The martyr James Foley?

James Foley

Sometimes it seems the word 'martyr' has been hijacked. Terror groups desecrate the name by applying it to those who die killing others. But what does the Church say makes a martyr and what of journalist James Foley? Was he a martyr?

- National Catholic Reporter

From the moment news broke that US journalist James Foley had been beheaded by Islamic State extremists, many Christians, began calling him a martyr, with some even saying he should be considered a saint.

Yet that characterisation has left others uneasy, and the discussion is raising larger questions about what constitutes martyrdom.

Foley's parents seemed to validate the martyrdom label when his father spoke at an emotional news conference and said he and his wife "believe he was a martyr." Foley's mother, Diane, added that her son "reminds us of Jesus. Jesus was goodness, love - and Jim was becoming more and more that."

In an interview with Katie Couric, Foley's brother recounted how Pope Francis had called the family to console them and in their conversation "referred to Jim's act as, really, martyrdom."

Numerous commentators had already picked up on that idea, holding Foley up not only as a witness to the Christian faith but as a spur for believers in the West to take more seriously the plight of Christians in the Middle East who are being persecuted to a degree that some say is comparable to genocide.

But in the Church, determining whether someone is a martyr is not so easy. Historically, two conditions must be met.

First, even if martyrs weren't saintly or pious Christians throughout their lives, there should be evidence that they held fast to their faith in their final moments, and that this witness can serve as an example to others.

Foley certainly seemed to take solace in his faith under duress.

In a 2011 essay he wrote for the alumni magazine of Marquette University, his Jesuit-run alma mater, Foley spoke movingly of his belief in prayer, and especially his recourse to the rosary to sustain him when he was imprisoned in Libya.

That was also the heart of a message Foley managed to send from his captivity at the hands of the Islamic State:  "I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray," Foley said.

The second factor in determining whether someone is a martyr is that they must be killed explicitly because they are a Christian, or in odium fidei, out of hatred for the faith. That's where martyrdom arguments can get complicated, and messy.

Read full article: Is James Foley a martyr? A brutal death sparks a faith-based debate (National Catholic Reporter)


James Foley, exemplar of bravery to many, dies at 40 (The Boston Globe)

Foley lauded for living his faith through his reporting (The Catholic Weekly)

James Foley: Beheading victim had deep faith (USA Today)

Marquette professor recalls James Foley as 'bright light' (Catholic News Service)

Was Romero a matyr? (The New York Times)

ISIS' Grim parody of a golden age (The Tablet)

Our cry to the world: Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena-Iraq (Dominican Sisters)


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