God Is: An Introduction to the Evidence for the Existence of God, Part 21


            In all of human experience there is perhaps nothing so sublime or profound as the witness of one who is willing to sacrifice his or her life for the sake of the other, and for the sake of the Other Who is God. “Greater love has no man,” St. Paul said, “than to give his life that another might live.” To give one’s life for the sake of another, or to give one’s life for the sake of the Other Who is the great mystery of life, is to witness to a faith and a hope that cannot be explained with words, for words are inadequate to express a love so pure and total. For this, it is actions that must speak. Being the sort of “living mystery” of which Cardinal Suhard spoke, living a life that does not make sense if there is no God, is the purview of the mystic. The martyrs of the faith are those whose deaths do not make sense unless God exists. They came to realize that, without God, nothing makes sense. Rather than give Him up, they willingly gave up all else.

Lucy Yi Zhenmei

            Lucy Yi Zhenmei, born on December 9, 1815, was the youngest member of her family. She grew up a pious girl in Sichuan, China, so much so that, at the age of twelve, she made a commitment to live a life of chastity. She loved school and loved to read. After recovering from a serious illness at the age of twenty, she took her spirituality even more seriously, devoting herself to a rigorous life of prayer. She also spent much of her time at the spinning wheel her mother had taught her how to use, and in teaching the faith to the children of her local parish, eventually being asked by her pastor to teach catechism at the school in Mianyang. When her brother, a physician, moved his practice to Chongquing, Lucy and their mother followed, and Lucy taught religion to the women of the parish, refusing the small stipend that came with the position. She continued her work as a lay catechist over the next few years.

            In 1862, Lucy accompanied Fr. Wen Nair to Jiashanlong to open a mission. At this time, the administrator of the Guizhou Province, Tian Xingshu, began a campaign against Christians, with the support of the local magistrate. Fr. Wen was arrested, along with three of his co-workers. They were imprisoned and sentenced to death without a formal trial. On Febraury 18, 1862, as the procession toward their execution made its way down the road, they came upon Lucy. She could have run. She could have denied any knowledge of the men, their work for the mission or the faith, but she didn’t. She was quickly identified as a Christian and co-worker of Fr. Wen’s, and immediately arrested. The next day she, too, was given a show trial, convicted of refusing to renounce her Christian faith, and sentenced to death. Lucy Yi ZhenMei was beheaded at noon the next day, February 19, 1862. Pope St. John Paul the Great canonized Lucy, Fr. Wen and the numerous Martyrs of China on October 1, 2000.

Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe and the Ugandan Martyrs

            Mukasa Balikuddembe (a title which means, “peacemaker”) was born in 1860 in the kingdom of Buganda, the southern half of today’s Uganda, on the shores of Lake Victoria. The scion of a wealthy family, he came to the service of his king, Mutesa, as one of his pages. Mukasa’s service was impeccable, and he soon rose in the ranks, becoming one of the personal servants of the king. When the Missionaries of Africa (the White Fathers) arrived in Uganda in 1879, Mukasa was enrolled as a catechumen. He was baptized on April 30, 1882 by Fr. Simon Lourdel, and given the Christian name Joseph. For security reasons, the White Fathers were compelled to abandon their Bugandan missions for a few years, and Joseph Mukasa filled the void, becaming the titular head of the Catholic community at the king’s court, in charge of the religious instruction and moral protection of the royal pages.

            King Mutesa died in 1884 and was succeeded by his son, Mwanga. Mwanga promoted Joseph Mukasa to major-domo in his household and gave to him the privilege of reproofing the king if Joseph felt he was going wrong on any matter. It soon became necessary to assume this role, for Mwanga was not the king his father had been. While Joseph Mukasa was instrumental in exposing a plot to kill the king in 1885, he also rebuked the king for use of his pagan charms, and earned the king’s wrath by protecting the royal pages from Mwanga’s homosexual desires and by opening catechism classes at the royal court.

            Mwanga became increasingly agitated against the Christians in his kingdom, fearing they were being manipulated by European missionaries to undermine his power. In 1885, James Hannington, an Anglican bishop, was traveling through Buganda. Mwanga vowed to kill him. Joseph Mukasa advised against it, but Mwanga ignored him and arranged the bishop’s murder. Mwanga’s anger and paranoia toward the Christians only increased after this. When a medication Fr. Lourdel administered to Mwanga caused an adverse side effect, Mwanga used it as an excuse to accuse the Christians of attempting to assassinate him. He called Joseph Mukasa to his chamber and, in an all-night interview, ranted against his major-domo for his lack of loyalty, for his rebuking the king for killing Hannington, and for his protecting the royal pages from the king’s sexual desires. The next day, after receiving Holy Communion at Mass from Fr. Lourdel, Joseph Mukasa was again called before the king and condemned to death. Joseph Mukasa was taken to a site near the Nakivubo River, where he was stabbed to death and his body burned on a pyre. Before his martyrdom, Jospeh Mukasa forgave the king for his unjust death.

            Lwanga, chief page to the king at the time, assumed the role of major-domo after Joseph Mukasa’s death. On the same day he became major-domo, Lwanga was baptized a Catholic and given the Christian name Charles. Only a year later, Mwanga ordered an assembly of all his court. Two of his pages were charged for crimes against the king and sentenced to death. The next morning, Charles Lwanga secretly baptized all of the pages under his charge. Later the same day, Mwanga called another assembly of his court and demanded that any present who claimed to be Christian renounce their faith. Led by Charles Lwanga, the royal pages announced their faithfulness to Christ. The king immediately condemned them to death. All told, thirteen Catholic men and nine Anglicans were martyred by the king’s order.

            In 1964, Pope Bl. Paul VI canonized Joseph Mukasa, Charles Lwanga, and the Ugandan Martyrs. While not being able to canonize them, Paul VI recognized and honored the Anglicans who had also given their lives for Christ.

Franz Jagerstatter

            Franz Jagerstatter was born in 1907 in St. Radegund, Upper Austria, to a single mother. His birth father was killed during World War I, and his mother, Rosalia, married Heinrich Jagerstatter in 1917. Jagerstatter adopted young Franz and gave him his surname.

            By all accounts, Jagerstatter was a mischievous youth and the first in his village to own a motorcycle. He grew to become a devout Catholic man, a daily communicant and faithful husband and father. As sexton of his small farming village’s parish, he was known to refuse the customary stipend for funerals, preferring to offer up his service as a spiritual work of mercy. He was not overly pious, but he was devout and continued to deepen his faith over his adult years.

            Franz became agitated with the rise of National Socialism in Austria during the 1930s. He was dismayed by the willingness of his fellow Catholics to vote for the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Indeed, Franz was the only one in his village to vote in opposition. His friends and confreres were willing to fight for Hitler, justifying their decision because the Nazis fought the atheist Bolsheviks. Franz was not convinced. After being called up in June, 1940, Franz completed basic training, but the mayor of his town was able to secure a deferment from active service, allowing Franz to return to his farm. After more reflection over the months, Franz became convinced that he could not fight for Hitler. At some point, he had had a dream where he saw a train carrying people to hell. He understood the train to represent National Socialism, and that the Nazis were enemies of Christ and His Church. He vowed that, should he ever be called up for active service, he would refuse.

            Franz was called to active service in March, 1943. He reported to the military authorities at Enns but, according to the written summary of the judgment of the Reich Court-Martial, dated July 6, 1943, immediately informed them that, “due to his religious views, he refused to perform military service with a weapon, that he would be acting against his religious conscience were he to fight for the Nazi State … that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic … that there were some things in which one must obey God more than men; due to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, he said he could not fight with a weapon. However, he was willing to serve as a military paramedic.”

            A priest from his village attempted to change Franz’s mind, but failed. Franz was first taken to a military prison in Linz, where he suffered torture. After two months, he was transferred to the military prison in Berlin-Tegel. Once again, he offered to serve as a paramedic, but was denied. On July 6, 1943, Franz was condemned to death. Franz received much comfort when he learned from a priest friend who ministered to him of Fr. Franz Reinisch, a Pallottine priest, who had been executed for refusing military service to the Nazis for the same reason Franz did.

            On August 9, 1943, Franz was taken to Brandenburg/Havel and executed by guillotine. Earlier that day, Franz had written, “If I must write … with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering … People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.”

            In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI, a German pope whose family had suffered at the hands of the Nazis and who had himself abandoned the Nazi army during World War II, issued an apostolic exhortation declaring Franz a martyr. Franz Jagerstatter was beatified at the cathedral in Linz, Austria. His wife, Franzisca, who was the only one in his village to support him, attended the beatification Mass at the age of 94.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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