On the Feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome (June 30), I was reflecting on exactly what a martyr is, and why they are important to us. In recent times, the term “martyr” has been erroneously applied to people like suicide bombers and terrorists. But for Christians, a martyr isn’t a suicide.
A martyr is someone who holds on to their faith, even in the face of overwhelming, mortal force. During the Roman persecutions, Christians were ordered to renounce their faith, or be put to death. And many lost their lives rather than abandon their faith. But what made them martyrs, and worthy of veneration, was their unwavering refusal to recant. They didn’t desire to die, but if death was a consequence of their steadfastness, they were willing to accept that consequence.
From the earliest days of the Church, the martyrs were revered, and their tombs became places of worship. As an expression of the community’s faith in God’s ultimate justice, the martyrs were venerated as people who were most certainly with God in heaven. The catacombs in Rome have not only the graves of the martyrs, but also gathering places and altars where the church would celebrate the Eucharist. For centuries this tradition lived on in practice of placing a relic of a saint beneath a stone within the altars of all Catholic Churches.
Ultimately, the martyrs are beacons of hope for us. By their willingness to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender their faith, they show God’s grace “shining through our human weakness.” A martyr isn’t someone who seeks their own death, but someone who holds on to their faith, even in the face of a mortal threat, trusting in God’s ultimate justice.