Martyrs Today

It may be hard for some to believe that two-thirds of all the martyrs in Christian history died as recently as our twentieth century.

But facts are facts. In conjunction with the Jubilee Year 2000, the Pope established a Commission on New Martyrs which for the last five years has been collecting testimonies from around the world of people who died for their faith in the last hundred years. Last year, the Commission published its first record with the names of – believe it or not – more than thirteen thousand Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant witnesses of the faith, and the project continues.

This is a staggering number. And it may seem far-fetched. Since when – some may ask – have Christians been a serious threat to anyone? In a culture that tells us that religion is a private matter, the very public witness of martyrdom can be somewhat embarrassing. And so it is kept well hidden. Even today – in Sudan, North Korea and elsewhere – Christians are still dying for their faith.

This silence in the Christian world, contrasts sharply with the secular papers, which constantly speak of martyrs when they speak of the suicide killers in the Muslim world. However the Muslim ‘sahid’ is very different from the Christian martyr.

“The Christian martyr does not commit suicide to kill others,” Andrea Riccardi, a professor of the history of Christianity and Religions at the University of Rome notes. “The Christian martyr gives his life so that others will not die, so as not to abandon his own faith, and to support other believers, out of love. He does not insist on vengeance or claims.’

The testimonies are varied. On July 24, 1936, near the start of the Spanish Civil War, Republican militiamen in Guadalajara shot three Carmelite nuns in the middle of a street. They had just left their monastery when they were caught. One was killed instantly. The other at first refused transport to a hospital by a bus driver who wanted to finish her off, the third wandered around dazed until another band of militia executed her. Her last words were ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ In one week, in Madrid and Barcelona alone, 321 priests had been murdered.

Between 1950 and 1953 in Communist North Korea, “50 percent of the hierarchy, one-third of the clergy, and at least fifteen thousand lay persons perished”; many more died in the notorious Death March to the Yalu River.

Hundreds of thousands of Catholics were murdered in Mexico from the 1920s on. Priests, nuns, and lay people were tortured in Soviet labor camps and in German concentration camps. Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe are among the most well known figures.

Sadistic brainwashing techniques were developed against Romanian Catholics, who nonetheless kept attending Mass at a rate of almost 80 percent. “Accidents” befell priests in Lithuania. “Reeducation centers” were established by the North Vietnamese. Missionaries in Angola and the Trappist monks at Tibhirine were murdered for their faith.

In Albania, Catholics-the only religious group that refused to cede power to that Communist state were tortured, their bishops “forced to clean the streets and public bathrooms wearing clown outfits with paper signs across their chests saying, ‘I have sinned against the people.'” In 1967 the Albanian government outlawed religion altogether, and declared the traditional family to be “reactionary.” Over two thousand religious buildings were closed or destroyed, and almost all the clergy were imprisoned. Pope John Paul II has said that “history has never seen before what happened in Albania.”

Under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was “the largest suppressed group of believers in the world.” Today this persecution continues in North Korea, China and in Sudan.

The stories are overwhelming, all the more so because they all tell the same tale. Simone Weil once wrote that while imaginary evil is romantic and exciting, real evil is “gloomy, monotonous, barren, and boring.” For all the perverse ingenuity of their methods of destruction, there is a terrifying sameness to the regimes. Robert Royal in his book ‘Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History’ recounts page after page of appalling stories of interrogations, torture, brainwashing, deception, and killing sprees-all aimed at wiping out faith in anything other than the State, and especially faith in a God who transcended the State.

The most moving passages however in Royal’s book have to do not with torture but with the peace these people experienced under this terrible cruelty. “We were never so happy,” said Father Alexandru Ratiu, who spent sixteen years in Romanian prisons. “We never felt the presence of God so intimately; and we never prayed more seriously, confidently, and effectively than in those prison barracks.”

What does all this have to do with us? A lot, because we also are asked to give testimony of our faith! Saint Faustina recounts in her diary that once Jesus Christ told her, ‘there is but one price at which souls are bought, and that is suffering united to My suffering on the cross. Pure love understands these words; carnal love will never understand them.’

Do we understand this? This is the question!


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.