Last week, Pope Francis met Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, to authorise the declaration of martyrdom for those “killed in hatred of the faith”. The martyrs are 19 men and women Religious, including a bishop and seven Trappist monks, who died in Algeria between 1994 and 1996. They were killed by Islamist militants in Algeria during a conflict between the government and the Islamic Salvation Front, a militant Islamist movement.
For anyone who has seen the extraordinary film Of Gods and Men, released in 2010, the only question will be: what kept him? The account of the Trappists’ life in Algeria, their kidnap in March 1996 by armed men and their trudge towards their execution two months later was transformative. After seeing it, you’re not quite the same as you once were. The film may have improved a little on reality – which rarely comes quite tidy enough for cinema – but it captured the gist of their dilemma and also, incidentally, was a useful exploration of the monastic concept of obedience.
The Trappists were at least immortalised by the film. Poor Bishop Pierre Claverie was not. He was killed by a bomb along with his driver, Mohamed Bouchikhi – which raises the question of whether the driver, too, became a martyr by association. Perhaps not, but it would be a kindly act by the Pope to establish that those of other religions whose protection for Christians brought about their death will get to heaven too.
Martyrdom is a tricky business: it must be animated by charity, not hatred. And plainly in the Trappists’ case, it was love that kept them in their dangerous post. As for their motivation, the prior Fr Christian de Chergé wrote a kind of spiritual testament as he contemplated his likely end at the hands of a terrorism “which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria”. He forgave his executioner – “the friend of my final moment” – while making clear that he “could not desire such a death”. Had he, and the other brethren, sought to make the ideal death, the highway to paradise, they could not have done better. Quite simply, martyrdom is the perfect Christian death.
A Martyr, or martus, is simply a witness, but it came in the first Christian centuries to signify those whose witness to Christ brought about their death. So, those whose life bore witness to Christ, but not their death, came gradually into another category, that of confessor. One of the crucial prerequisites of martyrdom is that you should not set out to be a martyr; it must be thrust upon you. The Catholic Encyclopedia cites St Gregory of Nazianzus, who sums up in a sentence the rule to be followed in such cases: “It is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it.” So there can never be a Catholic suicide bomber: that would be the high road to hell.
Interestingly, it’s not just testifying to the truths of the faith that qualifies a martyr. John the Baptist was designated a martyr in medieval accounts because he bore witness to a moral truth in condemning the marriage of Herodias.
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