Each time Islamic radicals speak of suicide bombers as "martyrs," it reverberates in Christianity. Some Christian groups are also quick to use the language of martyrdom to reinforce suspicions about Islam.
Earlier this year, after the al-Qaida leader in Saudi Arabia was killed by security forces, his supporters issued a message quickly hailing him as a martyr. A week earlier, Christian groups used the same word for an American peace activist whose body was found in Baghdad.
A martyr (from the Greek for "a witness") is a person who, for the Christian faith, freely and patiently suffers death at the hands of a persecutor. Martyrs choose to die rather than deny their faith by word or deed; they suffer patiently, that is, after the example of Christ, they do not resist their persecutors.
True martyrs die for holy causes. False martyrs die for the most unholy of causes.
The early Christians, who bore witness to the truth of those facts upon which Christianity rests, were liable at any time to be given a choice between death and denial of their testimony. Many of them, refusing to deny Christ, suffered death.
There were martyrs in the early Church of what is now Canada: Six Jesuits and two lay associates who worked selflessly as missionaries to the Huron Indians in the colonial days of New France and who were killed between 1642 and 1649 not far from Toronto. They were canonized by Pope Pius XI on June 29, 1930. (In many parts of the Catholic world their feast was celebrated this past week on Oct. 19.)
A great shrine stands in their memory in Midland, Ontario: St. Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649); St. Noel Chabanel (1613-1649); St. Anthony Daniel (1601-1648); St. Charles Garnier (1605-1649); St. Issac Jogues (1602-1646); St. Gabriel Lalemant (1610-1649); St. Rene Goupil (1607-1642); St. Jean de Lalande (?-1646).
Their Jesuit mission of Sainte Marie in Huronia, the largest of all the Jesuit missions in North America, was also one of the most difficult. The missionaries encountered appalling conditions, including climate, food and shelter. They found themselves in the middle of a game of commercial competition being played out by Dutch, English and French, as well as caught in hostilities between the Hurons and Iroquois. The missionaries had only one option: Openly declaring their plans to evangelize and dissociating themselves from the commercial goals of the European nations.
HATRED OF FAITH
For too long now, Christian martyrdom has been talked about in terms of torture, execution and hatred of the faith, which completely misrepresents what is most profound about it. However, the Second Vatican Council taught that martyrs follow in the footsteps of Jesus to the point of making even their death a gift to Christ. The determining criteria for martyrdom are positive. It is not the executioner or the historian who declares someone a martyr. It is a decision that the Church makes on the basis of what motivated the martyred person.
At a time when many Christian values are at odds with our society, the heritage of the North American martyrs can help us all, just as their spirit of self-sacrifice and openness to others challenges each of us. Through the Huron Christians and the blood of the Jesuit martyrs, the faith was kindled throughout North America. This was martyrdom for a very holy cause.