ASK FATHER: If a priest keeps hearing confessions, contracts Coronovirus and dies, is he a martyr?

From a reader…


Father, if a priest catches China Flu while hearing confession and dies of it, is he not a martyr? Why the fuss; mask up, disinfect, wash hands, hear confession. If my priest believes what the Church teaches, he will hear my confession. If he reads up on the subject, he would know that social distancing does not work as effectively as a pair of gloves, soap and water, and a spray bottle of disinfectant.

This is a good question.

Before anything else, I must underscore that a priest and penitent could use mobile phones for confession provided that they are fairly close together, so they can see each other and are at least morally present to each other.  This doesn’t work for you when you are across town.  You have to be close.

Is a priest a martyr if he hears auricular confessions, at close distance, even taking precautions.

No.  Not unless the person or persons who went to the priest, knew they were infectious and wanted purposely to give the disease to the priest because they hated Christ, the Christian Faith, or some necessary aspect of the Faith.  In that case, they could stab, shoot, or give the priest a disease with the intention to kill him from hatred for the Faith.  That would be martyrdom, even if it takes a while for the priest to die.

On the other hand, there is another path to beatification between the cause of a servant of God who lived the life of heroic virtue and the cause of a martyr for the Faith.

There is now a path called vitae oblatio… offering one’s own life, having lived a life of virtue at least in an ordinary way.  [Motu Proprio Apostolic Letter]

The offering of life, in order that it be valid and efficacious for the beatification of a servant of God, must correspond to the following criterion:
a) the free and willing offering of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of a certain death and in a brief time limit;
b) the exercise, at least in an ordinary degree, of the Christian virtues before the offering of life and, thereafter, until death;
c) the existence of reputation of holiness (fama sanctitatis) and signs, at least after death;
d) the necessity of a miracle for beatification, taking place after the death of the servant of God and through his intercession.

This sort of iter or path to beatification is between that of a confessor and a martyr.

This sort of iter would be helpful for cases such as that of St. Maximilian Kolbe, beatified by Paul VI as a confessor, but canonized by John Paul II as a martyr.

This would be the case of, say, a woman, trying to live a devout life, who refuses to have an abortion even though the pregnancy might kill her, like St. Gianna Beretta Molla.  She wasn’t a martyr.  It would not have been necessary to demonstrate a life of heroic virtues.

This would apply to Fr. Vincent Capodanno, the heroic Navy Chaplain killed in Vietnam while trying to give last rites to a wounded Marine.  Yut! He wasn’t killed for hatred of the Faith, so he wasn’t a martyr.  It would not be necessary to demonstrate all the virtues lived in a heroic way.  “Heroic” here has nothing to do with his heroism in the fire fight during which he was killed.  It has to do with the way he lived all the identifiable virtues.

We have the ancient teaching about “red” or bloody martyrdom for the sake of charity whereby the martyr dies giving witness in the face of hatred for the Faith.  There is also a long tradition of identifying “white” martyrdom, coined by St. Jerome, whereby a person gives witness through an ascetic life, withdrawal from the world, pilgrimages involving great sacrifice, or who suffers greatly for the Faith but who does not die in bearing witness. There is also a “blue” (or “green”) martyrdom, involving great penance and mortifications without necessarily the sort of withdrawal from life that a hermit or a cenobite might live.  Gregory the Great in his Dialogues, writes of different kinds of martyrdom, bloody, public martyrdom in time of persecution and secret martyrdom, not in time of persecution.  He wrote that secret martyrs are no less worthy of honor, because they also endured sufferings and the attacks of hidden enemies, but they persevered in charity.

A priest who puts himself in danger of contagion by hearing confessions could be in this category.

However, it would have to be demonstrated that he still did exercise the virtue of prudence.  Thus, he would have to take precautions and not simply ignore the real threat of the virus being transmitted to him from penitents and… the other way around… once infected transmitted it to penitents.  Unless the situation was incredibly dire, like to that of plague in the past with overwhelming numbers of bodies and remaining obligation to care for the sick, the priest would not be prudent.

In that matter, I think of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a saint who, I hope, will inspire young people today.  HERE  He was from one of the most powerful and wealthy of families, and was inflexible and selfish.  He joined the Jesuits and was in Rome in the time of plague.  He eventually was so moved by the suffering of the sick and dying that he spent great energy and time helping them.  He too died of plague at 23 years old.

St. Charles Borromeo gave Aloysius his First Communion and St. Robert Bellarmine was his confessor.

Holiness pays it forward.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Modern Martyrs, Saints: Stories & Symbols, The Coming Storm, The future and our choices and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mamajen says:

    My priest is continuing to hear confessions, for which our parish is VERY grateful. Based on reports from others here, I made sure to go while I still can. Things change quickly.

    I have had conversations with others who express the same sentiment as the questioner here about priests, and sainthood, and risking one’s personal health for the flock. I think there is a detail that some are overlooking: the average age of priests here in the US is in the 60s. A significant number of our priests are in the most at risk (for death) age groups. My diocese is experiencing a severe shortage, and in my “pastoral care area” they were already working on a plan to whittle five priests down to two, and those two are not spring chickens. I think we have one seminarian right now. I pray that my priest stays healthy!

    Let’s not assume that anyone is trying to save his own skin or doesn’t care enough about “the flock.” It’s complicated. Our bishops and priests are making difficult decisions in an uncertain time. For some it’s hard to think creatively right now. As a parent of young kids, I can relate. Let’s pray for them.

  2. Uxixu says:

    Martyr? Probably not. It would be a great witness, though. I reminded of this from Abp “Dagger” John Hughes of New York:

    “During the 1834 cholera epidemic in Philadelphia, which nativists blamed on Irish immigrants, Hughes worked tirelessly among the sick and dying, while many Protestant ministers fled the city to escape infection. After the disease subsided, Hughes wrote the U.S. Gazette that Protestant ministers were “remarkable for their pastoral solicitude, so long as the flock is healthy, the pastures pleasant, and the fleece lubricant, abandoning their post when disease begins to spread dissolution in the fold.” He pointed to the work of the Catholic Sisters of Charity, who had cared for cholera victims without regard for their own safety, and wondered where all the people who spoke about perversion in the convents had gone during the epidemic.”

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