The White-robed Army of Martyrs Praise You
by Fr. Jeffrey Keyes, C.PP.S.
This is the second in a series of articles on the praises of the Te Deum. In a letter to Fr. Santarelli in May of 1827, St. Gaspar, reflecting on the glory of the believer united with God, erupts into a Te Deum-type litany. Here we celebrate the glorious witness of the martyrs who have gone before us.
In the everyday Greek of the eastern end of the Roman empire, martyr simply means witness. From the earliest centuries, Christians have given the word martyr a distinctive meaning-a martyr is one who dies for their belief that Jesus Christ is Lord. Paul refers to Stephen as a martyr in a speech recorded in chapter 20 of the Acts of the Apostles. Our dictionaries reflect this, defining a martyr as “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion,” along with a wider meaning, “a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.”
The white robe comes from the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 6:9-11, “those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God” are given white robes. In Revelation 7, those who have survived the great time of distress and persecution have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. The description of the martyrs as an army reflects the battle imagery of Revelation.
From the earliest days, women and men of all ages have been martyrs. Agnes (January 21), Agatha (February 5) and Lucy (December 13) were very young. Irenaeus of Lyons (June 28) and Ignatius of Antioch (October 17) lived full lives— their letters have come down to us from the second century. We honor all of the apostles as martyrs, with the exception of John, who died in exile. In the first centuries, popes (Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius and Cyprian), bishops and deacons (Lawrence August 10, Vincent, January 22) were martyrs. Rich and poor, slave and free (Felicity and Perpetua, March 7), people from all classes of society have been martyrs. We proclaim our unity with these martyrs in Eucharistic Prayer I, which lists several of their names.
Sometimes entire families have been martyrs. Missionaries and catechists have been martyrs (Boniface, June 5, and the martyrs of Japan and Korea.) Those who have stood up for the teachings of Jesus in countries that have supposedly been Christian for centuries have been martyrs (Stanislaus, April 11, Thomas à Becket, December 29).
Tertullian of Carthage wrote to the martyrs near the end of the second century. His praise of the martyrs and their enduring gift to the church is summed up in one memorable sentence: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians” from his Apology.
As Christianity spread in Asia and Africa, converts and missionaries together became martyrs. Among the martyrs commemorated as saints are those of Japan (February 5 and September 28), Uganda (June 3), Korea (September 20), and Vietnam (November 24). In North America, on October 19, we honor the Jesuit missionaries killed by the Iroquois-Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf, and their companions Noel Chabanel, Anthony Daniel, Charles Garnier, Gabriel Lalemant, all priests, and Brothers John Lalande and René Goupil.
We honor those who gave their lives in the Nazi death camps as martyrs, such as Saint Maximilian Kolbe (August 14) and Saint Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, August 9). Though they have not been raised to the dignity of the altar we pay respect and honor for those who have died in struggles for human rights as martyrs, such as Doctor Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. We honor those slain in Central and South America for their defense of the poor. The martyrs of Latin America include Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador (March 24, 1980), Father Stanley Roether, slain in Guatemala, Maura Clarke, MM, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, MM, and Dorothy Kazel, OSU slain in El Salvador (December 2, 1980), and the Jesuit martyrs of the University of Central America, Ignacio Ellacuría, Armando Lopez, Ignacio Martin Baro, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Segundo Montez, Juan Ramón Moreno, Celina Mariset Ramos, Elba Julia Ramos (November 16, 1989). Along with them, we honor thousands of martyrs whose names we do not know.
Catholics are joined by their Episcopalian and Lutheran brothers and sisters in celebrating the witness of martyrs. The martyrs of Uganda included Anglicans and Roman Catholics, as Pope Paul VI pointed out in his homily at their canonization. In the United States, the Episcopal Church honors the martyrs of Memphis on September 9. Thirty-eight Anglican and Roman Catholic sisters, laity, and clergy gave their lives nursing others in the yellow fever epidemic that struck that Tennessee city in 1879.
Our Precious Blood family includes martyrs. Gaspar del Bufalo himself is honored as a victim of charity. Gaspar did not hesitate to come to the aid of those suffering in a cholera epidemic in Rome, although his own health was not robust. Despite the precautions he took, Gaspar contracted the disease and succumbed to it. In our own time, the five Adorers of the Blood of Christ slain in Liberia in October 1992 — Shirley Kolmer, Mary Joel Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller, and Barbara Ann Muttra— are honored as “the Martyrs of Charity.” Precious Blood Brother Hubert Mattle was gunned down at the door of the community residence in Altamira, Brazil in October 1995.
The Holy Father has called us to honor all Christians who shed their blood for the faith. The witness of the martyrs of our time strengthens us as we stand for the dignity of human life in a time marked by a culture of death. As we sing the Te Deum, “the white-robed army of martyrs praise you,” may this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) inspire and strengthen us! We may not be called to shed our blood, but we are called to give witness to love and reconciliation in Jesus’ name.