IN THE HIERARCHY of saints, martyrs are on the highest rung of the celestial ladder, at least for me.
While I love St. Bernadette with her story of mystical vision, it's St. Maria Goretti - the child who surrendered her life to protect her purity - who animates my faith. St. Therese of Lisieux is an example of the glory we can find in small things but the Little Flower doesn't inspire me like Joan of Arc, who died in a maelstrom of fire. And while St. Francis of Assisi with his gentle ways is a hero to our current, beloved pope, I'm drawn to St. Sebastian, a Roman soldier who paid for his conversion to Christ in a barrage of piercing arrows.
My preference for those who were tested through the crucible of physical suffering is, I'll admit, a bit macabre. Today, we are taught that torturers are evil (which is of course correct) and that its victims are just that, victims. But to Catholics, there has always been something particularly ennobling about a person whose faith is so unshakable that it transcends terrestrial agony. They are heroic examples of the human spirit's infinite power.
Last week, we were given just such an example, and while the story is painful, we should take notice on this Good Friday.
The Rev. Frans van der Lugt, 75, a Dutch Jesuit who had spent the last four decades ministering to children, the poor and the mentally disabled in Homs, Syria, was assassinated last Monday, according to a Vatican source. He was abducted by unidentified gunmen, beaten and then executed in front of his monastery.
Father van der Lugt was an outspoken critic of Bashar Assad. The dictator has not focused on the religion of his victims, targeting Muslim and Christian alike. Politics is all that matters: If you support Assad you are an ally and if you oppose him, a traitor. It's not a simple calculus, and given the fact that some of the rebels who are seeking to depose the Assad regime are Islamist enemies of the west, you can understand why governments like our own have been hesitant to step in.
But now they are killing priests, and they are killing priests whose only crime is speaking out against the persecution of innocents. It is time, finally, for us to take a stand, because if a 75-year-old Jesuit has more courage than Uncle Sam and his mighty battalions, we no longer deserve respect in the international community.
Father van der Lugt used his voice as his weapon, speaking out strongly and clearly about the abuses that the Assad regime was committing against its own people (and, more covertly, against the people of Lebanon.) Given an opportunity to escape Syria earlier this year when a U.N.-brokered ceasefire permitted some of the Homs residents to leave, Father van Der Lugt stayed. He stayed because he didn't want the people who looked to him for spiritual support to feel abandoned, saying, "The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, so much inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties."
It is perhaps difficult for citizens of this country of rights and privilege to understand what it means to live in a state of war. Many of the older, greatest generation who suffered the collateral privations of World War II have some understanding of what it means to be hungry, but not since the Civil War have bullets ripped through our cities and towns (except, of course, the ones we aim at each other out of twisted criminality.)
But even though we may not be able to empathize, we need to sympathize with men, women and most especially children who have slipped from the front pages of the newspapers but who are still behind that "line" President Obama said could not be crossed without responsive action from the United States.
So, where is that action? Are we going to shrug our shoulders and say "it's their problem" or "it's complicated" or "the rebels are worse than Assad?" We were able to say that before and hide in the thicket of politics.
But the courage of a modern martyr, a man who stared down his persecutors and made the supreme sacrifice, should shame us into action, even if that action is simply to scream out "STOP!" It's a start.
My church urges forgiveness, but I cannot forgive the assassination of an elderly Jesuit. What I can do is ask all of you, on this very special Friday, to remember his name and realize that the people of Syria are no different than the people on our buses, in our schools and at our tables. If we can remember that, and understand that Father van der Lugt stood up for their humanity in the face of inhumanity, his martyrdom will not have been in vain.