Martyrdom is a gift received by the great men and women of old—apostles, teachers, virgins, pastors, and missionaries, among others. God gave us martyrs to emulate.“Martyr” comes from the Greek word “martyria,” meaning to testify or to give testimony, to be a witness to someone who believes in an idea such as faith, a principle, or a cause. One is wholeheartedly willing to be a witness and to testify even at the cost of one’s life; then one is a witness, a martyr.
Martyrs are popularly known in the Church as those who were killed or who offered their lives for the sake of their faith, Christian faith in particular. The early centuries of the Church had produced thousands of martyrs. They were killed as prey to the wild beasts, beheaded, stoned, hanged to death, or burned alive because they did not renounce their Christian Faith. But the blood of the martyrs only strengthened the Christians to proclaim Jesus, the Christ, all the more.
The lives of the martyrs are very inspiring for the faithful though their deaths were horrible and gory. Peter and Paul and the other apostles were all martyred except for John, the Beloved who died in his old age. In the Roman Canon, we find the names of the martyrs of the early Church had produced Ignatius of Antioch, Linus, Cletus, Lucy, Agnes, Perpetua and Felicity, Fabian, Sebastian and many more.
For Filipinos, we take pride in our martyrs. San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila and his companions who were martyred in Japan, and soon to be canonized Blessed Pedro Calungsod. They are exemplary laymen of the Christian faith who were rewarded with the crown of martyrdom centuries ago.
That we may remember the martyrs of the Church, the Christians who follow Christ that cost their lives, which is now the wellspring of the faith.
In our history, 140 years ago, three Filipino priests were martyred in Bagumbayan for charges of treason and connivance with the Katipuneros. The three priests were guillotined in broad daylight at the town plaza where a young boy had witnessed the event that had impacted him to question and search for answers. That boy became one of our national heroes, Dr. Jose P. Rizal, and so the story continued to unfold.
On February 17, 1872, the three Filipino priests executed were known as GOMBURZA. They were implicated in the Cavite mutiny and their alleged participation in the “Filipinization” cause and movement among the local clergy. They believed that Filipino diocesan priests could also become parish priests in almost all Spanish missionaries’ administered parishes. Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora were witnesses (martyrs) for nationalism, justice and sovereignty.
Let us comemorate the GOMBURZA Martyrs of 1872 and ask them to inspire all Filipinos with that nationalist fervor to combat the prevailing and dominant colonial mentality and attitude of most Filipinos today and reminds us to “filipinize” our ways of thinking, behaving and doing things. That we may remember the heroism, nationalism and the faith of GOMBURZA not only in the pages of Church history but also in our very own hearts.
Likewise, every year in the later days of February, we also celebrate and remember the countless heroes and heroines of the “1986 EDSA peaceful revolution.” This year, it will be its 26th year anniversary. We reminisce the events and the people who stood their grounds to end the dictatorship. Young and old Filipinos went out of their homes and comfort zones and camped on the streets of Manila particularly in EDSA to give testimony to the end of tyranny and oppression. This is also a way of witnessing. We all know that prior to this 1986 event, there were thousands of Filipino people who also gave up their lives in the mountains and urban centers.
Today, the valiant and courageous Filipinos who are committed and worked for and with the masses are immortalized at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani along EDSA-Quezon Avenue. Their names are inscribed in memorial gallery of stones with a thousands more names still waiting to be named and proclaimed.
That we may remember the martyrs of 1986 EDSA Revolution.
Modern-day martyrs include Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and the thousands of social activists, peacemakers, and concerned citizens all over the world who fell victims to tyranny, dictatorship, apartheid, genocide, ethnocide, war, famine, and greed of people.
In 2009, the Titus Brandsma Award Philippines for Press Freedom honored journalist Marlene Esperat (of Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat) and broadcaster Edgar Damalerio (of Pagadian City) who were killed for principled truth. Both were martyrs of press freedom.
That we may remember the modern martyrs of our time.
Martyrdom is a gift for us. Let us not fear martyrdom and celebrate instead the martyrdom of a few chosen, named and unnamed. For all of us are called to be martyrs—witnesses willing to testify for our God, our faith, our spirituality, our philosophy, our principle, for justice and peace, for freedom and sovereignty, and for the people and nation. Not necessarily to give up our life but to stand by our principles so that we continue to live and be witness to our faith firmly and fearlessly.
As we continue to write the new “Martyriology” of the Church and of our society, let us pause, reflect and ask ourselves:
When in my life was I called to be a witness?
In times of lies and perjury, shall I remain silent or stand to testify?
How do I commit, stand on what I firmly believe, and actualize it?
How do I inspire people to be modern-day martyrs (witnesses) of faith and spirituality, justice and peace, dignity and human rights?
May the Lord and God of the Martyrs, challenge and lead us to tell the truth, stand for the truth and defend the truth so that we may become worthy witnesses (martyrs) of our present generation. Amen.