A reading from Monday of this week (the 11th Week in Ordinary Time) reminds us once again of the cost of the gospel. St. Paul speaks plainly of the suffering he endured to deliver the Good News for us:
… afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness at the right and at the left; through glory and dishonor, insult and praise. We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful; as unrecognized and yet acknowledged; as dying and behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things (2 Cor 6:3-10).
Thus St. Paul, who suffered martyrdom for the Gospel, delivered the faith to us long before the sword came that ended his earthly life.
I want to talk about the relationship of the words “martyr” and “evangelization” in two ways. The word martyr has two senses, both of which 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 martyrs as those who suffered and died for their faith. Both concepts are essential for evangelizers (this means you).
Let’s look first at the definition 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 (about fifty of them) in my parish several years ago to go evangelizing door-to-door, and also when I was preparing others in my parish to approach their fallen-away family members to summon them back to the Church, it was clear that we had to get something out of the way at the very start. I needed to make everyone understand that we were all going to suffer for doing this. We would be rejected, scorned, ridiculed, vented at, and asked questions we wouldn’t be able to answer. And yes, we would also have people who would be delighted to see us, very friendly, open to the invitation to come to Mass, and interested to find out more. But in the end, I wanted to be clear that we would have to expect to get it with both barrels: POW!
Are you ready to suffer? If you’re going to be a witness, you have to know that the Greek word for witness is martyr. Are you ready to suffer for Jesus? There are many who have gone so far as to be killed for announcing Jesus. How about us? Are we even willing to risk a raised eyebrow? How about laughter, scorn, derision, anger, rejection, or even worse, being dismissed or ignored?
These things are just part of the picture. In no way do these reactions indicate failure. In fact, it may be a sign of success, for Christ promised such things to faithful disciples and witnesses. Further, anger and protests do not mean that a seed has not been sown. In order to sow a seed, the ground must first be broken, and that is often not an easy task. For the ground often “protests” and we will only get fruit from it by the sweat of our brow. In addition to the passage above from Corinthians, other texts in Scripture speak to the suffering of those who witness to the faith:
- 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).
- The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41).
- 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).
- If you suffer for being a Christian, don’t feel ashamed, but praise God for being called that name (1 Peter 4:16).
- We are fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10).
- God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:21).
How can we read texts like these and think that we will not suffer for speaking and living our faith? Some will accept us, but many will reject us. But in rejection, derision, scorn, and being called a fool, consider yourself in good company. Jesus, the Apostles, the martyrs, the saints, and all the heroes suffered in this way. It is not failure to be thought of in this way; it is simply the lot of the faithful. In this sense, it is a sign of success. We do not go looking for a fight or trying to make people angry. But often they react that way, and this is to be expected. Suffering is an essential part of being an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.
Here are few things to remember when we are being scorned or find ourselves the object of anger:
- Do not take anger and rejection personally. In most cases, it is not about you. Most people’s anger is really directed at Christ, at God, at His Church, or at organized religion in general. Some have been hurt by the Church or feel hurt by God. It is usually not about you.
- Just because someone is angry or takes offense doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. I have often thought that, in a primitive part of our brain developed in early childhood, we instinctively think that if someone is angry with us then we must have done something wrong—not necessarily so. In fact, anger is sometimes a sign that we have done something right. We are raising issues that, though uncomfortable, are necessary to consider.
- Do not give in to the temptation to retaliate. Rather, rejoice that you have been deemed worthy to suffer for Christ.
- Do not be discouraged. Shake the dust and move on (cf Matt 10:14).
- 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.
- Remember, too, that an evangelizer is a witness and the Greek word for witness is martyr. Suffering is simply part of the package.
When we understand and accept these things upfront, we are less likely to feel resentful and anxious when it happens. Do not lose heart. Accept the martyrdom of evangelization.
And this leads us to the second notion of the word “martyr,” that of being a witness.
A witness is someone who has seen or experienced the thing he is talking about. Thus, he knows what he is talking about. In English, the word “witness” contains the sense of “knowing” because its etymological roots come from the Old English and Germanic words “wit” and “wissen” meaning to know something. The word was also likely influenced by the German verb “kennen” meaning to be personally familiar with someone or something. Combining these roots, a “witness” is someone who knows the facts and truth of something personally, by firsthand knowledge. I cannot provide testimony as a witness in a court by saying what others told me they saw (hearsay is not admissible). I must say what I saw and what I 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 about what we know intellectually, or what we have heard others say, but also what we have personally experienced. As witnesses we are called to have firsthand knowledge, not just to repeat what others have said. It is not enough to know about the Lord, we have to know the Lord personally. A child knows whether his parents are just going through the motions of teaching him a prayer, or whether they really know the Lord personally and are actually praying. Congregants know whether their priest is just giving an informational sermon or whether he has really met the Lord and knows personally what and of Whom he speaks.
People can tell the difference. And frankly, what people are most hungry for is firsthand witnesses, not people who just quote slogans and the “safe,” “tested” sayings of others. Here is what people need to hear: “God is real. I know this because I just talked to 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 Scripture and from the Church, and I have found them to be reliable and true. I am talking to you from experience. God is real and His teachings are true. I know this personally because 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 about why the “evil” Catholic Church conducted the Inquisition. These sorts of topics come up quickly because we talk only about issues rather than personal experience. It’s a lot 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 so than experts in apologetics, who know every rebuttal. Intellectual knowledge is important, but personal witness is even more important. It’s OK to respond “I don’t know” to some arcane question, but it’s not OK to be incapable of giving 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 then let you know.” But then I immediately follow up by continuing, “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 for every human being. I have come to experience His power to set me free from sin and from every bondage, and to 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. We need those who are willing to suffer and to be firsthand 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.
Here is a video clip from Fr. Francis Martin in which he beautifully describes the second notion of the word martyr as “witness.” This clip is part of a longer series on the Gospel of John, which you can find here Gospel of John Series 3A.