Not just red anymore: the colors of martyrdom

By | January 23, 2009

However, as more early Christians were executed for their faith, “martyr” soon came to mean those who, while not seeing or hearing Jesus while he was on earth, so firmly believed in him that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for his Gospel. The early church underwent ten persecutions at the hands of the Roman empire, starting with that of Nero in 64 A.D. and ending with Diocletian’s in the fourth century. In 313, Constantine ended the persecutions with the Edict of Milan. St. Agatha was one of these many First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. (Their collective feast day is June 22.)

Agatha was a martyr in the sense that we most often think of martyr – she shed her blood for the faith. However, there are other types of martyrs – who suffered for the faith, but were not killed. To distinguish them as beings witnesses, they are sometimes called martyrs, but of another color.

Agatha is a “red martyr,” the “official type.” As the bishops of Vatican II said, such a martyr “is conformed to (the Lord) by the shedding of blood” (Lumen Gentium, no 42).

However, there are also “white martyrs,” of whom the best known are the desert fathers and the confessors, who gave up everything to live with Christ. They renounced earthly pleasures for those of heaven, although not to the point of suffering physical persecution. This does not mean that they did not suffer, but not at the hands of others to the point of death. White martyrs are, like Agatha, willing to give up everything for the love of God.

Mary Magdalene is sometimes given as an example of a blue martyr. Even though her greatest contribution to the church was her great devotion to Christ, she has also been held up as a model to all those who wish to live a life of repentance.

Green martyrs are those who have given their lives to bringing the Word of God to others. Most often this term is used for Irish missionaries. Thomas Cahill made the term well known through his 1996 book “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” (Sometimes green and blue get mixed up in reference to these types of witnesses. There is also a growing tendency to link green martyrs to the ecology movement, but this is a very recent development.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not refer to martyr colors, but does give a broad description: “Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith… The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine” (no. 2473).

As Dominican Bishop Anthony Fisher, auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, said earlier this year: “Everyone knew that the front pews in heaven were reserved for the red martyrs, the apostles and those who gave the witness of blood. Behind them were the ‘white martyrs,’ the innocents, virgins and monks. And in the third tier, the ‘green martyrs’, the missionaries, green because so many were Irish, who went to evangelize…”

Martyrs lived — and died — according to the demands of discipleship. They followed Christ and imitated him, even to offering their lives. They turned to God and received new life through Christ. Whatever color we use wish to refer to them, they are still among the ranks of the blessed “good and faithful servants” of the Lord.

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; the documents of Vatican II; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism;t;; and

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