Recollections of Martyrdom in an Age of Terrorism
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.
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