also calling us to the search for truth, argues Neville Kyrke-Smith
Never forget why the martyrs died
ONE AMAZING papal event of this Jubilee Year has not been fully understood. Last month, on May 7th, simple candle lamps were lit in front of Rome's ancient Colosseum at the Ecumenical Commemoration of Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th Century. As I watched these candle hunps glow, on a grey and damp evening, the significance of the celebration became apparent. The historical setting also called to mind the witness of the early martyrs. There was something radical and truly uniting as testimonies from every continent and representing all vocations were read out as incense was burned.
Yet, we might ask, how you can have ecumenical martyrs? History is full of martyrs who died at the hands of other Christians. And what did these "witnesses" of last century suffer or die for — what were they witnessing to? Over 12,000 witnesses (martyrs and those who endured sufferings for their faith) have been listed by Rome. Yet, how could such a celebration speak of truth as well as ecumenism? In short, has Catholicism sold out in this Jubilee year?
The Holy Father challenged many such assumptions during a remarkable celebration. In his homily he restated: "In our century 'the witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants'." (Tertio Millennio Adveniente 37). With real poignancy Christ's words from St Matthew's Gospel were proclaimed: "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven." (Mt 5:11-12).
In the Papal Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 (29 November 1998: pars 13), the Holy Father stated: "A sign of the truth of Christian love, ageless but powerful today, is the memory of the
martyrs The martyr, especially in our own days, is a sign of that greater love which sums up all other values. The martyr's lite reflects the extraordinary words uttered by Christ on the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," (Luke 23:34).
And for two and a half hours at the Colosseum testimonies were given — as the Holy Father said — of the "countless numbers (who) refused to yield to the false gods of the 20th century" and of those who "had rejected a way of thinking foreign to the Gospel of Christ". Significantly, the first such witness selected was the Patriarch Tichon of the Russian Orthodox Church, who wrote in 1918 that "the Lord has raised up a series of new martyrs who have had a share in his Passion, bishops and priests... killed and tortured by crazed and unhappy children of our country". The second testimony came from
Olga Jafa, witness of the Solovki Islands, where behind five-metre thick monastery walls religious prisoners were entombed in one of the most infamous gulag camps.
Other testimonies chosen from the 12,000 witnesses were powerfully portrayed. The Romanian Greek Catholic Bishop Joan Suciu who died in prison on 27th May 1953 wrote that, "Good Friday has arrived for the Church". The words of the remarkable Fr Anton Luli, the Albanian Jesuit who was imprisoned in hard labour for 28 years, described the crucifixion and appalling tortures endured in prison: "Many of my confreres died as martyrs: it was my lot, however, to remain alive in order to bear witness." Another powerful testimony was read out from a Chinese Catholic Margaret Chou, who was imprisoned from 1958 to 1979: when asked in prison what her crime was replied publicly, "I did not commit any crime. I was arrested because 1 was a Catholic and tried to defend my faith." And so other moving stories and words were read: from a Lutheran, a Polish bishop, the Anglican Bishop Strong, a Spanish minister of Justice, a bishop in Mexico, a seminarian from Burundi, a Baptist medical missionary in Nigeria, Catholic bishops in Ecuador and Colombia, Dom Christian de Cheige the Trappist Prior who was killed with fellow monks in Algeria in 1996, and then finally the words of the late Supreme Catholicos of all Armenians, His Holiness Karekin I, who died last year: "Yes! Suffering, persecutions, destruction, massacres, deportation, genocide ... and what else! We have committed many errors in the past; but we have not committed the error of losing faith and hope. That has been, to my understanding, the secret of our survival."
T"E POPE prayed that, "from the witnesses of faith ... may the younger generation receive the torch of faith, in order to bear witness to the Risen Christ". The torehes the lamps – burned in front of the Colosseum. The blood of the martyrs and this witness of faithful Christians called for unity, forgiveness and faith. At the Regina Caeli on the May 7, Pope John Paul II said that in the shadow of the Cross the ecumenical differences pale into the shade: "The courage they demonstrated in taking up the Cross of Christ calls out to us with a voice louder than any factors of division."
Perhaps we were seeing the outcome of that remarkable encyclical Fides et Ratio, (written on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross): "The wisdom of the Cross ... breaks free of all cultural limitations which seek to contain it and insists upon an openness to the universality of truth which it bears." For, as he went on (ch 2: para.23): "The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is ... not only the bottler between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet."
And in this celebration the Pope presented the martyrs and people of great faith as part of the communion of saints: a unity that crosses all time to the heart of our faith, on the Cross. The vertical and horizontal make up the cross: pointing up to heaven and eternity, stretching out across and around the
world. Here all time and eternity meet, as the rnartyrs have discovered. That seems to be part of an ecumenical vision set before us by this ageing but brilliant pontiff. As he wrote in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (chapter 3: para.32): "the martyrs... are the most authentic witnesses to the truth about existence. The martyrs know that they have found the truth about life in the encounter with Jesus Christ, and nothing and no one can take this certainty from them." He continues: "This is why to this day the witness of the martyrs continues to arouse such interest, to draw agreement, to win such a hearing and to invite emulation. Their words inspire confidence... as the truth we have sought for so long. (They) provide evidence of love, and stir in us a profound trust... : they declare what we would like to have the strength to express."
This Great Jubilee celebration may not have caught the imagination of the world in the way that his visit to the Holy Land did, or the Jubilee appeal for forgiveness for past wrongs. Yet a torch of faith has been held aloft, for as the Pope said: "The new generations must know the price of the faith they inherit, so they may take up with gratitude the torch of the Gospel and illuminate with it the new century and the new millennium."
We can recall that the sufferings of the gulag prison camps brought an ecumenism of the heart: as when the Catholic Fr Sigitas Tamkevicius (now Archbishop) of Lithuania and the Orthodox Fr Gleb Yakunin were in Penn 36 together. Not long ago, the bodies of Catholic priests were discovered alongside those of Russian Orthodox priests and bishops, just north of St Petersburg. Indeed, the blood of the martyrs of the camps intermingled in the 1930s, when at least 200,000 Orthodox priests and religious had died– many crucified to the doors of churches. Now the Russian Orthodox have three books detailing their martyrs of this century. Fr Alexander Men, an Orthodox priest who was murdered in 1990, once said in hope: 'The divisions between the Churches do not reach up to heaven."
TIE MARTYRS are certain witnesses in an uncertain world: witnesses to faith and the truth that is Christ. And the witness and sacrificial testimony of the martyrs in the shedding of their blood for Christ is a real call to unity with Christ for each of us and all ecclesial bodies.
Yet they are calling us to search for truth, just as they died for Jesus, "the Way, the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6). The ultimate freedom we will ever find is in Christ — "for the truth will set you free". This was the torch of faith brightening the gloom of much failed ecumenical endeavour — gathered around the Bishop of Rome last month.