The Church has recognised a broad category of martyrs throughout the 20th century

The beatification of Oscar Romero, late Archbishop of San Salvador, led many to comment that the Church was reconsidering the definition of martyrdom. That’s partly true, but not entirely new. The Church has been recognising a broader category of martyrs throughout the 20th century.

“Romero’s beatification ratifies a new standard for what counts as ‘martyrdom’ in Catholicism,” wrote John Allen of The Boston Globe. “It’s no longer necessary to die explicitly in odium fidei, at the hands of those who hate the faith, which was the traditional test. One can also be recognised as a martyr for dying in odium caritatis, as a victim of those motivated by a hatred of charity.”

The classical definition of martyrdom is that a disciple is killed precisely out of hatred for the Christian faith. A person is asked to renounce a truth of the faith – think of Thomas More and John Fisher – and stands fast at the cost of his life. Or, like the early Apostles, Christians are killed in a general persecution of the Church.

Romero was not killed for a particular truth of the Catholic faith, but because as a pastor he denounced the injustices visited upon the people of El Salvador by the military and extra-military forces of the government. He was killed by those who hated his protection of his flock, his defence of his people, his condemnation of the evil loose in the land. He was killed by those who hated his pastoral charity, in odium caritas.

Romero is only the latest to be recognised for martyrdom not strictly in odium fidei, but for their fidelity in living out the faith. In September, Benedict Daswa will be beatified in Limpopo, South Africa. A married man, father of eight, teacher and school principal, he was a leader of his local Catholic community. When the local village elders proposed hiring a witch doctor to combat recent storms, Daswa refused to participate. He was consequently killed by a mob in February 1990.

In 2013, Fr Pino Puglisi, a prominent parish priest in Palermo, Sicily, was beatified. He was killed in 1993 for his anti-mafia preaching and initiatives, in retaliation for the thunderous denunciation of the mafia delivered by St John Paul II on his visit to Sicily that year. Puglisi was, in Allen’s words, “a martyr who died in odium virtuosi et veritatis, meaning hatred of virtue and truth”.

That language goes back to the canonisation of Maria Goretti by the Venerable Pius XII in the holy year of 1950. The young girl, only 12, had resisted the sexual advances of her teenage neighbour in 1902. Enraged, he stabbed her more than a dozen times and she died of her wounds after having forgiven him. Young Maria was not killed for her Catholic faith, but for her insistence on living the virtues that it required. She preferred death to sin, and Pius XII canonised her for giving her life, we might say, in odium castigates.

In 1982, St John Paul II asked theological experts to advise whether Maximilian Kolbe should be canonised as a martyr. He had been beatified in 1970 as a confessor of the faith, in recognition of his great charity in offering to take the place of another man condemned to die at Auschwitz. The experts advised that, strictly speaking, Kolbe had not been killed for the faith; the Nazi camp guard cared not a whit that Kolbe was a Catholic or a priest. But Kolbe certainly did, explaining his actions with the simple words: “I am a Catholic priest.” John Paul overruled his advisers and declared Kolbe a martyr.

“John Paul was making an important theological point in declaring St Maximilian Kolbe a martyr,” wrote his biographer, George Weigel. “Systematic hatred of the human person (as in Nazism and other totalitarian systems) was a contemporary version of odium fidei, for the faith taught the inalienable dignity of the human person, and those who hated the person implicitly hated the faith.”

There are many hatreds prowling the world today. Hatred of the faith, pure and simple, as nearly every week jihadists kill Christians for following Christ. There is hatred for those who insist on proclaiming and living in accord with the truths of the faith, as the deaths of Romero, Daswa and Puglisi teach us. All hatred to one degree or another opposes Christian faith in the God who is love. When that opposition becomes lethal, the Church is inclined to venerate the blood spilled as that of martyrs, praying that it may indeed be the seed of Christians.


Fr Raymond de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (29/5/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!