What witness color will you wear?

Vestments for martyrs’ feasts are red — but not for all ‘martyrs’

If you were called into court as a witness, what color clothing would you wear?

Most of us would probably wear some sedate, conservative color like blue or gray, that wouldn’t make us stand out.

However, if you are a Christian, you might want to consider wearing white or green, or even red.

This week, on Oct. 14, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Oscar Romero. Archbishop Romero was archbishop of San Salvador, and spoke out for the poor against poverty and social injustice. He was assassinated on Good Friday, March 24, 1980, in a hospital chapel while he was celebrating Mass.

Blessed Oscar Romero is a martyr. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines martyrdom as “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith; it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity” (n. 2473).

This week the church also honors the martyrs Ignatius of Antioch on Oct. 17 and SS. John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues and Companions on Oct. 19. Ignatius was a first-century bishop, and John de Brébeuf and Isaac Joques were North American missionaries in the 17th century. Despite the span of centuries, they all gave their lives in witness to Christ.

Meaning ‘witness’

They are the traditional martyrs. The word “martyr” itself comes to us from the Greek word, martus, meaning “witness.” In the earliest days of the church, the word referred to the 12 Apostles, who had witnessed the events of Jesus’ life — and also died violently for that faith (except for St. John).

However, as more early Christians were executed for their faith during the first centuries, the word “martyr” soon came to mean those who, while not witnesses to Jesus during his earthly ministry, so firmly believed in him that they were willing to give their lives for his Gospel. The early church underwent 10 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. Ignatius of Antioch was one of those early martyrs, in the sense that we most often think of a martyr — he shed his blood for the faith. That makes him what we also call a “red martyr.”

The vestments and liturgical decorations used in church on a feast of a martyr are red, to signify the blood that they and Christ shed, as well as the fire of God’s love.

Suffered but not killed

However, there are other types of martyrs — people who suffered for the faith, but were not killed. Nonetheless, they were willing to give themselves as witnesses in very significant ways. So they, too, are sometimes called martyrs, but of another color.

They are the “white martyrs.” Their numbers also date back to the early days of the church — but a little later than the red martyrs — to about the third century A.D. and beginnings of monastic life. These desert fathers and mothers, as well as those we call “the confessors,” gave up everything to live for Christ.

They renounced earthly pleasures for those of heaven, although not to the point of suffering physical persecution. This does not mean that they didn’t suffer, but not at the hands of others nor to the point of violent death. Many of them did indeed suffer.

Paula Anne Sharkey Lemire, who has written extensively about St. Kateri Tekakwitha, explains white martyrdom as “a martyrdom without blood, without the violent taking of life. White martyrdom is a total offering to God, a ‘dying’ to the world and its allurements. A white martyr willingly gives up worldly concerns and makes his or her life a perpetual pilgrimage.”

Many call St. Kateri a white martyr, since she suffered a great deal for her faith, both physically and emotionally.

The notion of a “green martyrdom” comes to us from the Celtic church, dating back to St. Columba, the great Irish missionary saint of the sixth century. It was Columba who travelled by currach (a small wicker boat, covered with animal skins) to evangelize Scotland.

Green can be blue

The Eastern Orthodox churches, who also honor red, green and white martyrs, define a green martyr as one who, through fasting and work, “frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance.” (Some sources also use the color blue to define this type of martyr.)

Since St. Columba’s actions played a part in causing what became the Battle of Cuil Dremmed, in which 3,000 men died, he was exiled. Holding himself responsible for those 3,000 deaths, Columba lived a life of penance. This is why green martyrs are often linked with offering up lives lived in penance as their way of witnessing to Christ.

It might be hard to remember which martyrs are which — except for the red martyrs. So the current archbishop of Sydney, Australia, the Dominican Anthony Fisher, gives us the example of sitting in church: “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 deepest darkest Australia …”

Each of us could have a place in the witness stand, but whether our attire is red, green or white will have to wait until we reach the feast of heaven to be certain.

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; franciscanmedia.org; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; the Orthodox Christian Information Center at orthodoxinfo.com; catholic.org; and sydney.catholic.org.au