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In many churches, especially in the East, one can frequently find icons: images of the face of Jesus or one of the saints, seen as windows to heaven for those who pray before them.
In the San Bartolomeo Basilica on the island in the Tiber in Rome, an unusual icon can be found: that of “the great tribulation” depicting the “contemporary martyrs.” It does not so much point to heaven as it does to earth, directing our eyes to some of the darkest and most inhumane moments of the 20th century.
The icon features a multitude of scenes ranging from the Armenian genocide to the genocide in Rwanda.
In the center, an opened Bible shows the words of Jesus “that they may be one”; around it, Christians from both the East and West who were suffered or were martyred for their faith come together, among them figures such as Russian patriarch Tykhon, who stood up to the Bolsheviks, and German preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis. Above it we can see the barbed wire of concentration camps and below it the trains of deportation.
On the left, various figures are depicted who represent the “martyrs of mercy”: those who risked their lives refusing to abandon the sick entrusted to their care. On the right we can see the mock trials of Communism, and the slander and defamation that characterized the trial of Jesus.
On the bottom of the icon a crumbling city wall can be seen, which represents the breakdown of society when people from various religious or ethnic backgrounds are separated and persecuted. And in the right corner stands Oscar Romero, the archbishop from El Salvador who was shot behind the altar in 1980 because he courageously called for peace and stood up for the poor and vulnerable among his people.
In this church the images of this icon come alive. In one of the side chapels a letter by Trappist monk Christian de Cherger, who was murdered in Algeria, can be seen; he and his brother monks refused to leave the country as it was wrecked by violence in the ’90s. This is the story portrayed in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men. At another side chapel stands the missal of Romero, opened on the same page from which he was reading the moment he was shot during Mass.
This church seems to be filled with death, but as a matter of fact it is full of stories of life and of our humanity.
The church is managed by the members of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic community of laypeople serving the poor, and the icon comes from the hand of one of the community’s icon painters. The community remembers not so much the deaths but the lives of the “new martyrs” visible on the icon. As Andrea Riccardi, founder of the community, explained: “The martyr is not a person who wants to die,” it is a person who wants to live and to work for peace and a humane society, who does not want to abandon the poor, the weak, the sick, even when faced with violence and death. The martyrs are not only those who were killed for their beliefs; they are also those who were killed for putting their beliefs into practice, not only for the Church but for their neighbours and society around them.”
The effort to learn from these people’s lives is an ongoing challenge in the church and in society. As I write these words today on Friday, Pope Francis has been speaking bold words on remembering Romero: he was not only martyred by gunmen, the pope said, but also by fellow bishops and priests after his death, not with guns but with “the hardest stone that exists in the world: the tongue.” And in recent weeks, Europe has seen moments of violence against refugee centers and against certain politicians taking a stand for hospitality.
A martyr, Pope Francis said, is not a person who is relegated to the past and remembered with nostalgia as a nice image in a church. It is a brother or sister who continues to accompany us. Here in San Bartolomeo, where people who are seeking to be close to the poor gather every week to pray, this icon, which speaks of life and humanity more than death, is as alive as it can be.
Zeger Polhuijs is a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio and a seminarian studying at Antonianum, the Franciscan pontifical university of Rome.