Skip to main content

Holy Preaching 2.8: Making a Martyr of Yourself

by Sr Mary Pauline Burling

Jesus expounds this message in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5-7 with its three parts containing:

a)      the Beatitudes

b)      the new Torah

c)      the Our Father, that is, Jesus’ teaching on Prayer

Jesus’ call to repentance requires more than simple attention.  By proclaiming ‘new’ values, the Beatitudes invite us to reflect on modest and often overlooked qualities [virtues, attributes] in people:  the poor (in spirit), the meek, but also the upright, merciful, compassionate, peace loving and those people suffering for righteousness’ sake. (cf. Mt 5:3-12).  At the same time Jesus is inviting us to look at ourselves/our frame of mind.  Maybe adjustment is required if not a change of attitude, or rather a change of heart?

Maybe we need a model, and here I let Pope Benedict speak:

           “Anyone who reads Matthew’s text attentively will realise that the Beatitudes present a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure.  He who has no place to lay his head (Mt 8:20) is truly poor; He who can say, “Come to me ... for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Mt 11:28/9) is truly meek; He is the one who is pure of heart and so unceasingly beholds God.  He is the peacemaker; He is the one who suffers for God’s sake.      The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ Himself, and they call us to communion with Him.  But precisely because of their hidden Christological character, the Beatitudes are also a roadmap for the Church, which recognises in them the model of what she herself should be.  They are directions for discipleship, directions that concern every individual, even though - according to the variety of callings - they do so differently for each person.’ [1]

I suggest that for tonight we keep these two key points in mind, namely that the Beatitudes:

-  give us a veiled interior biography of Jesus and that they

-  can be seen as a roadmap for the Church giving directions for discipleship [or as a ‘satnav’ which knows the way 99% of the time] 

Countless people have done this, among them the great Mahatma Ghandi who was deeply inspired by the Beatitudes showing him a portrait of Jesus and providing directions for his life of nonviolent resistance, even if he did not become a Christian.  But we, who are baptised Christians, cannot be simple admirers of Jesus for as Sören Kierkegaard once said: “Christ doesn’t want admirers but followers.”

With our focus on the eighth Beatitude we are looking at Jesus being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and ultimately giving His life for it – or rather for us.  This last beatitude has given direction to his followers at all times but especially in times of persecution beginning with the first disciples and countless men and women of all ages.  They, following their master, often lived in exceptional times of hardship, gone through numerous trials, as well as direct persecution, and remained steadfast, like their master and for His sake, to the point of death.  Having witnessed publicly, they received the palm of martyrdom even if the Church’s official process of beatification and canonisation happened long after public veneration began.  Being recognised officially as a saint or blessed the Church recommends and fosters their cult publicly.  Many of us will have gained inspiration from some favourite early martyr:  St Stephen, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Lawrence, St Agatha or St Lucy, and several others named in the Roman Canon.

While these are named and remembered relatively often, we have millions of heroic and saintly lives of men and women of the 20 bygone centuries, who expressly suffered and died for Christ, are glorified with him now and yet are totally unknown. As you know, the feast of All Saints is commemorating for these unknown saints. 

The 20th century, a century in which most of us spent a good time-period of our lives, is a century with superlatives also as regards sheer numbers of all who were persecuted for righteousness’ sake:  Studies are still emerging of the horrors of persecutions in all parts of the world which happened in bygone decades – and many of them in our lifetime!  Andrea Riccardi, an Italian historian, in his attempt to look at the main persecutions in the C20th. asks how many Christians – not only Catholics but also Christians of other denominations - died for their faith.  He estimates around three million, saying:

“If one thinks that in Russia alone at least 500 000, but most likely up to two Million Christians were killed, this hypothesis (of c. 3 million) is plausible.  Moreover, (if) one …also think(s) of those murdered Christians of the Ottoman Empire during WWI, and of the missionaries who died in ethnic conflicts...numbers swell still more.  The C20th. generally was extremely difficult for Christians who were minorities in countries with a majority religion, especially in Islamic countries.”[2]

Riccardi goes on to name few examples in more recent decades: seven Trappist monks from the Atlas Mountains in Algeria who were murdered by Islamist extremists in the spring of 1996, as was the Bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie OP, who was assassinated a few months later.  Riccardi also reminds us of persecutions with mass executions during civil wars in Christian countries naming Mexico and Spain. 

“More than 6,800 clerics and other Catholic people were killed in what has been dubbed the Red Terror. As of November 2023, 2,127 Spanish martyrs have been beatified; eleven of them being canonised. For some 2,000 additional martyrs, the beatification process is underway”[3]

Let us recall Pope Benedict’s words: “They [the Beatitudes] are directions for discipleship, directions that concern every individual, even though according to the variety of callings - they do so differently for each person.” [4]  The lives of scores of saints have illustrated precisely this ever since apostolic times.  

We recall that behind the Beatitudes stands Jesus “who precisely because he is God, descends, empties himself, all the way to death on the cross… In a word: true morality of Christianity is love.  And love does admittedly run counter to self-seeking, it is an exodus out of oneself, and yet this is precisely the way in which man comes to himself.”[5]

At this point it may be apt to contrast Christian martyrdom – being persecuted for righteousness’ sake – with ‘fake martyrdom’ which we allude to when saying “making a martyr of yourself.”  Google tells us that:

Some common signs of the martyr complex include:

           Minimizing one’s own accomplishments.

           Being the hero.

           Lack of self-care.

           Doing too much and always saying ‘yes’.

           Having unrealistic expectations.

           Doing everything themselves.

And it is defined as follows:

“Those who turn themselves into martyrs victimize themselves for the benefit of others. They constantly sacrifice resources against their own self-interest.  A martyr takes on the role of the hero. People who use martyr behaviour tend to have good motives for doing so.” 

As far as I remember the German language has no equivalent for the saying “making a martyr of yourself,” although people sometimes react to this self inflicted martyrdom by invoking  a well known martyr, saying for example:  St Elisabeth / Mother Teresa pray for us and looking up to heaven] when a serving soul seems to be overdoing it!  It would seem that a self-made martyr cannot be taken seriously in spite all his/her efforts.  This is in stark contrast when compared with the self emptying of Christ... cf. Phil 2:6,7“who humbled himself and became obedient unto death...”

The Catechism defines Christian martyrdom as follows:

            “Martyrdom is 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. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine.  He          endures death through an act of fortitude. "Let me become the food of the beasts, through        whom it will be given me to reach God."

Martyrdom has always been considered a unique gift of the Lord to his disciples to be found worthy to die as their master. We may desire it, but we cannot bestow martyrdom on ourselves or choose the way we would like to suffer.  "If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16:24.)Dom Helder Camara1909 –1999, the saintly Archbishop of Recife, Brazil once remarked that the cross is given to us – one cannot go into a department store, choose, and try it on – no, says Helder Camara- the Cross (including your death) is tailor-made for your shoulders.  I think that Jesus’ saying, “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you...” John 15:16- also pertains to allocating our cross/crosses!


Now I’d like to take a closer look at some martyrs nearer our times rather than dwell on heroic examples of the distant past. 

I have chosen The Drina Martyrs, so called because they were killed in the barracks on the shores of the River Drina in Bosnia into which their corpses were thrown in December 1941. They are not widely known (as yet), but I consider their struggles feel nearer the bone, because in some measure the same ideologies are still alive today.  Here I am thinking of extreme right-wing nationalism with its evil Nazi ideology which is on the increase in many European countries as is communism with its Marxist dialectics and atheism in other parts of the world, e.g. West African nations battling with various partisan groups.  We are aware of racial discrimination, growing anti-Semitism and are frightened by Islamic extremists networking globally.  We cannot dwell on these developments here, but we are able to sympathise with diverse peoples governed by totalitarian regimes with their frightening and evil ideologies.  Millions, although more informed than in bygone times, find themselves trapped, intimidated and powerless while daily enduring hardships of every kind and are in constant fear of reprisals.

Our Drina Martyrs, 5 religious sisters of the Daughters of Divine Charity, were caught in a specific situation in Bosnia during WW II.  After the Axis Forces had invaded the Balkans, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia quickly surrendered in April 1941 where partisan movements had been operating in this multi-ethnic territory which was established after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

The long and complex origin and history of the peoples in the Balkans is not the subject of tonight’s talk, and so we’ll just concentrate on these chosen examples: The Drina Martyrs.

These five Daughters of Divine Charity, a Congregation of Sisters founded by Mother Franciska Lechner [1833 – 1894] in Vienna 1868, lived according to Mother Franciska’s motto:  Make God’s love visible” [to all] and were thereby inspired by her   “To do good, to give joy, to make happy and to lead all to Heaven.” [6]

Around 1000 sisters are still doing this today and many parts of the world. (One of these sisters is local:  Sister Mary who is engaged as a part time pastoral assistant in Our Lady and the English Martyrs and assigned to her community in Hunstanton, Norfolk).   

Regarding the sisters’ foundation in Bosnia, Anto Bakovic writes:

“The community came to Bosnia in 1882 and the first nuns were brought by the foundress of the order, Franciska Lechner herself.  They came to Bosnia and to other parts of my country, to spread the Catholic faith, to educate the citizens and also help the badly underdeveloped regions by their charitable and social work.”[7]

St Joseph’s Institute in Sarajevo became their headquarters called by the citizens “the city on the hill” because of its size and site on the hilltop.  Up until 1945 this big building housed: 

1)      an elementary school,

2)      a girls’ high school,

3)       a teacher training college for women,

4)       a school for nursery schoolteachers,

5)       a commercial school,

6)       a women’s vocational school. 

Hereby we gather that their focus was on women’s education.

Also in Pale, a small town c. 18 km south of Sarajevo, a little convent was established in 1911 in the Kalovita Hills, which served as a convalescent home for sisters, pupils and other women from Sarajevo suffering from respiratory disorders. (e. g. TB) Pale’s population was chiefly Muslim, about 28% Serb Orthodox, but few Catholics and Jews. Since 1914 primary education for about 70 children had been taken on by these Catholic sisters, whose work was much appreciated. Moreover, the poor of the area always found a welcome in the sisters’ convent where their needs attended to.   

Consequently in December 1941, although informed and concerned of the “Chetnik” (Serb) guerrilla forces gaining ground in Bosnia, the five sisters felt safe in this multiethnic community. They did not want to move to St Joseph’s Sarajevo because they naively believed that nothing could happen to them as they had done ‘good’ to everybody.

Here are the names of our martyrs who were beatified in Sarajevo by Pope Benedict XVI (delegated to Cardinal Angelo Amato) on 24 September 2011:

Jula Ivanišević, 48, Croatian, (b. 1893), the superior of the Pale community,

Berchmana Leidenix, 76, Austrian, (b. 1865) who had lived over 50 years in Bosnia,

Krizina Bojanc 56, Slovenian, (b. 1885),

Antonija Fabjan 34, Slovenian (b. 1907), and

Bernadeta Banja 29, Croatian but of Hungarian parents (b. 1912). 

[In some sense this group of 5 represented the Austro-Hungarian Empire!]


The details of their martyrdom are rather gruesome:

·         For three nights [12 – 15 December 1941] the sisters were marched across frozen mountain trails in freezing temperatures and deep snow from Pale to Gorazde. Their way of the cross was about 70 km, - and like their master’s, they were accompanied by insulting soldiers, the threatening Chetnik guerrillas.

·         The eldest, Sr Berchmana Leidenix, collapsed after the first night and was separated from the other sisters. She was murdered 23 December 1941.        [details of her murder are not known but probably her throat was cut [by the Chetnik ‘cut-throats’]; one of the soldiers came back from the forests with a rosary round his neck. It is assumed that she was killed, and her body thrown into the Drina]


·         The other sisters arrived in the Gorazde on 15th December and detained on the third floor of a former Royal Yugoslav Army barracks upon arrival. That evening, a group of Chetniks entered the room in which they were being held and attempted to rape them.  The four, jumped from the second [third] floor window in order to avoid being raped.  It seemed that all four survived but then were bayoneted to death by several infuriated Chetnik officers outside.   In any case, the bodies were taken from the barracks and thrown into the Drina River.[8]


There were no eyewitnesses but ‘ear witnesses’ who heard the desperate screams of the four nuns.  Living next door, 10-year-old boy Anto Bakovic, who later became a priest, recorded his impressions of that night and also his mother’s dealings with the drunken soldiers afterwards. Through their bragging about their foul deeds and seeing the bodies the following morning at the banks of the Drina, the story of the sisters’ horrid martyrdom became known and could be reconstructed and with further research in subsequent years.


There is no doubt that the sisters did not make themselves martyrs.  After reading the [somewhat one-sided report] of a person deeply impacted by the horrific event I think we can say that the Sisters:


o   Were rather ill informed of the serious and imminent threat of the guerrillas, and imprudent by not taking any precautions, for example, moving to the Motherhouse in Sarajevo for a time.  Naively they believed that they were safe because they had only done good to all their neighbours and would be protected by them and for that reason they simply continued with their daily schedule of prayer and work.


o   Did not envisage martyrdom and were in some sense ill prepared for it – and yet by their daily faithfulness to prayer and work they were living of the vows of POVERTY, CHASTITY and OBEDIENCE which were their only and best preparation.


o   Their leader, Superior Sr Jula, demonstrated exceptional courage and qualities of leadership when returning to her sisters and leading them in their final hours of danger and - as a true captain goes down with his ship.   


o   Physically exhausted after their walk and scared at the imminent threat of rape, (the sisters) did not consider yielding to the soldiers’ demands; on the contrary, in their last agony they cried out “Save us Jesus!” and similar ejaculations.


o   They pleaded with their persecutors and also promised to co-operate, except for the one thing their tormentors demanded: their bodies.  All five sisters were determined to keep their vow of chastity because they had dedicated their bodies to God.


o   When physically attacked they fought back with all their strength to protect themselves and finally jumped out of the window from the second floor to be battered to death on the ground outside.  


The Drina Martyrs are counted among those “Blessedwho are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  [Mt 5:10]


While not experiencing extreme situations in our society at present, we may want to ponder on our preparedness and training for situations of conflict, and so I end with five questions:


·         What about my awareness, that is, having a clear view of current ideologies? [i.e. gender policy and other issues which are contrary to Christian norms]


·         Am I prepared to take a Christian stance based on the Church’s teaching?


·         Are there principles which I adhere to?


·          Am I prepared for fight or flight?


·         Who/what builds up my inner strength, and keeps me going when “the conflict is nigh and (also) helps us in our daily battle where each one must win or die”?[9]


[1] Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth, Bloomsbury, London, 2007, p.74

[2] Andrea Riccardi  Salz der Erde – Licht der Welt, Glaubenszeugnis und Christenverfolgung im 20. Jahrhundert, p. 23 Herder, Freiburg, 2002 translated from the Italian Il seculo del martirio. I cristiani nel novecento.

[3] Wikipedia:   Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War

[4] Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth, Bloomsbury, London, 2007, p.74

[5] ibid. p. 99

[6] Website of The Daughters of Divine Charity


[7] Anto Bakovic The Drina Martyrs, Translation Zvijezdana Vlakovic-Fujimura, re-edited 2007, Dennis Chmelik, E-JA’s copies

[8] Cf. Wikipedia on the Blessed Martyrs of Drina

[9]  Cf. Refrain from the Hymn to St George, by J.W. Reeks 1849 – 1900,