A year from John now, Pope Paul II will do something that, even in the heightened context of the Jubilee, will have great significance. In a mass at the Roman Colosseum, the site of much early Christian heroism, he will commemorate the Catholic martyrs of the 20th century.
For the world and, alas, even for most Catholics, that event will be viewed—if it is noticed—as merely a bit of self-celebration. But for those of us who take the Faith seriously, it should lead to far deeper reflection. John Paul’s encyclical On the Third Millennium notes that preparing for 2000 has become a “hermeneutical key of my pontificate.”
Perhaps, then, we ought to look at exactly how the martyrs fit into this scheme. The world regards willingness to die for religion as fanaticism, even a death wish. But it is a Christian paradox that dying for the Faith reveals a love for real life. Remembering those who have done so is not nostalgia, but a communion with a living future.
Death is a strange thing for beings like ourselves. On the one hand, it threatens everything. On the other, it gives a meaning to human existence that it might not otherwise have. The Greek gods were often frivolous and vicious, not the least because, as immortals, nothing had serious consequences for them. By contrast, the Greek heroes had gravity precisely because their actions took place amid the fragility of life.
Christianity introduced still deeper truths. It universalized the notion, implicit in Christ’s own death, that God cares very much about what we believe and do and that we may expect people who deny or hate such a God to react violently.
This good news changed the world. When Christian missionaries first came to the Americas, where Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures believed in human sacrifice to the gods, many of them were astonished to find that the new God preached to them had, instead, sacrificed Himself for men. Amid the common charges of forced conversion today, we forget that this truth must have seemed enormously attractive.
In our century, many of the martyrs must have been, like many of us, lukewarm Christians. From the Mexican Revolution, with its systematic persecution of Catholics, to the horrors of fascism, Nazism, and communism, to the ongoing murders and persecutions in Sudan, China, and around the world, thou-sands of ordinary Catholics have been caught up in bloody conflicts.
But amid the mere collateral damage inflicted on believers by dictatorial regimes in this century, there are a few concrete stories of people who heroically resisted pressures to be unfaithful. Not surprisingly, many of these people came from Catholic countries that experienced turmoil. The pope just beatified seven people who died during the Spanish Civil War, carefully explaining that they died for the Faith, not for an ideology. Though the Spaniards were killed by Marxists, like many thousands of believers in the 20th century, other martyrs, notably figures like Archbishop Romero in Latin America, died at the hands of anti-Marxist forces. This does not imply moral equivalence between the two political positions. Rather, it demonstrates that martyrdom involves something—quite other than politics—that both criticizes and is criticized by every society.
We know only a small handful of such martyrs, names like Pro, Stein, Kolbe. Seven Carmelites killed a few years ago in Algeria. A bishop seeking justice here. Some-one speaking out for truth there. But the much larger mass of unknown heroes also deserve our recognition and honor. The century to come, let us hope, will not be marked by the large political tyrannies of this century. But there will be terrible challenges, not least in the developed countries where subtle threats to Christianity will require subtle heroism.
We do not only imitate saints; we are in communion with them. Communion with those who accepted death for the truth in the past will, in the coming century, help us live truer, fuller lives. Perhaps that is why John Paul thinks remembering them is integral to the new springtime for the Church.