Pope pays tribute to modern martyrs, calls for witnesses of God's love

IMAGE: CNS/Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) — The Christian church today needs believers who
witness each day to the power of God’s love, but it also needs the heroic
witness of those who stand up to hatred even when it means giving up their
lives, Pope Francis said.

At Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew, a shrine to modern
martyrs, Pope Francis presided over an evening prayer service April 22,
honoring Christians killed under Nazism, communism, dictatorships and

“These teach us that with the force of love and with
meekness one can fight arrogance, violence and war, and that with patience peace
is possible,” the pope said in his homily in the small basilica on Rome’s
Tiber Island.

Departing from his prepared text, Pope Francis said he
wanted to add to the martyrs remembered at St. Bartholomew by including “a
woman — I don’t know her name — but she watches from heaven.”

The pope said he’d met the woman’s husband, a Muslim, in
Lesbos, Greece, when he visited a refugee camp there in 2016. The man told the
pope that one day, terrorists came to their home. They saw his wife’s crucifix
and ordered her to throw it on the ground. She refused and they slit her

“I don’t know if that man is still at Lesbos or if he
has been able to leave that ‘concentration camp,'” the pope said,
explaining that despite the good will of local communities many refugee camps
are overcrowded and are little more than prisons “because it seems
international agreements are more important than human rights.”

But, getting back to the story of the Muslim man who watched
his wife be murdered, the pope said, “Now it’s that man, a Muslim, who
carries this cross of pain.”

“So many Christian communities are the object of
persecution today! Why? Because of the hatred of the spirit of this
world,” the pope said. Jesus has
“rescued us from the power of this world, from the power of the
devil,” who hates Jesus’ saving power and “creates the persecution,
which from the time of Jesus and the early church continues up to our

“What does the church need today?” the pope asked.
“Martyrs and witnesses, those everyday saints, those saints of an ordinary
life lived with coherence. But it also needs those who have the courage to
accept the grace of being witnesses to the end, to the point of death. All of
those are the living blood of the church,” those who “witness that
Jesus is risen, that Jesus lives.”

Under a large icon depicting modern martyrs of the gulag and
concentration camp, Pope Francis prayed: “O Lord, make us worthy witnesses
of your Gospel and your love; pour out your mercy on humanity; renew your church;
protect persecuted Christians; and quickly grant the whole world peace.”

During the prayer service, Pope Francis wore a stole that
had belonged to Chaldean Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, who was murdered in Mosul,
Iraq, in 2007.

Father Ganni’s stole along with dozens of other items that
belonged to men and women martyred in the 20th and 21st centuries are on
display on the side altars at the basilica, which is cared for by the lay
Sant’Egidio Community.

During the prayer service, at which Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox clergy were involved, people who had been close to those honored as
martyrs at the shrine spoke.

Karl A. Schneider’s father, the Rev. Paul Schneider, was the
first Protestant pastor martyred by the Nazis for opposing their hate-filled
doctrine. He was married and the father of six children.

“My father was assassinated in 1939 in the Buchenwald
concentration camp because he believed the objectives of National Socialism
were irreconcilable with the words of the Bible,” Schneider told the
congregation. “All of us, still today, make too many compromises, but my
father remained faithful only to the Lord and to the faith.”

The next to speak was Roselyne Hamel, the sister of French
Father Jacques Hamel, who was murdered as he celebrated Mass July 26, 2016. The
Archdiocese of Rouen has begun his sainthood cause with Pope Francis’ approval.
Father Hamel’s breviary is preserved at St. Bartholomew’s.

“Jacques was 85 years old when two young men,
radicalized by hate speech, thought they could become heroes by engaging in
homicidal violence,” his sister told the pope. “At his age, Jacques
was fragile, but he also was strong — strong in his faith in Christ, strong in
his love for the Gospel and for people.”

His witness to Gospel values continues, she said, in the
reaction of Christians who did not call for revenge after his death, but for
love and forgiveness. And, she said, the family and local church have
experienced “the solidarity of Muslims who wanted to visit our Sunday
assemblies after his death.”

“For his family, there certainly is pain and a void,
but it is a great comfort to see how many new encounters, how much solidarity
and love were generated by Jacques’ witness,” she said.

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