Faithfulness to Christ: a call to Unity - Marco Gnavi
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Faithfulness to Christ: a call to Unity - Marco Gnavi

The contemporary studies on the martyr are multiplying, just as is the attention of the churches on the theme of the witness born up to the shedding of blood, throughout the length of the nineteen hundreds. On May 7 in the year 2000, in the heart of the Jubilee, a special moment will be constituted in the celebration of the "New Martyrs" with a clear ecumenical accent. This celebration will signal, with all probability, a high moment which assembles - even if only symbolically - a living fresco of suffering, as well as of faith in Christ throughout history; a faith which in its Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant expressions constitutes to be the most effective call to unity, just as John Paul II strongly affirmed in Tertio Millennio Adveniente. "The ecumenism of the saints and martyrs is probably the most convincing. The communio sanctorum speaks with a stronger voice higher than the element of division." The Pauline expression "ne evacuetur crux," which rang throughout the Pope's prayer on Holy Friday in 1994, can newly evoke from the Coliseum that which the cross witnesses: the victory over death, the strength in resurrection and in the love of the Father.

If the form, the ways and the participation will define themselves in the course of the last year of preparation for the Jubilee, up to now we can affirm that this will represent a unique opportunity for the Churches and the Christian confessions to converge together, making a memory of their sons, who died and lived for the Gospel in the most difficult situations in the history of this century. And this richness can be expressed dossologically in order to give thanks for that which the Spirit was able to accomplish within its church, while at the same time giving back the responsibility of instilling this heredity in the present.

The recent beatification of Sister Restituta Kafka draws to the attention of Catholics the life and the death of a woman who for the love of the cross was not afraid of death. Arrested by the Gestapo in Modling in Austria, on Ash Wednesday of 1942, she was imprisoned up to the day of her execution and condemned to death a year later, which was carried out be decapitation. The national-socialist regime, as in the case of Tito Brandsma and numerous others, incarnated the totalitarian expression of an anti-Christian system, in its expressions and in its nature: aimed at annihilating the soul of man, to disfigure him in the perversions of racial theories, all this did not kill Sister Restituta's love for Christ and for man.

Many cases could be cited: recently Monsignor Moll, of the German Episcopal Conference in charge of updating the martyrology, indicated in a recent article the emblematic case of four Christians of Lubecca, killed on November 10, 1943, after having been arrested in the previous spring by the Gestapo.1 The first to fall in the hands of the Nazis was the evangelical pastor Karl Friederich Stellbrink, it seems because of some of his preaching. That lead to the discovery of his contact with Catholic priests, thus, on May 28, 1942 the chaplain Johannes Prassek was arrested. He was active in the parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On June 15, 1942, it was the turn of the leaders of youth groups of that same parish, the vicar Lange, and a week later Eduard Muller was captured. The popular tribunal, which took place from June 23 to June 25 of 1943, put in evidence the indecent lightness to which the judges made clear from the start that each would be put to death. All were killed by the guillotine. All of them walked together towards their death reciting the losung "Eternal Faith to Christ Our King" (The prayer book of Protestant Lutherans). In this context, the author also cites the movement of the White Rose, which in 1942/43 called for the rebirth of a new Germany, beginning with a new Christian spirit. Hans and Sophie Scholl, pietists, were pushed to undertake this activity because of profoundly religious reasons, and joining them were the Catholic Kurt Huber, a teacher at the university of Munich, Willi Graf, a student of medicine and the married student Christian Probst, who came from Murnau, a city in Bavaria. The latter was baptized in his prison cell (he later died there) by a Catholic priest. With them was also Alexander Schmorell, a Russian Orthodox. In 1943, they were all decapitated in the Stadelheim prison, in Munich.

These examples are followed in other contexts by the immersion of a "geography of suffering," which highlights the tribute of the blood of Christians who belonged to different Churches and confessions and is corroborated by the words of John Paul II: "We are united against the backdrop of martyrs; we cannot but be united," between Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, the Solovki Islands, all the extermination camps...the tragic epilogue of the Russian Orthodox monastery Spaso-Preobazhenskij, (of the Transfiguration of the Savior) can symbolically mean the agonizing and kinetic route of thousands of Christians. Founded in the first half of the XV century by the Monk Sabbazio, on the Island of Solovki in the Baltic See, it was taken by the Soviets in 1923 and transformed into a detention center by Felix Dzerzinskij, the fonder of the notorious Ceka band.2 Its chapels, the monk's cells became unwelcoming prisons and became witnesses of degrading crimes against humanity. To call to memory what happened inside this lager is not an easy task. The Memorial association tried to accomplish it, by researching the archives of the NKVD of the Ceka and of the Gpu at length. At long last, they came up with a list of the victims, and particularly the lists naming the 1,111 prisoners who were deported to the concentration camp, and who were shot to death in the course of three days, probably in the months of October/November of 1937. The names and the place were the victims came from were covered, in the lists of the NKVD, by letters and numbers. Only some of the names on the list had a place of residence registered, the place of their arrest and their social position. The annotations in the margins revealed the reason why many of the victims were persecuted: scores of them were Catholic priests, four were Russian Orthodox Bishops, and one person was noted as "head of the Russian Baptist Church." If, for the agents of the Soviet repression the "number" covering the personal identity of each witness of faith aimed to cancel their identity, to Christians it reveals something else, and in deciphering the meaning there is evidence of the treasure of faith, of peaceful resistance, the assimilation to the suffering of Christ.

In this sense, Nazi totalitarianism and Russian totalitarianism were not able to "stamp out" this soul which wet the lands washed by persecution with the blood of the sons of the universal Church, different in belonging to various confessions, but united in their abandon towards Christ and in the sad events which transpired, beyond the tensions which the social contexts provoked or highlighted. The common memory also takes on the value of a debt which the generations of believers of this final century must and can uniquely recognize because of all the richness of faith they passed on, through the ultimate test of persecution and death. This memory could also be the "demonstration of the omnipresent presence of the Redeemer, through the fruits of faith, of hope and of charity in men and women of many languages and races, who followed Christ in the distinct forms of Christian vocation."3 Perhaps the space of the ecumenical memory of the martyrs is more vast than the criteria and the sensibilities of each Church.

Many are the encouraging signs. In answer to the invitation of Pope John Paul II, following the publication of the Encyclical Ut unum sint, the Anglican Church of England did not fail to highlight the value of the witness of the martyrs of the XX century, in an ecumenical perspective, while in Canterbury Cathedral a chapel will be reserved for the statutes of 12 of them, belonging to different Churches and confessions. In Romania, a volume has been published by the Orthodox diocese of Cluj, containing brief biographical notes of about 1,700 Christian victims of the Ceaucescu regime: among them are Orthodox, but also Latin Catholics, Greek Catholics and Protestants. Amongst the reformed, the Valdese pastor Raolo Ricca in November of 1996 wrote "The Encyclical of John Paul II and the Ecumenical Answers of the Churches." In it, he underlined the novelty of the important ecumenical need starting with the "courageous testimony of the many martyrs of our century," there where they "constitute a kind of anti litteram community, actually, the avantguard of the ecumenical movement. From the places of their martyrdom, they solicit Christians to accelerate the road towards unity...we could say that they are the ones who are the prophets of unity...their blood is not only the semen christianorum, but also the semen unitatis."4 The interest then, of many of the ancient Oriental Churches has many times been seen...There are only some absolute examples, not exhaustive but indicative of a climate of growing anticipation, which we hope to find in the memory on May 7 of a happy ecumenical expression.

The author of the letter to Diogneto could perhaps address his words of exhortation to the witnesses of faith of the XX century: "Every foreign land is for them a country and each country is a foreign land...They spend their lives on earth but they are citizens of the heavens...We forget them, we condemn them, kill them and through that they gain eternal life. They are poor and become rich in great numbers. They have nothing, but they have everything. They are despised and in that hatred they find glory. They are slandered and at the same time we render witness to their justice."

1. Cfr. Helmut Moll, Glaubenszeignis durch Lebenshingabe, in Communio, September-October 1997, pp. 429-439.

2. Cfr. Giovanni Bensi, Le fosse dei Gulag, in Avvenire, July 13, 1997, p. 22; Alexander Solzenicyn, Archipelago Gulag.

3. Orientale lumen, n. 37.

4. Complete text, published in Mondo e Missione, January 1997, pp. 11-14.