Martyrs: Belief in Action
Martyrs are witnesses
of the faith. Their
witness goes all
the way; they are willing to
lay down their lives for their
religious convictions. Martyrs
move beyond mere words
into deeds, professing their
beliefs in action. Manifesting
a graced courage in the face
of suffering and death itself,
individuals like Sts. Agnes,
Thomas More, Teresa
Benedicta of the Cross
(Edith Stein) and Ignatius
of Antioch, Archbishop
Oscar Romero and
St. Stephen all participated
in the self-giving of Jesus.
We do well to reflect upon
their lives and witness. Let us
now ponder the faith unto
death of Thomas Becket,
Isaac Jogues and Miguel Pro.
Religion and politics don’t mix
well. The Church and the state
have had a tumultuous relationship,
one evidenced by considerable
violence. In the 12th century we see
this conflict of Church-state played
out in the lives of Thomas Becket,
archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry II,
king of England. (In the 16th century
a similar drama involved St. Thomas
More and Henry VIII.)
At one time, Thomas Becket and
Henry II were friends. Henry named
Thomas his chancellor, the individual
controlling the finances of the realm.
When the Diocese of Canterbury
opened, King Henry appointed Thomas
Becket the new archbishop, though
at the time Thomas was not even
ordained a priest. After ordination and
installation, he left behind his worldly
ways and dedicated his life to being an
authentic disciple of Jesus. This involved
a renewed spiritual life and
a decision to protect the
Church from encroachment
by the state, namely,
King Henry II.
Needless to say, the
king was not pleased.
Thomas was exiled to
France for six years. From
there he excommunicated
the king and others when
they transgressed privileges
reserved to the religious
leader of England. A reconciliation
but failed. Thomas Becket
eventually returned to
England and then, on
December 29, 1170, four
of Henry II’s knights
entered the cathedral and
killed the archbishop.
Finding a new center
What happened in the
mind and heart of Thomas Becket? As
a friend and trusted companion of the
king, what brought Thomas Becket to
give up worldly power and influence to
promote the gospel and the Kingdom?
Surely, it was the action of grace. Becket
said yes to friendship with God rather
than friendship with a king who was
going to exploit the Church. Here is
an example of a major conversion, a
finding of a new center and a whole
new way of life.
In her novel Saints and Villains,
Denise Giardiana writes about the Lutheran theologian and anti-Nazi
activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who is
considered by some to be a martyr).
In one scene, Bonhoeffer is asked about
the meaning of sainthood: “What do
you think, Bonhoeffer? How does an
ordinary man like Becket become a
saint? Is sainthood truly the fruit of a
holy life? Or is it stubbornness, or
pride, or sheer luck? And would that
be good luck, or bad luck?”
Witness to the truth
Thomas Becket was an ordinary person.
God was always present to Becket, offering
the gift of grace, namely, God’s very
life. At some moment, Becket said yes
to that new life. Sainthood was not the
result of doing “holy” things like extensive
prayer and fasting; nor was it the
product of pride or luck. Rather, it was
the working of the Holy Spirit that
empowered Becket to follow the path
of truth, love and courage.
Good or bad luck? Coincidence?
Becket’s life and death were part of God’s
providence. Perhaps in common speech
we might say: “Becket was sure lucky
to be given the gift of eternal life.” But
this simplifies the matter. God sends
prophets, martyrs and saints because the
world needs witnesses to truth, beauty
and goodness. Thomas Becket (and
Thomas More) have influenced political
leaders as well as common citizens to do
the right thing regardless of the cost and
sacrifice. The lives of the saints are not
just good stories. They are narratives that
challenge us to respond to God’s call in
our lives with courage and nobility.
St. Isaac Jogues (1607-1646)
The Church’s mission is evangelization.
A letter from a high school
junior about to be confirmed
captures the essence of this call: “I
want everyone to know who God is.”
Through Baptism and Confirmation,
we are called to share the good news
of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus.
St. Isaac Jogues wanted everyone to
know about the mystery of God revealed in Jesus. He left his native France and
traveled to Quebec in North America.
There he worked among the Hurons and
Mohawks, communicating the good
news of the gospel. He and his fellow
Jesuits learned the language and customs
of the Native Americans and grew to
appreciate the spirituality already present
among the various tribes. The Jesuits
experienced what is known as reverse
evangelization—an awareness that God
has been at work in all times and all
places long before any missionary
approached a specific country or people.
The challenge is to recognize how God’s
grace has been operative in that land
and then to point out attitudes and
behaviors that contradict gospel living.
Disciple of the Lord
While working with the Hurons and
experiencing many hardships (cold,
starvation, sickness), Isaac Jogues was
captured by a warring party of Mohawks.
He and his companions suffered brutal
torture. Eventually, Isaac Jogues escaped
and returned to France, where he was
honored and acclaimed. His superiors
allowed him to decide what he would
do next: remain in France or return to
Return he did, in 1644. Two years
later, while attempting to negotiate an
agreement between the government of
Quebec and the Mohawks, Jogues was
martyred. He had left materials for
the celebration of Mass in a Mohawk
village. When an epidemic struck the
village, the people blamed the items for
the disease and death. Upon his return
to the village, Mohawk braves beat
and killed him.
Jesus proclaims that anyone who
leaves mother or father, brother or
sister for the sake of the Kingdom
will share in the joys of eternal life.
Isaac Jogues left his beloved homeland
and faced incredible hardships to fulfill
his vocation as a disciple of the Lord.
Such sacrifice is admirable and worthy
of emulation. Isaac Jogues did what
Jesus did: He offered himself for the
sake of the Kingdom.
Freedom and grace
In her classic, Creative Prayer, Brigid
E. Herman says of saints: “Their sainthood
lay in their habit of referring the
smallest action to God. They lived in
God; they acted from a pure motive
of love towards God. They were as
free from self-regard as from slavery
to the good opinion of others. God
saw and God rewarded: what else did
Isaac Jogues was a free man.
Through grace he escaped the two
prisons that incarcerate so many of us:
self-regard and human respect. He
had the liberty to do what God asked
of him regardless of his own well-being
or the opinion of others. Isaac Jogues
referred everything to the Lord:
the brutally cold winters, the cross of
suffering, the joy of the Eucharist and
his preaching. United with Christ,
all became holy.
As Isaac Jogues approached death
he was not alone. The spirit of the
risen Lord filled his soul with courage
and surely, like Jesus on the cross, the
devoted missionary prayed for the
forgiveness of those who killed him.
If we had been there we might have
heard him saying under his breath:
“Father, forgive them for they do not
know what they are doing.”
Blessed Miguel Pro (1891-1927)
In his biography St. Francis of Assisi,
G. K. Chesterton speaks of saintly
revolution: “The transition from
the good man to the saint is a sort of
revolution; by which one for whom
all things illustrate and illuminate
God becomes one for whom God
illustrates and illuminates all things.”
Father Miguel Pro was involved
in both political and personal revolutions.
The political revolution was
in Mexico, where violent repression
of Catholicism was under way in the
Revolution of 1910. Prior to being
executed by a firing squad in November
1927, Father Pro did his priestly ministry in disguise in Mexico City.
He managed to celebrate the sacraments,
serve the needy and mediate
God’s courage and strength to those
facing arrest and death. In 1988,
Pope John Paul II beatified Miguel Pro
as a martyr.
Father Pro underwent a personal
revolution. After studying in Europe,
he returned to his native country and
began his priestly work. During his
years of formation, Miguel Pro learned
to make God the center of his life.
This “revolution” is at the heart of
conversion—the journey from self to
God. It is a shifting of centers: God
moves to the center, and we are on the
periphery. Father Pro made that painful
journey through God’s transforming
grace. Here was the source of his
courage and endurance, the source of
A significant part of Fr. Pro’s personal
conversion (a la “revolution”) was
how he dealt with his pain. The
emotional suffering came from
worrying about his family; his physical
pain came from stomach problems.
In the midst of these struggles,
Father Pro trusted in God’s providence
as he would trust in God on the day
he was executed. That trust was truly
Like St. Francis of Assisi, Father
Pro trusted deeply in God’s ways and
God’s will. As Chesterton stated, the
saint has eyes to see how God is
manifest in all things and, because of
that graced vision grounded in trust
and faith, every person and event take
on divine significance. St. Francis,
Miguel Pro and all the other saints are
individuals through whom the light,
love and life of grace are manifested.
They become windows through whom
The common people of Mexico
responded to the death of Father
Pro by acclaiming him a saint. The
political machine that tried to eliminate
the Catholic resistance had its plans
turned upside down. The resistance
only grew because of this martyr’s
blood. By proclaiming the good news
of Jesus through his sacrificial death,
Father Pro’s witness to the gospel
captured the imagination and heart
of thousands of people.
Justice, courage, the cross
Long before the seven principles of
Catholic social teaching were articulated,
Father Pro was living them in his own
unique way. To mention a few: the
dignity of every person, the call to
solidarity, preferential option for
the poor and vulnerable, rights and
responsibilities. Just as the Mexican government of his day denied these
values to the people, Father Miguel
fought to protect and promote them.
Blessed Miguel Pro was a man of
justice and courage.
As he went before the firing squad
on that fateful day in 1927, Father Pro
extended his arms in the form of a
cross before the bullets riddled his
body. This last gesture proclaimed
the centrality of Jesus and the cross
in the life of this saint. The true
instrument of any graced revolution
is this symbol from Calvary.
Next: Immigrant Saints
Participate in the self-giving love of Jesus. Follow in the footsteps of…
• St. Thomas Becket, who said yes to friendship with God over friendship with
the king. Recommit to your own friendship with God. Celebrate this with a
friend who reveals God’s love to you.
• St. Isaac Jogues, who faced hardships, torture and death in order to bring
the Good News to peoples of different cultures. Engage someone of a different ethnic background from yours in a conversation about the difference faith in God makes in your life.
• Blessed Miguel Pro, who trusted in God through both emotional and physical pain. Share your burdens with God. Reach out to others whose pain keeps them from reaching out to you. Listen as they share their pain without
interjecting your own experiences.
Share how these and other saints inspire you
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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