Vatican City (Fides Service) - On the occasion of the 12th Day of prayer, fasting and good works in memory of Missionary Martyrs, an initiative organised by the Pontifical Mission Societies Youth Movement Italy for 24 March the date of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of Sao Salvador, El Salvador, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples kindly accepted to answer a few questions put by Fides.
Your eminence, last year too, many missionaries, priests, religious and lay people gave their lives for the Gospel. At the start of the new millennium ever more threatening clouds appear on the horizon, as Pope John Paul II has also said. The blood of thousands is shed in wars, tribal conflicts, generated by intolerance and hatred. The blood of missionaries is hope for peace in the world …
The blood of Christian missionary martyrs comes directly from the cross on Golgotha flowing from the body of Christ nailed to the cross two thousand years ago. It is the blood of those whose only protection in this earthly was love, those for whom personal gain or safety were worth less than the Gospel. These men and women preferred to lose their lives, like the Good Shepherd, who did not hesitate to give his life for his flock, to save those entrusted to him. These missionaries were killed because they were faithful to their commitment of faith and love: they knew that by going elsewhere they would have saved their lives, but they would have failed in their witness, the opportunity to evangelise people.
Why would anyone want to kill a missionary? How aware are missionaries of the danger they face?
If the Son of God died on a cross to save the world, not rarely missionaries too suffer a violent death simply because they live like Jesus Christ: they love all people as He did, they strive to help them as He did, they made their life a gift to the Father and to their brothers and sisters. Missionaries do not want to be martyrs out of fanaticism or personal gain, because God does not want this, but they do consider martyrdom a possibility when they accept the calling to be missioners. Missionaries are witnesses of love, charity, the Gospel; they are committed to life not death. Missionaries know that their charity, lived under certain conditions in lands of first evangelisation, contexts of tension, social backwardness, extreme poverty, can become dangerous and lead to death. From this point of view death is accepted in the full awareness that it is for love, for love of Christ and the poor, the oppressed, those people who despised and excluded, cut off from the world, but certainly not from the love of God.
The Church’s Martyrology knows no frontiers, but does it vary from one continent to another?
Last year, according to information collected by Fides, most of the missionaries killed were in Africa, Sudan and Uganda were rebels and army are fighting, in Democratic Congo, for three years now the scene of armed conflict among different groups of militiamen, in a war which appears to have no end in which the Church too has suffered for years. We cannot forget the assassination of Archbishop Michael Courtney, papal nuncio in Burundi, another country struggling to reach national reconciliation, a goal for which the late Nuncio was a tireless worker in close collaboration with the Bishops of Burundi. But I would call the whole of Africa a “continent of martyrs” from the very early years of Christianity: I think of the noble lady Perpetua and her handmaid Felicita, Cyprian Bishop of Carthage and in modern times, Clementina Anuarite and Isidoro Bakanja in former Zaire, killed for the faith; the host of Africa’s martyrs is immense and many are unknown. A continent martyred also because of the rich resources given it by God, riches openly coveted by many, stolen by others under the cover of local conflicts. The Church’s disinterested and peace-making work often gets in the way of people anxious to take advantage of situations of conflict and so the list of the Church’s martyrs grows in this tormented and rich land of Africa.
Next, after Africa, comes the Church in Latin America, Colombia especially, another “Martyred Church”. Bishops, priests, religious and lay people although not missionaries ad gentes in the strict sense because most of them were local, they are paying a high tribute of blood, victims of violence and intolerance which afflict this people. Although deeply wounded by the assassination of so many of her members, the local Church continues to call for and work for reconciliation and forgiveness as indispensable conditions for a lasting peace. Christians, working to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ into practice, and to promote respect for the rights of the poor and the excluded, are often kidnapped, tortured, assassinated or they simply disappear. Last November, as the Pope’s Special Envoy I attended the Second American Mission Congress in Guatemala City. The wonderful experience of faith and joy enabled me to see clearly how deeply the Church’s path is marked by the testimony of her martyrs and how this testimony rather than causing grief and discouragement, is a source of strength, hope, a stimulus to continue along the same way, with only the Gospel of Jesus as protection. Christian martyrs today like yesterday are truly like the seed which falls to the ground, it must die to bear fruit, to generate other Christians to walk along the way.
Lastl looking at the vast continent of Asia, the number of martyrs is certainly inferior to that of other continents because the Catholic community is very small. The cradle of great world religions, Asia still sees many of its cons and daughters victims of social injustice, oppression, and wars. The Church in Asia also paid in not too distant years, its tribute of blood to be faithful to Christ and to protect inalienable rights of the human person, regardless of religion or social conditions. Still today certain Asian countries are sad chapters which tell how many Christians suffer persecution. In these countries, whole Churches and groups of faithful already in the past suffered for their loyalty to Christ, to the Gospel and to the Church in contexts where some sought to kill the soul.
Has the Church always held martyrs in such special esteem?
Yes, Martyrdom has always been part of being a member of the Church from the early times and all through her two thousands years of history. Cristo himself is the martyr par excellence and in Him we see the countless hosts of those who followed Him on the way of the Cross. The Lord warned his apostles and disciples about this. Not by chance, immediately after celebrating the birth of Christ, the Church celebrates St Stephen the first martyr and a little later the Holy Innocents. This is to remind us of the unchanging bond which exists with God made Man who gives his life for humanity as an example for us to give our lives for others. Last year there were two outstanding examples of this: Claretian missionary Brother Anton Prost, was killed in Cameroon as he left church after midnight Mass. On October 5, when in Rome the universal Church was celebrating the canonisation of three great missionaries Daniele Comboni, Arnold Janssen and Josef Freinademetz, in Somalia Italian medical volunteer Annalena Tonelli who had lived the radical message of the Gospel for 35 years in that country, was shot dead and on the other side of the world that same evening in El Salvador Catholic priest Fr William De Jesus Ortez and the young sacristan Jaime Noel Quintanilla were also killed.
Devotion to martyrs began in the early Church. We find testimony of this devotion dating to the 2nd century when Christians venerated the relics of the martyrs and met to pray at their burial place on the anniversary of the day of their martyrdom, which the Church calls, dies natalis, day of birth to eternal life, won for all men and women by Christ with his death and resurrection. Since early times the Church has celebrated martyrs because they reached special union with Christ, dead and Risen, through the sacrifice of their life. Moreover I would recall two details: the commemoration of the martyrs was a day of joy and an encouragement to live as Christ demands and to be ready to face any trial.
The early devotion of following the Lenten Station Churches in Rome is another testimony of devotion to martyrs. Still today all through Lent people in Rome gather for Mass at a different church every day usually dedicated to a martyr. The liturgy is a celebration of the Cross of Christ, our Saviour and it gives the strength to renew fidelity to Christ, even to the offering of life.
Lastly I mention that during the Great Jubilee for the Year 2000, the Pope recalled the martyrs of modern times and he said their memory must not be forgotten; it is precious treasure which must be preserved and handed on to the new generations to be strength and nourishment on their spiritual way through life.
The world seems to be ruled by violence, death…every day more people die. What is the point of commemorating more dead, the dead missionaries? Could it not appear to be a sign that that there is no hope?
Not at all, it is from the martyrs that we draw the strength to go ahead. Following Christ these men and women showed that love and forgiveness is stronger that hatred and death. With their sacrifice they tell us that the Lord conquers evil, even today. Without their testimony the world would be poorer, more arid, and hope would be even more difficult. As the world passes through this dark night the martyrs shine like stars and with their witness they lead humanity to the full and everlasting light, Christ himself. The memory of the sacrifice of martyred missionaries, render present today the Passion and Death of Jesus and his glorious Resurrection as we wait for his return and the coming of his Kingdom of eternal love, justice and peace. (S.L.) (Agenzia Fides 20/3/2004 Righe 130 - Parole 1793)