5 Saints You Didn’t Know Are Martyrs

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Martyrdom has been a reality for Christians since the very beginnings of the Church. For two millennia, with varying levels of intensity depending on the time period, large numbers of Christians have shed blood in witness of the faith. We honor these individuals as martyrs and saints.

But according to pious tradition, there is more than one way to be a martyr. Though we often consider martyrs to be those who have died for the faith, like St. Stephen, St. Thomas More, and St. Catherine of Alexandria, this understanding only includes what we call red martyrs. Another kind of martyrdom, called white martyrdom, indicates a death to self and worldly things and a complete surrender to God. While white martyrs are not murdered for practicing Christianity, they give up everything of themselves and endure great suffering. These martyrs recall the original understanding of the word “martyr,” which means “witness.”

In this week’s General Audience, Pope Francis discussed both red and white martyrs. He said, “By imitating the example of his [the Lord’s] own self-sacrifice and love, we demonstrate our faith and hope in him and we become his witnesses before the world. In this sense, every Christian is a ‘martyr,’ a witness to the sure hope that faith inspires.” In the spirit of this important witness, here are 5 things that white martyrs do and 5 saints who have exemplified these practices.

1. Fast – St. Anthony of the Desert

St. Anthony was one of the Desert Fathers. After giving away everything that he owned, he went into the desert to live a life of solitude and asceticism. St. Anthony was known for his intense fasting and for creating a model for monks to follow in the desert. As a true white martyr, he gave up everything of himself and of the world to join himself fully with God.

2. Suffer – St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Now a Doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux was a French Carmelite nun who lived in the late nineteenth century and died at age 24. Despite living such a short life, and in a cloistered convent, St. Thérèse has inspired countless people with her book, Story of a Soul. St. Thérèse gave up everything for God and offered herself as “a victim to Divine Love.”

3. Endure – Pope St. John Paul II

Pope St. John Paul II was considered a giant of the Church even before his death and canonization. During his pontificate, he was an advocate for the suffering and helped to bring about the fall of communism. He was also known for his charisma. But Pope John Paul II also withstood great physical suffering in his last years. By enduring this suffering with the grace that exemplifies the Culture of Life and dignity of all humans, he became a white martyr.

4. Sacrifice – St. Gianna Beretta Molla

Sometimes called the “Martyr of Life,” St. Gianna Beretta Molla was an Italian pediatrician and mother. She had a deep love for mothers, babies, the poor, and the elderly. When St. Gianna was pregnant with her fourth child, she developed a tumor and was faced with the choice to abort her baby or risk her own life. She decided to sacrifice her life in order to give birth to a healthy baby and thus became a true witness of life.

5. Follow Jesus – St. Kateri Tekakwitha

St. Kateri Tekakwitha is the first Native American woman to be named a saint. She grew up in a Mohawk village and learned about the faith from Jesuit missionaries. But the people in her village, especially her uncle (who had adopted her), were strongly opposed to Catholicism. St. Kateri decided to give up everything to follow Jesus. She endured the ridicule and threats of the Mohawks until escaping to a Christian Native settlement, where she lived out her vow of virginity and total gift of self to Jesus.


5 Saints You Didn’t Know Are Martyrs