“Martyr” is from the Greek word martus, which means witness, and refers to one who stands firm, giving a testimony or witness to the faith. For some Christians, this witnessing has lead to persecution and, ultimately, death. Unlike the non-Christian form of martyrdom, which encourages active violence against the enemy, Christian martyrdom is based solely on witness to the truth. It is the persecutor that will falsely accuse, torture, and may even kill the witness to the Catholic faith.
Every century, beginning with the infant Church in Jerusalem, the Church suffered waves of persecution. Saint Stephen is considered the first martyr in the Church. He suffered death at the hands of the Jews who wanted to stamp out this new religion. Soon the Roman Empire became involved because they saw Christianity as a threat to their pagan way of living. All of the apostles, except John the beloved disciple, were martyrs. It was during the pagan reign of the Roman Empire that Christians suffered most cruelly—death by all sorts of means, such as being eaten by animals in an arena or being flayed and burned. The English Reformation in the sixteenth century saw Catholic Mary, Queen of the Scots, killed by her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth, and many Catholics subsequently lost their lives. In France, during the French Revolution of the seventeenth century, thousands of Catholics loyal to Rome, including priests and religious sisters and brothers, lost their lives at the guillotine. During revolutions in twentieth century Spain and Mexico, Catholic faithful, along with clergy, lost their lives. Pick any century and you will see the Church is persecuted. Their shed blood was the seed of the Church in the future.