More stories of martyrs who gave all for their faith in Christ and in devotion to the gospel.
Gianna Molla was not a typical martyr. It was never demanded of her that she renounce her faith in Christ. Rather, her faith in Christ required of her a choice: either faithfulness in the face of possible death, or saving herself at the cost of her child’s life. For Gianna, there was only one choice. She gave her own life for the sake of her child.
Gianna Molla was a wife, mother and pediatrician with a practice in Mesero, Italy. In 1961, she became pregnant with her fourth child. However, during the second month of her pregnancy, Gianna and her husband, Pietro, learned that a fibroma had developed on Gianna’s uterus. The doctors gave them three options: a direct abortion, a full hysterectomy, or the removal of the fibroma alone. Their Catholic faith ruled out a direct abortion. A hysterectomy would have been a moral option according to the Catholic moral principal of double effect, where a justifiably serious condition allowed for the removal of a woman’s uterus in order to save her life, with the undesired and indirect consequence being the death of the child.
However, concerned only for the life of her unborn child, Gianna instructed the doctors to remove the fibroma alone. After the operation, complications developed over the remaining months of Gianna’s pregnancy. Throughout it all, she was clear to her husband and doctors: “If you must choose between me and the baby, no hesitation; choose – and I demand it – the baby. Save the baby!”
On the day before Easter Sunday, April 21, 1962, Gianna gave birth via Caesarean section to her fourth child and third daughter, Gianna Emanuela. Sadly, Gianna suffered a raging infection after the C-section and died seven days later of septic peritonitis.
The Lord said through His prophet, Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). The example of Gianna Molla, who sacrificed her own life for the sake of her unborn child, speaks to a culture where children are too often forgotten, and there is little tenderness for the child in the womb. Children have become commodities, secured only when the time is supposedly right, and then only on terms their parents are willing to accept. In this climate, Pope St. John Paul the Great, who canonized Gianna in 2004, spoke of her as, “a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine love.” As of this writing, Dr. Gianna Emanuela Molla works as a geriatrician in Milan, Italy.
Ragheed Aziz Ganni and Shahbaz Bhatti
The first years of the 21st century have been marked by increased violence committed by radical Islamists against those who don’t share their ideology and refuse to bend to their demands. The great majority of their victims have been their own Muslim confreres who are regarded as insufficiently pure in their faith or in their commitment to jihad against the “infidels.” Christians are also targeted. “Convert or die!” is their demand. Those who refuse are left with few options. Either they flee their homelands, which they have occupied for generations and even centuries, or live under the constant threat of persecution or death.
A Chaldean Catholic priest, Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni served the community of Holy Spirit Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul, Iraq. On June 3, 2007 (Trinity Sunday that year), Fr. Ganni was walking in front of the church just as he had finished presiding over the evening Divine Liturgy. He was accompanied by three subdeacons, Basman Yousef Daud, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed. They were soon confronted by a group of armed men. One of the men screamed at Fr. Ganni that the priest had been told to close the church. Why had he not done so? Fr. Ganni replied, “How can I close the house of God?” At that, the armed men demanded that Fr. Ganni and his companions convert to Islam. When they refused, they were immediately shot and killed.
Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian member of the Pakistan National Assembly, where he served from 2008 until his assassination in 2011. He served as Federal Minister for Minority Affairs and, in this position, offered considerable support to religious minorities in his country, including spearheading the National Interfaith Consultation in July, 2010, which gathered religious leaders from all over Pakistan to issue a joint statement opposing terrorism.
Bhatti was an outspoken opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which put religious minorities under risk of arrest and even death should they be accused of offending the Muslim majority. Bhatti also made enemies with his support of Pakistani Christians who had been attacked during the 2009 riots in the Punjab Province, and of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian and mother who was sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy against Islam. Bhatti knew he was under risk and even made a video to be released in the event of his death, where he proclaimed, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.”
On March 2, 2011, Bhatti was on his way to work after having visited his mother. He was alone, except for his driver. As armed men approached his car, the driver stopped and ducked. Bhatti’s car was sprayed with bullets, and he was shot multiple times. Taken immediately to a hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival. The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s assassination, identifying him as a “blasphemer.” As of this writing, no one has been arrested and the authorities have made no clear determination of who is responsible for Bhatti’s murder.
The word “martyr” comes to us from the Greek, meaning “witness.” St. Stephen, whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, is regarded as the first martyr. In the first centuries after Christ, there were a handful of persecutions conducted by the authorities of the Roman Empire over the three hundred years until Christianity was recognized by Constantine in AD 313. The early Christians had plenty of witnesses who gave all in devotion to the faith. The list of martyrs through the centuries has only lengthened, and the twentieth century saw no slackening in their numbers. Some have claimed, in fact, that the just past century was “the century of martyrs,” where more died in the name of Christ than in any other single hundred-year span. Whether this particular claim can ever be verified is doubtful. The fact remains, even still, that to this very day there are men and women, and even children, who have been asked to pay the ultimate price in their devotion to the faith, and many did not falter.
Atheists will hardly regard this as evidence for the existence of God. Perhaps evidence for a “martyr’s complex” among those who valued their place in history over the opportunity to continue making history. A fool’s bargain, they’ll say. It seems, though, that the claim of atheism in the face of martyrdom, as in the case of sanctity, transformed lives, religious experience and, ultimately, faith itself, relies a great deal on the assumption of mass hysteria, religious delusion, passions gone too far and, if it’s not too much to say, outright insanity on the part of a great swath of the human community.
Yes, others have suffered horrible delusions that led to tragic consequences: Jonestown, Waco, Heaven’s Gate. Yet, these cases were isolated. When the leader demanded their lives, they died, and there was no one to carry on their mission. The cult died with them. In regards to Christianity, and the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, the exact opposite has been the case. In writing to the Roman governor in AD 197, Tertullian said, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” The blood of Christians is the seed of the faith! As Christians were persecuted and martyred, their numbers increased, as these men and women served as true witnesses to the existence of God, to His loving mercy, and to His promise of eternal joy in His kingdom. Many, seeing the sacrifice of the martyrs, have been convinced that only a grace that is true, only a promise that is true, only a God that is real and present could give so many witnesses over the course of so many centuries the courage and fortitude to sacrifice all for His sake.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.