VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When St. John Paul II initiated preparations for the Holy Year 2000, he believed “the church in every corner of the earth must remain anchored in the testimony of the martyrs and jealously guard their memory” in order to journey with faith, hope and confidence into the third millennium.
Martyrs “have proclaimed the Gospel by giving their lives for love,” reflecting Christ’s words on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” the pope wrote in his 1998 bull officially proclaiming the jubilee.
To better recognize, honor and offer as inspiration the martyrs of the 20th century, St. John Paul established a special Vatican jubilee Commission for New Martyrs in 1996 to collect the names and stories of the latest witnesses of faith and charity.
The committee presented St. John Paul with eight volumes containing more than 13,400 names of men and women who gave their lives for Christ or in the service of the Gospel from Jan. 1, 1900 through 1999.
Establishing a new commission
In view of the upcoming jubilee of 2025, Pope Francis wants to continue this historical research, starting with today’s “witnesses of the faith” of the 21st century. With a letter published July 5, he has established a new “Commission of the New Martyrs — Witnesses of the Faith” to draw up a new catalog of names.
“In a world where at times it seems that evil prevails, I am certain that the drafting of this catalog, also in the context of the now imminent jubilee, will help believers to read our times too in the paschal light, drawing from the treasury of such generous faithfulness to Christ the reasons for life and goodness,” he wrote.
Much of what Pope Francis has created with the new initiative reflects the same project of his predecessor: producing as vast and broad a survey as possible with the help of the universal church; including non-Catholic Christians who died to reflect what Pope Francis calls “the ecumenism of the blood” and St. John Paul called the “ecumenism of suffering”; and gathering representatives of churches and Christian communities from all over the world with the pope at Rome’s Colosseum to commemorate these “new martyrs.”
What is different is the new commission won’t be temporary, but will now be part of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, said Father Boguslaw Turek, undersecretary of the dicastery.
The commission’s first task for the Holy Year 2025 “is just the starting point” that will join the work done by the old commission and continue its work well into the future, he told Catholic News Service July 5.
“It’s not a catalog of terrible events in the past, but of hope that leads to better horizons” today and tomorrow, said the priest of the Congregation of St. Michael the Archangel.
Something that might resurface, however, is the same confusion or disagreement over the term “new martyrs.”
In fact, back in 2000, then-Archbishop José Saraiva Martins, the prefect of the then-Congregation for Sainthood Causes said, for the Catholic Church, the term martyr “in the proper, canonical sense,” is for someone who died for Christ or for his church and has already has been beatified or canonized.
The archbishop said “witness of the faith” was preferred for Catholics whose beatification process has not been completed or for other Christians who were killed because of their faith or promotion of Christian values.
Pope Francis said in his letter the new commission “is not intended to establish new criteria for the canonical ascertainment of martyrdom, but to continue the survey already underway of those who, to this day, continue to be killed simply because they are Christians.”
Remembering faithful witnesses
Msgr. Marco Gnavi served as secretary on the “New Martyrs” commission of the Holy Year 2000 and is now secretary of the new Commission of the New Martyrs — Witnesses of the Faith established by Pope Francis in July 2023.
He told CNS July 5 that their objective will be to “take a snapshot of the phenomenon of martyrdom” from a historical perspective and detail the context and conditions from which emerged individuals who were faced with a choice: “run away or stay? Deny Christ or be a witness to him?”
“Our task is primarily to not forget these men and women” to whom the whole people of God owe a great debt, he said.
It will be up to the local diocese, religious order and postulators to put forward an individual as a candidate for sainthood, not the Vatican commission, he said.
Their work might draw attention to potential candidates as happened in 2000, he added, as some were later beatified and canonized.
But, Msgr. Gnavi said, the commission will also document “martyrs who maybe aren’t universal models because they have all the same contradictions we have, yet, nonetheless, they didn’t abandon the frontline of the battle between life and death.”
Changing landscape of persecution
The monsignor said a lot has changed in the way Christians are persecuted today.
St. John Paul lived under totalitarianism and saw a world suffering under the horrors of nazism and communism. In fact, Msgr. Gnavi said the Polish pope’s idea to collect and treasure the names of these “new” or modern-day martyrs came while he was auxiliary bishop of Krakow in the 1950s.
Today, he said, Christians might be killed in a terrorist act while simply celebrating Mass in a free, democratic nation, like Father Jacques Hamel who was murdered in 2016 in Normandy, France.
People also gave their lives helping others, like the six members of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor who died after contracting Ebola while caring for others suffering from the virus in Kikwit, Congo, in 1995, he added.
Many people today see too much “nihilism” or negativity, and there is a pervasive sense of death or dead ends, and “they don’t know how to love and protect life,” he said. “Martyrs died loving life.”
“Christians don’t have rock-hard answers (to everything), but we are absolutely certain that we are loved by God, see the face of Jesus (in others) and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit,” Msgr. Gnavi said.
With faith, Christians can weather any storm, he said. “Even if you are afraid like everyone else, you have a guide,” who calms the waters, calms one’s heart and offers hope.