Compiled by Sr Bernadette M Reis, fsp
Pope Francis recalled the International Day of the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief at the Sunday Angelus address.
"Let us pray for these, our brothers and sisters, and let us sustain them with our prayer and solidarity, even those who today are persecuted - and there are many - because of their faith and religion," he said.
The Holy Father has touched on the theme of the persecution of Christians a number of times since he became Pope in March 2013.
In fact, just a little over a month after his election, Pope Francis said something that he has repeated a number of times since:
“The Church has more martyrs now than during the first centuries."
More martyrs now
Pope Francis spoke this phrase within a homily in which he commented on the martyrdom of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He attributed Stephen’s death to “calumny”, even calling Stephen a “victim of calumny.” From Stephen to our own day, Pope Francis said, many Christians have witnessed to the Gospel in the same way with great courage:
"The age of martyrs is not yet over, even today we can say, in truth, that the Church has more martyrs now than during the first centuries. The Church has many men and women who are maligned through calumny, who are persecuted, who are killed in hatred of Jesus, in hatred of the faith: some are killed because they teach the catechism, others are killed because they wear the cross ... Today, in many countries, they are maligned, they are persecuted ... they are our brothers and sisters who are suffering today, in this age of the martyrs.
Not even a year later, he repeated the phrase during a homily on 4 March 2014. He was reflecting on Jesus’s response to Peter’s question about what they would receive for following Him. Jesus said those who followed Him would receive many things, including persecution.
“And so we have persecutions: with words, with insults, the things that they said about Christians in the early centuries, the condemnations, imprisonment…. But we easily forget. We think of the many Christians, 60 years ago, in the labour camps, in the camps of the Nazis, of the communists: So many of them! For being Christians! And even today…. But (people say) ‘today we are better educated and these things no longer exist’. Yes they do! And I tell you that today there are more martyrs than during the early times of the Church. They are condemned for having a Bible. They can’t wear a crucifix. … And let’s spare a thought -- it will do us good – for the many brothers and sisters who today – today! – cannot pray together because they are persecuted: they cannot have the book of the Gospel or a Bible because they are persecuted.”
Think of the persecuted
The day after Christmas 2016, Pope Francis reiterated the phrase in the context of the Feast of St Stephen:
“Today too, in order to bear witness to light and to truth, the Church experiences, in different places, harsh persecution, up to the supreme sacrifice of martyrdom. How many of our brothers and sisters in faith endure abuse and violence, and are hated because of Jesus! I shall tell you something: today’s martyrs are more numerous with respect to those of the first centuries. When we read the history of the first centuries, here in Rome, we read of so much cruelty toward Christians; I tell you: there is the same cruelty today, and to a greater extent, toward Christians. Today we should think of those who are suffering from persecution, and to be close to them with our affection, our prayers and also our tears. Yesterday, Christmas Day, Christians persecuted in Iraq celebrated Christmas in their destroyed cathedral: it is an example of faithfulness to the Gospel.”
Martyrdom of everyday faithfulness
In a General Audience on 25 September 2019, we hear the same words spoken by Pope Francis. Once again, he was reflecting on the martyrdom of St Stephen.
“There are more martyrs today than there were at the beginning of the life of the Church, and martyrs are everywhere. Today the Church is rich in martyrs, it is steeped in their blood: “The blood of Christians is seed” (Tertullian, Apology, 50:13) and ensures the growth and fruitfulness of the People of God. Martyrs are not just “saintly”, but rather men and women in flesh and blood who — as Revelation says — “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). They are the true victors.
"Let us also ask the Lord today that by looking to the martyrs of yesterday and today, we can learn to live a full life, welcoming the martyrdom of everyday faithfulness to the Gospel and conforming to Christ."
Reflecting on the First reading recounting the martyrdom of St Stephen on 28 April this year, Pope Francis cited both a modern-day examples of persecution and those who perished in the Shoah of the last century. The same dynamic used to kill St Stephen is still at work, he said: groups of people judging that others deserve death.
“This happens today, to the martyrs of today: judges do not have the possibility of bringing justice to those who have already been judged. Let us think of Asia Bibi, for example, whom we have seen: ten years in jail because she had been judged on the basis of calumny and a people who clamor for death. Faced with this avalanche of fake news that form opinion, very often nothing can be done, nothing can be done. In relation to this I think a lot about the Shoah. The Shoah is a case in point. An opinion was created against a people, and then it became normal to say, ‘Yes, yes, they must be killed, they must be put to death’. A way of proceeding in order to do away with people who are bothersome, who are disturbing to others.”
In his homily of 27 March, Pope Francis used yet another specific example that he had heard from a Bishop:
“Some Bishops from one of the countries that endured an atheistic dictatorship told me about this, and, even going into the finest detail. For instance, the Monday after Easter teachers had to ask the children: ‘What did you eat yesterday?’ And some of the children would reply, ‘Eggs’. And those who said ‘eggs’ were followed to see if they were Christians, because in those countries they would eat eggs on Easter Sunday. Even to this point, to see, to spy, to find out where there was a Christian, in order kill him or her. This is dogged persecution.”
Blessed are the persecuted
But the Pope also reminds us that the final word is not persecution, but the happiness of those who find blessedness. Pope Francis reflected on the final Beatitude in his General Audience of 29 April earlier this year: “Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The cause of persecution, Pope Francis notes, is the lives of Christians rooted in the Beatitudes.
“The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst for holiness, mercy, the pure in heart and peacemakers may lead to persecution because of Christ. However, ultimately this persecution is a cause of joy and of great reward in heaven. The way of the Beatitudes is an Easter path that leads us from a life in accord with the world to one of God, from a life led by the flesh — that is by selfishness — to one guided by the Spirit.
"It is painful to recall that in this very moment, there are many Christians in various parts of the world who are suffering from persecution, and we must hope and pray that their trials will soon end. They are many: today’s martyrs outnumber the martyrs of the first centuries. Let us express our closeness to these brothers and sisters. We are a single body and these Christians are the bleeding limbs of the body of Christ who is the Church.”
Pope Francis ended his catechesis that morning reminding us that whenever we face persecution because of our belief in Jesus, we are not alone. Jesus is always present with us.
“In persecutions there is always the presence of Jesus who accompanies us, the presence of Jesus who comforts us and the strength of the Holy Spirit that helps us to go forward. Let us not be discouraged when a life that is faithful to the Gospel draws persecution from people. There is the Holy Spirit who sustains us in this journey.”
This article was first published 22 August and updated 23 August