I recently read a book entitled Jesuit Saints and Martyrs (copyright 1984) by Joseph N. Tylenda S. J. It was a long book considering the subject matter; I mean, how many times can you read of a disembowelment or something equally horrific before it becomes routine? Anyway, I’m not going to review the book. I’ll just say, reading it has instilled in me certain thoughts and inclined me to ponder martyrdom in the Catholic Church in a general sort of way. My first observation is that the Catholic Church has a long string of martyrs. The book I read was some four hundred pages long, and I think about three hundred of those pages, if not more, were devoted to martyrs. And it was just Jesuit martyrs. Realizing that the Jesuits have only been around for a handful hundred years and that they are but one religious order of many in the whole Catholic Church, was a very humbling and enlightening experience. It made the plenitude of martyrs more real to me. So, I’m going to comment on some of the things I noticed.
The first thing that struck me as I read the book was just how horrifically these people were treated. Reading about slow burning, peeling flesh, the removal of fingernails, etc… was another thing that made the reality of martyrdom more concrete. After only a few such examples, it was obvious that the martyrs were very strong men although the religious will probably say that they were only as strong as the indwelling Holy Spirit made them. All that said, I think some of them could have and should have been saved.
Basically, I made another observation as I read the book: many of these individuals went out of their way to become martyrs. Sometimes they were given a choice between being a martyr and some other action. Sometimes this other action was against their religion and martyrdom was the only real choice. Other times, though, the other action did not impinge upon their beliefs and it seemed to me that they were giving away their lives too easily. They could have continued their service, but chose not to.
I don’t think Jesus would want an individual to walk willingly to their own death unless it was necessary. Was martyrdom necessary? Perhaps it won converts. If so, one could measure the success of a martyr by the converts he won. Perhaps it serves to show the strength of religious conviction. Whatever the case, I am grateful I’ve grown up in the west and more specifically the United States. It’s nice having freedom of religion built into the government.
Anyway, those were my few brief thoughts on martyrdom.