From The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century
“Convert, or die like Christ.” Those words from the most flagrant religious oppression in the world at the dawn of a new millennium might serve as an epitaph for all the hundreds of thousands who suffered persecution and death in the twentieth century – or, for that matter, since the very beginnings of Christianity. Christ made a point of telling his followers: “They have persecuted me and they will persecute you.” And the Gospel of John, after noting that Jesus knew what was in human hearts, records that the master said, “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” It has never much mattered whether the rejection of the light came from moral, religious, or political evils. All evils share a common root, and the results have everywhere been very much the same wherever the forces of light and the forces of darkness clash.
A survey of the twentieth century’s martyrs is necessarily a long one. Recovering every name of every person who suffered persecution and death in the twentieth century and honoring his or her memory is a matter of simple justice. But justice is not the only reason we ought to recover the memories of these brave and holy men and women. Death through injustice, whether individually or in groups, is an unfortunate feature of all human history, religious and secular. The twentieth century, alongside its great advances, was perhaps the bloodiest on record. Leaving religious passions aside, scholars have calculated that something like 170 million people died violently during this century, without even counting soldiers who died in wars. The passions that led to those deaths did not die with the coming of the new millennium.
We should not, therefore, believe that with the new millennium, the demise of totalitarian systems, or the spread of human rights’ agreements, that injustice, much less martyrdom, will come to an end. The rule of law and democratic procedures, desirable as they are, will not abolish sin, but merely make it more difficult for malefactors to gain control of power and wield it unchecked. The age-old struggle over the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s will continue forever. The very revelation of that truth has been one of Christianity’s greatest contributions to a world in which various powers – political, religious, cultural – are always seeking to exert total control over human life. The martyrs stake their lives on a truth beyond all human powers.
There is no other group of victims throughout history who so consistently faced terrifying ends with calm hope and sincerely forgave their persecutors. Martyrs rarely even assume a posture of moral superiority toward their executioners – people that most of us would regard as inhuman monsters. The martyrs are aware of the evil in themselves and the redemption that has come to them from outside the usual human darkness. By the specific dynamics of martyrdom, the desire for vengeance or sense of superiority are ruled out at the beginning.
Remembering martyrs then is different than the kind of process whereby, say, the truth commissions set up after various conflicts try to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice and to uncover the facts about about people’s deaths. As important as these activities are in human terms, they are worlds away from the ambience of the martyrs. The whole point in remembering those who died as witnesses for truth and goodness is that they literally participate in the Passion of Christ. The remembrance of his Passion and death throughout history has not brought all evil-doers to justice or established a paradise on Earth. His death revealed, for Christians, an unexpected structure inherent in the very world we inhabit. That world is always enslaved to passion, greed, hunger for power, envy and a host of other vices. The only way out of the endless cycles of wrong and punishment is the free willingness to suffer wrong and forgive without revenge. The Christian story changed several cultures on those principles. It is still available to change our own.
For a Christian, martyrs are not merely models to be imitated, but, like all saints, spirits with whom we are in communion, waiting with a common hope. Martyrdom is in a deep sense the paradigm for the Christian life. Any person who starts to follow the Master seriously cannot help but find himself or herself attacked by the same forces that attacked him. Happy is the age that does not produce a large crop of martyrs. But even happier is the age whose people are willing to remain with Christ whether it means martyrdom or not, for from that willingness to die springs everything that makes it worthwhile to live.
Requiem eternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.