(Vatican Radio) The memory of the modern martyrs, killed for their Christian faith over the past century, will be honoured on Saturday evening as Pope Francis presides at a prayer service in Rome’s Basilica of St Bartholomew on the Tiber island.
The initiative, organised by the lay Catholic St Egidio community, also aims to highlight the difficulties and discrimination that many Christians still face in countries around the world today as they try and witness to their faith.
Altars in six chapels around the church display objects such as letters, prayer books and other personal possessions recalling the witness of men and women from many countries and different Christian traditions who have laid down their lives for their faith.
Claudio Betti is a professor of modern history and assistant to the St Egidio community president. He talked to Philippa Hitchen about the church of St Bartholomew and about the importance of sharing the memory of these modern day martyrs
Betti notes that the basilica is dedicated to two ancient martyrs, St Bartholomew the apostle and the 10th century Bohemian missionary St Adalbert.
In the 1990s the church was given to the St Egidio community and in the year 2000 Pope John Paul II decided to dedicate it to the memory of the modern martyrs.
St Egidio’s founder Andrea Riccardi and other members had already been collecting together for publication thousands of dossiers and objects that were then incorporated into the altars around the church.
Relics of the martyrs
The first object they were given was the last letter written by Reformed Pastor Paul Schneider, killed in the Buchenwald Nazi death camp for refusing to stop proclaiming Christ as Saviour.
A more modern relic is the missal with which Archbishop Oscar Romero had been celebrating Mass when he was murdered in San Salvador in 1980.
Most recent of all is the prayer book of French Father Jacques Hamel, killed during a terror attack on his church near Rouen in July of last year. During Saturday’s celebration Fr Jacques’ sister will speak about his witness of faith.
Prayer service features testimonies
Claudio Betti notes there will be three different testimonies during the simple liturgy on Saturday: alongside Fr Jacques’ sister will be the son of Rev. Schneider, and a young man from El Salvador where community member William Quijano was murdered in 2009 for trying to help people escape from the criminal gangs.
Following the readings and homily of Pope Francis, there will be prayers for these modern martyrs, as well as for those who are considered martyrs, such as two Orthodox bishops Mar Gregorios Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi,as well as Fr Paolo del Oglio, who were kidnapped in Syria by ISIS and have not been heard of since.
Blood of martyrs unites Christians
Betti also underlines the ecumenical dimension of these martyrs, noting that the specially commissioned icon on the main altar makes clear that martyrdom is what unites Christians. In the blood of the martyrs, he says, unity is already achieved, such as the Catholic and Orthodox bishops who worked and were killed together in the Soviet gulags.
Betti says the message of the martyrs is very clear, showing that unity is more important than individual lives and ambitions. While the martyrs were not looking for death, he says, they show that there are things worth dying for. The memories of their lives tell stories of people who have served the poor and marginalized until death, calling us back to what Christianity really means.
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