The Evangelizer Is Called to Martyrdom

Photo Credit: Catholic News Service
Photo Credit: Catholic News Service

The recent martyrdom of the four Missionaries of Charity sisters in Yemen reminds us all that our Christian witness and duty may in fact lead to our death. Bless those sisters for their heroic lives, living in a hostile situation daily and giving visible witness to the presence of Christ. Here is true evangelization, the announcing of the Gospel. And while it is unlikely that most of us will be called to die for the faith, there is a kind of daily martyrdom that is expected of us and about which Christ warned us. If we are going to evangelize we must be prepared to suffer.

In today’s post, I’d like to talk about the relationship between martyrs and evangelization. The word “martyr” has two meanings, both of which are related to evangelization. On the one hand, “martyr” gets its meaning from the Greek word μάρτυς (martus), meaning “witness.” On the other hand, the current English meaning of “martyr” refers to those who suffered and died for their faith. Both concepts are essential for evangelizers (this means you).

Let’s look first at the concept of a “martyr” as one who suffers. If you’re going to evangelize you must be prepared to suffer. This goes a long way in explaining why most Christians don’t evangelize.

When I was training some people in my parish to do door-to-door evangelization and also when preparing another group to go to their own family members to summon them back to the faith, it became clear that we had to get something out of the way at the very start: we were all going to suffer for doing this. We would be rejected, scorned, ridiculed, vented at, and asked questions we couldn’t answer. But we would also have people who would be delighted to see us, interested in finding out more, and perhaps even open to the invitation to come to Mass.

I wanted to be clear at the outset; we have to expect to get it with both barrels: POW!

Are you ready to suffer? If you’re going to be a witness (from the Greek derivation of “martyr”) you have to be 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 simply being dismissed or ignored?

These things are just part of the picture. In no way does receiving those reactions from others indicate that we have failed; in fact, it may mean we were successful because Christ promised such things to faithful disciples and witnesses. Further, anger and protests do not mean that a seed has not been sown. For a seed to take root, the ground must first be broken, and that is often not an easy task. The ground often “protests” and we will only get fruit 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 experiencing rejection, derision, and scorn, consider yourself in good company. Jesus, the apostles, martyrs, and saints all 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 should not go out looking for a fight or trying to make people angry. But often they will react in this way and we should expect it. Suffering is an essential part of being an evangelizer, a witness (a martyr).

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

  1. Don’t take anger and rejection personally. In most cases, it’s not about you. Most people’s anger is really directed at Christ, at God in general, 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 that you did anything wrong or that you gave offense. I have often thought that in a primitive part of our brain, developed in childhood, we automatically think that if someone is angry with us we must have done something wrong. This is not necessarily so. In fact, anger is sometimes a sign we have done something right! 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. Rather, rejoice that you have been deemed worthy to suffer for Christ.
  4. Do not be discouraged. Shake the dust from your feet 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. An evangelizer is a witness and the Greek word for witness is the root of the word “martyr.” Suffering is simply part of the package.

When we understand and accept these things we are less resentful and anxious when it actually 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.

A witness is someone who has seen or experienced the thing he is describing. Because he has personally seen or experienced it, he knows what he is talking about. The word “witness” carries in it the sense of “knowing.” Its etymological roots are Old English and Germanic words such as wit and wissen meaning to know something; it was also likely influenced by the German verb kennen meaning to be personally familiar with someone or something.

Combining these roots, we come to the conclusion that a witness is someone who knows the facts and truth of something personally, by firsthand knowledge. I cannot really serve as a witness in a court of law merely by stating what others said they saw. Hearsay evidence is not admissible. I have to testify to what I saw 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, not just to repeat what others have said. It is not enough to know about the Lord, we have to personally know the Lord. Children know whether their parents are just going through the motions of teaching them 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 of what and of Whom he speaks.

People know the difference. And frankly, what people are most hungry for is firsthand witnesses, not people who just quote the safe, well-tested words of others. What people need to hear is this:

God is real. 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 have found them to be true and reliable. 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 really said such-and-such back in the 8th century, or 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 about issues rather than testifying from personal experience. It is much harder for a person to deny what you have experienced if you can say, “I have come to experience that God is real and that what He says through His Church is true. I have staked my whole life on what He has revealed.”

What we need are witnesses more so than experts in apologetics who can debate every point. We do need apologists, and intellectual knowledge is important, but personal witness is even more important. It’s OK to say that you don’t know the answer to some particular question, but it’s not OK to be incapable of being a 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 for every human being. I have come to experience His power to set me free from sin and 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, those who are willing to suffer and to be firsthand witnesses with a personal testimony to give of the Lord they have come to know by experience. You should be an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.

Honor to the Missionaries of Charity sisters who knew Christ and died witnessing to Him!

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