By Fr. Bernie Weir
The Sisters of Humility taught at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Albia. They had a huge influence on me when I was a child and continue to be important to me through these first 30 years of priesthood.
I don’t remember everything they told us about martyrs. I do remember that they taught us that if you were a martyr you would go straight to heaven. As a good Catholic kid, I thought it would be a wonderful thing to be a martyr. So began my love for the martyrs. I wanted to be one.
As I got older, I realized that martyrs die horrible, painful deaths. I wasn’t so sure anymore that I wanted to be one. I also came to realize that sometimes martyrs would be listed as “(Fill in the blank) and companions.”
Were I to become a martyr, I would want to at least have my own holy day. I didn’t want to be “(Fill in the blank) and companions.” Now, that’s living up to what a martyr is. Not!
I still have a great love for our martyrs. I am writing before the canonization of a saint, but you will be reading this column after it has all happened. On Oct. 16, Pope Francis will canonize Jose Sanchez del Rio, a 14-year-old martyr who died in 1928 defending his Catholic faith as a member of the Cristeros.
I thought about going to Rome and attending the canonization Mass. Instead, I decided to go to Sahuayo, Michoacán, Mexico, Jose’s home town and place of martyrdom. On Oct. 15 I will be walking the Pilgrimage Camino “trail” and visiting his childhood church, his childhood home and his place of martyrdom. At 11 p.m. I will be part of the vigil leading up to the simulcast of the Mass from Rome at 3 a.m. On Oct. 16, I will be concelebrating Mass at his place of martyrdom.
I studied in Morelia, Michoacán, many years ago. Morelia is about three hours by car from Sahuayo. It was in Morelia where I learned about the church of Mexico. It was in Morelia that I learned of the oppression of the Catholic Church.
When I was making arrangements to travel to Morelia to live and study for six months I was told it was best not to bring any identification of me as a priest.
Several years later I wanted to visit Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a faith hero of mine, in San Cristobal de las casas, Chiapas, Mexico. The Diocese of San Cristobal called just days before I was to leave and told me not to come because it was not safe for foreign priests right then. I didn’t go. Religious persecution was still very much alive at that time in Mexico.
Religious liberties are under attack in the United States. In many parts of the world you can be killed for being a Christian. It is important that we project the religious liberties of every faith and creed. Our martyrs died doing just that.
We don’t worry about becoming a martyr in this country. In fact, it is almost impossible. We have a tendency to see martyrs as people from far away and long ago.
They are more than that. I know people whose grandparents knew Jose’s family. Martyrs are real and very much a part of our lives. I have drawn strength and renewal from them.
I decided long ago that I didn’t want to be a martyr if I could avoid it. I am praying now that my faith is strong enough to be worthy of walking Jose’s Camino to martyrdom.
A common phrase for people of faith in Spanish is “Viva Cristo Rey” (“Long live Christ the King”). It is a phrase that we will be saying often as we follow in the footsteps of Jose and other martyrs from Sahuayo Camino. It is my plan to ask for the intercession of Jose and the other martyrs from Sahuayo so that I will have the faith to say “Viva Cristo Rey.”
(Fr. Weir is pastor of St. James Parish in Washington.)