Thursday, June 29, 2006

Of saints and martyrs

A few days ago, First Gentleman Mike Arroyo said that a canonized saint—Saint Teresa of Avila no less!—and two future possible ones belong to the Arroyo-Tuason-Pidal family tree. Mr. Arroyo made the claim while aboard the flight that took the First Couple to the Vatican for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. He revealed this even as the Arroyo administration is being accused of committing a variety of unsaintly acts.

This makes one review and reflect on what really makes a saint, particularly a martyr, canonized or not, in this day and age.

The Philippines now claims two canonized saints, both males—San Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod (whose name I couldn’t immediately recall) who were canonized in 1987 and 2000 respectively. These two men from a long-ago century left the saintly and daring Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo, founder of a major Filipino religious congregation for women, whose cause has been well documented, out in the cold.

In the 1970s the Philippines needed a canonized saint, and so the proponents searched for one. That was how it was in the case of Lorenzo Ruiz who was killed, along with Dominican missionaries, in Japan several centuries ago. I had read the book on the search by Antonio Delgado, ambassador to the Vatican during the Marcos era, and was shocked to learn that there was no candidate at that time. In the beginning there was no name, no face, no place, no event to speak of. But the Philippines had to have a canonized saint and so the search was on. Lorenzo Ruiz surfaced.

As I asked in 1987, why couldn't it have been the garotted Fathers Burgos, Gomez and Zamora? Or for future canonization, the two Kabankalan lay Church leaders German Moleta and Alex Garsales who were murdered in the bitter sugar cane fields of Negros in 1980? Wasn't their death a proclamation not only of their Christian beliefs but also, and more importantly, of their faith in Christ's teachings about the Kingdom of Truth and Justice which these latter-day martyrs helped bring to fullness?

Well known theologian Karl Rahner questions the traditional concept of martyrdom which is simply that of a “free, tolerant acceptance of death for the sake of the faith” which excludes death in an active struggle. Rahner pleads that this concept be broadened. “The death Jesus `passively endured’ was the consequence of the struggle he waged against those in his day who wielded religious and political power. He died because he fought: his death must not be seen in isolation from his life.”

Rahner questions why Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who was slain while fighting for justice, a struggle he waged out because of his conviction as a Christian, is not officially called martyr. "Certainly, (Romero) was prepared for his death,” Rahner insists. He also finds it strange that Maximilian Kolbe who offered to die in the place of a family man in Hitler's concentration camp was canonized as a confessor and not as a martyr which he should be.

Controversial Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff adds: "Jesus did not go unsuspectingly to his death…He remained radically faithful to his message, to the Father and to the course he had chosen. He did not avoid his adversaries, nor flee from the crisis in Galilee, but `resolutely took the road for Jerusalem' (Luke 9:51) for the final confrontation."

There are several kinds of martyrs, Boff says. There are martyrs because of their public profession of a faith that de-absolutizes and de-divinizes the powers of this world. History is full of such martyrs, he says, from the time the Roman emperors were declared divine to those who speak out against modern fascist tyrannies.

There are likewise martyrs, he adds, on account of their Christian practice derived from following Christ. Formerly, Boff says, Christians undertook actions, in recto religious, which had political consequences; today, more and more Christians, particularly in the Third World, are carrying out actions, in recto political, which originate in faith and the Gospel.
Christian martyrs or simply heroes? Only God knows where to draw the line. Enda McDonagh, author of “The Making of Disciples” tries to put the issue to rest: “It would be foolish to resist extending the range of Christian martyrdom to those who give their lives for their neighbor in political contexts. It would be equally foolish to interpret all deaths for political causes as unambiguous instances of Christian martyrdom.”

Isn’t the assassinated Protestant Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr., Black champion of civil rights in America a saint whom Catholics should emulate? What about the Hindu proponent of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi? Or, the four Catholic women missionaries who were massacred in El Salvador, and recently, Sr. Dorothy Stang who died defending the Amazon forest and its inhabitants?

Filipinos do not have to search in musty archives. We have our own modern day Christian saints who remain alive in the hearts of those they lived and died for.


“Seven in the Eye of History” has been compacted into a new cheaper version, “Mga Bagong Bayani: Modern Filipino Heroes” (edited by Asuncion David Maramba) and is now sold in bookstores. These seven heroes, including Ninoy Aquino, lived and died before the turn of the century. I wrote the one on Macli-ing Dulag.

Claretian Publications has a reprint of “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for our Time” by Robert Ellsberg. It’s a great mix of Therese of Lisieux, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Benedict, Paul VI, Hildegard of Bingen, Hammarskjold, George Fox of the Quakers, Dorothy Day, Takashi Nagai, etc. for 365 days.