“I am a Christian, and I have only one life. If I have a thousand lives, I will still offer it to Christ.” These were the words recorded in the court where our first canonized Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz a martyr in Japan, said in front of a grueling investigation facing the danger of death and torture. Those were the years when the Japanese Shogun authorities suppressed Christianity in Japan. In those times they wished secretly that he and many other Christians would deny their faith and give their allegiance to the Shogun.
It was said that the one who recorded this proceedings was an ex-priest who left the priesthood as an apostate. Due to the terrible life threatening pressures he found himself working for the Japanese. He supposedly was also the translator.
These words of Lorenzo Ruiz became the rallying point for his candidacy for sainthood. Of course, as has been known in history, there were thousands of martyrs during those decades but those words are proofs of his existence, identity and later on his martyrdom. (The ex-priest also, inspired by Lorenzo’s words, recanted his apostasy).
These are one of the many occasions in history when there were terrible times of persecution. However, the powerful witness of the martyrs to their inherent freedom of conscience and religion shook even their own persecutors.
Martyrdom was not only an authentic and valid witness of Christians towards the existence of God but also a phenomenon which attracted the others to do the same. They were received and were considered with deep admiration many times with reverential awe by all true believers. It is enough to read about their heroism and extraordinary courage in the “Acts of the Martyrs”.
I remember a story that was told by the Franciscans that St. Francis himself offered to respond to a challenge by a Calyph in Egypt for the “test of fire” to prove that his God was the only true God. The challenge was: if the God of the Christians is a true God, a Christian believer would throw himself/herself in a burning furnace so that his/her God will free him/her from burning to death in the midst of a huge fire, otherwise the God of the Muslims is the true one. Very tricky and seemed to be an exercise of stupid futility in human terms to accept this “test of fire”. But not for St. Francis. It was for him a chance and privilege to proclaim his faith towards the true God. So he accepted this challenge on the condition that if he dies, his death should be accredited to his sins; but if he survives, it should be accredited to his God. He had not received a chance to go to Egypt to fulfill this challenge for he got sick and eventually he died at a young age. Later Franciscan scholars said that his stigmata was interpreted as a gift of God instead; in exchange for the solemn gift of martyrdom denied to him.
But times has changed and the desire for martyrdom has wained so fast, so much so that the term “to be a martyr” has acquired a derogative meaning seen in the expressions like “pa martyr-martyr ka pa” as if martyrdom or acts of sacrifice has really become an insignificant gesture.
Its reality however did not die down. It is now perhaps expressed in another deviated form of martyrdom, that of suicide-bombers! There are a lots of them compared to the availability of bombs and bomb makers. There are many volunteers waiting to blow themselves up as “martyrs” for their cause more than the bombs which are readily available. This is very disturbing.
We can ask: is the devil present in this kind of martyrdom? Is the God of the Christians absent and reduced into silence? The answer depends on whether we have “eyes to see” or “hears to hear.” We could feel a certain nostalgia about it during the first three centuries of Christianity when martyrdom is in “vogue.” Yes it is a grace reserved for some but in this last half a century, even during the second world war, there were a lot of Christian martyrs in the concentration camps. Many of them were proclaimed as such. Moreover, at the turn of this millennium there are more Christian martyrs, much more, compared to the early hundred years of Christianity.
But why is the God of the Christians seems now not proclaiming Himself though Christian martyrs? Is he absent? It depends on our “eyes.” If we look at the tremendous persecution of the Christian today there are really true martyrs. But, they are not well known. They are the Christian Syrians, the Christian Iraqis, the coptic and orthodox Egyptians, the catholic priests, nuns and even whole Christian families are being martyred while mass media seem to be silent about them. Yes, their blood has been shouting and crying to humanity but humanity seemed to have deaf ears. The power of God’s grace speaking though the meek, the persecuted, those who are in tears, their unveangeful attitude of those left behind speak loudly of the God whom they believe in. Their cries seem to be directed only to their heavenly Father for they have experienced that global the community fail to listen to them aggraviated by the seeming intentional or unintentional silence of the global mass media. Yet when a suicide bomber blows himself up, especially in prominent cities all the internal news agencies would publicized it for days or even weeks while leave to oblivion the victims of malicious mass murders of Christians because they are simply Christians.
Perhaps the privatization now of Christian religion makes many become apathetic to the plight of the modern martyrs and their families. This was not so before. When a martyr is born in heaven, even their blood or bones were collected if ever they are burned. Take note that St. Anthony of Padua who was a former Augustinian was given permission to be a Franciscan friar since, after knowing the fame of the Franciscan martyrs, he desired passionately to become a Franciscan and become one in Egypt, a grace which he, like St. Francis has not received. But both become holy and become canonized saints.
Is God in this millennium silent or even absent? Where is God? But perhaps we should rephrase the question into: where is man? Is God absent? No! Man is absent. God is still alive and present in these modern day martyrs, unknown prisoners and perhaps in those who simply were tortured and disappeared because of their faith. His presence, omnipotent and powerful, gives freedom to these people to whom men of power, who have vast influence and tons of money seem to close their eyes because martyrdom is a strong counterwitness against their Godless lives. Their witness tells them that in this world what maters is not power and money but a true interior freedom of spirit, joy and happines; true human and loving relationships. The martyrs still are powerful witness of a God who even forgives and is merciful to their persecutors. He is ever present, as has been, in today’s history of mankind. We just need to look for Him where He seems to hide. When we find Him, then maybe that’s the time when we could find our true selves and see that this world could in peace through our contribution of humility and meekness like the martyrs. We need the blood of today’s martyrs to water the seeds of peace and justice and give birth to a new earth. Isn’t it that two thousand years ago their blood has given to a new era of Christianity? Together with them we could make this world a better place to live in.