Martyrdom: Reflecting on
"I have heard the cry of my people; I know all they are suffering." (Exodus 3)
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, in the Church's judgment, is 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: St.Ignatius of Antioch
Because 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.
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:
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
Separated 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.
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
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
questions or comments
about this page to Fr Victor Hoagland, C.P.