Home for Shroud
issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
knows that the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church.
And everyone knows that the "age of the martyrs" took place a long,
long time ago. "Everyone," it turns out, is only half right.
Indeed the Church
has been strengthened beyond measure because of the courageous men and
women, as well as adolescents and children, who willingly shed their
blood as martyrs rather than abandon their faith. But it didn't all
happen in those dim, misty years when Christianity was first finding
its way. In our own timein the 20th century, in factmore
Catholics have lost their lives as martyrs than in any previous century
in the history of the Church. Far more.
Does that sound impossible?
Perhaps. To generations of Catholics who grew up imagining martyrdom
as a relic of Roman times, remembering tales of Christians being "thrown
to the lions," the concept seems foreign today.
'Church of martyrs'
But make no mistake.
In many parts of the world, the 20th century was a dangerous time to
be conspicuously Catholic. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1994 apostolic
letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (The Coming Third Millennium),
"The Church has once again become a Church of martyrs."
To help the world
remember that truth, a number of events and activities are focusing
on modern-day martyrdom during Jubilee Year 2000. In March the Holy
Father beatified as contemporary martyrs 44 people from Vietnam, the
Philippines, Brazil, Thailand and Belarus. Last May the pope honored
thousands of 20th-century "witnesses to the faith" at a ceremony in
the Colosseum, itself the scene of martyrdom in the Church's early days
The Vatican even has
a Holy Year commission for the "new martyrs," headed by Ukrainian Bishop
Michael Hrynchyshyn, who said that the 10,000 "witnesses of the faith"
honored last May represented only "a drop in the bucket." "The striking
thing about this century is the huge number of martyrs on every continent,"
he told Catholic News Service. "Hundreds of thousands of Christians
died because they were Christian."
martyr comes to us from the Greek word for "witness," and certainly
those who were martyrs for the faith witnessed to it in a heroic way.
St. Stephen, stoned to death by a mob for professing his dedication
to Jesus, is generally regarded as the first martyrthe first of
many, many more who would die in order to bear witness to the truth
As the Church
grew and Christian belief gradually permeated Western civilization,
broadly based martyrdom became, for all practical purposes, a thing
of the past. Religious struggles leading up to and following the Reformation
left the Church with a sterling roster of new martyrs, to be sureand
it must be remembered that regrettably, there were some Catholics in
those troubled times all too eager to make martyrs of their opponents.
But for the most part martyrdom in wholesale numbers would not resume
until it became a phenomenon of the 20th century. And when it returned
at last, it did so on a staggering scale.
does it happen that in a time of unparalleled scientific advancement,
ushering in a new age of reason, one group of people can still be willing
to butcher another simply because of religious beliefs? Anyone ready
to write off what has happened as the work of primitive societies alone
is in for a major surprise. As Robert Royal notes in his new book The
Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, "Paradoxically, some
of the most literate and advanced civilizations in the world witnessed
the worst atrocities in the twentieth century." The fact is that for
all the knowledge they might have attained, some human beingssome
nations and some movements as wellstill lust for power. In so
many cases the lust can be all-consuming, overshadowing reason, erupting
in hate, destroying lives in numbers that confound the mind.
Catholic who has been killed in religious and/or political strife during
the 20th century a martyr? Strictly speaking, probably not. Distinctions
exist at various levels. Earlier this year Archbishop Jose Saraiva Martins,
prefect of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, said the term should
be used only for those who died for their faith and were later beatified
or canonized. He suggested the phrase "witnesses of the faith" for other
Catholics who were killed because they professed their faith or promoted
Christian values. (It is this distinction that the Holy See has observed
in its various ceremonies this year.)
direction, author Royal notes that the Church recognizes two categories
of martyrs: those who died for refusing to give up their faith, and
second, those who died in odium fidei (at the hands of persons
with a hatred of the faith). Presumably that would leave many victims
of bloodshed without the title of martyr.
are technical points. Those the Church is recognizing in a special way
this year, those known by name and the countless others whose names
will never be known, are all martyrs in spirit. Each enriched beyond
measure the faith we all share. As the Fathers of Vatican II concluded
in Lumen Gentium: "Martyrdom makes the disciple like the Master....Therefore
the Church considers it the highest gift and supreme test of love."
Defenders of the faith
Who are these heroic
men and women? In one sense, people very much like uspeople who
never expected to be honored as martyrs, any more than we might. But
for them, it really happened. And thus we are bound to them, bound by
a debt that can never be fully repaid.
Some of their names
are well known to most Catholics: Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador,
a champion of the poor who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in
1980; St. Edith Stein, a convert from Judaism to Catholicism who died
at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1942; Blessed Father Miguel
Pro, a Jesuit executed by the harshly anticlerical Mexican government
in 1927; St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan priest
who gave up his life for that of a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz in 1942;
and Jean Donovan, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Ita
Ford and Maura Clarke, assaulted and brutally murdered by Salvadoran
government troops in 1980.
Martyrdom has been
an occupational hazard for missionaries throughout the centuries. During
the short and bloody history of the Boxer Uprising in China at the opening
of the 20th century, brutalities were commonplace and widespread. More
than 40,000 Christians were martyred, including bishops, priests, men
and women religious and laypersons. Among them were Franciscan Father
Gregory Grassi and his companions, who were hacked to death for preaching
The Vatican's May
remembrance of "witnesses to the faith" included many who were not Catholics,
among them German Lutheran Pastor Paul Schneider, who died in the Nazi
camp at Buchenwald in 1939. A Catholic priest described how Pastor Schneider
would try to preach each day during the daily roll call: "On Easter
Sunday, for instance, we heard the powerful words: 'Thus says the Lord:
I am the Resurrection and the Life!'...He could never utter more than
a few phrases. Then we would hear raining down on him the blows of the
It is hardly accidental
that the Holy See chose to recognize martyrs of other denominations,
since all Christians suffered together in the 20th century. In Soviet
prisons, for example, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants were all victims.
Acknowledging this reality, Pope John Paul emphasized that martyrdom
is a sign of unity.
Another factor stands
out in the history of the "new martyrs" of the 20th century: So many
of them suffered not at the hands of individuals, but under whole inhuman
systems. That is obvious in reviewing 20th-century martyrdom, beginning
in China with the Boxer movement.
The Mexican persecution
(roughly 1917-1940) preceded the deadly civil war in Spain. History
books here have largely painted the Spanish conflict as a heroic struggle
against Fascism, but in fact persecution by the Second Republic was
deadly for Catholics: 13 bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 religious men
and 282 religious women lost their lives, as did thousands of lay men
and women. It turned out to be the greatest Christian persecution since
the days of the Roman empireup until that time.
Then came the World
War II-era persecutions by the Nazis and the Communists, extending long
into the postwar yearskilling Jews, Christians and others on a
scale that still defies belief. Africa saw many vicious anti-Christian
campaigns, particularly in the latter half of the century; Asia witnessed
the long-standing Chinese persecutions, among others; struggles related
to justice and peace go on in Latin America, taking with them the lives
of many innocent followers of Jesus.
Pope John Paul is determined that
the Church will never forget this tragic truth, and his personal stamp
is on much of its ceremonial remembrances this year. "The Church in
every corner of the earth must remain anchored in the testimony of the
martyrs and jealously guard their memory," the pope wrote two years
The "testimony" goes on, showing
no signs of letting up. In 1998, for example, 39 missionaries were killed
around the world. Last year the total was 31. Many were killed in trouble
spots: East Timor, Congo, Colombia....The list is far too long.
"The blood of these brothers and
sisters is the seed of new Christians, the seed of reconciliation and
hope," Pope John Paul said as he prayed for martyred missioners last
The Holy See's campaign of remembrance
for modern-day martyrs has been a vital component and a steady fixture
of Jubilee Year ceremonies, and beyond doubt it has had an impact by
raising awareness of a phenomenon that most Catholics used to think
was part of ancient history. It has led, too, to some thoughtful reflections
about what it all meansincluding this one by Father Marco Gnavi,
secretary of the New Martyrs Commission for the Jubilee Year. In an
interview with the International Fides News Service, he addressed the
topic with special eloquence:
"Martyrdom in the 20th century
spells out a message of love and the Gospel; it is always a choice for
life, not for death. The new martyrs show how to live the Beatitudes
in our day. These religious and lay people, men and women belonging
to different churches and communions, tell us that it is worth opposing
evil with daily choices of love, charity, reconciliation and fidelity
to the Gospel. Their example is a pressing call to have the courage
of our Christian convictions, not to be afraid of exercising Christian
virtues. And it is a call to unity in faith in Christ."
Gerald M. Costello,
retired editor-in-chief of Catholic New York, is administrator
of The Christophers, New York. His third book, Our Sunday
Visitor's Treasury of Catholic Stories, was published last year.
In almost any setting Auxiliary Bishop Mario Rios
of Guatemala City would stand out as a person of courage, one
who speaks his mind and devotes his days to creating a new and
better day for his fellow Guatemalans. But add to it the fact
that his predecessor was martyred in April 1998 for exhibiting
the very same qualities.
The brutal slaying of Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi
occurred two days after the veteran human-rights campaigner
issued a damning report of abuses committed during Guatemala's
long civil war in which 200,000 people died. The report blamed
most of the atrocities on the military. Although the murder
remains unsolved, members of the country's security forces are
thought to be responsible.
"I'm convinced he was a martyr," Bishop Rios said
of his longtime friend who founded the Human Rights Office in
Guatemala City, an office Bishop Rios now heads. "And I believe
I am walking in his footsteps," Bishop Rios told Millennium
Monthly during a recent visit to the U.S. "If Bishop Gerardi
could come back to see the way things are now, I believe he
would tell me: 'Compadre, you are doing very well. You are on
the right track.'"
The path Bishop Rios pursues as head of the Social
Ministry Office in Guatemala City (which includes the Human
Rights Office), is an arduous one. His country's 36-year civil
war has ended, "but the violence is worse than ever," he says.
"The human rights of the poor are continually violated. My greatest
hope," he continues, "is that everyone from the oldest person
to the youngest recognizes his dignity and does not resign himself
to a life that is not humane. This history of the culture of
death we have lived has to be transformed into a true culture
of life and peace."
Bishop Rios, 68, does not believe his own life
is at risk. "Another murder of a bishop? This is not going to
happen again," he insists, noting that it would be unwise for
Bishop Gerardi's killers to surface again in light of the international
outrage over his murder. Bishop Rios concedes that "threats
arrive" on occasion, but he dismisses them with a wave of the
hand. "If I had to live from moment to moment, I wouldn't get
anything done. I'm in this 100%."
Whatever the risks, Bishop Rios continues to walk
in the footsteps of his predecessor in pursuit of "a different
Guatemala," a better Guatemala.*
by Judy Ball
Home for Shroud
The long lines of Holy Year pilgrims have disappeared. The
velveteen-draped railings are gone. St. John the Baptist Cathedral
in Turin, Italy, has returned to serving its parishioners and
visitors as in the past. From mid-August to late October, throngs
flocked to the cathedral to view the Shroud of Turin, believed
by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus and a poignant symbol
of his suffering.
It will likely be another 25 years before the cloth is brought
out for public display. But between now and 2025, the 14-by-4-foot
Shroud of Turin has found a home in a new storage system: a
fire-resistant, bullet-proof case which, with a support cart,
weighs more than one ton. Archbishop Severino Poleto of Turin
told Catholic News Service of the dual benefits of the new case:
"It will keep the shroud laid out flat and not rolled up like
before, and it guarantees that exposure to light and environmental
influences during public displays don't damage the image."
Over the years the shroud has suffered damage from fire, water
and exposure. Its new storage system pleases the archbishop:
"We have a great responsibility to the Church but also to the
world to preserve the image."*