A Vincentian Reflection on Martyrdom

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by: Vinícius Augusto Ribeiro Teixeira, CM


Throughout the history of the Church martyrdom has always held a preeminent place because it has been viewed as the most sublime consummation of the Christian vocation and the greatest surety of obtaining the eschatological hope. The experience of martyrdom should not be sought after nor should it be cowardly rejected. Rather it should be freely and courageously embraced as the crowning witness of a radical option for God and for the kingdom. In this way an individual becomes conformed to Christ, the faithful witness (Revelation 1:5) [1]. Thus the martyrs are constituted as a type of archetype of holiness with regard to the Christian life and their example reinvigorates the Church in its mission of evangelization, its mission of communicating the joy of salvation to all people and thus promoting a more human lifestyle.

In the Vincentian family numerous individuals have handed over their life as they have fulfilled their mission of evangelization and service on behalf of the poor. They became like Christ whose mission it was to proclaim the kingdom (cf., Luke 4:18) and whose compassionate and effective charity was extended to those who were weighed down by political and religious exploitation (cf., Matthew 9:36). Some of these individuals we know by name, especially those whose witness has been officially recognized by the Church [3]. Others remain as they lived: hidden with Christ in God (cf., Colossians 3:3). Nevertheless, in all those persons the virtues, which according to Vincent de Paul are characteristic of a true martyr of Jesus Christ, evangelizer and servant of the poor … those virtues shine forth.

After some introductory notes, this presentation will develop the principal insights of Vincent de Paul with regard to martyrdom, insights that reveal an intimate relationship between martyrdom and mission and charity.

The significance and the scope of martyrdom in the Christian life

The mystery of Christ as a source

In the words of Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ is the fontal sacrament of martyrdom [3]. The cross sealed Jesus’ fidelity to himself and to the mission that he received from the Father, a mission to reveal God’s infinite love for all humankind and to also make manifest God’s merciful solidarity with all those men and women who throughout the ages are crucified in so many different parts of the world. Jesus’ unjust and violent death was, therefore, the inevitable consequence of radical fidelity to his fundamental option for the kingdom … an option that was embraced and revealed through an act of self-surrender and service in which Jesus conformed himself to the will of God-Love. In order to maintain the status quo, the religious and political institutions of that era rejected Jesus and his lifestyle; they persecuted and condemned Jesus of Nazareth, accusing him of blasphemy (cf., Mark 14:60-64) and of being an agitator (cf., Luke 23:2-5) … thus they crucified Jesus [4]. The martyrdom of Jesus ought to be correctly understood. It does not simply correspond to God’s plan. Historically it is the result of the rejection of Jesus’ message and his person … a rejection on the part of those who did not want to change their life and accept the demands of the kingdom [5].

The martyr accompanies Jesus in the continual search for the profound meaning of life that reposes in the dynamism of the Trinitarian love and that is expressed in the gift of self to others. Thus the following of Christ, as the center of Christian faith, includes the sharing in Christ’s life and ultimately, sharing in Christ’s destiny which is the result of a praxis that refers back to the same cause for which the Teacher lived and died and was raised to new life. Therefore, yesterday, as well as today, and in the name of the same passion for the kingdom, many people courageously accept an option in favor of those who are poor and thus denounce all forms of social dehumanization while proclaiming the possibility of another world founded on gospel values. In the name of this cause many people are frequently tortured, persecuted and killed by those who reject the liberating praxis that is the result of an authentic Christian faith.

Faith in the resurrection, the very core of the Christian experience, has three profound biblical-theological consequences. In those consequences we find the basis for Christian hope in eternal life and consequently we also find the basis for martyrdom which, from the very beginning, was intimately related to the Paschal Mystery of Christ that is celebrated in the Eucharist [6].

[a] We believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the one sent by the Father. Therefore, we proclaim Jesus as Lord; furthermore, we believe that he lives and so also does the cause for which he lived and died and was raised to new life. He lives in the heart of the Trinity and, through means of his Spirit, he lives in the midst of the community of those who follow him, that is, his disciples/missionaries of every time and every place. Indeed, in the liturgy we proclaim the fact that Jesus is in our midst. We do not believe in some bygone historical figure who passed through history, died and left us a marvelous heritage. We place our faith in the person of Jesus who reveals God’s great love for us, who walks with us, who invites us to accept his plan and to share his option (cf., Mark 8:34-35). Yes, we place our faith in the person of Jesus who listens to us and communicates his life, strength, peace and joy to us, who overcame death once and for all people, who dwells among us and who prepares a place for us so that we might live with him.

[b] The second conviction that results from our faith in the Resurrection is that we all continue the mission of Jesus as we minister in various ways in the midst of the challenges of the reality in which we find ourselves. Therefore, we are invited to accept as our own Jesus’ passion for the kingdom … we are invited to have that willingness to share his destiny, to go up to Jerusalem (cf., Mark 15:41). This conviction was in the forefront of the minds of the members of the primitive communities. The Lord passed on to his disciples the mission that he received from the Father, the mission who meaning he gradually came to understand and view from the perspective of the universality of salvation. The disciples are sent to give growth to the seeds of the Kingdom that are sown throughout the world, thus awakening people to accept the free gift of salvation through following Jesus and through conversion (cf., Mark 1:15).

[c] We believe that the risen Lord points toward a future to which all people are called: Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20). Seated at the right hand of the Father (cf., Mark 16:19), the Lord calls us to participate in the fullness of life promised by God for those who love him (cf., 1 Corinthians 2:9). Indeed the One who in love created us from nothing will not allow us to return to nothingness at the time of our death. That which happened to Jesus when he overcame death will, likewise, occur to us as we are led by the same Spirit (cf., Mark 1:12) and follow in the footsteps of Jesus in order to continue and fulfill the mission that knows no boundaries. The resurrection is the authentic proof of God’s loyalty and is also the most perfect revelation of his desire to make us participants in the Trinitarian communion. Paschal faith leads us to believe that God will allow every human person to enter unimaginable realms where they can come to know the God of life and of love who is revealed in ever new and creative manners [7]. The martyrs seem to anticipate the harvesting of the fruits of the faith that they profess [8].

The bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, in the Aparecida Document, refer to the reality of martyrdom when they speak about the centrality of the person and the mission of Jesus Christ as a continual source of strength for the followers of Christ: Being identified with Jesus Christ means also sharing his fate: “where I am, there also will my servant be” (John 12:26). The lot of the Christian is the same as that of the Lord, even to the cross: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). We are encouraged by the testimony of so many missionaries and martyrs of yesterday and today among our peoples who have gone to the point of sharing the cross of Christ and even surrendering their life (Aparecida Document, #140) [9]. Some years before, in a context of injustice, persecution and violence, Oscar Arnulfo Romero (1917-1980), the archbishop of El Salvador and the prophet and martyr of Latin America, encouraged people to hear the echo of the Crucified Christ in the cries of the present day martyrs: we have an obligation to remember the courage and commitment of [our beloved collaborators] so that their voice that once people wanted to silence through violence might continue to cry out like Jesus: do not fear those who can kill only the body but leave the eternal Gospel and the Word alive in our midst (Matthew 10:28) [10].

A Church of martyrs

The martyrs can be considered as a key element in our attempt to understand the Christian experience. The Church, as it follows Christ, not only has martyrs but is, in reality, a church of martyrs. The true concept of the church is found in martyrdom [11]. We are dealing with a permanent reality, one that is both dramatic and enlightening and therefore, martyrdom is not a category of some former era, consigned to obsolete narratives and, as a result, relegated to the trash heap of posterity. At all times and in all places the martyrs were presented in an attractive light and as persons who should be esteemed by the ecclesial community that is called to conversion: You have lost the love you had at first … repent and do the works you did at first (Revelation 2:4-5) [12]. It is enough to remember how the early Christian community was both move and strengthened by the conviction of the martyrs. We recall here the words of Saint Cyprian of Carthage: With what praises can I extol you, most valiant brothers and sisters? What words can I find to proclaim and celebrate your brave hearts and your persevering faith? Examined under the fiercest torture, you held out until your ordeal was consummated in glory; it was not you who yielded to the torments but rather the torments that yielded to you. No respite from pain was allowed by the instruments of your torture, but your very crowning signaled the end of pain. The cruel butchery was permitted to last the longer, not so that it might overthrow the faith that stood so firm, but rather that it might dispatch you, men and women of God, more speedily to the Lord [13]. In fact, it is precisely in the hope of the definitive encounter with the Lord whose fidelity transcends the limits of history that we find the dynamic dimension of the martyrs’ self-sacrifice.

The paradoxical reality of martyrdom is inscribed in the church’s understanding of herself. The Church has always identified herself as Ecclesia Martyrum and found there her most sublime expression of her vital communion with the Lord. Therefore, the on-going task of the historical reconfiguration of her identity demands that she pledge herself to maintain a lively and vibrating memory of the martyrs and use that memory as a point of reference for her activity in the midst of the world. Emblematic of all of this is the profession of faith of the Christians in Smyrna as they narrated the events surrounding the martyrdom of their bishop, Polycarp: we shall never be able to abandon Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the blameless on behalf of sinners, nor to worship anyone else. Him we adore as the Son of God; but the martyrs, as the disciples and imitators of the Lord, we love according to their deserts, on account of their incomparable love for their King and Teacher, with whom may it be our lot to be partners and fellow disciples [14]. They concluded their account by describing the revitalizing strength that they had derived from the testimony of their beloved and exhausted pastor who shepherded that persecuted community that was deprived of all privileges: Thus we, having afterwards taken up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, laid them where it was suitable. There, so far as is allowed us, when we are gathered together in exultation and joy, the Lord will enable us to celebrate the birthday of the martyrs, both for the memory of those who have contended, and for the exercise and preparation of those to come [15]. These, then, are the martyrs: as a result of what they were, they indicate what we ought to be. Conformed to Christ in their mission and in the total handing over of their life, they go to their death with a serenity and a calmness and an awareness of the fact that they will soon be born again to the fullness of life [16].

The centrality of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ and the ecclesial significance of martyrdom constitute the two theological principles that formed Vincent’s convictions with regard to this theme of martyrdom

The martyrdom of Saint Vincent de Paul

From a Vincentian perspective [17], martyrdom ought to be interpreted as the consumption of a life that is radically conformed to the person and the message of Jesus Christ who was sent by the Father to proclaim the kingdom to the poor and to do this with words and actions. Vincent de Paul does not offer us some systematic approach to martyrdom. His insights were derived from specific events that were related to living the faith, to the practice of virtue, to fulfilling the mission and to the practice of charity. His insights above all else were derived from his reflections on the reality of martyrdom as it became present in his various foundations and also became present in the life of people who were known to him. What follows are six keys to understanding Vincent’s thought on this matter (this material is drawn from Vincent’s conferences and correspondence).

Radical conformity to Christ

The spiritual experience of Vincent de Paul is grounded in a profound identification with Jesus Christ, which in turn strengthened him in his continual search for the will of God and in his profound love for those who were poor [18]. For Vincent, to follow Jesus Christ means that one was committed to fulfill the command to love God and to love the neighbor … and this commitment involved a total surrender of self in service of others. Vincent’s concept of martyrdom was derived from the dynamic involved in clothing oneself in the spirit of Christ who came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me (John 6:38). Jesus, through his love, became a servant and offered himself so that they might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). For Vincent the unconditional union with Christ constitutes the generative beginning of the process of personalization of the human person and also forms the center of one’s missionary vocation [19]. In reality, before continuing the mission of the Son of God it is necessary (through the mediation of the Spirit) to make every effort to conform one’s life to Christ. Only in this way can one act in intimate communion with Jesus Christ: Let us enter into his mind so that we many enter into his workings. Doing good is not everything; we have to do it well, after the example of Our Lord (CCD:XII:148). This visceral identification with Lord, far from being confused with some illusory external mimicry, is continually made real as people fulfill the mission and as they engage in the practice of charity on behalf of those who are poor. All of this then can become a form of martyrdom understood as the highest expression of a life lived in total reference to Christ: Is there anything more reasonable than to give our lives for him who has given his life so generously for each and every one of us? And if Our Lord loves us to the point of dying for us, why should we not desire to have this same disposition with regard to him and to put it into effect, if the occasion were to present itself? (CCD:XI:335).

Those concluding words, if the occasion were to present itself, help us to understand the unfolding of the life of a martyr as an inevitable consequence of one’s fidelity to the mission that the individual has accepted to undertake. In the light of faith this fidelity to the mission is seen as an authentic path of holiness. We see, then, that martyrdom is not something that should be sought as an end in itself. The affirmation of the reality that life is the greatest gift gives more credibility to one’s self-sacrifice. Only the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor would enable people to freely hand over that gift which is held as most precious. That, indeed, was the experience of Jesus of Nazareth: No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own (John 10:18). In martyrdom the mystery of life is revealed as the total giving of self to others because one is moved by a cause that reinvigorates and strengthens one’s conviction to follow Christ [20]. Such a conviction is seen in the advice and the example that Vincent placed before Father Etienne Blatiron: In the name of God, Monsieur, take care of your poor life. Be content with consuming it little by little for divine love. It is not your own; it belongs to the author of life, for love of whom you must preserve it until he asks it of you, unless an opportunity arises to offer it, like a good priest, eighty years of age, who was just martyred in England after cruel torture. When he was half strangled, his heart was torn out; and when they told him, before executing him, that, if he were willing to renounce his religion, they would save his life, he replied that if he had a thousand lives, he would most willingly give them all for the love of Jesus Christ, for whom he was dying. I am telling you this with tears in my eyes at the thought of that holy priest's happiness and the attachment I still have for my miserable carcass (CCD:II:211-212).

Vincent received many notices about the martyrdom of the Missionaries, but news about one confrere in particular touched his heart in an extraordinary way. In a conference that Vincent gave to the Missionaries he spoke about the witness of Pedro Borguñy who had been enslaved in Algeria by Muslims and then assassinated there because he refused to renounce his Christian way of life. Vincent was impressed with this young man’s convictions with regard to the faith … Pedro, twenty years old, was from Majorca and all of these various details made Vincent want to present him as an exemplary disciple of Christ: That, Messieurs, is what a Christian is made of, and that’s the courage we must have in order to suffer and to die, when necessary, for Jesus Christ. Let’s ask him for this grace and beg that holy young man to request it for us, he who was such a worthy student of such a courageous Master, and who, in the space of three hours, became his true disciple and perfect imitator by dying for him (CCD:XI:290).

Martyrdom makes explicit the meaning of and the commitment that flows from our baptismal vocation. Through Baptism we become identified with Christ and we promise to continue his mission and to live as he lived, that is, we promise to enter into the Paschal mystery. This was the essence of the words that Vincent shared with his confrere, Antoine Portail: Remember, Monsieur. we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ (CCD:I:276). In this sense, then, the martyr, in a unique manner, accomplishes that which constitutes the sublime limits of the Christian life: (a) the martyrs are tireless in their effort to live in intimate communion with Christ and to clothe themselves in his spirit (cf., Galatians 3:5-7); (b) the martyrs accept as their own the cause for which the Teacher lived and died and was raised to new life; (3) in the name of this cause the martyrs are willing to confront and endure conflicts and hostilities and in fact, strengthened by the hope of the resurrection they are willing to endure the cross. Therefore, like the apostle Paul, every martyr is able to say: We are always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body (2 Corinthians 4:10).

Source of spiritual and apostolic fruitfulness

On various occasions Vincent recalled the reality of martyrdom in the history of the Church and referred to those periods of its history when martyrdom was most frequent (cf., CCD:IX:443; XI:18, 334-335). From the time of its origin the blood of the martyrs was the seed for new Christians and it was also clear that the blood of the martyrs strengthened the members of the Christian community in their vocation to follow Christ. In the same way the challenges, trials and deprivations that so many of the first confreres to enter the Congregation had to endure, especially those confreres who were sent to foreign lands … all of this, far from discouraging the Missionaries, led them to a greater maturity in their faith, confirmed their hope and revitalized their apostolic zeal. Furthermore, the example of the martyrs made them more aware of the urgent need to evangelize and to engage in charitable service. That is what Vincent made clear when he informed the community about the sinking of the ship that was transporting two priests and a brother to Madagascar … the three Missionaries were able to survive the shipwreck but had to endure many hardships (cf., CCD:XI:338-339). The premature death of some of the Missionaries in the places where they had been missioned led Vincent to clarify the ecclesial character of this new institution and in so doing he showed how the Congregation was similar to the early Church that had to endure much suffering but was also strengthened by the blood of the martyrs who followed the example of the Son of God, the witness par excellence (CCDD:XI:368). Vincent told the Missionaries: Courage, my dear confreres! Let us hope that Our Lord will strengthen us in the crosses that come to us, no matter how great they may be, if he sees that we love them and have confidence in him (CCD:XI:290). The example of the martyrs ought to fill the Missionaries with a greater trust in God’s love and ought to encourage the confreres as they fulfill their apostolic ministry (cf., CCD:XI:289-290), enabling them to overcome their fears and to confront the dangers that threaten their ability to joyfully fulfill their mission of proclaiming the precious stone of the gospel to the whole world (CCD:XI:335).

In light of the premature death of an active Daughter of Charity or Missionary, other members of these communities feared that the Congregation or the Company would disappear as the result of the gradual decline in numbers. Those who were most fearful of such a reality were, in fact, those who might have been considered the most fearless. The Founder immediately refuted that tendency and applied to his Family the well-known words of Tertullian, sanguis martyrum, semen est christianorum (the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians). We see this attitude expressed in the conference that Vincent gave to the Missionaries: The salvation of nations and our own is so great a good as to deserve to be won at any cost; it doesn’t matter whether we die sooner or later, provided we die arms in hand; we’ll be all the happier for it and the Company will be no poorer, for sanguis martyrum semen est Christianorum (the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians). For one Missioner who has given his life for the love of God, the goodness of God will raise up many others to do the good he will have left undone (CCD:XI:366).

In every historical era the witness of some persons who were truly convinced of their vocation, convinced to the point of laying down their own life in order to germinate the seeds that the Lord had entrusted to them … such a conviction always fascinated the members of the Christian community and attracted new members. The convictions of the martyrs revealed the nobleness of their cause, thus enabling others to recognize and to affirm that which is best within themselves, while providing them with the strength to advance that same cause. There could be no better source for growth in one’s vocation than the blood of an enthusiastic witness to the gospel. Vincent reminded the Missionaries about this reality when he referred to the early martyrs of the Church and stated: The blood of so many martyrs who were killed were so many seeds to serve to strengthen the Church (CCD:XI:339). He repeated that conviction in a conference to the Daughters of Charity: For one who will suffer martyrdom, many more will come; his blood will be like the seed that brings forth fruit, and fruit in abundance. The blood of our Sisters will bring others to the Company and will merit for those who remain the grace of God to sanctify themselves (CCD:X:443). The footprints left by the martyrs throughout history are larger than their feet. This is so because the cause for which they offered their life proved to be a revelation of their virtue before all the world, thus giving their witness a power of great enlightenment.

The paradox of martyrdom: grace and trial

Vincent was very clear about the fact that martyrdom was indeed a mystery. Martyrdom encompassed paradoxical realities: unmerited grace and the ability to offer one’s life for the love of God and for the love of one’s neighbor. This grace is accepted and embraced in the midst of persecution and sufferings that are the result of injustice and violence. The martyrs are identified as the ones who have survived the time of great distress: they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). We are able to see the splendor of the resurrection reflected on disfigured faces as we read the following words: For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:15-17). When referring to Father Francis White (François Le Blanc), a Missionary in Scotland who was persecuted for the cause of the faith and imprisoned in England, Vincent stated: that good Missioner is on the road to martyrdom. I don't know if we should rejoice over this or be saddened by it; for, on the one hand, God is honored by the state in which he’s being held, since it’s for love of him. The Company would be blessed if God found it worthy of giving it a martyr, and he himself would be blessed to suffer for his name and to offer himself, as he’s doing, for all it will please God to ordain for him regarding his person and his life. What acts of virtue is he not now practicing --- of faith, hope, love of God, resignation, and oblation --- by which he is preparing himself more and more to merit such a crown! All that stirs us up to great joy and gratitude to God (CCD:XI:166).

Martyrdom for the cause of virtue

On the one hand, the free and gracious grace that corresponds to the total gift of self-surrender evokes praise and gratitude; on the other hand, the persecution and sufferings provoke indignation, heighten human sensitivity and also make people more aware of the need for expressions of solidarity and compassion: On the other hand, however, it’s our confrere who’s suffering; so shouldn’t we be suffering with him? On my part, I confess that, naturally speaking, I’m very distressed by this, and experience a tangible suffering from it; but, spiritually speaking, I think we should bless God for this very special grace (CCD:XI:166-167). Both the pain and the glory of the martyrs belong to the community in which they served God. In light of such a sublime reality the ultimate attitude of Vincent was always one of reverent silence as he recognized his own smallness as he stood before a mystery that encompassed him, a mystery that surpassed his understanding: O my dear confreres, there must be something great that the understanding can't comprehend in crosses and sufferings, since God usually follows the service rendered to him with afflictions, persecutions, prison, and martyrdom in order to raise to a high degree of perfection and glory those who give themselves perfectly to his service (CCD:XI:167).

The first stage of martyrdom that was considered by Vincent de Paul was that which corresponds to giving witness to the faith through death. This, therefore, is martyrdom par excellence because those individuals surrender their life, professing the name of Jesus Christ while manifesting their union with Christ [21]. Throughout his life Vincent received news of persons who died in that manner: an elderly Missionary who endured horrendous tortures and was martyred in England (cf., CCD:II:211-212); Brother Thaddée Lye (Thady Lee), one of three Missionaries sent to Ireland which was his native land … in the presence of his mother his skull was crushed and his hands and feet were cut off [22]; Father Francis White (François Le Blanc) who was persecuted and imprisoned in England (cf., CCD:XI:166); the young man from Majorca, Pedro Borguñy, whose transparency and strength in living his faith impressed everyone (cf., CCD:XI:288ff.).

Vincent expanded his concept of martyrdom as he referred to martyrdom for the cause of virtue. In this regard Vincent spoke about an on-going effort to grow in holiness through perseverance in one’s vocation and through the mortification of the senses. He presented John the Baptist who, in living out his prophetic mission, became a model in defending those virtues that constitute Christian morality. Convinced that to live and die [for the sake of virtue] is to be a martyr (CCD:XI:168), our Founder pointed out that this form of sacrifice is a privileged manner of recognizing and revealing the fact that God is well worth being served above all else and must be incomparably preferred to all earthly advantages and pleasures (CCD:XI:168). Indeed, in Vincent’s voice we can hear the echo of the psalmist: Your love, [Lord], is better than life (Psalm 63:4). From this perspective of faith martyrdom can be understood as the most radical experience of God as the only Absolute in whom all things acquire their true meaning … the only Absolute before whom everything else becomes secondary and relative. Since the following of Jesus Christ is constituted as a form of communion with God that is expressed in trust, self-sacrifice and solidarity with those who are poor and further expressed in compassion and service and drawing ever closer to those who are poor … in light of all of this Vincent concluded his reflection on martyrdom for the cause of virtue with the following exhortation to his Missionaries: To act in that way is to make known the truths and maxims of the Gospel --- not in words but by conforming one’s life to that of Jesus Christ and witnessing his truth and sanctity to the faithful and to unbelievers; consequently, to live and die like that is to be a martyr (CCD:XI:168). Therefore, authentic Christians are those who allow their life to become a transparent reflection of the gospel values … authentic Christians are those who live out the consequences of their fundamental option in their daily life.

In another conference, that of November 7th, 1659, Vincent reflected on the vows and he described the living of the evangelical counsels as a form of on-going martyrdom which empowered the Missionaries to prolong the mission of Jesus and the apostles … and to do this through their free to total union with God: Some say that to have made vows and live them is a continual martyrdom … Now, the person who takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience gives everything to God, renouncing possessions, pleasures, and honors; this is a perfect holocaust. Messieurs, because the person’s understanding is sacrificed to God, as is his judgment and will (CCD:XII:302).

Martyrdom for the cause of charity

This is the most original insight of Vincent with regard to martyrdom. Here we refer to the witness of a life totally consecrated to God in service of the most poor, even when doing this involves placing in jeopardy one’s own life (cf., CCD:II:567ff.). From this perspective martyrdom becomes the greatest expression of a life committed to the love of God and the love of neighbor (cf., CCD:IX:442-443). Reaching out to the poor is motivated by a recognition of their dignity and is fostered by authentic human sensitivity and at the same time constitutes a non-renounceable dimension in the sequela Christi. Such an option is not concretized without renunciation and conflict and this was made clear when he exhorted the first Sisters to practice indifference, that is, total openness to the demands of charity, even if this involves the offering of one’s life (cf., CCD:IX:201-202). This disposition was found in many Missionaries, truly apostolic men who sought to do God’s will and who were willing to confront various challenges and endure all forms of deprivation for the cause of the mission and for the cause of charity. Nevertheless, Vincent continued to encourage them to life in that manner: He wrote to Father Philip Dalton and stated: I cannot express my joy at the inclination God is giving you to make the unreserved gift of yourself to him in the Company, with indifference to whatever country in the world, and with total submission to holy obedience and the will of God, which will be indicated to you by your Superiors. That is how truly apostolic souls speak and act. Entirely consecrated to God, they desire that his Son Our Lord be known and served likewise by all the nations on earth, for whom he himself came into the world; like him, they wish also to work and die for them. That is how far the zeal of Missionaries should extend; for, even though they cannot go everywhere, nor do the good they desire, they still do well to desire this and to offer themselves to God to serve him as instruments for the conversion of souls in the times, places, and manner he pleases. Perhaps he will be satisfied with their good will; perhaps also, if this will is strong and well regulated, he will use them, poor workers though they be, to accomplish great things. I see nothing that makes them more like him than this, nor more worthy of his blessings (CCD:VII:347-348).

Jesus spoke about martyrdom for the cause of charity and applied this concept to the daily service (at times a very tiring service) that the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity engaged in. These men and women were frequently exposed to the dangers of the world of the poor: war, epidemics, hunger, journey along unknown roads, etc. In such situations charity demands unreserved and grateful surrender in order to proclaim the Good News and in order to serve effectively in the midst of some very trying situations. During the August 30th, 1657 repetition of prayer the Founder shared his convictions with the Missionaries: risking one’s life to cross the seas for the sole love of God and the salvation of our neighbor is a kind of martyrdom because, even if a person is not actually martyred, at least he has the will to be so, since he leaves everything and exposes himself to I know not how many perils. And as a matter of fact, saints who have died in exile, where they were sent for the sake of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are regarded by the Church as martyrs (CCD:XI:374)

During the August 30th, 1658 conference on availability for any ministry assignment the theme reappeared and was treated with the same emphasis. Here the martyrs are identified as those who have a willingness to move beyond limitations and reach across frontiers in order to communicate the unfathomable richness of the gospel as they serve and proclaim the kingdom: O Messieurs, how happy are those who feel this disposition in themselves and to whom God has given the grace of being ready and willing to go to far-off countries to spend their lives there for Jesus Christ! History tells us of the many martyrs who have sacrificed themselves for God. And if we see that so many men in the army risk their lives for a little honor, or perhaps in the hopes of a little earthly recompense, with what far greater reason shouldn't we risk our lives to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the most distant lands to which his divine providence may call us! (CCD:XII:46).

The Missionaries, animated by the apostolic zeal that ought to characterize every disciple of Christ, are committed to the task of evangelization. As they help poor persons embrace the gift of salvation, they will often confront various challenges, take risks and go to places where no one wants to go. Blessed are those Missionaries who at the end of their life are found with arms in hand (CCD:XI:366). Vincent spoke similar words to the Daughters of Charity who were sent to Calais to care for the wounded soldiers. That ministry involved many risks and several Sisters died because they were overwhelmed and others became infected with some disease. Vincent was moved by the willingness of the other Sisters to take the place of those who died: What are you going to do, Sisters? You're going to take the place of the Sister who died; you're going to martyrdom, if God is pleased to dispose of you. As for our very dear Sister, I believe she's now receiving the reward of the martyrs, and you'll have the same reward if you're happy enough to die, arms in hand, as she did. O Sisters, what happiness for you! (CCD:X:442). During the August 19th, 1646 conference on the practice of mutual respect and gentleness, after speaking about the various forms of service that the Sisters were engaged in on behalf of the poor, Vincent then referred to the esteem that should be shown to his spiritual daughters: Hold them (the Sisters who serve the poor in situations of conflict) in great esteem, dear Sisters; keep that high opinion of them, no matter what may happen, and look upon them as martyrs of Jesus Christ, since they serve their neighbor for love of him (CCD:IX:214).

Few things impressed Vincent like the testimony of those who, throughout their life, had learned to believe in love, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others [23]. We simply recall here how Vincent was fascinated by the example of Marguerite Naseau, the humble country woman from Surennes of whom he said, everyone loved her because there was nothing in her than was not loveable (CCD:IX:66). She died in 1633, the victim of heroic charity … she shared her bed with a poor woman who was afflicted with the plague. Because she had the happiness of showing others the way, she was considered by the Founder, as the first Daughter of Charity (CCD:IX:65). Another example of extraordinary charity was Father Louis Robiche as he ministered to those condemned to forced labor on the galleys. Father Louise was a member of the house in Marseilles and died at the age of thirty-five; he was distinguished for his holiness and for his heroic practice of virtue in his daily life (in his community life which he shared with his confreres and in his ministry). When writing to another confrere in the same year that Father Robiche died, Vincent stated: the voice of the people (which is the voice of God) is beatifying him. In a way, he died a martyr, in that he exposed his life and lost it laboring for the love of Jesus Christ, at the corporal and spiritual salvation of the poor (CCD:II:570). We also note here Vincent’s great admiration for Father Jean Pillé, an admiration what was expressed in a circular letter that was sent to all the houses of the Congregation soon after the death of that confrere: This great charity gave rise to such a great desire for the salvation of souls that he was prepared to tear his soul to pieces to save just one person. And, in fact, when there was question of going on a mission and his infirmity would permit him to go, only God knows whether he spared himself in any way. And although he was more in need of rest than of work, he would still labor beyond his strength (CCD:II:370). The example of those witnesses confirmed the fact that the Congregation had been called by God because God loves the poor, consequently, he loves those who love the poor (CCD:XI:349). Thus, Vincent’s task was to encourage the Missionaries and the Daughters to remain faithful to their missionary vocation … to show compassionate and effective charity toward the poor in whatever place Divine Providence might send them.

The tension of martyrdom

In Saint Vincent’s understanding, martyrdom as a possibility should always remain on the horizon of those who consecrate themselves to a life of service and evangelization on behalf of those who are most poor, especially those who are poor and living in far distant lands: Oh, if God were only to inspire us with this same desire to die for Jesus Christ in some fashion or other, what blessings we would draw upon ourselves (CCD:XI:167). During the November 12th, 1656 repetition of prayer, after reflecting on the example of perseverance and tenacity of his two most fearless Missionaries, both of whom faced persecution in North Africa, the Founder exhorted the Company to put aside every form of apostolic mediocrity and to maintain itself in a state of permanent tension with regard to martyrdom, that is, to cultivate, individually and as a community, an attitude of missionary openness and total availability for the cause of the kingdom: God grant, my dear confreres, that all those who present themselves to join the Company will come with the thought of martyrdom, desiring to suffer martyrdom in it and to devote themselves entirely to the service of God, whether in far off lands or here, wherever it may please God to make use of the poor Little Company! Yes, with the thought of martyrdom. How often we should ask Our Lord for that grace and the disposition to be ready to risk our lives for his glory and the salvation of the neighbor, each and every one of us --- Brothers, seminarians, priests --- in a word, the entire Company (CCD:XI:334-335).

As we can see, Saint Vincent understood martyrdom as a grace (CCD:XI:335), as God’s ratification of the cause of those who freely and selflessly surrender and place their life at the service of their neighbor. They do this in imitation of Jesus in his paschal mystery and thus, they also hope to receive the fullness of life. In one of his letters to Father Gerard Brin, a Missionary in Ireland where the plague and persecution claimed the life of many people, Vincent referred to the spirit of martyrdom to define that attitude of total surrender to God, an attitude that is animated by Christ’s charity and that enables people to courageously resist all danger and to prefer to offer one’s life rather than to abandon service on behalf of the neighbor. We were greatly edified by your letter, seeing in it two excellent effects of God's grace. The first is that you have given yourself to God to stand firm in the country where you now are, in the midst of dangers, preferring to risk death rather than fail to assist your neighbor. The second is that you are devoting yourself to the care of your confreres, sending them back to France to remove them from danger. The spirit of martyrdom has prompted you to do the former, and prudence to do the latter. Both are drawn from the example of Our Lord, who, as he was about to go and suffer the torments of death for the salvation of mankind, wanted to protect his disciples from this and save them, saying: "Let these men go and do not touch them." That is how you have acted, as a true child of that most adorable Father, whom I thank infinitely for having produced in you acts of sovereign charity, the summit of all the virtues (CCD:IV:17-18).

The tension with regard to martyrdom ought to permeate the ministry of the Missionaries and the Daughter, strengthening them to extend the limits of the mission and broaden the horizons of charity. Even during the lifetime of our Founder many individuals gave witness of this disposition in various places (cf., CCD:IV:132-133). Vincent’s insistence with regard to the spirit of martyrdom was based on his lively confidence in Providence which gives Christians the strength that is necessary in order to persevere to the end: Anyone who wishes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ must expect that; but he must also hope that if the occasions present themselves, God will give him the strength to bear the sufferings and overcome the torments (CCD:XI:167).

Three centuries later Vincent de Paul’s convictions with regard to martyrdom opened the door for the following insight of the Second Vatican Council on this theme: By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world --- as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross (Lumen Gentium, #42).


The socio-cultural upheavals that have occurred throughout the centuries opened the door for the emergence of a new typology of martyrdom and at the same time produced some new profiles of the martyrs. Karl Rahner spoke of the need to expand the concept of martyrdom (25) and thus include in this category all those who freely offered their life in order to preserve the fundamental values and convictions that flow from their faith, namely, love, truth, justice, peace, respect of human rights, etc. The martyrs, who have acted in this manner, have revealed their acceptance of God’s saving plan. The historical dimension of martyrdom possesses two aspects: the first aspect is related to the life and the activity of those persons or groups of people who do not hesitate to sacrifice their own life in order to give witness to the authenticity and the value of the faith which they freely embraced. At the same time they give witness to their convictions which are rooted in their faith. The second aspect refers to those individuals who openly reject the witness of the truth that should stir their conscience … as a result of this rejection they persecute and assassinate those who “disturb the established order”. At one and the same time the martyrs are heroes and victims: heroes because of the incredible strength that they have received from the Spirit, a strength that has made them free and courageous; victims, victims of the perversion of individuals and the evils of prevailing systems that eliminates those persons who do not conform to their wretched schemes and idolatries. The martyrs are mindful of the fact that the Lord’s love generates bold dreams. Therefore, the contemplation of these witnesses must certainly provoke in us the desire for an authentic conversion which leads us to embrace that which is most humanizing and most holy: charity in truth. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us of this when he states: All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #1). Vincent De Paul, aware of the person’s fundamental vocation, provides us with a synthesis of the Christian life whose historical concretization is verified in the experience of the martyrs: We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ (CCD:III:384)

Reflecting on the testimony of those who were impelled by the dynamic of love/self-sacrifice and who were convinced that if before others, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality (Wisdom 3:4), reflecting on the testimony of those who handed over their life for the cause of the kingdom, we are now able to believe that in as much as there is martyrdom, there will also be credibility; in as much as there is martyrdom, there will also be hope; in as much as there is martyrdom, there will also be conversion; in as much as there is martyrdom, there will also be efficacy. The grain of wheat dies and multiplies [26]. The ultimate cries of love of so many witnesses from yesterday and today continue to echo and the blood of all these individuals continues to make fruitful the activity of all those persons who travel along the twisting and winding paths of history, who have committed themselves to follow Christ and who have kept their eyes focused on the goal (cf., Philippians 3:14), focused on the hope of the Easter resurrection.


[1] Cf., Louth, A., Martirio in Lacoste, Jean-Uves, Diccionario Critico de Teología, translated by Paulo Meneses and others, São Paulo, Paulina/Loyola, 2004, p. 1100-1101.

[2] The list of martyrs of the Vincentian Family, those who are officially recognized and those who are in the process of being recognized, is found in the compilation published under the auspices of the Postulator General of the Congregation of the Mission: Guerra, Giuseppe, I Santi della Famiglia Vincenziana, Rome, Vincenziane, 2007. Cf., Santoral de la Familia Vicentina, Mexico, Ediciones Familia Vicentiana.

[3] Boff, L., Martirio: uma tentativa de reflexão sistemática, in Martírio hoje, Petrópolis, Voces, 1983, p. 18 (Concilium, 183).

[4] Cf., García Rubio, Alfonso, O encontro com Jesus Cristo vivo: um ensaio de cristología para os nossos días, 10th edition, São Paulo, Paulinas, 2005, p. 91-102. On the question of the cross as a sign of failure and annihilation and then given new meaning through the death of Jesus see, Blank, Renold, Reencarnação: um decisão de fé, São Paulo, Paulus, 1995, p. 89-98

[5] Boff, L., op.cit., p. 19.

[6] In the primitive Church, the bodies of the martyrs were carefully preserved under the altars as reliquaries. The Eucharist was celebrated on these altars, especially on the anniversary of the martyr’s death. The martyr became a figure of holiness, one who fulfilled in life the Christian vocation to grow in holiness.

[7] Cf., Blank, Renold, op.cit., p. 105.

[8] The following can be deduced from J. Comblin’s affirmation with regard to the prophetic dimension of martyrdom in the primitive church: one must have a firm conviction in order to believe in the resurrection in the midst of a people and a culture that had never heard of this … and the martyrs gave an admirable example of that conviction. They were living the mystery of the resurrection that they professed (Comblin, José, A profecia no Igreja, São Paulo, Paulus, 2008, p. 100).

[9] It is sad to say that in the Aparecida Document we do no find a more profound presentation of the experience of martyrdom in Latin America.

[10] The text is taken from the following site: http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/homilies/84/84_pdf.pdf

[11] Boff, L., op.cit., p. 17.

[12] There have been martyrs in every era of Christianity. In each era, the martyrs exercise a specific role within the context of the global mission that common to everyone (Comblin, A profecia na Igreja, p. 98).

[13] The Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings for August 13, Pontian, Pope and martyr and Hippolytus, priest and martyr, Volume IV, p. 1313.

[14] An English translation of the Martyrdom of Ploycarp is found at: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/martyrdompolycarp.html

[15] Ibid.

[16] The definition of the Christian martyr was presented historically during the second half of the second century and in the context of the persecutions perpetrated by the Roman Empire … this definition resulted from the distinction between the witness of those who suffered for professing the name of Christ and those who not only suffered but died for the cause of Christ, thus highlighting the reality of the truth of a future life (Cf., Louth, op.cit, p. 1099).

[17] Cf,. Urrizburu, Carmen. Martirio, in Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana. Salamanca: CEME, 1995. p. 357-359. See also: ANIMATION VINCENTIENNE. Le Martyre, in: Au temps de St.Vincent de Paul… et aujourd’hui. Toulouse, 1996.

[18] With regard to the centrality of Christ in the experience of Vincent de Paul and in the heritage that has been passed on to us see the following: DODIN, André. L’esprit vincentien. Le secret de Saint Vincent de Paul. Paris: Desclée De Brouwer, 1981. p. 79-100; KOCH, Bernard. A la suite du Christ. In: VV.AA. Monsieur Vincent, temoin de l’Evangile en son temps et pour aujourd’hui. Toulouse: Animation Vincentienne, 1990. p. 101-119; MEZZADRI, Luigi. Jesús, flamme d’amour. In: VV.AA. Monsieur Vincent, temoin de l’Evangile en son temps et pour aujourd’hui, p. 73-85; ORCAJO, Antonino; PÉREZ FLORES, Miguel. San Vicente de Paúl (II). Espiritualidad y selección de escritos. Madrid: BAC, 1981. p. 84-162; Instruction on stability, chastity, poverty and obedience in the Congregation of the Mission, Vincentiana, 40th year, #1, January-February 1996; MALONEY, Robert, The Way of Vincent de Paul: A contemporary Spirituality in the Service of the Poor, Brooklyn, New York, New City Press, 1992, p. 19-36.

[19] Cf., Antonello, Erminio, “Put on the Spirit of Jesus Christ” in the thought of Saint Vincent, in Vincentiana, year #52, no. 3, may-june 2008, p. 162-177.

[20] What still affects humans of our time is the encounter with a certain type of human presence, full of message and meaning: a person who has become fully “human” thanks to the mysterious reality of the Lord in his conscience. These are the people “clothed in Christ,” the true source of evangelization (Antonello, Erminio, op.cit, p. 171-172).

[21] Cf. Urrizburu, Carmen, op.cit., p. 358.

[22] CCD:IV:342; Of the three Missionaries who had remained in Ireland, only two returned to Paris, after having passed at Limerick, through all the terrors of pestilence and war. The third finished his career there; the others disguised themselves and escaped as they could. One of whom retired to his own country with the grand vicar of Cashel. The other found in the mountains a pious woman who concealed him for two month. A brother, [[Thaddée Lye], who waited on them was less fortunate, or rather more so. The heretics having discovered his retreat, massacred him under the eyes of his mother. They broke his head after having cut off his feet and hands; an inhuman and barbarous treatment, which taught the priests what they would have to expect should they be seized (Pierre Collet, Life of St. Vincent de Paul, Baltimore, John Murphy and Company, 1845, p. 318).

[23] These words are attributed to Blessed Savina Petrilli (1851-1923), founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor of Saint Catherine of Sienna.

[24] Years later Archbishop Romero interpreted this affirmation of the Council and stated: The Second Vatican Council states that not everyone will have the honor of offering, in a physical way, their blood, or handing over their life for the faith. God, however, asks everyone who believes in him to have that spirit of martyrdom (Lumen Gentium, 42). In other words, everyone should be willing to die for their faith even though the Lord does not grant them this honor. If we are so disposed, then when our time comes to give an accounting of our lives, we can say: Lord, I was willing to give my life for you. This text can be found at: http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/homilies/210/210_pdf.pdf

[25] Rahner, Karl, Dimensões do Martírio. Tentativa de ampliar um conceito clásico, in: Martírio hoje, p. 13-16: The persecutors of modern Christians will not give those persons any opportunity to profess their faith in the manner that occurred during the first centuries of Christianity … they will not be given the opportunity to be sentenced to death through court proceedings. Their death, however, like that of the martyrs of former times, can be foreseen and accepted as the result of these more anonymous forms of persecution … indeed, their death will often be the result of their participation in the struggle for justice and other Christian realities and values.

[26] Casadáliga, Pedro. Carta aberta aos nossos Mártires. In: PRELAZIA DE SÃO FÉLIX DO ARAGUAIA. Ofício dos Mártires da Caminhada latino-americana. São Paulo: Paulus, 2004. p. 10-11.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM