Martyrdom and Charism — The Ransom of Christian Captives

 

Are we Christians headed toward persecution in the United States? This and many questions are raised and discussed in the following paraphrased transcription of the below video talk, given by Fr. Joseph Eddy, O. de M.  The first part is an introduction to the Mercedarians’ fourth vow, and afterwards Father takes a deeper look at white & red martyrdom.

Martyrdom is something that’s ever ancient and ever new. A charism is a spirit that the founder had when the community was started. The community starts under the bishop. It’s a slow process leading to pontifical approbation.

A charism is living Christ’s life. It is an aspect of Christ’s life that has been given to its founder. His/Her daughters or his sons carry the charism on for the length of the community’s existence.

Captive for Christ

The Order of Mercy was founded in the twelfth century. At that time the Muslims were creeping in. The purpose of the Crusades was to do something about this and prevent Europe from being taken over. Many people were taken captive… Imagine if your cousins or uncles were taken away – they just disappeared. The captives were probably taken to north Africa. Imagine the opening scene from Les Miserables, where the prisoners are working on a chain gang.

If the captives renounce their Christian faith, they can move up in society. Perhaps they would not have to work in a chain gang any more. There was great pressure to leave the faith.

Our founder Peter Nolasco was a merchant. As he went into the African areas – the Muslim-controlled territories – he would sell his goods. As he did this, he would see his fellow Christians who were suffering. He was cut to the heart by this suffering.

The real reason Peter mourned the captives was because of their loss of faith. He saw that they were losing their eternal salvation. He began collecting his money to buy them back. He gave all his property away. Although he was not a wealthy man, he was very shrewd. He was also a strong man, and a humble man, and these virtues helped him a lot.

It was not long before others came to follow him. Most people do not start out with the idea to start a religious community. Likewise, in Peter’s case it was, “I am going to help these people,” and others followed him.

“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18)

But he was soon criticized. Others thought he was creating a market for the Christian captives. Greatly hurt, St. Peter took the matter to prayer. In a vision, Mary appeared to him, telling him that Christ desired that he found a community dedicated to ransoming these Christian captives. With the support of the king and the bishop, St. Peter began the Mercedarian Order, sending his friars – two at a time – to ransom the Christians, who would return, still in their chains, to Spain.

Our charism is the fourth vow – if necessary, we would give up our own life to save someone in danger of losing their faith. On occasion, the friars would take the places of those in captivity, exchanging their freedom for the prisoners’ freedom.

In Saracen lands, opposition was everywhere for the first Mercedarians. They were slapped, stoned, beaten, wounded, and dragged through the streets. In their first century, their white habits bore witness to the blood of over one hundred martyrs.

St. Serapion was Irish by birth, born around 1179. He was enlisted as a soldier in the service of Richard the Lionhearted, and later Alfonso VIII who was fighting the Muslims in Spain. There he met Peter Nolasco, and joined the order. Eventually, he was one of the two friars chosen to take part in the ransom mission. There was not enough ransom money, so Serapion offered to stay behind if the remaining captives were freed. While the Mercedarians rushed to collect money for Serapion’s own ransom, the Muslims grew impatient, and crucified the saint. He was declared a martyr, and is the patron saint of the sick.

“To bear witness to the light” (John 1:7)

The term for martyr comes from the Greek word meaning “to bear witness.” A witness testifies to a fact that they have seen and experienced. The reality of the early Church was that witnesses to Christ could easily be imprisoned or killed.

Once again we are seeing this in Iraq, parts of Africa, and China. Every single day, Christians in the early Church faced death, and all the apostles, except John, suffered a martyr’s death. At the crucifixion of Christ, Mary’s heart was “pierced with a sword.” At her side was St. John, who suffered his “white martyrdom,” or spiritual martyrdom, as well.

Today’s martyrs are those who have never seen the risen Christ, but are so firmly convinced of the truth of Christianity that they gladly suffer death rather than deny these truths. In our Order, thirty-three Mercedarian friars were martyred during the Spanish Civil War – 18 of whom have already been canonized, and the rest are going through the process.

Lumen Gentium says,

Since Jesus, the Son of God, manifested His charity by laying down His life for us, so too no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and His brothers. From the earliest times, then, some Christians have been called upon — and some will always be called upon — to give the supreme testimony of this love to all men, but especially to persecutors. The Church, then, considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift and as the fullest proof of love. By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world — as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross. (no. 42)

This time period is heading towards the possibility of persecution in the United States. We may believe we could never have ISIS here, yet we have on demand abortion clinics, same-sex marriage, and other open affronts to Catholicism, to the point that the culture tells us, “you can’t believe same-sex marriage is wrong,” and “you can’t tell a women abortion is wrong.”

Living the fourth vow would be impossible without the virtues. We are called to give Christ’s witness to the culture. Both white martyrdom (spiritual) and red martyrdom (by blood) are great gifts to God. White martyrdom prepares us to be open and ready for the possibility of martyrdom by blood – the ultimate sacrifice which unites us to Christ on the cross. The virtues of generosity, self-giving, and courage are necessary, and one must die to self daily.

An offering of self

By Baptism we share the role of priest, prophet, and king. As priests, we are called to offer sacrifice for the salvation of the world. (Romans 12 … “I appeal to you brethren… offer yourselves to God”) All our daily activities and hardships — if borne patiently — can be offered as a spiritual sacrifice, united to the sacrifice of the Mass. We offer ourselves as Mary did — she is the perfect example of white martyrdom. She gives her total Yes at the Annunciation and never takes it back, even when told by Simeon that a sword would pierce her heart. We give our “yes” at Baptism, Confirmation, and each time we receive the Eucharist. Like Mary standing at the foot of the cross, we stand at the foot of the altar, and give our “amen” at every Mass.

As prophets, we are called to be teachers — spreading the Gospel by our lives and words. Confirmation gives us a special strength to witness to the Gospel, as well as holding us to a higher standard to do so.

By sharing in Christ’s kingship, we realize that to be a king is to serve. In married life it is for your family, as a priest, your flock, in religious life for your community. Christ is the perfect king who laid down his life for his subjects. When we perform works of mercy, we are serving others as Christ did.

By sharing daily in the role of priest, prophet, and king, we build up virtue to prepare for the possible crown of martyrdom. The Mercedarians’ fourth vow to offer one’s life if necessary, reminds us that our lives are important and should not be thrown away. The early Church actually had the problem where people would go out of their way to look for martyrdom!

Definition of Martyr

U. of Florida Newman Center

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