martyr

Image via RNS/Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

An American missionary priest, killed in Guatemala in 1981, has moved a step closer to being named a Catholic saint, after Pope Francis declared him the first-ever American martyr.

The Rev. Stanley Rother, a priest from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, served for nearly 15 years in Guatemala before being shot dead, during the country’s bloody civil war that divided the country from 1960 to 1996.

Martyrdom of Vitus, Modestus, and Cresentia. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Hers is a hidden and uncertain story, but it is said that the martyr St. Crescentia of Lucania was part of “the help” in a Roman senator’s household. She is one of a trio of holy martyrs that also includes St. Vitus and St. Modestus, all originally from Sicily. She might not even have been real, if we’re to trust modern, historical standards.

Suprun Vitaly / Shutterstock

Suprun Vitaly / Shutterstock

THE WORD MARTYR means “witness.” In times past, it meant dying for one’s beliefs; but increasingly it means dying for one’s faith because of justice.

On March 3, Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was brutally murdered in her home. As co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, Cáceres had led the Lenca Indigenous communities in a nonviolent struggle to defend the sacred lands, forests, and water that her people have protected for generations.

She was beloved by many around the world for her extraordinary leadership on the environment, recognized in 2015 when she received the Goldman Environmental Prize for “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.” Her assassination sparked a global outcry, including a demand from the Vatican for an independent investigation into her death.

Cáceres’s life and death is a witness to what Pope Francis calls “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Her martyrdom embodies the intimate connection between creation justice and social justice for the poor that is at the heart of Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment.

Shawn St.Hilaire / Democrat Photo.

Bishop of Manchester, Peter Anthony Libasci, at a vigil on Aug. 23 for James Foley. Shawn St.Hilaire / Democrat Photo.

From the moment news broke that U.S. journalist James Foley had been beheaded by Islamic State extremists in the Middle East, many Christians, especially Foley’s fellow Catholics, began calling him a martyr, with some even saying he should be considered a saint.

Yet that characterization has left others uneasy, and the discussion is raising larger questions about what constitutes martyrdom.

Foley’s parents seemed to validate the martyrdom label when his father, John, spoke at an emotional news conference outside the family’s New Hampshire home and said he and his wife “believe he was a martyr.” Foley’s mother, Diane, added that her son “reminds us of Jesus. Jesus was goodness, love — and Jim was becoming more and more that.”

In an interview two days later with Katie Couric, Foley’s younger brother, Michael, recounted how Pope Francis had called the family to console them and in their conversation “referred to Jim’s act as, really, martyrdom.”

Numerous commentators had already picked up on that idea, holding Foley up not only as a witness to the Christian faith but as a spur for believers in the West to take more seriously the plight of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East who are being persecuted to a degree that some say is comparable to genocide.

But in the Catholic Church, determining whether someone is a martyr is not so easy. Historically, two conditions must be met.

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Rose Berger from Sojourners magazine spoke to the hundreds of us gathered in Lafayette Park just before we processed to the fence surrounding the White House. She mentioned the irony of building a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by the powerful political forces who disregarded or dismissed his message during his lifetime -- we only honor him after he is safely dead. How ironic also that the dedication of the monument was postponed by the most recent example of significant climate change. Will evidence of climate change begin to also signal political change?

Rose called on us to take up the banner of the Living Spirit of Dr. King within ourselves and allow it to inspire us as we risked arrest by calling on President Obama to take a clear stand to help protect our environment and begin to make a U-turn from the climate change path we are traveling as a nation and culture. We are part of a two-week vigil and civil disobedience action calling the president to deny permission for building the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from the environmentally devastating tar sands/oil shale development in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas.

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