On Martyrdom: Reflecting on Eugene Bossilkov,C.P.

by Victor Hoagland, C.P.
"I have heard the cry of my people; I know all they are suffering." Exodus 3
O Lord, you have accepted the sacrifice offered by your bishop, Eugene Bossilkov, as he shared with his people a fearful hour of suffering. Help us keep in mind, O Lord, your martyrs old and new, who are signs of the lasting agony of your Son, for the redemption of the world. Amen. (From the Mass of Beatification , March 15, 1998 )

Among the Christian saints, martyrs have a special place, for martyrs, old and new, are signs of the Passion of Jesus, a mystery lasting through the ages . Martyrs are powerful associates of Jesus Christ and, like him, they nourish faith in others by laying down their own lives. Their lives bear fruit, even in death. Their cry of faith in suffering and death is heard, just as God heard his Son, and God raises them up to share Jesus' Resurrection and to bless the Church on earth.

Bishop Eugene Bossilkov is, in the Church's judgment, numbered among these Christian heroes. What does Christian tradition tell us about them? And how do they help us understand him?

The Old Testament Roots of Martyrdom

Christian martyrdom has its roots in the Old Testament. The story of the three young men put into the fiery furnace by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar because of their belief in God is a powerful account both of suffering and victory. " I see four men unfettered and unhurt, walking in the fire, and the fourth looks like a son of God, " the king says wonderingly. (Daniel 3) The story appears frequently in the early Church as a scripture of martyrdom. The martyrs suffer and yet are victorious; another walks with them in the fire - Jesus Christ. Even today the story appears in the lenten catechesis during the 5th week of lent as a reassurance that Jesus accompanies those who suffer.

The Old Testament story of the Maccabees, who were put to death under Antiochus Epiphanes, is also a story of martyrdom. " It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope of being restored to life by him..." says one of the seven brothers, willingly accepting death, and firmly believing in God's promise of life. (Maccabees 7, 14)

The Passion of Jesus: Pattern of Martyrdom

It is the New Testament story of the Passion of Jesus, however, that has the greatest influence on the spirituality of Christian martyrdom. Not only is the Passion Jesus' experience; his disciples experience it too. Any one who wishes to follow me, Jesus says, "must take up his cross..." (Matthew 16.24)

The martyr fulfills those words in a unique way. Like Jesus, the martyr sees death coming, fears it, receives strength to bear it, is unjustly condemned, suffers physically and mentally, and finally dies, often alone, seemingly crushed by an enemy, in conditions of utter absurdity. Yet, like Jesus, the martyr tenaciously believes in God's power to give life in spite of everything. In a unique way, the Paschal Mystery is the martyr's mystery.

A Church Built on Martyrdom: Saint Ignatius of Antioch

St Ignatius of AntiochBecause their stories are so like the Passion of Christ, martyrs, old and new, have strongly influenced Christian spirituality. They also resemble one another. The seven letters written to various Christian communities by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, as he traveled under arrest from Syria to be sentenced to death by wild beasts in the Colosseum in Rome in 110 A.D., profoundly affected Christians of his generation, as well as those who read them today, by their witness of faith and motivation, fear and desire. Statements of faith are the substance of Ignatius' letters. His passionate exhortations to believe in Jesus Christ are directed not only to his fellow believers, but also to strengthen his own faith as well.

And so, be deaf when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ,
who was of the race of David,
the son of Mary,
who was truly born and ate and drank,
who was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate
and was really crucified and died
in the sight of those "in heaven and on earth and under the earth."
Moreover, he was truly raised from the dead by the power of his Father;
in like manner his Father, through Jesus Christ,
will raise up those of us who believe in him.
Apart from him we have no true life.
To the Traillians 9

The Christian martyr dies, then, not for love of country, for a patriotic or political cause, or even for principle. His ears listen to the voice of faith, his eyes see death in its light. Faith is his guide. For Ignatius, Jesus Christ is "our only teacher," "above time- the Timeless, the Invisible." The Syrian bishop knows his immediate fate: he will be the prey of wild beasts for the entertainment of a mid-day Roman crowd in the Flavian Amphitheater. Yet he sees something else, beyond what is seen. By dying he will follow his Master. His faith tells him that.

Only too conscious of his own human fears, the letters of the Syrian bishop are also pleas for prayers for support in his trial. His own strength is not enough. Like his Master, the martyr's way of the cross begins with the mystery of Gethsemani, beseeching God for help, but also seeking support from others, friends and companions in faith. His letters make his faith and motivation clear. At the same time, writing to the Christian community at Rome, which numbered people of considerable political influence among its members, Ignatius asks anxiously that it not obstruct what he clearly sees as God's call:

I am not yet perfected in Jesus Christ; indeed, I am now but being initiated into discipleship...At last I am well on the way to being a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen fascinate me, so that I may happily make my way to Jesus Christ! Fire, cross, struggles with the wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crunching of the whole body, cruel torments inflicted by the devil - let them come upon me provided only I make my way to Jesus Christ... Once arrived there, I shall be a man. Allow me to be a follower of the passion of my God. (To the Romans 5-6)

In a striking shift of perspective, the martyr sees life culminating not here on earth, but with Jesus Christ. This life is an initiation, a step to one beyond: "Once arrived there, I shall be a man."

Bishop Eugene Bossilkof: A Modern Martyr

Bishop BossilkovSeparated by centuries, the two martyred bishops have a similar spirituality. Like Ignatius, Eugene Bossilkov was also a letter writer. The Bulgarian secret police continually monitored his mail - at his trial, correspondence with foreigners was charged against him - yet the bishop wrote regularly to friends and members of his religious community outside Bulgaria, describing the communist persecution of the Church in cryptic fashion and revealing his own state of mind. His writings are expressions of faith and pleas for support.

As the Stalinist persecution grew, the Bulgarian bishop knew his own faith and the faith of his people needed to be strong. After repeated government refusals, he finally received permission to make an "ad limina" visit to Rome in 1948. He went to the graves of Peter and Paul, the first martyrs of the Roman Church. His meeting with Pius XII, who knew the dire situation in Bulgaria, was a source of encouragement to him, and he found strength too from visits to friends and companions in Holland and Belgium, where he began his religious life as a young man.

"No matter how hard things will be or will become, what I have experienced here has been a great consolation for me and will keep me going for a long time,"

he wrote to a friend in Holland. The visit outside his country also offered him a tempting option. He could have chosen, and it would have been an honorable choice, to live in exile. According to the Passionist General Consultor at the time, Fr. Malcolm La Velle, before leaving Rome:

Bishop Bossilkov was advised against returning to Bulgaria since he was in danger of losing his freedom or even his life. After serious reflection and prayer, he concluded that the Spirit was calling him to fulfill his responsibility. In fact he told me, 'I'm the shepherd of my flock. I cannot abandon the flock'...

Returning to Bulgaria, he organized a year long program of popular missions throughout his diocese, in which he took a prominent part. His preaching - he was a powerful orator - disturbed the regional communist government , and hecklers were sent to try to disrupt the religious services. The mission was a basic preaching of faith: Belief in God; belief in Jesus Christ, who was born of the virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried. On the third day, he rose again. Later at his trial, the government listed this mission program among the subversive activities the bishop had supposedly engaged in.

As leader of his church, Bishop Bossilkof saw his fate clearly. Early in 1949 , he wrote to the Passionist Provincial in Holland:

It's written, 'Remember I have told you about it beforehand' (Matthew 24, 25). That quotation can now be applied to us, but we persevere. As for myself I've no tendency to hesitate and I 'm prepared for the worst. And so I say pray, pray constantly, and though you might one day hear that the worst has happened, continue to pray. The shedding of our blood will open the way to a glorious future and, though we won't be alive to see it, others will harvest what we've sown through our suffering. Wherever the mystery of evil is, there too, is God's omnipotence as well as the prayers of the holy saints of God. And so we go on in all confidence... Though fearful, which is only too human, everyone is in good health... Pray for us daily, we will then be at peace.

The virulent Stalinist purge unleashed in the 1950's sought to annihilate the Church of Eastern Europe. Bossilkov certainly knew its leaders were prime targets. "You can't imagine the hell we're living in here, under every aspect, especially after the trial of the Cardinal(the Hungarian, Mindszenty)," the bishop wrote. Yet "wherever the mystery of evil is, there, too, is God's omnipotence as well as the prayers of the holy saints of God." Evil was to have its hour. But "the shedding of our blood will open the way to a glorious future and, though we won't be alive to see it, others will harvest what we've sown through our suffering." The Bishop had a martyr's hope, a hope based on God's omnipotence:

It shouldn't surprise me that I put so much stock in the virtue of hope. After all, I am a son of the province of "Our Mother of Holy Hope" ( the Passionist province in Holland), so why wonder that hope is so rooted in my heart. Today is the feast of Don Bosco and it says about him in the prayer that he hoped "against all hope" to become the father of many generations. I also want to live within myself what that gift offers, submitting everything to the One Will; and I want to learn its beautiful lesson: to disappear and be born again, far from what is seen, in the Unseen God, and to be consumed in him, again and again.

Isn't it extraordinary that all is well? Yes, all is well and it is all prepared for us by God, and some things in a greater way are signs of God's love. Ah, the grain of wheat that is buried must die! No, it sheds no tears, for it knows its potential to flower and to bear fruit a hundredfold.

Bishop Bossilkof wrote his last letter to the Dutch provincial on February 18th, 1949. It was carried by a Dutch diplomat and so he could speak openly. Another law had just been promulgated with further restrictions on the Catholic Church:

I just can't explain what's going on inside me; it's affecting my nerves, most of all because I must keep silent and keep up a strong front so that the others don't lose courage. There's no way of knowing how it's all going to end... We're being followed more than ever and I can't take a step without my "guardian angel" always at my heels. What a feeling! What a hell of a life! Where will it all lead?...

I'm counting on your prayers and if it comes to the worst, let it come! I have the courage to live, I hope to have the courage to suffer the worst, remaining ever faithful to Christ, the Pope and the Church! Meanwhile, pray always, jugiter (continuously)!... Thank them (the religious community in Holland) for their many prayers. Be sure to thank them and ask them to continue to pray.

He was a martyr bishop, conscious of his duties to his people. He was a shepherd bravely leading his sheep, anxious that he not let them down. Later at his trial, his niece spoke of the anxiety he had that people would believe he betrayed them: "Wednesday, at the end of the first session, they let us speak to him for 15 minutes. My uncle said: 'What do the people think? Do they believe what they are saying about us?' The lies and calumnies going around bothered him. We told him that some lawyers had come to his defense. That seemed to calm him."

In prison before his execution, his niece remembered his last words to her:

When we went to him, we told him we were trying to get a pardon. 'No,' he told us, 'I know that the Lord had given me his grace. I am willing to die.' We started to cry, but he told us:

'Don't cry; the Virgin won't abandon us. We have help from heaven. I have not denied the Church, or the Holy Father or Father Francisco Galloni, as they have said. Send my greetings to my brothers, and all my friends, and people I know, also those in Belgium and Holland."

As the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son, so he accepted the martyr bishop's sacrifice. God heard his cry; he knew his suffering. Like the grain of wheat he fell to the ground; the gifts of his spirit rise in blessing.

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