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20 Missionaries killed during 2023, mission society reports



John Burger - J-P Mauro - published on 01/03/24

Many of those killed were just going about their normal life of trying to live the Gospel. A "missionary" is any baptized person living the life of a disciple.

Brother Cyprian Ngeh was stabbed to death while returning to the Catholic health center in Njmafor, Cameroon, where he worked. The incident took place on the evening of November 7 in the city of Bamenda after Brother Cyprian, 40, accompanied a member of his team home.

Like most of the 20 missionaries who were killed in 2023, Brother Cyprian was not doing anything extraordinary – just going about his everyday business. 

“One of the distinctive traits that most of the pastoral workers murdered in 2023 have in common is undoubtedly their normal life: that is, they did not carry out any sensational actions or out-of-the-ordinary deeds that could have attracted attention and put them in someone’s crosshairs,” said Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

“We find priests who were on their way to celebrate Mass or to carry out pastoral activities in some distant community; armed assaults perpetrated along busy roads; assaults on rectories and convents where they were engaged in evangelization, charity, human promotion. They found themselves, through no fault of their own, victims of kidnappings, acts of terrorism, involved in shootings or violence of various kinds.”

Brother Cyprian, a member of the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception, was a nurse and director of the Catholic Medical Center of the Immaculate Conception. He was originally from the area. He was appreciated for his availability and his service, always rendered with great dedication and kindness, according to Fides.

“Let us embrace with gratitude our beloved brother Cyprian, who lost his life in such a brutal and sudden way,” the Superior General of the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception wrote. “He lived an exemplary life, fully embodying the charisma of Fr. [Luigi Maria] Monti [the Italian founder of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception] and dedicating his life to the care of the sick and suffering.” 

Bishop O’Connell of Los Angeles

Fides noted that there were two more missionaries killed in 2023 compared to the previous year. The list included one bishop, eight priests, two non-religious men, one seminarian, one novice and seven laypersons. The highest number of missionaries killed – nine – was in Africa. That included five priests, two religious men, one seminarian, and one novice.

In the Americas, six were murdered, including Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell; three priests, and two lay women.

In Asia, four lay men and women died violently, and in Europe, one layman was killed. 

“As it has been for some time, Fides uses the term ‘missionary’ for all the baptized, aware that ‘in virtue of their Baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples. All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization,” the news service said, quoting Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium.

“Moreover, the annual list of Fides does not look only to Missionaries ad gentes in the strict sense, but tries to record all baptized engaged in the life of the Church who died in a violent way, not only ‘in hatred of the faith.’ For this reason, we prefer not to use the term ‘martyrs,’ if not in its etymological meaning of ‘witness,’ in order not to enter into the question of the judgment that the Church might eventually deliver upon some of them, after careful consideration, for beatification or canonization.”

Significantly, what many of the Catholics on Fides’ list had in common was their “living the faith by offering their simple evangelical witness as pastors, catechists, health workers, animators of the liturgy, of charity.”

“They could have gone elsewhere, moved to safer places, or desisted from their Christian commitments, perhaps reducing them, but they did not do so, even though they were aware of the situation and the dangers they faced every day,” Fides said. “The Church, and ultimately the world itself, moves forward thanks to them.”

Some of the other people on Fides’ list included Bishop O’Connell, who was killed in his home by the husband of his housekeeper; Fr. Stephen Gutgsell, a priest at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, who died after being stabbed in his rectory; two Filipino Catholic students, who were among the victims of the recent bombing attack during a Mass at Mindanao State University in Marawi City; a mother and daughter who were active in the Catholic parish in Gaza City who apparently were shot by snipers from the Israel Defense Force in its war against Hamas; and Fr. Isaac Achi, a 61-year-old priest who was burned alive during an attack by an armed group in his parish in the diocese of Minna, central Nigeria.

Through them, God works miracles

At his December 26 Angelus address, Pope Francis remembered how even today, people still lose their lives for living their faith:

“There are still those – and there are many of them – who suffer and die to bear witness to Jesus, just as there are those who are penalized at various levels for the fact of acting in a way consistent with the Gospel, and those who strive every day to be faithful, without ado, to their good duties, while the world jeers and preaches otherwise. 

“These brothers and sisters may also seem to be failures, but today we see that this is not the case. Now as then, in fact, the seed of their sacrifices, which seems to die, germinates and bears fruit, because God, through them, continues to work miracles (cf. Acts 18:9-10), changing hearts and saving men and women.”

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