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Video: Giving Witness: Loving to the end

This short video “Giving Witness: Loving to the end” has been inspired by the recent beatification in Paris of four priests belonging to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts and by Saint Damien of Molokai (Apostle to the Lepers), another priest of the same Congregation whose feast day we celebrated on 10th May. The priests in France, were among a group of 50 people who were shot in Paris on 26th May, 1871. As for Saint Damien, a Belgium missionary, he died on the Hawaiian island of Molokai on 15th April, 1889 after 16 years of living with, loving and serving his “beloved lepers”. Whether we understand their lives as taken or given, they all gave witness (martyrdom) to God loving us to the end.

The video can be viewed from 22nd May onwards.

Youtube link:  https://youtu.be/EFWmel9CsnI


Giving Witness: Loving to the end, by Derek Laverty sscc

I think most of you know that I am a priest.  I belong to an international religious congregation known as the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.   The Congregation was founded in France in 1800 – just as the French Revolution was coming to an end.  It had been a time when people literally were losing their heads.  Our Founders – a man and a woman - pronounced their first vows on Christmas Eve that year.  The founder was a priest on the run, hiding from the French authorities because he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the State.  Our foundress had been imprisoned along with her mother for giving shelter to priests on the run. 

As fate would have it, as God would have it, their lives were preserved and their paths crossed - resulting in a meeting of hearts, minds and souls.  In the difficult circumstances that they had lived through, each had a particular experience of God that they shared with each other. 

Two things emerged from their sharing:  the awareness that the people in France had lost sight of God as a loving God, and the conviction that God was calling both of them to establish a Congregation of men and women devoted to prayer and mission who would dedicate their lives to contemplating, living and announcing God’s love for all people.

223 years later, (last month) I was in Paris with a good number of members of our Congregation - brothers, sisters and lay branch members - who had travelled from far and wide. We were in Paris to celebrate the beatification of four of our religious brothers who had been executed in Paris in May 1871.  Their deaths came towards the end of the so-called Paris Commune – a short lived, Paris based, social movement that sought more participation, freedom and equality on behalf of the people.  This movement was finally overcome by the French army – but not without great loss of life, including our four priests.

This brings me to the central point that I would like to share with you today: it is about martyrdom and how to understand it. The word martyr - a Greek word – originally signified “one who bears witness”, one who promises to tell the truth and stand by the truth whatever the cost. Over time the term began to include people who were killed for witnessing to their religious belief or who were killed simply for being a believer.

The Catholic Church defines martyrdom as the “supreme witness … even unto death”. (CCC 2473).  In this sense we recall Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, the apostles, and the many men and women who, down the ages, and even today, have stood firm in their faith at the cost of their lives. 

Interestingly, Pope Francis recently spoke of martyrs being “more numerous in our time than in the first centuries” when the early Church was persecuted” (19/4/2023).   He is thinking not just of those who have lost their lives because of their faith, but of the many men and women who have been banished, exiled or imprisoned for what they believe in. 

As I thought about this talk the phrase “give and take” came to me.  The lives of our four French priests were taken from them.  But there are countless numbers of people who, following Jesus, give their lives and at times their deaths in service of others.  This too is a witness, this too is a form of martyrdom. 

We can think of Saint Damien, whose feast day we celebrated on May 10th.  He loved, lived and died for his beloved lepers.  We remember Dorothy Day who unceasingly campaigned in defence of the poor, forsaken, hungry and homeless, Mother Teresa of Kolkata and her dedication to the poorest of the poor, Martin Luther King, Gandhi.  But as has been said, these well known names do not take away from the hosts of people who quietly and selflessly make daily sacrifices – even to the point of giving their lives away.