Each month, Pope Francis asks for our prayers for a specific intention. For the month of March, the prayer intention is for the martyrs of our day, witnesses to Christ: Let us pray that those who risk their lives for the Gospel in various parts of the world might imbue the Church with their courage and missionary drive.

The word ‘martyr’ brings to mind the early Christians martyred for the faith. In popular usage, it can also mean someone able to put up with a good deal in the pursuit of some cause.

The words of the March prayer lead me to recall the recent history of Peru in the armed conflict of the late twentieth century – when several priests and religious who stayed to accompany the people they served in rural areas, knowing they risked their lives in doing so, were assassinated.

Our Josephite Sisters in Peru expressed their concerns for Sisters Dorothy Stevenson and Irene McCormack, reminding them that they didn´t have to remain in Huasahuasi amid the constant danger. In choosing to stay, these Sisters weren’t choosing martyrdom; they were valuing life, that of others as well as their own. Many religious and priests, as did civic leaders, remained in rural areas during those years knowing that they could become victims of the terrorist group, Shining Path. Their courage and missionary zeal enabled them to make the decisions to remain and some, like Irene, paid with their life.

Another example is Maria Elena Moyano, who at the time of her assassination by the Shining Path terrorists was deputy mayor of one of the newer, poorer areas on the outskirts of Lima. She was recognised for her fight against poverty, promotion of human rights and the rights of women. She certainly lived Gospel values whether she identified them as such and paid the ultimate price when she was gunned down in 1992.

Recently, an open letter demanded that the State provide protection for the president of the Chapra Nation, one of the many indigenous groups in Peru. She and her family have received threats because of her work in protecting her tribe from the contamination due to extraction of oil. I can only imagine the anguish she experiences, knowing that to fight to protect her people puts her own family in danger. She also embodies the Gospel values of love and justice.

In our parish on the outskirts of Lima lives a 41-year-old solo mother of three sons aged 18, 24 and 26. All three have profound physical and intellectual disabilities since birth. She must attend to all their physical needs alone and two of them can do nothing except lie in bed, unable to move. One of them is blind and the only communication between them is the sound of Lidia’s* voice and her loving touch. They recognise her voice, and the eyes of one of them indicate some form of communication. The youngest can be moved to a wheelchair but must be constrained while there, as well as while in bed as he violently self-harms.

I consider Lidia, the mother, to be a living martyr. She is continually giving her life for those she loves. Her family all live in the Andes and so she is without support from them. Fortunately, she does have limited community support and small pensions from the State for two of her sons.

Lidia attends to them with great devotion and tenderness, doesn’t look on them as a burden and has accepted the situation as part of the role of being a mother, sharing her life, love and compassion.

Naturally she gets tired, tearful, and discouraged but still gives her all so that her children will have the best life possible given their situation. She gives constantly and receives nothing in return, other than a look from them demonstrating that they know her voice, her touch, her kiss. She is constantly giving her life to the full so that her sons may live. They experience God’s love through her.

From where does she receive her courage, energy, and the love she shares? I think the same answer is true for all the above examples. Nobody wants to be a martyr. It is a gift from God that enables people to have the love and courage to witness to Gospel values, prepared to accept the consequences. This little part of the Church is certainly imbued with greater missionary drive through the way Lidia daily gives her life fully to her sons, expecting nothing in return.

Mary Dwyer rsj


* Name changed to protect privacy.