A visitor this past week came from Italy. Don Angelo Romano, the priest who is responsible for the church of St. Bartholomew on the Tiber Island, was passing through Chicago after giving a talk at a conference at the University of Notre Dame. The conference was entitled “Seed of the Church: telling the story of today’s Christian martyrs.”
The church on the Tiber Island served by Father Romano is my titular church as a cardinal priest of the Holy Roman Church. Priests and bishops always have titles, for Holy Orders is not a personal privilege but a relationship. Christ’s people are part of a priest’s life as a wife is integral to her husband’s life. A man cannot marry without a particular woman as his wife. A diocesan priest cannot be ordained without a particular church, a diocese, as the object of his love and service. As a bishop, my life is related to the Archdiocese of Chicago; that is my title. As a cardinal, I am a member of the presbyterate of Rome, responsible for a church in Rome and therefore able to serve as an advisor to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In fact, Don Angelo Romano takes pastoral responsibility for St. Bartholomew’s, where he serves many young people who belong to the Community of San Egidio, a group that cares for poor people and works for international peace.
He spoke at the conference at Notre Dame University because my church in Rome has become a shrine to the Christian martyrs of the last century and today. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant martyrs are commemorated at the side altars of my church of St. Bartholomew. The St. Egidio community’s work for world peace has brought them face to face with the brutal fact of persecution of the church around the world.
It is difficult to estimate how many men, women and children have been killed for their faith, but one respected researcher, Professor Todd Johnson, a Protestant expert on religious demography, has come up with the number of 70 million Christian martyrs since New Testament times. Two thousand years is a long time, and the number is plausible. What is surprising and frightening is that the same researcher estimates that over half of the martyrs, about 45 million Christians, were martyred in the last century, most of them victims of Nazi and Communist persecution. The killings continue into this century, with about 100,000 new martyrs each year. This means that 11 Christians have been killed every hour for the past 10 years, and the killings continue. The places where Christians are martyred now are mostly parts of Africa and of Asia: Congo, Sudan, Nigeria, India, Iraq, Syria.
Faced with opposition to the faith, one can either resist or dialogue or, as has happened frequently enough, abandon the faith, at least publicly. The tactic chosen will often depend on the nature of the adversary. The situation in China, for example, leaves Christians divided between the party of dialogue (members of the official government controlled church) and the party of resistance (members of the underground and imprisoned church). The two churches leave many confused and discouraged and, by default, allow the government to control all believers.
In the first centuries of Christianity, it was said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. The then pagans, worshipers of the official government gods of pagan mythology, were sometimes converted to the Christian faith, which is based upon revelation and reason and not on myth, because they had witnessed people go to their death rather than deny their faith in Christ. The pagans were also impressed by the way of life of the early Christians: see how they love one another. Anyone who has read the epistles of St. Paul knows that the early church was a contentious community, but there was a way of life that drew believers out of their own individual dreams and self-interest into a community of life and love. Catholic customs more clearly defined that way of life 50 years ago than they do today.
Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council called on Catholics to evangelize, to convert the world to Christ alive in his body, the church. For various reasons, that call was transformed and reduced into a concern for social action without direct witness to Christ. For some, the church became only an agency of assistance and aid to remedy the injustices of society. Gospel “values” replaced the Gospel itself. Pope Paul VI, recognizing the danger to the church’s mission, wrote in 1975 that “even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if … the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed.”
If the church as a whole had responded to the council’s call to evangelize 50 years ago, perhaps the call to a new evangelization would be less urgent today. In the kingdom of God, it is never too late, whether to forgive the church’s persecutors or to convert the enemies of the faith. If we are to transmit the faith in order to transform the world, the first challenge is to ourselves: how do we become credible witnesses to Christ in today’s world? We need help from martyrs, from their prayers and from their example.
A prayer for the new evangelization ends: God, our Father, I pray that through the Holy Spirit I might hear the call of the new evangelization to deepen my faith, grow in confidence to proclaim the Gospel and boldly witness to the saving grace of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”
This column first appeared in the Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for November 18 to December 1, 2012.