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Pope Francis is dedicating his weekly Wednesday catechesis to the theme of sharing the Good News of Christ and on this April 19, he reflected on those who have “witnessed” to Christ with their lives, that is, the martyrs.
The word “martyr” derives from the Greek martyria, which indeed means witness. That is, a martyr is a witness, one who bears witness to the point of shedding their blood. However, very soon in the Church the word martyr began to be used to indicate those who bore witness to the point of shedding their blood. That is, a martyr can be one who witnesses every day. But it was used afterwards for one who gives their blood, who gives their life.
But right away, the Pope had a word of caution. Let us not think of martyrs as somehow peculiar, lone actors:
They aren’t to be seen as “‘heroes’ who acted individually, like flowers blooming in a desert,” he said, “but as the ripe and excellent fruit of the vineyard of the Lord, which is the Church.”
The martyrs are Christians who live deeply the mystery of the Eucharist, Pope Francis explained: “by participating assiduously in the celebration of the Eucharist, [they] were led by the Spirit to base their lives on that mystery of love: namely, on the fact that the Lord Jesus had given his life for them, and therefore that they too could and should give their life for Him and for their brothers and sisters. A great generosity, the journey of Christian witness.”
Then the Pope had another word of caution: The error of thinking that martyrdom is a thing of the past.
According to the NGO Open Doors, 360 million Christians are today strongly persecuted and discriminated against, that is to say 1 in 7 Christians in the world. In a report published in January 2023, the Protestant organization described a “staggering increase in persecution over the past 30 years,” all churches included.
The Pope knows well this data:
As I have already said many times before, they are more numerous in our time than in the first centuries. Today there are many martyrs in the Church, many of them, because for confessing the Christian faith they are banished from society or end up in prison … there are many. […]
Although martyrdom is asked of only a few, ‘nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men.’ […]
But, were these persecutions something of those times? No, no: today. Today there are persecutions of Christians throughout the world — many, many. There are more martyrs today than in the first times. Many. The martyrs show us that every Christian is called to the witness of life, even when this does not go as far as the shedding of blood, making a gift of themselves to God and to their brethren, in imitation of Jesus.
Martyrs of a forgotten war
Pope Francis then pointed out a few examples of these many modern-day martyrs, dwelling on the situation in Yemen, “a land that has for many years been afflicted by a terrible, forgotten war, that has caused many deaths and still causes many people, especially children, to suffer today.”
He told the story of Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s nuns, who have given their lives there in the last few years, naming them by name.
These nuns “are still present today in Yemen, where they offer assistance to the elderly sick and to people with disabilities. Some of them have suffered martyrdom, but the others continue, risking their lives, but they keep on going.”
In July 1998, he said, “Sister Aletta, Sister Zelia and Sister Michael, while returning home after Mass, were killed by a fanatic, because they were Christians.”
More recently, shortly after the beginning of the still ongoing conflict, in March 2016, Sister Anselm, Sister Marguerite, Sister Reginette and Sister Judith were killed together with some laypeople who helped them in their work of charity among the least. They are the martyrs of our time.
Among these laypeople killed, as well as Christians there were some Muslim faithful who worked with the religious sisters. It moves us to see how the witness of blood can unite people of different religions. One should never kill in the name of God, because for Him we are all brothers and sisters. But together one can give one’s life for others.
Let us pray, then, that we may never tire of bearing witness to the Gospel, even in times of tribulation. May all the martyr saints be seeds of peace and reconciliation among peoples, for a more humane and fraternal world, as we await the full manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven, when God will be all in all.