I guess there is some truth to it: it was by accident that Lorenzo ended up in Japan together with Dominican missionaries, and was imprisoned with them for being Christian. That fortuitous event led the Chinese mestizo, aged 36 or 37, to his execution on September 29, 1637, on Nishizaki Hill in Nagasaki, a leading center of Christianity in Japan.
Accidental or not, however, there is no denying his heroism in the face of unbearable torture and death for the Faith, and he joined the ranks of saints whose blood made fertile the soil of Christianity through more than 2,000 years.
There is something common to all martyrs—a behavior that shines through as they face the inevitable: first, their invincible faith in God; second, their fortitude; third, their fearlessness; fourth, their tenacity; and fifth, their cheerfulness in the face of hardship and trial.
Doubtless, these qualities were manifested in the excruciating sacrifice of our first Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruíz de Manila, canonized on October 18, 1987, as patron of Filipinos, the Philippines, the Archdiocese of Manila and the poor. While there was a point in his trial when he broke down and apostatized due to unbearable pain, he nevertheless redeemed himself and reaffirmed his faith for which he paid dearly with his life.
A martyr’s belief in God is invincible. He draws his strength from this trust in the Almighty; he knows that the words of the psalmist shall come to pass: “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want . . . even though I walk in the shadow of the valley of death, I fear no evil for You are with me . . .” (Ps. 23).
A martyr is possessed with fortitude. Because of his unshakable trust in God’s faithfulness, deep peace fills his heart. One of the companions of Saint Andrew Kim Taegon of Korea, a 13-year-old boy named Peter Yu Taech’ol, willingly submitted to his torturers.
Peter was beaten, scourged, burned, and his whole body was one big wound. While being scourged, a piece of flesh from his shoulder fell to the ground. He picked it up, and with a weak smile on his bloodied face, threw the flesh toward his torturers.
A martyr is fearless in the face of death; he sees it as the door to his complete union with God whom he loves above everything else.
Óscar Arnúlfo Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador in Central America, famously said, “I have often been threatened with death . . . As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I say this without a trace of pride; but rather with deep humility.”
A martyr is tenacious in his faith. He knows no worldly wealth can compare with the treasure he holds deep in himself. He has God in his heart. He needs nothing else, and he will not exchange his treasure with anything in this world.
Victoria Díez Bustos de Molina, one of the first members of the Teresiana Community founded by Saint Pedro Poveda in Spain, was killed by Spanish communists in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Her executioners told her, “Just say ‘Viva la republica! Viva el comunismo!’ and we will spare your life.” Instead, Victoria knelt on the ground, extended her arms cross-wise, looked up to heaven, and shouted, “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva mi Madre!” She was forthwith shot, and her lifeless body was thrown into a well.
In the midst of suffering, a martyr possesses deep interior joy, even a sense of humour. St. Thomas More, the brilliant English lawyer who became Lord Chancellor of England in the reign of the infamous King Henry the Eighth, was sentenced to death for treason, because he would not swear the Oath of Supremacy recognising the King as head of the Church in England and repudiating papal authority.
At the chopping block, More saw that his beard would be hit by the blade. He thus told his executioner, “Please hold off the execution for a second, sir; let me first get my beard out of the way; it is innocent of any crime.”
Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, a Jesuit priest executed in México during the religious persecution carried out by President Plutarco Elías Calles in 1927, was likewise full of contagious joy almost defying death.
Why is it important for us to understand the behaviour of martyrs? The reason is that in our time, while there are no widespread persecutions against the Church—despite the alarming treatment of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East, and the grave threat to life that being Catholic and Christian can be in Islamic states—nevertheless, the challenge of martyrdom remains in very subtle ways, and the danger of abandoning our Christian faith is very real.
It seems to me that the greatest threat to our Catholic faith today lies in our postmodern culture that promotes relativism—the assertion that points of view have no absolute /Truth” truth or validity, but only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. Principles and ethics are regarded as applicable only in a limited context. Relativism sees no absolute Truth.
Hence, even God is not an absolute truth. Relativism is very much alive in our present-day culture. In our interconnected IT global village, relativism poses a grave, if subtle, threat to our Catholic Christian faith, our morality and our culture. In this context, we as Catholic Christians must bear witness, for that is what a martyr does—he bears witness to his conviction.
It may be an uphill climb for most of us, for we may be misunderstood or disdained by our postmodern world. If that happens, we should rejoice; the martyrs went that way before us. For them it was clear who the enemy was; for us, it is not so clear.
Today, the subjugation of faith which martyred many in ages past, is harder to resist and far more vicious. It invades and eats away at our convictions and principles, and before we know it, we have been overcome.
But with the Lord Jesus Christ sustaining us, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the ranks of martyrs and saints who have gone before supporting us, magtatagumpay tayo! We shall overcome!
Praised be Jesus Christ!
(Fr. Timoteo Ofrasio, SJ, SLD teaches systematic theology at Loyola School of Theology, with interests in Christian worship, art, music, churches and formation.)