Christian Martyrs

Sara and Justin Kraft

How These Martyrs for the Faith Can Get You Really Inspired

“Martyr” is a Greek word meaning witness.  St. Peter himself uses the word in the Acts of the Apostles referring to all the apostles as “martyrs” (meaning witnesses) to Jesus’ resurrectionIn later years, the word came to mean a person who gave up his life rather than deny Jesus.

One of the greatest gifts of the martyrs is their example of courage which we can look to when we face ridicule or pressure to make our faith only a private matter with little influence on the way we live our public life.

St. Justin the Martyr – June 1

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St. Justin was born around 103 AD.  He studied philosophy so he could learn about God.  He converted to Christianity as an adult when God himself disguised as an old man appeared to him while St. Justin was mediating on the idea of God. He told St. Justin to seek understanding of God through prayer and the Scriptures.  After his conversion, St. Justin wrote many philosophical works.  He traveled to Greece, Egypt, and Italy to spread the Gospel.  In Rome, he was martyred for his faith.  “Do you think,” the prefect said to Justin, “that by dying you will enter heaven, and be rewarded by God?”  “I do not think,” was the Saint’s answer; “I know” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints).

St. Justin’s role in the early church was that of a witness.  He provided one of the earliest descriptions of the Mass. His description is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 1345.  "St. Justin wrote to the pagan emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) around the year 155, explaining what Christians did: “On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . . and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: ‘Amen.’ When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the “eucharisted” bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent” (CCC 1345). You can see from his description that the Mass is the same today.

He was a witness to Christ even when it meant death.  We should work to witness the good news of Christ each and every day to our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues with the certainty of St. Justin the Martyr. 

Ugandan Martyrs – June 3

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In the 1880s, the Society of Missionaries of Africa built up a community of converts who were soon instructing and leading new Christians, many in Ugandan King Mwanga’s court.  King Mwanga was a violent ruler and very evil man.  The Christians tried to protect the pages from King Mwanga’s passions.  Joseph Mkasa was the chief steward of Mwanga’s court and the leader of the small community of 200 Christians.  After King Mwanga killed a Protestant missionary and his companions, Joseph Mkasa confronted Mwanga.  Joseph was struck with a spear and was killed.  When a page told King Mwanga that he had been receiving religious instruction, Mwanga brought his whole court and separated the Christians from the rest.  Twenty young men and boys admitted they were Christians and said they intended to remain Christians.  They were condemned to death with a 37 mile hike to their place of execution.  The chief executioner begged his own son to escape and hide, but he refused.  Thirteen Catholics and eleven Protestants died.  At their death, they called on the name of Jesus and said, “You can burn our bodies, but you cannot harm our souls.” Like the Ugandan Martyrs, we should boldly and joyfully proclaim the love of Christ – even if it means death.

Martyrs of Tarsus – June 6

A group of 20 martyrs were killed in what is now modern Turkey during the reign of Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 290.  When Diocletian emerged as emperor in 285 A.D., he was at this time still in his right mind (he is reported to have gone insane later).  He had a large loyalty to the Roman imperial tradition, and realized the entire Roman Empire could not be safely governed by one man.  When Christians started to refuse to serve in the military (although there was no official church teaching suggesting this) amongst other small items, Emperor Diocletian ordered the removal of all Christians from public office and to destroy their churches and books.  As things escalated, Christians began to be killed by order of Emperor Diocletian, in ways too horrible to describe, including these twenty martyrs at Tarsus.  These martyrs endured suffering and death every bit as horrific as crucifixionThe martyrdom spread all across the Roman Empire.  Not all Christians were strong enough to withstand the threat of martyrdom, and some renounced their faith.  Like these martyrs, we should pray each and every day for strength.

Polish Martyrs – June 12

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The 108 Martyrs of World War II celebrate their feast day on June 12.  They were Roman Catholics from Poland killed during World War II by the Nazis.  The group consists of 3 bishops, 52 priests, 26 members of male religious orders, 3 seminarians, 8 religious sisters, and 9 lay people.  When they were faced with death, they continued to save others and joyfully witness their love of God.  One of these martyrs was Marianna Biernacka, who was born in 1888.  When some German soldiers were killed by the resistance in Poland, the Nazis decided to shoot Polish citizens.  Unfortunately, Marianna’s son and his wife were selected to be shot.  Because her daughter in law was pregnant, Marianna begged the Germans to take her life instead.  They agreed.  Marianna was killed on July 13, 1943.  Like Marianna, we should learn to make small acts of self-sacrifice daily, so when the opportunity presents itself we are ready, willing, and able to make a larger act of loving self-sacrifice. 

Irish Martyrs – June 20

In 1534, King Henry VIII rejected the Pope’s authority and established the state Church in England and in Ireland.  In 1560, the Act of Supremacy made it a treasonable offense not to acknowledge the English monarch as head of the Church.  In both countries, many Catholics were put to death.  In 1992, John Paul II proclaimed a representative group from Ireland from the 16th and 17th centuries and beatified them.  St. Oliver Plunkett was canonized in 1975 and brought an awareness of the other brave men and women who died for the Catholic faith in England and Ireland.  In this group was Patrick O’Healy, a Franciscan priest who won acclaim in Paris where he took part in public debates. Fr. O’Healy and his fellow Franciscan Fr. O’Rourke arrived in Ireland in 1579 and were soon captured.  Fr. Healy was offered his freedom if only he would swear the oath. He refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and was found guilty of treason.  Another, Margaret Ball, died in prison in 1584.  She was arrested by order of her Protestant son who knew she provided safe houses for bishops and priests passing through Dublin.  We should pray that like Margaret, we have the courage to do the mission God is calling us to do, even if our family and friends do not understand.

St. Thomas More – June 22

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St. Thomas More is the patron saint of lawyers.  His life is immortalized in the Academy Award Winning Movie, “A Man for All Seasons.” (I encourage you to watch it sometime.) He was born in London in 1478 and studied law at Oxford.  He wrote the book Utopia.  In 1505, he married Jane Colt and had four children.  After his wife died, he married widow Alice Middleton who raised his children.  Henry VIII made him Lord Chancellor in 1529.  As Chancellor, it was his duty to enforce the laws against heretics.  St. Thomas resigned in 1532 at the peak of his career due to a disagreement with Henry VIII on the supremacy of the Pope. In doing so, he lost nearly all of his income. In 1534, he was imprisoned because he refused to render allegiance to Henry VIII as the Head of the Church of England.  St. Thomas More was eventually convicted of treason, after false witnesses testified at his trial.  Thomas was then beheaded on July 6, 1535.  He told the spectators that he was dying as “the King’s good servant- but God’s first.”  Like St. Thomas More, we should not place our allegiance to the State above our allegiance to God, no matter the personal or financial ramifications. 

Martyrs of Ararat – June 22

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Ten thousand Roman soldiers were led by St. Acacius to convert to Christianity.  They were crucified by the order of the Roman emperor on Mount Ararat in modern Turkey.  The event was extremely popular in Renaissance art.  The legend reads: “The emperors Adrian and Anoninus marched at the head of a large army to suppress the revolt of the Gadarenes and the people of the Euphrates region. Finding too strong an opponent all fled except nine thousand soldiers. After these had been converted to Christ by the voice of an angel they turned upon the enemy and completely routed them. They were then brought to the top of Mount Ararat and instructed in the faith. When the emperors heard of the victory they sent for the converts to join in sacrifices of thanksgiving to the gods. They refused, and the emperors applied to five tributary kings for aid against the rebels. The kings responded to the call, bringing an immense army. The Christians were asked to deny their faith, and, on refusal, were stoned. But the stones rebounded against the assailants, and at this miracle a thousand soldiers joined the confessors. Hereupon the emperors ordered all to be crucified.”  We should be willing to sacrifice our lives instead of deny Christ. 

St. John the Baptist – June 24

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St. John the Baptist’s birth was foretold to his father Zechariah by the angel Gabriel.  Zechariah actually disbelieved the angel when he heard the news because he and his wife were well past child bearing years. St. John was to prepare the way for Christ (Luke 1:13-17) Shortly thereafter, John leapt in his Mother’s womb when a pregnant Mary visited Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), revealing to Elizabeth that Mary was the mother of our Lord.  St. John spent time in the desert eating locusts and wild honey and clothed in camel’s hair to pray in silence (Mark 1:6-7). Later, St. John was known for drawing large crowds across the providence.  He baptized the crowds with water, and Jesus asked to be baptized.  John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” and then baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:14).  He saw the Holy Spirit descend in bodily form on Jesus (Mark 1:11).  He was eventually beheaded for defending the sanctity of marriage by Herod at the wish of his unlawful wife.  St. John was exemplary because he lived for Jesus and only Jesus. He followed this call into the harsh and barren dessert, leading a life of simplicity and austerity. Often times our natural desires lead us in search of pleasure rather than God. Therefore, let us follow John’s example of sacrifice by sacrificing each day one of our natural inclinations and handing it over to God, learning little by little to trust in Him.

St. Peter – June 29

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St. Peter was the church’s first Pope.  He was a fisherman, and one of Jesus’ twelve apostles.  Despite his belief in Jesus, St. Peter denied him three times out of fear after Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin.  Following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Peter was given the opportunity to tell Jesus three times he loved him.  Jesus called him the rock of his church (Matthew 16:18).  Peter brought the Gospel to the Gentiles. In addition to baptizing the Roman pagan Cornelius (Acts 10), at the Council of Jerusalem St. Peter gave his support to preach to Gentiles (Acts 14:7-12). This made the new Church universal.  He was also the first apostle to perform miracles in Jesus’ name.  An angel helped Peter escape from jail so he could continue his ministry. (Acts 5:19) Peter died in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero.  According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside down by his request because he deemed himself unworthy to die the same way as Jesus.  We should learn to be as humble as St. Peter.  Despite his eminence in becoming the Church’s first Pope, St. Peter never forgot how he denied Jesus during the crucifixion.  He remembered this so well that he requested to be crucified upside down when he was killed.

St. Paul – June 29

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St. Paul was a Jew who studied in Jerusalem.  He was originally known as Saul, and was a Roman citizen, a Pharisee, and a zealous persecutor of Christians.  Those who were about to stone the martyr Stephen laid their coats at his feet, and he guarded the garments, approving of their violence (Acts 7:58).  When a light from heaven struck him to the earth while on the road to Damascus, he heard a voice ask, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) He saw Jesus and then was made blind for three days.  This experience was the focal point of Paul’s life. He was baptized and spent the rest of his life carrying the Gospel to the ends of the world.  The book Acts of the Apostles records much of Paul’s travels as he and St. Barnabas went on a mission from Cypress and throughout Asia Minor.  Together they established many churches.  Much of Paul’s instruction to these churches is preserved in Paul’s letters in the bible.  These letters lay down the foundation of many of the Catholic Church’s beliefs and provide great advice on how Christians ought to live.  During his life, he was imprisoned for two years, was shipwrecked in Malta, and then imprisoned for another two years.  In 67 AD, he was beheaded under Emperor Nero.  St. Paul challenges us to seek the things that are of Christ, to let our experience of Christ be the focal point of our lives which shapes all our actions, and to give ourselves without reservation to God.

Are you inspired by the martyrs?