The Evangelizer is called to Martyrdom


As we get ready to elect a new Pope it occurs to me that we are also electing a chief evangelizer. And the new Pope will enter the room of tears to don the papal vestments because, in effect he is embracing a martyrdom.

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 gone 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. We DO need apologists out there and 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

22 Replies to “The Evangelizer is called to Martyrdom”

  1. Thank you. This is wonderful, and will help me focus the thoughts and expectations of the people in my parish in our new evangelization efforts. Very much appreciated.

  2. “As witnesses we are called to have firsthand knowledge, and not only say what others have said.”

    This, too, explains a lot in terms of why most Christians don’t evangelize.

  3. This reminds me of a recent beautiful post by Cardinal Mahony on his blog. The post was entitled “Called to Humiliation”. His Eminence candidly admitted that accepting humiliation is difficult, even for a Prince of the Church: “To be honest with you, I have not reached the point where I can actually pray for more humiliation. I’m only at the stage of asking for the grace to endure the level of humiliation at the moment.”

    In spite of the pain involved in accepting humiliation, His Eminence closed on a positive note by stating: “the more I allow all of this [public humiliation] to unfold without protest and objection, the greater the inner peace I feel.”

    Cardinal Mahony provides a beautiful example to all of us to try to accept humiliation and martyrdom with dignity and without complaint – just as our Lord did. Read the whole post here [His Eminence also made other posts on the same subject at that time that are also worth reading]:

  4. Yes! The Scripture makes you feel at ease, especially after defending Christ with a little catechesis on Natural Law and God in the workplace. (Just happened to me, eg, angry coworker. We spoke again but in more detail.)

    Funny how if one makes a judgement in favor of someones decision, you are fine. But if not, your words-and God’s Word-brings so much anger.

  5. Bravo, Msgr. Pope, for reminding us that witnessing to our Faith can bring suffering, and that people need to hear testimony from us about our actual experiences. But can all of us say to unchurched or non-Christian people of good will, “Look at my experience: I have experienced the reality and Truth and forgiveness of God and I have experienced His Love at work in His Church.” Isn’t it true for many good and decent Catholics that the reality they experience is the reality of mutual love between and among Catholics? Don’t they find it in family life and in the ordinary experiences of parish life? It seems to me that part of the genius of Catholicism is that there is room for people at various stages of their journey home–some of them only vaguely aware of Transcendent Truth and Transcendent Love. I wonder, is there not some value in witnessing to a sense of God’s presence in one’s life, without testifying to utterly real and completely convincing experiences? After all, we see God through a glass, darkly, and we all know that mirrors in St. Paul’s day were really dull and distorted. Don’t many of us see the road to God indistinctly–maybe only the few feet ahead of us–as if we’re walking along in a dense fog? What makes us faithful Christians is not our certainty, but our willingness to trust the people who have gone ahead of us, trusting that they (the Apostles and their successors as popes and bishops, the authors of Scripture, the Latin and Greek Fathers) have carved out and rough-paved a roadway under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict says in Spe Salvi that Faith consists in Hope for the future. He is telling us, I think, that in a contemporary world in which there are so many obstacles preventing people from present-day certainty about things, there is this great hope for the future. I thnk we evangelize best, we witness to our Faith most compellingly, by being honest about these matters.

  6. We’re about ready to see another enormous mess in the Church if the cardinals elect the wrong man for pope. As most readers here will know, the pope cannot change a great deal in the Church, but he can set the tone and manage the mission during his pontificate. This election is, first and foremost, about the mission of the Church. If it is decided that the mission is anything other than the very clear mission given in scripture, we are in for a very dry season, and the New Evangelization will be mutilated into a social service effort which will be met with failure in the general culture.

    Matthew 28:16-20
    “18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

      1. Hear, hear, Monsignor. Not all Popes can be Gregory the Great, but Benedict XVI was better than many. God willing, the next Pope will be even better than Benedict.

  7. I was insulted yesterday just for mentioning what I had given up for Lent.

  8. Thank you so much, Father. Many times, your reflections seem to coincide with the very thing we’re grappling with and your words bring so much clarity to our muddled minds. Thank you for the link to Fr. Martin. He is a wonderful teacher.

  9. I would like to know what I might say to those who are not Catholic and have this equation in mind: Catholic Church=Sex Abuse. This is a constant theme. Just today, on a major network covering the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, The chatter was about sex abuse…exactly as the cardinals, in a sacred moment, were in line to place their hand on the Bible and make the promise. Sadly, the newscasters were not even naming all the cardinals. When Cardinal Tagle, the youngest , laid his hand on the Bible the commentary ignored him and kept talking about sex abuse!
    Please give some direction to the laity as to what we might say at a party or gathering when this issue comes up.
    We are being put on the spot and as the conversation grows quiet and everyone turns to us, we are at a loss.
    We need some talking points.
    It is hard for the average faithful Catholic to take the hits day after day for the sex abuse scandal in social situations, in the work place, or with family members.
    I grew up inspired by the martyrs, but I don’t recall them having todefend the Church when it was so despised by the secular world for the “filth” referenced by Pope Emeritus Benedict.
    It would be a blessing to the laity interacting with non Catholics who are hostile to have some talking points.
    Otherwise, we just stumble and feel cornered.

    1. “I grew up inspired by the martyrs, but I don’t recall them having to defend the Church when it was so despised by the secular world for the “filth” referenced by Pope Emeritus Benedict.”

      What you say is true, Anne. The martyrs did not have to defend the Church against accusations of rampant child sexual abuse. But, the martyrs did have to deal with other serious accusations. Enemies of the Church accused the early Christians of cannibalism – they thought that the Eucharistic ritual involved eating actual human flesh and drinking actual human blood. When there was a bad harvest or an outbreak of plague, the enemies of the Church blamed the Christians on the supposition that the pagan gods were angered by the Christians’ refusal to offer sacrifices to them. This is partly why the early Christians were persecuted in waves by a succession of emperors.

      The problems the martyrs dealt with were different from ours in specifics, but not in general. Then as now, there are at lot of people who reject the Gospels or who do not understand and refuse to listen. This is why we can draw strength from the martyrs.

      You might have heard of a website in the past few days that suggests adopting a Cardinal to pray for during the conclave. Well, I would suggest adopting a martyr. Adopt a martyr to pray to for strength in defending the Church when attacked.

        1. Also the accusation of cannibalism and causing plagues was not true…but the sexual abuse plague is true and so indefensible.

          1. “the sexual abuse plague is true and so indefensible.”

            This is true only to a point. The enemies of the Church argue that the majority of priests are evil child molesters. That is as untrue as the accusation of cannibalism. I would suggest that you respond to hostile non-Catholics by pointing out the following:

            1) The vast majority of priests know that child molestation is wrong and a horrible sin and would never engage in it;

            2) The Church’s initial cover-up was the wrong response and was, in itself, sinful, but the Church now acknowledges that;

            3) Hopefully, the next Pope will follow the lead of Cardinal George and adopt a zero tolerance policy:


  10. Msgr Pope:

    You often remark about the need to “personally experience” Jesus. I always find myself troubled by this because I sincerely do not understand what those who say this mean. To talk about experiencing personally one who can not be seen, heard, or touched is unintelligible to me. One can of course hear the teachings of Jesus, read them, read about the Saints, read their words, and experience life in the Church, and in an indirect sense can “experience Jesus” in that way, but I suspect this sort of thing is not what you mean, since you typically contrast this to knowing “about” Jesus. At times I wonder if you mean simply accepting the teaching and trying to live it out, but I would not call this a personal experience. ( Maybe difference in semantics?) Similarly I have no idea what you mean that talking to Jesus in prayer, is evidence that he is there. I frankly find the reverse, I pray and obviously do not “hear” anything and very often my “experience” is one of speaking to nothingness. One of course continues on and prays as best one can because of the intellectual conviction that God is out there and the hope that this conviction is accurate, but if I was to rely on my direct experience as evidence of anything I would think the direct personal experience does not help. I console myself with the idea that things in the material world like “black holes” and the Higgs Boson can be shown to exist and I have no direct experience of them either.

    In any case I am not wishing to be difficult or to dispute anything you are saying. I think if such an experience as you describe is possible it is a good thing. It would be particularly comforting to those who struggle with doubt. From time to time I do and know I am not alone. I find your description on the face of it inscrutable and therefore frustrating. I am a regular reader and perhaps am alone in this, but I do wonder if others out there who do not post responses have the same reaction. In any case at some point in the future I would really like to see a few words in a post directed to those who do not understand this whole idea of personal experience of God. In fact I have thought this so often when reading some of your posts, I may have made this comment in the past, if so pardon the repetition but consider at some point down the road doing a little piece on it.

    If in fact all you really mean is that we take the teachings to heart, than I stand corrected. That would be pretty straight forward.

    1. “I am a regular reader and perhaps am alone in this”

      You’re certainly not alone on this, mdepie. Even Benedict XVI himself said in his final general audience that at times during his pontificate, “the Lord seemed to be sleeping”:

      This does not mean, of course, that not hearing a response means that God is not listening or is not there. He works in mysterious ways and His ways are not our ways. At least we know that God’s Church [and of course, the papacy] is still here in an unbroken 2,000 year line, in spite of all the Church’s many troubles over such a long period. The Church’s continued existence is surely as solid evidence as any of the fact that God is with us and that He watches over His Church.

    2. Mdepie, I too wonder about those who talk about this ‘personal’ knowledge of Jesus and envy them. I am Catholic because God has given me the gift of faith; there is no other religion that can possibly be true. I try hard to practise my faith and would dearly love to experience this intimate contact with God. Any advice as to how to achieve this would be very gratefully received

      1. I agree with you both. Do not misunderstand I think Catholicism is true for a variety of reasons, but the subjective experience part is not there. To some extent for me it is more like what Pope Benedict XVI wrote about in a book ( Introduction to Christianity) written long before he became Pope ( 1968) , “The believer is always tempted with the uncertainty…”, and quotes St Theresa of Lisieux.. ” I am assaulted by the worst temptations of atheism.. everything has become questionable, everything has become dark…” Now to be honest I am not the melodramatic type… so St Theresa’s experience is expressed a little dramatically for my taste, but I get where she was coming from! The bottom line is I have more of an intellectual conviction that Catholicism is true, and every now and then have the rather disturbing thought that.. well what if you are just wrong and there is really nothing…. The teaching is that such thoughts are temptations and so I press on… Fair enough.. but this is a far cry from the direct experience of Jesus that folks like Msgr Pope describe and quite frankly I envy. I am not sure that one can will to experience such a thing, it seems to be more a matter of temperament.. but it would be nice to just understand it. I suspect other readers would find this helpful as well.

    3. Although I have had isolated experiences in which I felt the the touch or call of our Lord in a personal way, they are few and far between. So I do identify with what you are saying. I think (emphasis on THINK) that what Msgr Pope is talking about is literal. He, and others, have a relationship with Jesus that feels to them much like what they might have with a beloved teacher, and they perceive his presence and guidance all the time. And I believe that He is with all of us in the same way, but that most of us have just not learned to see Him. One tool I have found valuable is the writing of Thomas Merton, especially his later works. He came to see the Glory of God in everything around him, and practicing this is one way to deepen our relationship with God. I also think that those of us who envy others this special gift need to understand that it probably was not just handed to them. They came to know Jesus because they very actively sought Him, by regular prayer, study, fasting or other sacrifice, and receiving communion often. It was at times in my life when I was better at this that my brief glimpses came. Unfortunately, I have not had the discipline or drive or whatever it is I am missing to keep at it. God grant that I may again soon…

  11. I can only speak for myself, but I have been blessed with a very intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I am a cradle Catholic with devout Catholic parents who attended daily Mass for decades until they were physically incapable. One of my defining moments growing up was serving as an altar boy. Fast forward through the late 1960’s to an afternoon in the Fall of 2007. I don’t remember how, but I learned of a Latin Mass at a church in Stamford CT. In the interim I had married outside the faith, largely fallen away from the faith, certainly did not practice the faith, and most tragically did not raise my children in the faith. Then I heard the Asperges Mei sung in St. Mary Church that afternoon and a floodgate of emotion opened. As the Mass began God spoke to me directly, He called me to Himself. He flashed upon my memory my childhood faith in God which was strong and unshakable, and very consoling. I thought of how many times Jesus reminds us of the faith of children, and to be like them. Fast forward to today when Jesus is with me every waking moment, in my heart, and often in my mind. Soon after God called me that afternoon I began watching EWTN. I began praying the rosary. I could not stay away from Mass. I went to confession. I dug deeply into my faith, reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. I pondered St. Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing, and chanced upon a book called The Way of the Pilgrim, which recounts one man’s quest to in fact “pray without ceasing”. My personal relationship with Jesus Christ is intense. He is with me constantly and I try to return His love through much prayer during the day. I have adopted a disciplined approach to my prayer in the morning and evening, but find myself praying at all times of the day and night. I am always listening and He is always with me, always with me. I got myself into the habit of saying dozens, sometimes hundreds of times per day “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I write this only to give testimony, to be a witness to the power and working of our Lord Jesus Christ in one man’s life.

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