“May the Lord receive into His peace these courageous witnesses, these martyrs, and convert the hearts of the terrorists.”
Speaking from the window of his study in the Apostolic Palace, after praying the Regina Caeli with faithful and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square, the pope said:
“I wish to express again my closeness to my dear brother, Pope Tawardros II, and to the whole nation of Egypt, which two days ago suffered another act of ferocious violence. The victims, who included children, were faithful who were traveling to a shrine to pray, and they were killed after they refused to deny their Christian faith. May the Lord receive into His peace these courageous witnesses, these martyrs, and convert the hearts of the terrorists.”
ISIS has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, which killed 29 people and wounded 25.
What is Christian martyrdom?
In the Catholic Church, martyrdom is “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2473).
Sacred Scripture and ancient Christian writings attest that martyrdom dates back to the earliest days of the Church.
While en route to Rome where he met his martyrdom, the early Christian writer and bishop, St. Ignatius of Antioch (c.35 – c.108), wrote a series of letters to the Romans, in which he said of his impending martyrdom: “Neither the pleasures of the world nor the kingdoms of this age will be of any use to me. It is better for me to die [in order to unite myself] to Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. I seek him who died for us; I desire him who rose for us. My birth is approaching …”
In the year 197, the early Christian writer from Carthage (Tunisia), Tertullian, famously wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
On Saturday, during a meeting with clergy and religious in the northern Italian port city of Genoa, Pope Francis paused to pray for the Coptic Christians slain in Friday’s bus attack.
“Let us not forget,” he said, “that today Christian martyrs are more numerous than in ancient times, the earliest days of the Church.”
The martyr’s strength
Before praying the Regina Caeli on Sunday, Pope Francis reflected on the liturgical feast of the Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, which is celebrated today in Italy and in many parts of the world.
The Lord’s Ascension into heaven marks “the conclusion of the mission which the Son received from the Father, and the beginning of its continuation in this mission by the Church,” the pope explained. This mission, he said, which is shared by all the baptized, “will last until the end of history and will enjoy each day the daily assistance of the Risen Lord, who promises: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Mt. 28:20).
The Lord’s presence “brings strength amid persecution, and comfort amid tribulation,” he said.
Indeed, as Benedict XVI explained in 2010, Jesus is source of the Christian martyr’s courage and sacrificial love:
“Where does the strength to face martyrdom come from? From deep and intimate union with Christ, because martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of human effort but the response to a project and call of God, they are a gift of his grace that enables a person, out of love, to give his life for Christ and for the Church, hence for the world. If we read the lives of the Martyrs we are amazed at their calmness and courage in confronting suffering and death: God’s power is fully expressed in weakness, in the poverty of those who entrust themselves to him and place their hope in him alone (cf. 2 Cor 12: 9).”
“Yet it is important to stress that God’s grace does not suppress or suffocate the freedom of those who face martyrdom; on the contrary it enriches and exalts them: the Martyr is an exceedingly free person, free as regards power, as regards the world; a free person who in a single, definitive act gives God his whole life, and in a supreme act of faith, hope and charity, abandons himself into the hands of his Creator and Redeemer; he gives up his life in order to be associated totally with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. In a word, martyrdom is a great act of love in response to God’s immense love” (Benedict XVI, General audience, August 10, 2010).