Catholics who die for Christ sometimes die more proximately for the Vicar of Christ. Last Saturday two such martyrs were honoured. English Catholics are familiar enough with the phenomenon; the English martyrs died as often for their loyalty to the Bishop of Rome as universal pastor than they did for a particular doctrine of the faith. St John Fisher’s martyrdom may have been prompted by the decision of Pope Paul III to create Fisher a cardinal. The newly elected pontiff, still in his first year of his Petrine ministry, thought it might protect Fisher from Henry VIII’s wrath. Instead, the papal favour may have prompted Henry to martyr him, and Thomas More a fortnight later.
On Saturday, Sister Leonella Sgorbati was beatified in Piacenza. The Italian Consolata missionary was killed in Somalia in 2006, in the bloody days after the Regensburg address. She was a martyr for Benedict XVI’s argument that theology had a role to play in countering religious violence. The Holy Father had suggested that it was possible that some extremist violence was rooted in strains of Islamic theology that placed God beyond reason. Violence erupted in parts of the Islamic world to protest against Benedict’s suggestion that there could be such a link.
Blessed Leonella was one of only two Westerners left in the hell-on-earth of Mogadishu in September 2006. After leaving the children’s hospital with her bodyguard – religious Sisters working with sick children needed bodyguards in Somalia – they were stopped by assassins who opened fire. The Muslim bodyguard threw himself between the shooters and Sister Leonella to protect her. He died immediately, while Sister Leonella died soon after from her wounds after being rushed to hospital.
Blessed Leonella was 65, having spent 35 years as a missionary, mostly in Kenya. In 2001, she heard a call to set up a nurses’ training school in Somalia, one of the most wretched places on earth, wracked by violence from warlords and Islamist fanatics. She knew that being a Catholic missionary in Somalia would mean her death. “I know there is a bullet with my name on it,” Sister Leonella said in March 2006, six months before her martyrdom. “I don’t know when it will arrive, but as long as it does not arrive, I will stay in Somalia.”
Her last words, while dying, were: “I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.”
Blessed Leonella was in a dangerous place due to her missionary vocation. But the manner of her death was caused by a fanatical response to learned the lecture by Benedict XVI.
In May 1993, St John Paul II did not adopt the Ratzingerian manner of the soft-spoken scholar, but rather delivered himself of a thunderous denunciation of the mafia while on a pastoral visit to Sicily. Shaking with rage in spontaneous remarks at the end of Mass, the Holy Father warned the mafiosi that they would face the judgment of God.
The mafia responded in July 1993 by bombing the pope’s cathedral in Rome, St John Lateran, and in September by assassinating the most prominent anti-mafia priest in Sicily, Don Pino Puglisi. Don Pino, like Sister Leonella after him, was already doing dangerous work for the sake of the Gospel. He too was martyred as a way of seeking revenge on the pope.
On Saturday, as Sister Leonella was being beatified in Piacenza, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would visit Palermo this September to mark the 25th anniversary of Blessed Pino’s martyrdom.
In a global media age the Church offers her witness in large part through the Roman pontiff, whose words arrive daily in every part of the world. Yet the blood of the martyrs remains, as it was in the apostolic age, the more enduring witness. Blesseds Pino and Leonella sealed with their blood the Church’s denunciation of criminal violence and religious violence. In beatifying both Pino and Leonella, Pope Francis has added the martyr’s palm to the courageous witness of his predecessors, St John Paul and Benedict.
It is a law of the Church’s life. Nothing of importance that she preaches does not count its martyrs. Last week, the Mexican bishops praised the holy memory of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara on the 25th anniversary of his death. He was assassinated along with six others at the Guadalajara airport by a lethal combination of drug-trafficking gangsters and criminal elements in the state.
Those responsible for the cardinal’s death have not been brought to justice, but the Mexican Church has no doubt that he was killed for his opposition to the deep corruption drugs have wrought in Mexican public life. It is the hope of the Mexican Church that if the killers are ever clearly identified, a martyrdom cause for Cardinal Posadas may be introduced.
In the early Church, the Vicars of Christ crowned their ministry with martyrdom. John Paul and Benedict had their service crowned by Blessed Pino and Blessed Leonella.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the June 1st 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here