Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Witnesses of the Cross

by Antonio Gaspari


A survey of the efforts of Pope John Paul II to create models for the modern age by raising its martyrs to the altars of the Church.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican



Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, May 2000

John Paul Has Beatified And Canonized Many Martyrs In Recent Years. His Goal Is To Provide New Models For Christian Faith In The New Millenium.

On May 7 in Rome, Pope John Paul II celebrated the Feast of the Martyrs (Witnesses of Faith). Down through the centuries, thousands of Christians have died for the faith -- and given the Church an example of courage and selflessness.

Seed Of Christianity

As early as the second century, Tertullian (c. 197, first great ecclesiastical writer in Latin) wrote: Sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum" ("The blood of the martyrs was the seed of Christians"). In fact, the martyrdom of so many early Christians was one of the main causes for the astonishing growth of the infant Church.

In the 300s, devotion to martyrs was already widespread, with pilgrimages to their tombs, construction of basilicas on the sites of their martyrdoms, and liturgical celebrations for their calendar feast days. In those days, commemoration of the martyrs was made part of the Eucharistic Prayer. During the dedication of early churches, martyrs' relics were brought in procession and placed beneath the altars. The blood of their sacrifice was referred to in the presbyter's consecration of the wine.

Pope John Paul II was well aware of all these traditions when he wrote in Tertio Millennio Adveniente: "In our own century the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, 'unknown soldiers,' as it were, of God's great cause." In that apostolic letter, the Holy Father urged us to preserve the martyrs' heritage, to use it well, so that the "seed of Christianity" may issue in much new fruit in the generations of the new millennium.

In March, during his Angelus prayer on March 7, the Pope turned his attention to Christian martyrs. "This Lenten Sunday is gladdened by the proclamation of several new Blessed Martyrs." he said. "Their witness shines forth the paschal light of Christ who died and was resurrected, the light of love which vanquishes selfishness and transforms human existence into a gift for God and for their brethren. The martyrs' example encourages us to firmly turn our steps towards that holiness to which Baptism has called us all."

All martyrs have followed Christ to the Cross, offering their innocent lives to save humanity. Martyrs are a sign of hope, for in history's darkest moments, for instance during the horrors of Nazism and Communism, they showed us that good can triumph over evil. Jesus once said in a parable: "A grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the earth and dies, but if it dies it bears a rich harvest." (John: 24)

Patrimony Of The Universal Church

Christian martyrdom has become increasingly universal. The European martyrs of the primitive Church have been joined by so many others from America, from Africa and from Asia. There are martyrs such as Andrew, a young Vietnamese who in 1644, at the age of 20, was condemned and beheaded. He became one of the most venerated figures in the Church in Vietnam. For 350 years, the witness of young Andrew has given strength and courage to Vietnamese Catholics in the face of persecution and repression. The same can be said of many martyrs in Mexico, Brazil, China, Albania and countless other countries throughout the world.

It is a great comfort to know that in today's world of consumerism and utilitarianism, there are still those who have the valor of pure sacrifice, of good works, of charity and love for humanity.

In their lives we discover the grace of Christ, who consented to become incarnate in man's weakness. Besides their worthy example, martyrs provide us with an almost sacramental proof of God's love, stonger than the powers of evil and death.

20th Century Martyrs

During this pontificate, John Paul II has canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, 24 Mexican martyrs, and four other martyrs. At the same time, he has added 994 new blesseds to the 1310 beatifications made by previous Popes since since the 1600s. Although some have criticized this papal activity as a "saint factory," John Paul II considers beatifications and canonizations indispensable for his "New Evanglization."

Inside the Vatican asked Father Paolo Molinari, Postulator General of the Society of Jesus, about John Paul's beatifications and canonizations.

"The figures of blesseds, saints and martyrs are revolutionary witnesses against the current, often hypocritical, mentality," Molinari said. "They are also powerful examples, because goodness is attractive in today's cynical world. These are ordinary people who lived their Christian faith according to Christ's example. The path of holiness leads along the itinerary marked out by Jesus when he said: I do that which pleases the Father' -- even to his moment of acceptance in the Garden of Gethsemane when his humanity rebelled against suffering and death. All Christians should possess a martyr's courage, the total submission to God's will, in recognition of the Lord's sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. The sacrifice of each martyr will also contribute to man's redemption."

Molinari responded to accusations in the press that the Pope has been "lobbied" by powerful religious movements or congregations on behalf of their own saints and blesseds.

"Sainthood is not decided in Rome," Molinari responded. "To initiate a beatification, the 'fame of sanctity' must come from a marked devotion to the person after his or her death. That is, a proposed saint must have a certain devoted following among those persons who knew him or her. The Church follows divine indications with docility. According to certain clear signs, the Church understands that God wishes to use a particular individual as a vessel of his will and word."

The Pontifical College Regina Apostolorum (run by the Legionaries of Christ) recently organized a symposium on "20th Century Martyrs"

The Atheneum's Rector, Father Alvaro Corcuera, told us: "The martyrs bring to our attention as Christians the living image of Christ, with whom we can identify, in life and in death."

The Atheneum's dean of theology, Father Paolo Sarafoni added: "The Pope is encouraging us to look toward the martyrs, those certain witnesses to faith, and to the truth that is Christ. Truth can move men beyond every hesitation caused by misunderstanding and prejudice. That is why the testimony of martyrs, in their total identification with Christ, is the most powerful incentive to genuine ecumenism."

John Paul II’s Saints

In spite of thorough research on the subject, we still have no idea of how many martyrs fell under Nazism and Communism. This Pope has raised many martyrs to the altars, and the list of those to come is longer still. It is impossible to give the names and histories of all the martyrs beatified by John Paul II. So here we will recount some of the more recent cases.

Spanish Martyrs (1936-1939): After the Spanish Civil War broke out on July 18, 1936 the Church suffered one of the fiercest persecutions of her history. The number of Catholic victims under the Spanish Republic included: 13 bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 male religious, 283 nuns, and thousands of ordinary faithful. John Paul II beatified the first Spanish martyrs, three Carmelite nuns from Guadalajara, in 1987. In the following years, up until May 1998, another 231 Spanish martyrs were raised to the altars by John Paul II. Still other beatification causes for martyrs of the Spanish Civil War are underway in the dioceses of Madrid and Valencia

Mexican Martyrs (1926-1930): The story of Catholic persecutions in Mexico in the mid-1920s is almost never told in history books. In fact, any mention of the war between President-General Elias Calles and the irregular peasant forces of the time, usually depicts the Catholic Church as siding with the armed guerrilla movement, Cristeros. In reality, even when Catholic priests and faithful tended to identify with the resistance to Calles' unjust anti-clerical laws, the Church hierarchy always preached non-violence.

Yet in spite of her peaceful stance, the Church suffered heavy losses. Hundreds of priests were killed, 90% of Catholic pastors were removed from their parishes and went into hiding, thousands of Catholics perished. President Calles made an all-out effort to abolish the Catholic Church in Mexico and to eliminate all Catholic thought in Mexican society. In honor of the Mexican victims, the Church beatified a first group of martyrs on November 22, 1992: 22 priests and 3 laypersons of the "Catholic Action" movement. Another 25 Mexican martyrs are due to be beatified this year.

Brazilian Martyrs (1645): On March 5, 2000, 30 Brazilian martyrs were raised to the altars in Rome. Their story is related to the 17th-century religious wars in Europe between Spanish and Portuguese Catholics and Dutch Calvinists, which then continued on American soil. That was the context for the martyrdoms of Fathers Andre' de Soveral and Ambrosio Francisco Ferro and their 28 lay companions. (There were many more victims, but their names are unknown.) The martyrdoms took place as a result of two different episodes only a few months apart.

The first took place on June 16, 1645, in the Chapel of Our Lady in Cunhau, when a troop of Dutch troops entered the church and massacred Father de Soveral and all the worshippers inside. The second massacre happened on October 3, 1645, on the outskirts of Rio Uracu, about 15 miles from the city of Natal, when Father Ferro and his parishioners were brutally tortured and murdered. One of the victims, Mateus Moreira, was reported to have cried out as his heart was torn from his chest: "Blessed is the Blessed Sacrament!" Even before their beatifications, the martyrs of those two incidents became the objects offer-vent veneration by Catholics of the area.

Nowogrodek Sisters: During the Second World War, Nowogrodek, on the eastern border of Poland, in what is now Belarus, was occupied first by the Soviets and then by the Nazis. A community of nuns, the Congregation of the Sacred Family of Nazareth, had come to the city in 1929 to serve the Church, and in particular to tend to the education of children. When the Germans arrived in 1942, they first massacred the Jews then began to eliminate the Catholics as well.

On July 18, 1943, 120 Catholics were selected for execution; the nuns, led by their Superior, Mother Maria Stella, offered to exchange their lives for those Catholics with families. When the life of the local priest, Father Alexander Zienkiewicz was threatened, the nuns renewed their offer.

God heard their prayers and Zienkiewicz and the other hostages were spared. But on August 1, 1943, 12 nuns from the Congregation were taken to be shot in the woods about 5 kilometers from the city. Sister M. Malgorzata Banas, the only survivor from the religious community, later identified the place of martyrdom and helped the Church prepare the beatification cause of the Blessed Maria Stella and her courageous nuns.

The nuns were beatified along with the Brazilian martyrs on March 5 of this year.

© Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, KY 40052, 800-789-9494.

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