Saints

As violence against Christians escalates, lessons in martyrdom for WYD pilgrims

The killing of French priest Jacques Hamel follows a disturbing trend in violence

Young people attending World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, will perhaps be aware as never before of the dangers facing Christians around the world.

The point has been driven home by the death this week of French priest Jacques Hamel, killed by Islamic State sympathizers while saying Mass.

Father Hamel’s bishop, Archbishop Dominique Lebrun, cut short his stay in Krakow to return to Rouen, where the parishioners of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray have been in shock.

But as others are pointing out, Father Hamel’s martyrdom is but one in a long line of attacks on priests and Christian laity around the globe, a phenomenon that may be increasing in frequency.

John L. Allen, author of The Global War on Christians, bluntly suggested that speakers who came to Krakow ready to give catechetical talks or homilies to the young people simply scrap those talks and focus on the martyrdom that so many are undergoing.

“For the rest of this week, young pilgrims taking part in WYD will be experiencing a series of catechetical and formation sessions, led by bishops and other world-class teachers, apologists and experts,” Allen wrote at Crux, where he is editor. “In light of what’s happened, whatever pre-packaged talk a given presenter had ready probably should be tossed out the window, and instead WYD should use this chance to educate young Catholics around the realities of anti-Christian violence around the world.”

The numbers Allen reports are eye-opening:

Here are the realities to which the WYD pilgrims should be exposed.

The high-end estimate for the number of Christians killed for the faith in the world today every year, which comes from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, is around 100,000. Other observers believe the number is much lower, perhaps closer to 8,000. (Much depends on how one defines a death “for the faith.”)

Even that low-end estimate, however, works out to one new martyr every hour of every day. That means that during the one week these young people will be having a blast in Krakow, somewhere around the world, at least 168 Christians will make the supreme sacrifice for the faith.

Allen provides a number of real-life examples. None, perhaps, is more striking than the story of Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, who was serving in Kandhamal in India. She and a local priest, Father Thomas Chellen, were dragged into the streets by frenzied Hindu radicals shouting “Kill Christians!”

Barwa, the niece of Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, was raped by at least one man – she can’t remember the number, as she lost consciousness during the attack – and later was paraded through the streets of the village semi-naked while the mob continued to howl. Today Barwa is working on a law degree to fight for justice for other victims, and she takes comfort in a spiritual explanation of her ordeal.

“Because Jesus Christ wasn’t a woman, there were certain kinds of suffering he couldn’t experience in his own body in order to save the world,” she says. “I like to think I helped to complete his sacrifice.”

A former Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, Allen acknowledges that WYD is already set up for “a meaningful and eye-opening education” on today’s martyrs. On Friday, for example, during the Way of the Cross, Christians from Iraq will pray the Our Father in Aramaic, and their bishop will be speaking at a center for English-language pilgrims sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.

Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.