The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Baptist crusader for civil rights and social justice whose life was ended by an assassin's bullet, is a candidate to be proclaimed a martyr for the Christian faith by the Roman Catholic Church.
King's name is among those of more than 10,000 Christians who are being considered for inclusion in the Vatican's list of 20th-century Christian martyrs. They will be honored by Pope John Paul II at a Mass on May 7 at Rome's Colosseum, where hundreds of Christians in the early church met their deaths.
The list of Christians who died for their faith -- called a "martyrology" in the church -- is being compiled at the urging of Pope John Paul during this Great Jubilee Year 2000 to commemorate the third millennium of Christianity.
But if King is named a martyr, he would not be on the track to sainthood. Traditionally, Catholics considered martyrs would receive that designation at the time they were canonized as saints, or beatified, the step before canonization.
"[The pope's] feeling was there were probably as many, if not more, people who have died under religious persecution in the 20th century as died during the great period of persecution that ended in the beginning of the fourth century," said Lawrence Cunningham, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
"There is a difference between compiling this martyrology, which he thinks is a way of ensuring people who died for their faith are not forgotten, and canonization," Cunningham said. "This is not canonization."
King, whose birthday is commemorated this weekend, was shot and killed in April 1968 while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he'd gone to support striking garbage workers.
He and about 30 other Americans were nominated for inclusion in the martyrology by a committee of U.S. Catholic bishops.
"King is a martyr. There's no question about that," said C. Eric Lincoln, a church historian who specializes in the African-American church.
"I would think this would bring not only new respect to the life of Martin Luther King," Lincoln said, "but it should bring new respect to the Catholic church for doing what the Protestants, to whom Martin Luther King belonged, have not done."
King's biographer, Taylor Branch, noted that King is being singled out from many Christians, and even clergy, who were killed for their participation in the civil rights movement.
"It's just that King was the best known," Branch said from his Baltimore home.
But let there be no doubt about King's martyrdom, he added.
"I can't imagine many people who were threatened and warned of impending martyrdom more regularly than King, over a long period of time," he said. "There were many days that he got more than one death threat.
"He was heavily warned and persisted in his beliefs anyway," Branch said. "If that is a qualification for martyrdom, to knowingly pursue a course of faith despite a risk of death, then he qualifies."
Example of Christian faith
If King is proclaimed a martyr, he would be held up by the Catholic church as an example of Christian faith.
"The importance of martyrdom is traced back to the earliest days of the Christian community, and indeed to Judaism," said Roman Catholic theologian Rosann M. Catalano of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore. "Men and women who were martyred for what they believed were held up as the highest form of role model of religious commitment."
The Vatican has been quietly collecting the names of Christians from bishops' conferences and religious orders worldwide.
"It was a process that started a couple of years ago when the Vatican announced the pope wanted to honor men and women who died for their religious faith in the 20th century," said William Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops' conference. "The Vatican has been asking for names from throughout the world."
And King is likely to be one of many non-Catholics included on the list. The Vatican asked Orthodox and Protestant churches to send their own lists of martyrs.
"The church of the first millennium was born of the blood of martyrs. At the end of the second millennium, the church is once again become a church of martyrs," the pope wrote in his 1994 apostolic letter, "On the Coming Third Millennium." "The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants.
Vatican reaches out
Theologians said the gesture shows how far the Vatican has come in its relations with other denominations.
"I can guarantee that this would not have happened 100 years ago, or 50 years ago or 40 years ago," Cunningham said.
Rather, this is a logical progression of the ecumenical reaching out the Catholic church has engaged in since the Second Vatican Council, which began the church's process of modernization in the early 1960s, a process that continues to this day.