The Evangelizer is called to Martyrdom


As we get ready to elect a new Pope it occurs to me that we are also electing a chief evangelizer. And the new Pope will enter the room of tears to don the papal vestments because, in effect he is embracing a martyrdom.

I want to talk about the relationship of the word “martyr” and Evangelization in two ways. For the word martyr has two senses, and they both apply to Evangelization. On the one hand martyr is simply the Greek word (μάρτυς – martus) that means “witness.” On the other hand, in modern English, we think of the martyrs as those who suffered and died for their faith. Both concepts are essential for evangelizers (this means you).

Lets look first at the concept of “martyr” as one who suffers. – If you’re going to evangelize prepare to suffer. This explains a lot in terms of why most Christians don’t evangelize.

When I was training people in my parish to go door to door (we had fifty people), and also preparing others to go to their family members and summon them back, it was clear we had to get something out of the way at the very start. And that was that we were all going to suffer for doing this. We would be rejected, scorned, ridiculed, have anger vented on us and be asked questions we couldn’t answer. And yes, we would also have people who were delighted to see us and were very friendly, even open to the invitation to come to Mass, or to find out more.

But in the end, I wanted to be clear, we have to expect to get it with both barrels: POW!

Ready to Suffer? For, if you’re going to be a witness, you have to know that the Greek word for witness is μάρτυς – (martus) – “martyr.” Are you ready to suffer for Jesus? There are many who have gone so far as to be killed for announcing Jesus. And how about us? Are we even willing to risk a raised eyebrow? How about laughter, scorn, derision, anger, rejection, or even worse, simply being dismissed or ignored?

These things are just part of the picture. In no way does it indicate failure. In fact, it may indicate success for Christ promised such things to faithful disciples and witnesses. Further, anger and protests does not mean a seed has not been sown. In sowing the seed, the ground must first be broken, and that is not often an easy task. For the ground often makes “protest” and we will only get fruit from it by the sweat of our brow. Scripture says of such suffering:

  1. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. (John 15:20-21)
  2. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41)
  3. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14)
  4. If you suffer for being a Christian, don’t feel ashamed, but praise God for being called that name. (1 Peter 4:16)
  5. We are fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10)
  6. God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:21)
  7. As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:4-10)

How can we read texts like these and think that we will not suffer for speaking and living our faith? Some will accept us, many will reject us. But in rejection, derision, scorn, and being called a fool consider yourself in good company. Jesus, the apostles and martyrs, the saints and all the heroes suffered in this way. It is not failure to thought of this way, it is simply the lot of the faithful to be often considered as such. In this sense it is a sign of success. We do not go looking for a fight or to make people angry. But often they are, and this is to be expected. Suffering is an essential part of being and evangelizer, a witness (a martyr).

Here are few things to remember when being scorned or the object of anger:

  1. Don’t take anger and rejection personally. In most cases, it is not about you. Most people’s anger is really directed at Christ, or at God in general, or at his Church, or at organized religion. Some have been hurt by the Church, or feel hurt by God. It’s not about you.
  2. Just because someone is angry or takes offense, doesn’t mean you did anything wrong or gave offense. I have often thought that, in a primitive part of our brain, developed in childhood, we instinctively think that, if some one is angry or upset with us, we have done something wrong. Not necessarily so. In fact, anger is sometimes a sign we have done something right, for, if we are faithful, we are raising issues that, though uncomfortable, are necessary to consider.
  3. Do not give in to the temptation to retaliate or be personally hurt. Rather, rejoice that you have been deemed worthy to suffer for Christ.
  4. Do not be discouraged. Shake the dust and move on. (cf Matt 10:14).
  5. Remember that you are sowing seeds. You may not experience the harvest, but others may well bring it in. The fruitfulness of what you do may take years to come to harvest. Just stay faithful and keep sowing seeds.
  6. Remember too, an evangelizer is a witness and the Greek word for witness is martyr. Suffering is simply part of the picture.

When we understand and accept these things we are less resentful and anxious when it happens. Don’t lose heart. Accept the martyrdom of evangelization.

And this leads us to the second notion of the word “martyr,” that of being a witness.

Now the word “witness” indicates someone who has seen or experienced the thing they are talking about. They are a witness because they themselves have personally seen or experienced and know what they are talking about. In English the word “witness” contains the sense of “knowing” for its etymological roots come from Old English and Germanic words such as “wit” and “wissen” meaning to know something, and also likely influenced by the the German verb “kennen” meaning to be personally familiar with someone or something.

Hence, to combine these roots, a “witness” is someone who knows the facts and truth of something personally, by first hand knowledge. I cannot really serve as a witness in a court by saying what others saw. Hearsay is not admissible. I have to say what I saw and and personally know. This is what it means to be a witness.

In evangelization work too, we are called to be witnesses. That is, we are called to speak not only what we intellectually know, or have heard others say, but also what we have personally experienced. As witnesses we are called to have firsthand knowledge, and not only say what others have said. It is not enough to know about the Lord, we have to personally KNOW the Lord. A child knows if his parents are just going through the motions of teaching them a prayer, and whether they really know the Lord personally, and are actually praying. Congregants know if their priest is just giving an informational sermon or if he has really met the Lord and “knows” personally what and Whom he speaks of.

People know the difference. And frankly what people are most hungry for is first hand witnesses, not people who just quote slogans and “safe, ” “tested” sayings of others. What people need to hear is: God is real, and I know this because I just talked with him this morning, and I experience his presence even now. And, in the laboratory of my own life I have tested God’s teachings from the Scriptures and the Church, and I have found them to be true and reliable. I am talking to you from experience, God is real, and his teachings are true, and I know this personally for I have experienced it in my life.

Too often, what could be evangelical moments devolve into religious debates about whether Pope “so-and-so” said this or that in the 8th Century, or about why women can’t be ordained, or why the “evil” Catholic Church conducted the inquisition. These sorts of topics come up quickly because we talk only of issues, and not from personal experience. It is harder for a person to deny what you have experienced when you or I say, “I have come to experience that God is real, that what he says through his Church is true, and I have staked my whole life on what he has revealed.”

What we need are witnesses more than apologetical experts who know every rebuttal. We DO need apologists out there and intellectual knowledge is important, but personal witness is even more important. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” to some technical question, but it’s not OK to be incapable of witness. Even as a priest I sometimes have to say I don’t know the answer to that, I’ll try to find out and let you know…But Let me tell you what I do know, and that is that God is at the center of my life and I have come to experience his love for me and every human being. I have come to experience his power to set me free from sin and every bondage and root me in the truth of his Word. And whatever the answer to your question is, I know it will be rooted in that.

Yes, we need martyrs for the work of evangelization. Those who are willing to suffer, and also those who are willing to be first hand witnesses, who have a personal testimony to give of the Lord they have come to know by experience.You should be an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.

Photo Credit above: Paul in Jail by Rembrandt

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2 Responses to The Evangelizer is called to Martyrdom

  1. Toad says:

    “And the new Pope will enter the room of tears to don the papal vestments because, in effect he is embracing a martyrdom.”

    Or, if he doesn’t fancy “embracing a martyrdom”, he can always embrace retirement.


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