The risen Rabbi Yeshua‘s final words to us were, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” Acts 1:8. Martyrdom is the perfect witness. A martyr is a man who chooses to suffer even death rather than renounce his faith in Rabbi Yeshua.
§ 2473 Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude. “Let me become the food of the beasts, through whom it will be given me to reach God.”
Rabbi Yeshua, the perfect martyr, did not resist at any time during his passion. His martyrdom opened heaven for us all Lk 23:43 and spread the Faith needed to reach heaven over all the earth Acts 2:1–12. Following his example, the martyr does not resist his persecutors when they use violence. The martyr follows Rabbi Yeshua in his peaceful acceptance of martyrdom, serene in his faith that Rabbi Yeshua will spread unimaginable benefits.
Holy Mother Church prays to canonized martyrs, but never prays for the martyrs, because the martyr literally exchanges his earthly life for eternal life in heaven. St. Maximilian Kolbe during his earthly life was Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who gave his life so that another prisoner in the Auschwitz death camp might live. St. Ignatius of Antioch, quoted in § 2473 above, is another excellent example.
True martyrdom requires: (1) that the victim actually die, (2) that he or she dies in witness of faith in Christ which is directly expressed in words, or implicitly in acts done or sins refused because of faith, and (3) that the victim accepts death voluntarily. Every true martyr at the moment of earthly death instantly enters heaven. Some of these are canonized, recognized by Holy Mother Church for veneration and intercession.
St. Stephen was the Church’s first martyr. We also especially remember St. Ignatius of Antioch. When he was sentenced to be eaten by lions in the Colosseum in AD 107 he wrote his Letter to the Romans. In chapter 4 he begged his followers:
I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God].
Such a man is a perfect witness to Rabbi Yeshua. The only way to write such a letter is to be truly a martyr. By it he can gain heaven, but can gain nothing earthly.
Catholics who live as heroic witnesses for their faith are called living witnesses. All the same, the witness Acts 1:8 is more important than the terminology. Father Hardon, in Our Times: The Age of Martyrs, uses the term martyr in its wider sense to call all Catholics to live as martyrs, prepared always to bear witness even unto death. In this era of the spiritual war, Rabbi Yeshua‘s way and the world’s way are so deeply at war that Rabbi Yeshua‘s way may well require the sacrifice of our lives, as St. John Paul II observes in Evangelium Vitae.
We sometimes hear of “red martyrs” who died for their faith while “white martyrs” lived for their faith as St. Teresa of Calcutta did. These are not canonical terms. “White martyrdom” is a pious classification of the sufferings of certain saints, not an official category of martyrdom in the Church.
A great many Catholics live unsung lives of heroic witness today. As an example Second Exodus nominates Evelyn Ryan of Defiance, Ohio, a lively Catholic woman married to an alcoholic and irresponsible man, who raised ten children on practically no money through her gift for wit and humor. A week before her death in 1998 at age 85 she wrote:
Every time I pass the church
I stop and make a visit
So when I’m carried in feet first
God won’t say “Who is it?”