. At that time someone was interviewing a young Italian singer on one of those inconsequential television shows. The interviewer asked, “So what do you think of divorce? Should it be legalized? What do you think?” The artist was expected to repeat the line of the media in favor of divorce but no one ever told him what he was supposed to say. He looked at the interviewer and said, “Yes. They are going to legalize it, I think… but laws can’t make a wrong right. Divorce is only for those men who do not have the spine to love a woman forever.” There was a silence. The interviewer, a lady, was shocked out of her shallowness for a few seconds and had to blurt out something to go into a commercial break. Even the idea of true love can turn a man into a sort of giant. »

    You can read the whole article here:


  7. Msgr:
    I wonder if you could say a little bit more about this comment :

    “I just talked with him this morning, and I experience his presence even now. And, in the laboratory of my own life I have tested God’s teachings from the Scriptures and the Church, and I have found them to be true and reliable. I am talking to you from experience, God is real, and his teachings are true, and I know this personally for I have experienced it in my life.”

    I think for a lot of people, certainly for me, it is rare to “experience” God as such. Many of us soldier on because the alternative, ( atheism, agnosticism” ) is akin to despair and because intellectually Catholicism gives a coherent picture that one can make the “leap of faith” . It does make it all grit and work however. Well perhaps not always so much work, but more of a dry intellectual kind of thing, rather than something I experience emotionally. I often get the sense that those who are not religious are happier ( they are less burdened with the need to avoid sin, and some sins are enjoyable at least superficially.) I am reminded of what Thomas More says in Robert Bolts “A Man for all seasons”.. about in this world “avarice, anger,lust sloth, envy often profit more than humility, chastity ,fortitude and justice ) One tries to avoid sins because giving in to them results in hell, and the alternative belief ( that God does not exist) sentences everyone and everything ultimately to oblivion. So at the end of the day atheism leads to despair and sort of deflates any possible earthy pleasure. Given the choices, one takes the faith side of “Pascals Wager” and opts to believe. I think there are plenty of us who do this. So I soldier on, but still I could not honestly make the case that I “experience God”. I do not frankly. I do not know what to make of someone who does. One has the usual day to day pleasures and I know intellectually these come from God, but this is not an “experience” of God as such, at least not subjectively. Moreover emotionally, the day to day pleasures are balanced against the day to day sufferings,and against the constant stream of death and suffering I witness ( I am a physician), I would not be surprised if this view point was shared by others especially those who see a lot of misery ( Police, soldiers, etc etc). Of course others witness suffering (priests, like yourself of course) and see it through a different lens.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do not really feel sorry for myself. I think CS Lewis argued persuasively that since faith to some extent needed to be an act of will, than the emotional support for it would be taken away. Mother Theresa apparently often did not experience God and often even felt abandoned….Most of us are not Mother Theresa by any stretch, so If she was not getting much subjective emotional sustenance why should anyone? So I imagine your mileage may vary in how one lives the faith and different people will approach things differently. For some of us it will inevitably be more of an act of will, that something supported by personal experience.

    Still I have seen comments like yours before, and they do not often address people who have a reaction similar to mine. I would be interested in seeing you comment on this in the future. I do think our evangelical brethren have more of a sense of emotional investment in their Christianity than Catholics do in general, and I think this does help them. I would not mind being more like this, but at some level the idea of experiencing God is simply alien to me. I no more “experience” Jesus than I experience Abraham Lincoln, although I know what both said. The subjective “experience” is similar to me.

    Always enjoy your blog, it is really very good.

    1. What my quote describes is the normal Christian life. That it is not to say that the majority of Christians attain to it. But it is what Jesus Christ died to give us. The first step in attaining to this life is develop an expectation for it and to not be satisfied with merely “soldiering on” Jesus Christ did not die so you could merely solider on . He died to give you a new life.

      I recently published a series of 12 talks on the normal Christian life. I have written a summary here:

      And the audio talks are available here:

      By the way I think Mother Teresa’s remarks have been widely misunderstood.

      Anyway I hope these resources will help explain further. My advice to you and all is do not be satisfied with anything less that living, conscious contact with God at every moment. And the Lord can increasingly bring this experience alive in you.

      1. mrd — your post was well-written and touching, and I can empathize with many of the sentiments you express. Sometimes I fee exactly the same way. But at other times, I’m graced with a real sense of the presence of God, and it’s generally when I make the effort to be prayerful and to try to submit my whole life to God that I get that sense of his presence. I once saw a quote: “Feel distant from God? Guess who moved?” That captures much of my experience with God in my life.

        I think Msgr. Pope is right that we have to expect more, and that although there will be spiritual dry periods, God does have more in store for us. Don’t lose faith because you haven’t experienced that yet, but don’t be content either. You’ll be in my prayers, and I ask that I be in yours.

Comments are closed.