What makes a martyr?

What makes someone a martyr? With the rampant persecution of Christians in the world today, how do we know if someone is a martyr or simply a victim of a violent attack? The basic definition of a martyr is “a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs”—but it goes deeper than that.

“A martyr is someone who freely gives his life for Christ. ‘You’re a Christian I’m going to kill you’—well, that person may not be a martyr,” explains Fr. Simon, host of Father Simon SaysTM. Someone faced with death for their faith might say, ‘Who me? I’m not a Christian,’ to try to preserve their life or protect their loved ones. “But the guy who says, ‘Yes, I am a Christian, you can kill me because I’m not going to deny Christ.’ That’s a martyr.”

It’s about your witness to faith and Christ. “Just to be killed because you are Christian doesn’t make you a martyr, but to be killed for your witness—because the word martyr means witness,” says Fr. Simon.

In some areas of the world, simply practicing your faith and participating in the sacraments could mean putting your life in danger. “A person in the Middle East who is publicly Christian, they may be martyrs even though there’s no direct statement: ‘If you don’t deny Christ, I’m going to kill you’. But by living the Christian life—for instance, in the Sudan in the bad old days … the government put airplanes every Sunday morning … and bombed all the churches. It’s estimated two million people were killed simply for going to Church. And then when the churches were all gone, they would keep the planes in the air and when they saw large groups of people going into the forest they would bomb that area. So the choice to go to Mass meant you were risking your life for Christ … that would make them martyrs. They’re making a choice; there has to be a free choice,” explains Fr. Simon.

What gives someone the strength to lay down his or her life for Christ? It’s all about grace, says Fr. Simon. “I don’t know if I could do it, but if that moment came, I’m sure that God would offer me or you the grace to make the right choice.”

Let’s pray for all those around the world who are persecuted for their faith, and ask that the holy martyrs pray for us to have the grace necessary to stand up for our faith. Saint Stephen, first martyr of the Church, pray for us!

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Lindsey is a wife, mother, and contributing author at Relevant Radio. She holds a degree in Journalism and Advertising from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Lindsey enjoys writing, baking, and liturgical living with her young family.