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The Vatican says a newborn martyr had a ‘baptism of blood.’ What does that mean?

Wiktoria Ulma with six of her children. / The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II.

CNA Staff, Sep 14, 2023 / 12:22 pm (CNA).

All nine members of the Ulma family, who were murdered by the Nazi regime for sheltering two Jewish families in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, were beatified on Sunday, marking the first time an entire family was beatified at once.

In December 2022, Pope Francis declared the family martyrs, including the youngest of the seven children, an unnamed baby who was born at the moment of its mother Wiktoria’s execution by Nazi officers. 

Some news reports incorrectly reported that the baby was the first unborn child to be beatified. The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints clarified Sept. 5 that the child was a newborn, adding that it received a “baptism of blood” and was therefore included among the martyrs.

So, what exactly is a “baptism of blood?” And what exactly is a martyr?

CNA spoke with two theologians, Father Anthony R. Lusvardi, SJ, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Father Thomas Petri, OP, president of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., to shed some light on the topics.

What happened to the Ulma family?

Following the Nazi regime’s occupation of Poland during World War II, it sought mass extermination of the Jewish people, including those in the Ulma family’s small town of Markowa in southeastern Poland, which, today, is near the border of Ukraine.

In 1941, the Nazis made harboring Jews a crime punishable by death in occupied Poland. Despite the danger, the Ulmas hid two Jewish families on its farm. In the middle of the night of March 23-24, 1944, the Ulmas’ tiny home was surrounded by the Nazi patrol.

The German officers discovered and killed the eight Jews: Saul Goldman and his sons Baruch, Mechel, Joachim, and Moses, along with the Ulmas’ neighbors, Gołda Grünfeld and Lea Didner, and their young daughter, Reszla.

Then the Nazis forced 44-year-old Józef and 31-year-old Wiktoria Ulma out in front of their home and shot and killed the entire family.

Along with the unnamed newborn baby, the children’s names are Stanisława, 7; Barbara, 6; Władysław, 5; Franciszek, almost 4; Antoni, 2; and Maria, 1.

What is a martyr?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that martyrdom “is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: It means bearing witness even unto death.” 

If a person is martyred, it means he or she is among the saints in heaven, Father Petri told CNA. 

Why is the Ulma family considered martyrs if they weren’t told to deny their faith?

Father Lusvardi said someone is considered a martyr when killed out of hatred for the faith. It is not necessary that the perpetrator demand that a martyr deny the faith at the time of his or her death.

“Other martyrs, like St. Thomas Becket or St. Oscar Romero, come to mind who were ambushed by assassins and not asked to deny the faith; but they were killed out of hatred for the faith and they continued to be faithful right up until the end, to bear witness up to the moment of death,” he said.

At the Ulmas’ beatification Mass in Markowa on Sunday, Father Witold Burda, postulator of the cause of beatification, said the family’s martyrdom resulted from the Nazis’ motive.

Those who called for the massacre, the commander Eilert Dieken and the gendarme Józef Kokott, “were moved — we read in the postulation — by anti-Semitic hatred and an even prevalent anti-Christian aversion,” Burda said.

Why is the newborn, who was unbaptized, also considered a martyr? 

The Vatican’s note said that the child received a “baptism of blood” as a result of being murdered.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that although baptism is necessary for salvation, God is not “bound” by the sacrament of baptism.

So what is a ‘baptism of blood?’

Baptism of blood is a term used when referring to the martyrdom of a Christian who has not yet been baptized, according to Lusvardi.

The catechism says: “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” (No. 1258).

Petri said that St. Augustine taught in his book “City of God” that “anyone who dies for Christ without baptism is freed from their sins just as if they had been baptized in water.”

Petri pointed to the Holy Innocents as an example, when King Herod the Great of Judea attempted to kill the newborn baby Jesus by ordering the slaughter of “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under,” as Matthew 2:16 records.

“The Holy Innocents are revered as martyrs for the infant Jesus,” he added.

Lusvardi said that both the Ulma newborn and the Holy Innocents are “very special cases” because “most of the time when we talk about bearing witness, we think of someone who professes belief explicitly and sticks to that belief even in the face of violence.” 

“But I think that by recognizing such little ones as martyrs, we’re recognizing that even if they didn’t give testimony to Christ with their words, their brief lives in some way still pointed the way to him,” he added.

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