As a young priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn, I was told of a remarkable story of contemporary martyrdom, the kind to which many of us are called to today. Perhaps before sharing that story, I should say that what I mean by “martyrdom” is simply courageous witness to the truth. Though persecution and execution are often, historically, the political outcome of such witness — as in the case of Jesus Christ and those we honor in our martyrology — I refer to the fundamental character of the martyr, not only when he or she actually is brought to death for standing up to the truth on which their lives are grounded, but as a normal way of life. 

The story is of a Christian witness who was hauled in by a small contingent of Idi Amin’s henchmen. You may recall that in the 1970s, Amin seized control of the government of Uganda. Initially lauded by many, locally and from afar, he soon began a reign of terror not different from the regime of Stalin in the Soviet Union and Pol Pot in Cambodia.  

As with all tyrants, his natural enemy would be the Church and for the same reason: the Church worships God as the Creator and source of all life and happiness and not the state or its elite managers. Since God is by nature a community of persons — Trinitarian in essence — and the model of all family life, the traditional family is also a threat to dictators. As we see in all totalitarian states, the family must be destroyed, wives against husbands, children against parents, as Jesus himself warned. 

So Amin, acutely aware of local Christian missionaries who were preaching the Gospel of freedom to Ugandan families, was threatened by one in particular who had been effective in stabilizing a community of families who were experiencing the programmed impoverishment — homelessness actually — that the dictator was imposing on his people. As always, tyrants need their subjects to be completely beholden to them, economically, politically and religiously. The missionary was dragged into the presence of Amin’s entourage who began the systematic series of interrogations and inevitable torture. 

What came to the immediate attention of Amin’s associates was their inability to break the man’s spirit. He was not bending to their intimidation and seemed to have no fear of what physical harm they were inflicting or threatening. Enraged, they at last brought him before Amin himself. In the ensuing dialog, Idi Amin questioned the missionary about his faith and family, which, naturally, were the main subjects of his and every tyrant’s persecution. 

No success. The missioner would not submit. So Amin posed the ultimate question: “Do you not realize that I have the power to kill you?” The answer the missioner gave was fearless and spontaneous. He said, “No, you cannot. I have already died.” Assuming at first that he might have been misheard or perhaps that the man might even be insane, he reiterated his threat to take the man’s life away. So the missionary bore witness to his faith: “You see, I am Christian. I have been baptized. In baptism I have died in Christ to sin and to all that kills true life. Even if you put me to death, you cannot take my life away.”  

Bam! This is the power of the Gospel that always foils the plans of the world’s tyrants — when it is preached and lived. Yes, it does result in persecution and even genocide, as we are seeing even today in many parts of the world. But no one can kill the Spirit of God living in the soul of the believer. As the story unfolds, the missionary is released and, according to some reports, members of the guard of the dictator ended up being converted.  

The Scriptures contain many heroic accounts reminiscent of this one: the three men in the fiery furnace, the Maccabees, the adventures of Sts. Peter and Paul and many others throughout the course of salvation history. They are examples of martyrdom, heroic witness to the truth, in every age where, like ours, the faithful and their families are persecuted. 

Who can deny that the Church and the family are under attack? However one may attempt to understand the source of the attack, in political, cultural or theological terms, the consequences are before our eyes. The young people who express feelings their lives are meaningless, without direction and isolated. The fatherless children and the motherless homes. The dramatic rise in drug abuse and suicides of persons in their teen years, as a recent television ­series depicted.  

Some of this has happened very quickly. Venezuela, in a single generation, went from being an economic jewel in South America to an image of the Ukraine in the ’30s. Meanwhile affluent U.S. teens wear Che Guevara T-shirts and go into debt to take classes from Alinsky protégées in universities. Madness.  

Castro. Stalin. Xi. Totalitarians all fear Christ in His Church, which bears a personal message of dignity and salvation of every human being, from conception to natural death. Their utopias are means to ends, which they know are lies. Unlike their regimes, our King’s reign is wholly of truth and free choice, not coerced by earthly power. He confounds them all. 

Fear is useless, Jesus exhorts us, it is faith that gives life. Recent studies in psychological journals have revealed how fear and gratitude cannot exist in the same mental hemisphere. People whose daily lives are filled with a spirit of gratefulness — to God and to others — sleep better, are healthier and less prone to fear and anxiety. I will discuss this in a future article. It is amazing how, increasingly, science illuminates the reasonableness and healing powers of faith. The main reason is that our faith leads us to the truth — that we are sons and daughters of a loving God and our lives and all of creation are made to praise the goodness and beauty of God, who delights in our lives, lived in freedom and joy.