Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
At the beginning of the 3rd century, the ancient Christian writer Tertullian observed that, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” If this is so, we have reason to hope for an abundant harvest as the Church continues its pilgrimage into this third Christian millennium. We are living in an age of martyrs.
Though we have recently become keenly aware of the persecution of Christians around the world due to the proliferation of smart phones and social media, this phenomenon is not new. Though largely ignored by the media, by social and political commentators and even by history books, the last 100 years have produced more Christian martyrs than any period in history.
The martyrs of the Mexican revolution beginning in 1910 and continuing through the 20s, the brutality of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the victims of the totalitarian ideologies of Nazism, fascism and Marxism, which spanned the remainder of the 20th century resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the martyrology, the honor roll of Christian martyrs venerated by the Church.
The witness of the martyrs and their fidelity to Christ in the midst of suffering even to the point of death has always been a source of encouragement to believers. Their example has been a provocative invitation to nonbelievers as well. The martyrs are credible witnesses to the truth and beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They demonstrate that love can overcome hatred. They testify to a power that is stronger than death. They are worthy of our veneration.
Our veneration of the martyrs, however, does not mean that we can remain silent or indifferent in the face of an ongoing persecution of Christians in many parts of the world today. The Church is suffering.
In Iraq and Syria, Christians are being systematically removed from their ancient homelands where they have lived and worshipped for nearly 2,000 years. There are reports of crucifixions and executions at the hands of ISIS for those who refuse to renounce their faith and embrace a radical form of Islamic extremism.
In Libya, dozens of Coptic Christians have been beheaded for no crime other than professing faith in Jesus Christ. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has carried out brutal kidnappings and murders of Christians, targeting especially young women. The pattern repeats itself with alarming frequency, and these are only the cases that have been discovered and reported by the media. The full extent of this violent persecution of the Church will not likely be known for some time, nor is it likely to let up in the near future.
Now is the time for us to express our solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering daily persecution because of their faith. In addition to asking our legislators to act and providing material support to aid the suffering Church, we need to pray. I invite each of us to include in our prayers the needs of persecuted and suffering Christians whose religious freedom is being violated around the globe. I encourage our parishes to include in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass a special prayer for the suffering Church and respect for religious freedom both at home and abroad.
Today, it is our suffering brothers and sisters in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria who need our prayers. Tomorrow it may be our brothers and sisters in Ireland, Canada or here in the United States. The security of our religious freedom can never be taken for granted. It is being weakened and undermined today by not only political and ideological threats, but also by spiritual forces that are always in rebellion against the order intended by the Creator.