Pope Francis’s prayer at St. Bartholomew’s Basilica to pay tribute to the “new martyrs” was also a nod to the idea that the recent crop of martyrs can be distinguished from the larger group of Christian heroes of the faith.
Indeed, a recent duo of pieces in Crux juxtaposed “the new martyrs” vs. “the old martyrs” to suggest that while martyrs used to be killed for hatred of the faith, they now die for “odium amoris” and other formulations of the canon law requirements for martyrdom.
That was also the assumption when Pope Benedict XVI visited the Tiber Island shrine to modern day martyrs in April 2008 and he praised martyrs killed for defending the poor.
Most people likely had Blessed Oscar Romero, the Salvadorian archbishop killed for his zealous denunciation of social injustice, in mind when Benedict remarked that, “Fraternal life in common and the love, faith and decisions in favor of the lowliest and poorest that mark the existence of the Christian community sometimes give rise to violent aversion.”
Romero’s missal, is kept among the relics in the basilica, and Romero is featured in a large icon of the New Martyrs in the basilica’s altar.
So ingrained is the idea that Romero and other modern martyrs are separate and apart from the traditional mold that, when asked about Romero’s cause in 2014, Francis wished that theologians would outright create a new category of martyrs.
“What I would like is a clarification about martyrdom in odium fidei, whether it can occur either for having confessed the Creed [read: traditional martyrs] or for having done the works which Jesus commands with regard to one’s neighbor [i.e., the new martyrs],” he said.
Arguably, there is no need to create any new category for martyrs like Romero, because Romero fulfills the traditional requirements for martyrdom. Admittedly, that runs contrary to the conventional wisdom.
For example, Colombian Bishop Héctor Julio López Hurtado told Crux in 2015 that Colombia doesn’t have martyrs like St. Thomas More, the Renaissance era English lawyer killed for upholding Catholic doctrine, but it does have Romero-style martyrs, who were killed for refusing to abandon their posts despite the dangers of staying put.
But, is there such a gulf between More and Romero? The two may not be as far apart as we might think if we look at the fundamentals of their martyrdoms.
More was convicted of treason and beheaded under King Henry VIII after he refused to acknowledge the annulment of Henry’s marriage, or to subsequently recognize Henry as Head of the Church of England.
The saint contended that Henry’s Act of Supremacy was contrary “to the laws of God and his holy Church.” He maintained that “no temporal prince” could do away with legal precepts established in the Church. Thus, More died a martyr for the supremacy of the law of God over human whim.
Romero was killed on March 24, 1980 because he had delivered a stinging sermon on March 23, defending the poor and purporting to “command” the army “in the name of God” to defy military orders to kill civilians.
“Before an order to kill that a man may give,” Romero railed, “God’s law must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God.”
Romero’s death sentence was sealed when he pronounced those words, because the Salvadoran military—like King Henry’s Henchmen—saw Romero’s defense of the primacy of divine law as an inexpedient affront to the prevailing political order. However, as in the case of More, these political overtones to their motives do not overtake the fact that their motivations included an animus against his faith-inspired resistance.
Benedict got it right when he pointed out in a 2006 address to the Vatican body that recognizes saints that all martyrs—today’s and yesterday’s—are motivated by the same love of Christ.
“If the motive that impels them to martyrdom remains unchanged,” Benedict said, “then what has changed are the cultural contexts of martyrdom and the strategies” of their killers, which “more and more seldom explicitly show their aversion to the Christian faith or to a form of conduct connected with the Christian virtues, but simulate different reasons, for example, of a political or social nature.”
For More, love of Christ led him to break with King Henry over his unauthorized annulment and attempt to set up a new state Church. For Romero, love of Christ led him to break with the Salvadoran oligarchy over their repression of the poor in order to maintain their ill-gotten gains.
These are—in Pope Benedict’s words—the “cultural contexts” of their martyrdoms. Neither More’s nor Romero’s killers admitted an aversion for the Christian faith; indeed, both purported to uphold the true faith against someone they perceived as an infidel. Again—in Benedict’s words—the killers “simulated reasons of a political or social nature.”
This is not to say that there aren’t shifts in the way we perceive martyrs. Certainly, Romero is perceived by many as a martyr not because he was killed for defending the supremacy of divine law (although, he was), but because he opted to stay by the poor at great peril to his own person (which also is true).
Additionally, there are many other martyrdoms, like St. Maximilian Kolbe (who volunteered for death to take the place of another) and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein, whose Nazi killers arguably killed her principally because she was born a Jew).
Of course, it may simply be that the “New Martyrs” seem “new” to us because of the novelty that their martyrdoms happened in the cultural context of our modern times. If so, that is part of the genius of the Church’s ongoing recognition of martyrs. It prevents us from developing a romanticized notion that martyrdom is an archaic phenomenon whose time has passed, a theological anachronism.
Ultimately, as Francis said at St. Bartholomew’s Basilica, “If we look hard, we can see that the cause of every persecution is the hatred of the prince of this world toward those who have been saved and redeemed by Jesus.”
Carlos X. Colorado is a Salvadoran-American attorney who lives and works in Los Angeles. His blog, Super Martyrio, follows Romero’s canonization cause.