Pope John Paul II's teaching on the martyrs of our century
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Vicente Carcel Orti

It must first of all be said that the Holy Father's magisterium on martyrdom, on the martyrs and religious persecutions of our century is most abundant and difficult to summarise in one brief article. It is enough to recall that Pope John II has so far presided no less than thirty beatifications or canonizations of martyrs of the 20th century. For these events he usually makes three separate addresses on three different occasions: in his homily during the Mass, at the Angelus prayer afterwards, and when he receives in a special audience the pilgrims who have come to Rome for the beatification or canonization. To these must be added numerous interventions by the Holy Father regarding the death of bishops, priests, Religious or lay people, in various parts of the world, killed for the faith, especially in mission territories: messages, letters, homilies, reference during the general audiences, or the Angelus. So we will seek to summarise the Holy Father's teaching on this matter, considering only a few essential points.

The memory of martyrs in the Tertio Millennio Adveniente

«In our own century the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, unknown soldiers as it were of God's great cause». These words of the Holy Father in the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (TMA 37) introduce our commentary on Pope John Paul II's teaching on the martyrs of the 20th century.

They are men and women who, according to the words of the Holy Father, «have followed Christ in the various forms of the Christian vocation» (ibid). History helps us to unveil the cruelty of persecutions in our century, in particular persecution at the hands of the Nazi and Communist regimes - regarding Christian bishops, priests Religious and lay people - which caused a great sowing of martyrs in many nations of old Europe and on other continents.

The Pope reads the entire history of the Church in the light of a saying by Tertullian (Apol., 50,13 - CCL 1,171-): Sanguinis martyrum, semen christianorum, affirming: «The Church of the first millennium was born of the blood of the martyrs» (TMA 37). Therefore, not the so-called "concession" granted by the Emperor Constantine, guaranteed the successive development of the Church, but rather the "seeds sown by the martyrs" and the "heritage of sanctity" which marked the first Christian generations". Today "the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs" and the same Church, both on the universal and local levels, has the duty not to forget "these nameless, unknown soldiers as it were of God's great cause." A suitable method for not forgetting the memory of the martyrs is to collect the essential documentation of their heroic testimony and update martyrologies. This will also have an ecumenical character and expression because - as Pope John Paul II writes - «Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things which divide us»(ibid). Similar concepts were expressed repeatedly by the Holy Father during an 'extra-ordinary' Consistory in June 1994, and, during the same year, at the Angelus prayer on December 26th, Feast of Saint Stephen first Christian martyr.

The victims of Nazism

In his message on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end, in Europe, of the Second World War (May 8th 1995), the Holy Father reaffirmed the phrase «Never again war! Yes to peace!», recalling that these were common sentiments on that historical date, May 8th 1945. According to the Pope, those six terrible years of war were for everybody a period of growth in the school of suffering: Christians were able to draw closer together and to question their own responsibilities for their disunity. «Beneath the Cross of Christ, members of all the Christian Churches and communities were able to resist even unto the supreme sacrifice. Many of them, with the peaceful weapons of witness in suffering and love, stood up in an exemplary way to their torturers and oppressors. Together with others, believers and non-believers, men and women of every race, religion and nation, they held aloft, high above the mounting wave of violence, a message of brotherhood and forgiveness. On this anniversary - Pope John Paul II continues in that message - how can we fail to remember those Christians, who, bearing witness in the face of evil, prayed for their oppressors and bent down to bind the wounds of all?»

In this period which would relegate Christianity to personal choice and relativise all obligations, these martyrs of Nazism offer us a witness of loyalty to Christ's truth which wherever it shines accepts no compromise. In this way they can be our heavenly intercessors as Patrons of the courage of proclamation and the holiness of marriage and priestly service.

New forms of religious persecution in our century

On the occasion of his apostolic Visit to Lourdes on August 14th 1983, in his address at the end of the torch-light procession, the Holy Father underlined the Church's special love for all who suffer, particularly the victims of injustice, war, terrorism, kidnapping, torture and all human suffering.

This is a fundamental subject if we are to understand the Church's attitude towards new forms of religious persecution which have developed in our century and in our very day, in many countries. «The Church - the Pope said in that address - was born of the Cross of Christ and grew in the midst of persecution». This was true at the beginning in ancient Rome and it was true later on. During the centuries and in various parts there have been persecutions against the Church: believers in Christ gave their life for the faith suffering all kinds of torture. The Church's martyrology was written century after century. The Pope added: «Today I would like to reach out in thought and with the heart of the Church to all those who suffer persecution in our day.

Persecutions today are often similar to those described in the Martyrology of the Church of past centuries. They include various types of discrimination against believers and against the whole community of the Church. Such forms of discrimination are often practised at the sane time as is recognised the right to religious liberty and to freedom of conscience, and this in the law of individual countries as well as in declarations of an international nature. Must I be more specific? In the persecutions of the early centuries, the usual penalties were death, deportation and exile».

The martyrs of Communism

Today, besides prison, concentration camps, forced labour camps, and expulsion from one's country there are other punishments less known but more subtle: not violent death but a kind of civil death, not only isolation in prisons or in a camps but social discrimination or permanent restriction of personal liberty.

There are today hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of witnesses of the faith, all too often ignored or forgotten by public opinion whose attention is drawn elsewhere. They are known only to God. They suffer daily hardships, in various parts of every continent. They include believers, forced to meet in hiding places because their religious community is not legally authorised. They include Bishops, priests, prohibited from exercising their ministry in church or in public gatherings. They include Religious, dispersed, unable to live their life of consecration. They include generous young men prevented from entering a seminary or Religious house of formation and from realising their vocation. They include young women who are denied the possibility of dedicating their lives to a community life of prayer and service to others. They are parents prevented from giving their children an education in the faith. They are men and women, manual workers, intellectuals, or professionals who, simply because they profess their faith, run the risk of being deprived of interesting opportunities for their career or studies.

To these cases can be added the serious and distressing condition of prisoners, internees and exiles not only among Catholics and other Christians but also other believers (cf Redemptor hominis encyclical n. 17). Their plight is like a hymn which rises continually to God from the sanctuary of their conscience, like a spiritual offering certainly pleasing to God. In his address in Lourdes the Holy Father also mentioned "other difficulties in living the faith.

«They are not due - he said - only to external restrictions on freedom or to constraints by men, laws or regimes. They can also derive from customs and ways of thinking contrary to evangelical principles and which have a powerful influence on society. Again it could be the influence of materialism or religious indifference which kill spiritual aspirations, or the false and individualistic notion of freedom which confuses the possibility of choosing whatever gratifies one's passions with concern for fully developing one's human calling, spiritual destiny and the common good. Is it not this kind of freedom which forms the basis of human dignity and encourages Christian faith ?(cf Redemptor hominis, 12). Believers who are surrounded by such influences need great courage to remain faithful and to exercise their freedom properly. We must pray for them also. As Jesus said, we must fear those who can destroy the soul (cf Mt 10,28). In every age the Church has had special care, special remembrance and special love for those who "suffer for the name of Christ". This is evidence of lasting remembrance and constant concern on the part of the Church».

The martyrs speak the language of the Cross

The Pope says that martyrs speak to us in the language of the Cross, because they take us back to the times in which Christians were persecuted. Theirs was a heroic sacrifice, a heritage in which "life and death face each other in a wondrous duel" (Easter Sequence). Death seems to triumph, but through suffering for their faith they share in an exceptional manner in the Cross of Christ, they participate in the divine plan of salvation. The Cross bears the body of Christ until all "is accomplished" and this mystery continues through the history of the world, as does the splendid liberation, wrought by the Cross of calvary. Thanks to this Cross, God will never die in the history of mankind!

The Martyrs are life-giving sap for the unity of the Church

On Sunday August 26th 1996, at his Summer residence in Castelgandolfo, before praying the Angelus, Pope John Paul II said: «In 2000 years of history the supreme trial of martyrdom has often been demanded of Christians. The martyrs of the first Christian age especially live on in our memory. However, in the following centuries many others, both in the East and in the West under different circumstances, have shed their blood for Christ. The unfortunate occurrence of the schism between the Churches does not make their sacrifice less precious!

Martyrs are revered with particular devotion by the People of God who see in them a living portrayal of Christ's Passion. What can be said of the great experience of martyrdom shared by Orthodox and Catholics in the eastern European countries during this century? Persecuted by an implacable atheistic power, many courageous Gospel witnesses "completed" Christ's Passion in their flesh (cf Col 1,24). True martyrs of the 20th century they are light for the Church and for humanity. «Christians in Europe and throughout the world, pausing in prayer before the concentration camps and prisons, should be grateful for the light which they gave: it was the light of Christ, which they caused to shine in the darkness (Apostolic Letter for the Fourth Centenary of the Union of Brest, 12 November 1995, 4).

The blood of martyrs, Tertullian said, is the seed of Christians. It is also a life-giving sap of unity for the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. If at the end of the second millennium, "the Church has become once again a Church of martyrs" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente 37), we can hope that their witness, carefully gathered in the new martyrologies, and above all their intercession may hasten the time of full communion between Christians of all denominations, especially between the venerable Orthodox Churches and the Apostolic See».