An Irish Carmelite priest was a guest at my student residence this evening.
Over dinner, he mentioned the recent announcement that Titus Brandsma will be canonized.
Not knowing anything of this story, my friends and I asked the priest to tell us the story.
Fr. Brandsma was a Dutch Carmelite priest who worked as a philosophy professor and journalist.
His campaign for the freedom of the Catholic press to refuse to print Nazi propaganda led to his arrest and eventual martyrdom by lethal injection at Dachau.
John Paul II canonized Fr. Brandsma in 1985 saying, “Of course, such heroism cannot be improvised” in attesting to Brandsma’s authentic Catholic upbringing and formation throughout his life.
“Although neo-paganism no longer wants love, love will regain the hearts of the pagans,” Brandsma had said.
John Paul II even recounted that the “nurse” who murdered Brandsma with the lethal injection could not resist acknowledging that Brandsma’s look toward her was one of compassion.
How much are we seized by the conviction that “love will regain the hearts of the pagans”, that death and evil will never have the last word?
Usually, on the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, I like to re-read what ended up being his final speech.
Permit me to say that I am deeply moved. I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace. This government, which I am privileged to head, together with my friend Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance–a peace that will solve most of Israel’s problems.
I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here–and they are many.
I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.
In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.
I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.
These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.
What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.
The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.
Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.
The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.
Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?
The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.
Photo: Wall of Death at Auschwitz
For the past five years, I have carried this prayer card of Fr. Jacques Hamel in my passport holder. The elderly French priest’s martyrdom at the hands of Islamists while he was celebrating mass was very absorbing for me, particularly that summer of 2016.
Today’s the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas More who was executed for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy.
I find it interesting to note that this 1535 oath began with the words, “I [name] do utterly testifie and declare in my Conscience, that the Kings Highnesse is the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall […].”
In a collection of More’s correspondence written before his death, Father Alvaro De Silva writes in the introduction that More used the word conscience more than 100 times throughout these letters.
More would not say with the solemnity of assertion that he “declares in his conscience” something he believed to be false.
Now conscience is not a word that has widespread resonance and people are not usually asked about what they “declare in their Conscience.”
Yet, there is a reason why the deaths of martyrs are worth remembering long beyond the memory of the powerful people who martyred them.
In his splendid essay “On the Meaning of Sunday,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote about how the early Christians would say, “Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”
Take a look at how he describes this existential priority and what it means in the lives of those who hold to it:
“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.” This is not a labored obedience to an ecclesiastical prescription considered as some external precept, but is instead the expression of an interior duty and, at the same time, of a personal decision. It refers to that which has become the supporting nucleus of one’s existence, of one’s entire being, and it documents what has become so important as to need to be fulfilled even in the case of danger of death, imparting as it does a real assurance and internal freedom. To those who so expressed themselves, it would have seemed manifestly absurd to guarantee survival and external tranquility for themselves at the price of the renunciation of this vital ground. […] For them it was not a question of a choice between one precept and another, but rather of a choice between all that gave meaning and consistency to life and a life devoid of meaning.
I often think about this passage when reflecting on contemporary Christians who risk their lives to go to church in countries where there is severe persecution and repression.
There is indeed something luminous in the witness of those who would risk their lives to affirm the values that make life altogether precious in the first place.
It is a profound and potentially orienting question to contemplate: What is it in our lives without which our survival has no value?
Photo: Maronite Church in Kfar Baram in northern Israel in summer 2017
Three years ago today, Arnaud Beltrame offered his life in the place of a female hostage.
I think his story of sacrifice is worth remembering not only because it was formerly news but because it is now an honourable legacy from which we can stand to gain understanding something about the purpose of life.
Here’s some of what I wrote at the time:
Beltrame’s act of heroism was not out of character for him since he had first prepared the ground by surrendering to the call of natural virtues through his commendable military service. He superiors had acknowledged his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with adversity” and his preparedness to “fight to the end and never give up.” In Beltrame’s life we can see how human virtues, such as the loyalty and selflessness he cultivated through his military training and service, prefigured his act of supernatural virtue in laying down his life for a stranger.
Beltrame’s act was not mere chivalry or a random act of kindness; it was something more powerful than that. As Hildebrand reminds, “We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.” Beltrame clearly believed in something even greater than his own life.
“Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life,” says Hildebrand, “Whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us… by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free.”
This is the freedom of a martyr who – even in losing his or her own life – still bears witness to that profounder and nobler reality than life itself – the love that triumphs over death.
Like the death of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who seventy-seven years ago offered to take the place of a husband and father in Auschwitz, may Beltrame’s self-surrender bear much fruit in witnessing to the fact that we love best when we lay down our lives for God and others.
We need Beltrame’s legacy.
We need his example to fill us with admiration at the nobility of self-surrender for the sake of others.
His willingness to take the place of a stranger, even though it meant death for himself, confirms to us that death is not the greatest evil. What the terrorist did to Beltrame was far worse than the death Beltrame suffered, particularly for the terrorist’s own soul. But for Beltrame, while the loss is certainly tragic for his loved ones, the nobility of his self-surrender remains a resplendent example so that we are free to contemplate what it is that gives a person the freedom to literally lay down their life for another.