The word martyr is Greek in origin and it means witness. The Jewish family of our first reading, the seven brothers and their mother were witnesses to the future resurrection of life, willing to go to their deaths proclaiming this truth. As Christians, we too are called to be witnesses to the Resurrection of life, of Jesus, to witness to the rest of the world that God is real, that he’s good, that we are made in His image and likeness, and that we were made for eternal life in Heaven.
I have the story of a witness who brought the love of God into the midst of great hate. This true story takes place during the time of World War II. A German by the name of Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal attorney and during the war he was put in charge of Poland. He was the General in charge of all of Poland. And under his rule he was responsible for the deaths of over 3 million people. He was a barbaric and godless man. His goal was to erase God from the face of Poland. After the war Hans Frank was captured and put on trial at Nuremburg. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hung for his crimes.
However, months later moments before his death Frank’s very last words were, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” During his time on death row he had repented and received baptism. He was 46 years old and had never been baptized.
We know that it’s our Lord’s desire that all would be saved, that none would perish, that all would turn from their wickedness. Is that my desire too? Is it yours?
How could a man so barbaric repent? How did he come to repentance? It was the witness of one man, an American who grew up in New York State. Fr. Sixtus O’Connor was a Franciscan who gave a strong witness to the mercy, power, and glory of Jesus to this man on death row.
Fr. Sixtus was the youngest of 7 children. His mom was from Germany and she taught all of her children to speak and write in German. Fr. Sixtus even studied for a time in Germany but when World War II broke out he came back home to the states. And once back he enlisted as an Army Chaplain. He ended up serving with General Patton. He was on the front line, he liberated at least one concentration camp and he won the Silver Star.
Fr. Sixtus saw first-hand what Hans Frank had done yet his heart was not hardened, he still had a heart touched by Jesus. After the war because of his ability to speak German General Patton asked Fr. Sixtus to minister to the German prisoners as they awaited their trials at Nuremberg and to continue ministering to them as they awaited execution.
At Nuremberg there was plenty of hatred. Fr. Sixtus was a Franciscan and that line from the Song of St. Francis, “Where there is hatred let me sow love,” was something he lived and suffered. He spent his time proclaiming the Gospel, “Jesus is a just judge but he is also merciful.” He showed Frank the way to repentance so that his very last words could be, “Jesus have mercy on me!”
Why do we need to witness to Jesus? He tells us to, and because only he can turn hostility and disunity into unity and brotherhood. Jesus is our peace. Now most of us are not called to give our lives as a witness to the faith like the Jewish family of the first reading or to witness like Fr. Sixtus in a prison setting. But we do, however, have many, many, many opportunities each day to witness. Do not be afraid to tell others what a difference our Lord has made in your life. You never know what the impact could be. The poet William Blake once wrote that every good work, every good word, and every simple witness to our Lord is a little martyrdom. Maybe we can even make this our homework, every morning we might say to ourselves, “Today I will give a witness to my faith at least 5 times.” Maybe you do it through a good kind word to someone or a good work for someone, or maybe even telling someone about Jesus and the Catholic Faith. If we commit to this every day, who knows how God will use us in His plan of salvation.
As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, we ask our Lord to expose any hardness in our heart, and disunity in our heart, and to burn it up in the Divine love of the Eucharist.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley