In the wake of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on churches in Sri Lanka, my thoughts turned to the grim reality of Christian martyrdom in modern times.
It is commonly known that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust of World War II. But how many know that in the twentieth century many times that number of Christians were martyed? Indeed the twentieth century was the greatest century of martyrdom in Christian history. While numbers are difficult to pin down (due to political obfuscation), a conservative estimate is that 26 million Christians were murdered for their faith, a great many of these in Russia. (Will the number of martyrs in the twenty-first century climb even higher?)
Soviet Russia shut down the Eastern Catholic Churches in Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania, and executed hundreds of thousands of clergy and millions of lay people. While it is often difficult to tell whether individuals were killed for religious or political views, low estimates place the number Christians martyred by the Soviets at 15-20 million.
Why do we not hear more about the twentieth-century holocaust of Christians? Why do we know nothing of the Mexican martyrs who participated in the Cristero rebellion of 1926-29 against a cruelly secular regime? Or the martyrs of Spain who were brutally executed by Republican forces in the 1936-39 civil war? Or the Christian martyrs killed by the Nazis during WW II, such as Father Alfred Delp, or the young people of the anti-Nazi White Rose movement? (to say nothing of a few names we do recognize: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximillian Kolbe, Edith Stein …)
In short, even after their death, Christian martyrs continue to be persecuted by being relegated to the shadows of history. They are like the “Sixty Million or more” to whom Toni Morrison dedicated her novel Beloved. When I first read this dedication, I misread it as “Six Million,” assuming it referred to the Jewish Holocaust. But no, the figure is sixty million and Morrison was memorializing the Africans who died in the Atlantic slave trade. When asked if the figure was really this high she replied, “Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest figure I heard was 60 million.”
In 2012 I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Our tour group was allotted two hours in that museum, but after two hours I had barely made my way through the first couple of rooms. So moving was the experience that my wife and I spent most of the day there, missing the tour bus and returning to our hotel by public transit.
But where can one go to mourn Christian martyrs? One place is The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island in Rome, with its Icon of the New Martyrs above the high altar. Commissioned by Pope John Paul II in 2002, this icon honors believers of all Christian denominations who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. The basilica also features side chapels devoted to preserving memorabilia of modern martyrs. To cite just one example, here is kept one of the stones used to bludgeon to death the Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko, a beloved leader of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland. The stone was found in the plastic bag containing his battered remains, recovered from the bottom of the Vistula River.
The Basilica of St. Bartholomew memorializes martyrs not just of the twentieth century, but of the twenty-first. While other religious groups currently suffer persecution around the world—including a new backlash against Jews in many western countries in recent years—it is still Christians who endure the lion’s share (so to speak) of contemporary persecution. According to the International Society for Human Rights, 80 percent of the world’s acts of religious persecution in this current century have been directed at Christians.
As signs of Western society’s Christian foundations are more and more eroded, and as the West (consequently) gradually descends into a new Dark Age, we might ask: How pertinent is a discussion of Christian martyrdom to contemporary western believers? In answer, consider a comment—less a prediction than a warning—made by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in 2010: “I expect to die in bed, my succussor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
(Thanks to George Weigel, in “The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island” in his book Letters to a Young Catholic, for some of the facts cited in this post.)
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