So many white martyrs: How many nameless American Catholics suffer silently and willingly in faith?
Today is the Feast Day of St. Justin the Martyr, who was beheaded in Rome by order of Junius Rusticus sometime around 165 A.D.
Father Matthew reminded us at the noon mass that there are two kinds of martyrs: red martyrs and white martyrs. Red martyrs who die for the Christian faith. Over the long history of the Catholic Church, there have been thousands of red martyrs, in fact millions. Some of them are famous and lived in ancient times: St. Agatha, St. Stephen, St. Lawrence, St. Cecilia, and many more. Others died more recently: Thomas More, John Fisher, and Margaret Clitherow, who died during the English persecutions of the sixteenth century. And there are the famous North American martyrs of the seventeenth century: Rene Goupil, Isaac Jogues and Jean Lalande and others
Robert Royal, author of The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, persuasively argued that the twentieth century produced more Catholic martyrs than any century in the history of Christendom. Millions of Catholics died for their faith in Europe, Asia and Mexico. Two million Polish Catholics were killed by the Russians or the Nazis during the Second World War, and most of them are unremembered.
And then there is white martyrdom, which is martyrdom without blood or the violent taking of life. As Paula Anne Sharkey Lemire explained:
White martyrdom, is a total offering to God, a 'dying' to the world and its allurements. A white martyr willingly gives up worldly concerns and makes his or her life a perpetual pilgrimage. A white martyr lives a life of heroic devotion for Him alone, eagerly uniting that devotion with Christ's sufferings.
Who might be described as white martyrs? Kateri Tekawitha, for one; John Paul II, and Therese of Lisieux. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin might justly be described as white martyrs. And of course, there are thousands and thousands of others, most of whom died in obscurity and without being formally recognized in any way. In contemporary American society, we do not think much about martyrs or martyrdom--whether red or white. We are a culture obsessed by the quest for power, for wealth, and for fame. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the people of the hour. Barrack Obama had his long moment in the sun: Editor of Harvard Law Review, President of the United States, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. But now he fades into hoary obscurity while others scramble to be just as powerful and as famous. But white martyrs are all around us; many are my friends. I have a friend who unjustly lost his job at a Catholic university and now works as an adjunct professor at three universities located in three different cities. He drives 300 miles or more a week to teach five classes. He and his family are suffering because an adjunct's salary is not a living wage. But he is steadfast in his Catholic faith and active as a layperson in the life of his parish. Maybe he is a white martyr. I have another friend who was swept up in an ugly family quarrel that left her disinherited. Without question, she needed her share of her parents' estate more than the siblings who received a bigger portion of the family wealth when she was cast out. But she goes to Mass every week. Perhaps she is a white martyr as well. How many people do we know who are struggling with old age and illness but are not bitter, who still go to weekly Mass? How many people nurse aging spouses who suffer from dementia, Alzheimer's Disease, or some other hopeless illness? How many people have lost their jobs before they were ready to retire and see their lives stretching before them as a slow decline into humiliating poverty? And how many of these people still go to Mass? None of these people will be recognized as saints. No feast day will be set aside to give them honor. And when they are dying, there may not even be a priest available to administer last rites. These are America's white martyrs, and as long as we have them, there will always be a Catholic faith.
Richard Fossey is a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received his law degree from the University of Texas and his doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is editor of Catholic Southwest, A Journal of History and Culture.