Prior to Father Maximilian Kolbe’s canonization in 1982, there was considerable debate in higher Church circles about whether this Polish Franciscan, who had sacrificed his life in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz to save the condemned father of a family, should be canonized as a martyr.
John Paul the Great, agreeing with the many Poles and Germans who wanted Kolbe honored this way, overrode the decision of two specially appointed judges and proclaimed, in his canonization Mass homily, that “Maximilian Mary Kolbe, who following his beatification was venerated as a confessor, will henceforth be venerated also as a martyr!”
During the pre-canonization debate, some theologians and canonists suggested that a new category — “martyr of charity” — be created to cover situations like Kolbe’s. The Franciscan priest had not, after all, been killed “in hatred of the faith” [odium fidei], at least according to the traditional understanding of that ancient criterion for martyrdom. The Nazi officer who agreed to Kolbe’s voluntary substitution of himself for the condemned prisoner had evinced no interest in the fact that Kolbe was a Catholic, a Christian or a priest; Kolbe was just another Pole to be starved to death. So why not split the difference and call Kolbe a “martyr of charity”?
In Witness to Hope, I suggested that John Paul II was making an important theological point in declaring St. Maximilian Kolbe a martyr, period: systematic hatred of the human person (as in Nazism and other totalitarian systems) was a contemporary version of odium fidei, for the faith taught the inalienable dignity of the human person and those who hated the person implicitly hated the faith.
In any event, the argument continues over what constitutes “martyrdom” (most recently, at a plenary session of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints), and will likely continue long into the future.
The idea of a “martyr of charity” continued to intrigue me, though, most recently in the case of Petty Officer Second Class (SEAL) Michael Anthony Monsoor, who died in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, on 29 September 2006. Michael Monsoor was a devout Catholic of Arab Christian descent, who had grown up in Garden Grove. Two years after his high school graduation, he enlisted in the Navy, where this superb athlete was soon attracted to the toughest of the tough, the Navy SEALS.
A year after completing SEAL training, Monsoor deployed to Iraq. A month into his deployment, he rescued a fellow SEAL under fire, winning the Silver Star.
His chaplain remembers Michael Monsoor requesting the sacrament of penance at their first meeting; he was also a regular Mass-goer. Sacramentally, he was prepared for 29 September 2006, when his SEAL team was ordered to work with an Iraqi Army unit to set up an anti-sniper overwatch position.
An insurgent threw a fragmentation grenade, which bounced off Monsoor’s chest and fell to the ground. Crouching next to the only exit from the overwatch position, Monsoor could have escaped. Instead, he threw himself onto the grenade to shield his comrades from the impending explosion. Thirty minutes later, Michael Monsoor was dead, but his teammates and their Iraqi allies were alive.
On April 8, at the White House, and in the presence of the young SEAL’s parents, President Bush posthumously awarded Michael Monsoor the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for military valor. A video of the ceremony is available at www.navy.mil/moh/monsoor. It’s hard to watch without tearing up, as the President did in speaking of an extraordinary act of self-sacrificing heroism.
No one knows whether, in the split-second of his decision, Michael Monsoor thought himself called to the martyrdom of charity; like most Catholics, he’d probably never heard the term. But everything we know about this remarkable young SEAL suggests that his instantaneous decision to give his life for the sake of his teammates and allies was rooted in his Catholic faith and his understanding of its demands.
And that’s why it’s worth considering the possibility that Michael Anthony Monsoor died as a “martyr of charity.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.