The most dramatic part of being a Catholic lies in our calling to be ready for martyrdom. While not all of us are called to be actual martyrs, killed out of hatred for the Faith, the headlines announcing murders by ISIS and others who hate the Church and her members remind us that we could receive such a calling. The four Missionaries of Charity sisters killed in Yemen and Fr. Jacques Hamel, killed while saying Mass in France less than a month ago, remind us that martyrdoms are not some story from our Church’s past, but a very real part of our history today, indeed in every age.
On August 14, the Church celebrates two different expressions of martyrdom, separated by over 450 years: the Martyrs of Otranto, Italy and St. Maximilian Kolbe. Even though their stories are part of our past, their example can illuminate our present, to help us see what we may face in our own lives, and what we must do in our vocation as Christians.
The Ottoman Empire terrorized the Christian world. It seemed that these Turks were unstoppable. They sacked the city of Constantinople in 1453, bursting through the famous Byzantine capital’s walls thanks to a massive cannon capable of firing a 1,200-pound shot over a mile away. They were led by the fierce sultan Muhammad the Conqueror, who began his sweeping conquest at the age of nineteen, after he had drowned his only royal competition, his infant half-brother. His goal was to capture the entire Christian Mediterranean world, including Rome, where he would stable his horses in the great basilicas. So began the Ottoman conquest of Europe. Muhammad led his Turks well, but they met their match on the island of Rhodes in 1480, where a small army led by members of the Knights Hospitaller (a crusading order of monks also known as the Knights of St. John) defeated them against 35 to 1 odds.
Furious, Muhammad had his admiral Gedik Ahmed Pasha launch a surprise attack on southern Italy, starting with the city of Otranto on July 28. So sudden was the attack that there was no organized European response to the siege until after the city had been taken. For over two weeks the people of Otranto held off the siege, rejecting the Ottoman’s terms of surrender. Since their city only had about fifty soldiers, commoners joined the fight. However, their defenses would not hold forever. On August 11, 1480, their walls gave way.
Into the city poured nearly 20,000 Turks and those that stood in their way were mowed down by the Ottoman swords. The attackers pushed to the cathedral, where the found Archbishop Stefano Agricoli, old and weak, dressed in Mass vestments, as well as the city’s count and other clergy and faithful, all praying together for the salvation of their city. At the sight of the invaders, the archbishop urged his flock to remain true to the Faith. The Turks were unmoved by the sight. Archbishop Agricoli was seized and killed on the spot (various accounts have him being sawed in two, chopped to pieces, and beheaded, with his head paraded around the city). The priests of the city, all gathered in the cathedral around their archbishop, were likewise martyred. Then the rest of the city’s surviving inhabitants were rounded up. Any man over 50 was killed; women and children under 15 were taken as slaves.
That left about 800 men. Admiral Pasha spoke to them, offering the choice to convert to Islam or die. He even had a priest named Giovanni, who had abandoned the Faith, urge the men to join him, rather than die at the hands of the Turks. Antonio Primaldi, an old tailor, spoke up, rejecting the offer, urging his companions to do the same, to die as martyrs for the Faith. All 800 men agreed, and on August 14, after being offered one last time the chance to save their lives by converting to Islam (again, rejected by all 800 men), they were all killed, their bodies dumped in a mass grave.
The Turks were eventually driven out of Otranto by a coalition of European powers rallied by the pope and sent by notable monarchs like Isabel and Ferdinand of Spain. The Turks would attack Europe again, and again they would be driven back. The martyrs of Otranto became local heroes, their remains found and put in the city’s cathedral, and there they were venerated for centuries. They were beatified in 1771 and canonized just three years ago.
Like the Martyrs of Otranto, the martyrs killed in these recent weeks died at the hands of Muslim militants. Like those martyrs killed in the 1400s, the modern martyr faces the choice of abandoning the Faith in order to save his or her life. Like those brave men in Otranto, the modern martyr stands firm, says no, and faces the blade of the enemy of the Faith with fortitude and charity.
Maximilian Kolbe died much more recently than the martyrs of Otranto. His story is well known. Born to a humble family in Poland, the young Raymond (Maximilian was the religious name he later took) received a vision from the Virgin Mary, offering him a choice of two crowns, one white for purity, one red for martyrdom. The boy asked for both purity and martyrdom, and he would receive them. As an adult he joined the Franciscans and eventually started his own order, the Militia of the Imaculata. He and his religious brothers soon came into conflict with the Nazis, who had taken over Poland. Like the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis sought to take over Europe and eliminate Christianity. Like the Turks, the Nazis began persecuting priests and religious. Kolbe and his Militia took a strong stance against the Nazis, which led to Kolbe’s imprisonment in February of 1941. He was sent in Auschwitz.
At Auschwitz, Kolbe ministered to the prisoners, all the while suffering the abuse of his captors. The officers at Auschwitz had a particular hatred of Catholic priests, and so Kolbe suffered severely. Then came the fateful day. Three prisoners escaped, and the Nazi commandant assembled the entire prison block, forcing them all to stand until the escapees was found. When the search party returned empty-handed, the commandant selected ten men to be executed in place of the escapees. One of the selected prisoners broke down, crying out about his wife and children; Kolbe stepped forward to take his place, to offer his life so that the man might live. The commandant approved, and so Kolbe and nine other men were led to a starvation chamber. The priest led the other men in songs and prayers, and on August 14, 1941, after about two weeks, the surviving prisoners, including Maximilian Kolbe, were killed via lethal injection.
The man who survived because of Kolbe’s sacrifice lived for many years. He and many others at Auschwitz testified to Kolbe’s sanctity, and cries for his canonization echoed almost as soon as World War II ended. Maximilian Kolbe was beatified in 1971 and canonized in 1982. At the canonization, Pope St. John Paul II declared that Kolbe was a martyr. It is a fitting title, as his death was one of sacrifice, of witness to the teaching of Christ to “love one another” and that “no greater love is there than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.”
These two stories of martyrdom offer for us examples of the sacrifice we are called to by merit of our baptism. Today, the same evil that tore through Christendom on the blade of the Ottoman Turks and the heel of Nazi boots seeks to destroy our Church and our Faith. Yet even against such evil, the strength of martyrs like those at Otranto, like that of St. Maximilian Kolbe, provides us a model of apostleship. We might not be called to bear witness to Christ in our blood, but we are all called to be witnesses.