Navy SEAL, “martyr of charity”?

Prior to 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” continues (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, California. 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, Michael 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 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.”

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.