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Contemporary Martyrs
by Gerald M. Costello

Everyone 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 time—in the 20th century, in fact—more 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 in Rome.

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."

Heroic witness

The word 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 martyr—the first of many, many more who would die in order to bear witness to the truth of Christ.

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 sure—and 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.

Why? How 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 beings—some nations and some movements as well—still 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.

Defining terms

Is every 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.)

In another 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.

But these 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 us—people 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 faith.

Inclusive observance

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 guards' truncheons."

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 empire—up until that time.

Then came the World War II-era persecutions by the Nazis and the Communists, extending long into the postwar years—killing 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.

Timeless testimony

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 ago.

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 year.

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 means—including 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.



Bishop Mario Rios 

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



New 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."*



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