Dying for your beliefs

Second Reading
A chance to reflect on our commitment

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Pope John XXIII once met a pious young man who told him he wanted to be a martyr. The pope gently chided him for his gruesome ambition. He advised him to become a teacher. It is, he said, ‘more difficult’.
I wonder about that. Teaching can sometimes be stressful. I know. I have worn that tee-shirt. But a form of martyrdom? I think not. Let’s look at some real martyrs.
Four hundred years ago, this month, Bishop Cormac O’Devany and Fr Patrick O’Loughran were executed in in Dublin. Their only ‘crime’ was their loyalty to Catholicism. It was a time when the English administration was seeking to impose Protestantism on Irish Catholics. It was part of its colonisation plan for a newly- conquered country.
The defeat of Hugh O’Neill at Kinsale in 1601 ended Gaelic resistance to the English project. Bishop O’Devany was friendly with O’Neill while Fr O’Loughran had been his personal chaplain.
Though O’Neill had made peace with the English at Mellifont in 1603 he felt increasingly uncomfortable in Ireland. He fled the country in 1607. His departure left the two clerics without protection.
The English administration sought to make an example of them. Adherence to Catholicism was then seen as treason.
Both were arrested, tried and convicted. They were sentenced to be hanged on the first day of February, 1612.
On that gloomy afternoon they were brought from Dublin Castle to their place of execution at George’s Hill. Several thousand people followed them as they journeyed, bound face upwards on carts. From the scaffold they courageously claimed that the reason for their deaths was their commitment to Catholicism. As the bishop climbed the scaffold the sun broke through the thick clouds, illuminating him for a moment, only to vanish as he was thrown down.
We often associate martyrdom with the dark past, part of what Wordsworth called ‘old unhappy things and battles long ago’.
Not so. Some years ago on a train journey, I got into conversation with a woman in the opposite seat. She was a graduate of UCC and told me that a friend she made there, Jean Donavan, was martyred in El Salvador in 1980.
Jean was born in 1953 in another Westport, this one in Connecticut in the US. She came to Cork University as an exchange student. She looked forward to an eventful year. She brought her riding saddle and golf clubs. She expected a year of horse-riding and playing golf interspersed with some undemanding study.
She found some of that but also something completely different. She joined the Legion of Mary where the spiritual director, Fr Michael Crowley, encouraged her and other members to give not just money but time to the impoverished and oppressed in the third world.
Jean returned to the US and completed her studies. She achieved a masters degree in business and qualified as an accountant. She got a job with a major financial firm, fell in love, got engaged and planned to marry. However, the exhortations Fr Crowley had lodged never left her mind.
So, before finally settling down, she decided to spend a term as a lay missionary working with the poor in El Salvador.
El Salvador was then a most distressful country. It was disfigured by extreme poverty and riven by civil war. Fifty per cent of the people were unemployed. Eighty per cent had no electricity, sanitation or running water. The right wing government bitterly opposed those who sought reform. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Those who helped the poor were regarded with extreme suspicion.
In 1979 Jean began her mission as a parish worker in La Libertad. She and an American nun, Sr Dorothy Kazel, provided food and medical treatment to the victims of the war.
She witnessed horrific things: “People are being killed daily. We just found out that three people from our area had been taken, tortured and hacked to death. Everything is hitting really so close now.” Archbishop Romero who supported the rebels, was assassinated while saying Mass in San Salvador Cathedral.
As the violence escalated the American peace camp left the country as the situation was so dangerous. Jean understood why they left but could not go herself. She wrote to a friend: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave. Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favour the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.
In December, 1980 Jean and Sr Dorothy drove to San Salvador Airport to collect St Maura Clarke and Sr Ita Ford who were returning after a break. On their way back five members of the National Guard stopped them on a lonely road. The forced the women into the jungle where they were beaten, raped and murdered. They were shot at point-blank range. Jean’s face was completely destroyed. She was 27 years old.
Lent, which begins next week, challenges those of us who proclaim to be Christian to reflect seriously on the depth of our commitment. The lives and deaths of martyrs provide ample material for that reflection.