Heroes, by the grace of God

Twenty-five years ago, St John Paul II concluded his encyclical on the moral life by pointing to the martyrs. There are always circumstances when the requirements of the moral law, the cost of discipleship, seem too high. It’s tempting to think that the moral law is too difficult, or even that man is incapable of the full demands of discipleship. The Council of Trent taught that such conclusions were anathema, but John Paul went back further to St Paul, arguing that such thinking “empties the Cross of Christ of its power”.

Veritatis Splendor, dated August 6, 1993, was actually released in October of that year. And the previous month, Blessed Pino Puglisi, the anti-mafia priest who was murdered in retaliation for John Paul’s denunciation of the mafia on his visit to Sicily in May 1993, confirmed its teaching. The martyrs teach us that witness to the truth is always possible. All the generations of Sicilians – including the leadership of the Church, both clergy and lay – who argued that it was impossible to oppose the mafia concluded that the Cross of Christ was not powerful enough. Blessed Pino, the parish priest, knew better.

Pope Francis will travel to Sicily to mark the 25th anniversary of Blessed Pino’s murder, which took place on September 15, 1993, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows – and Don Pino’s 56th birthday.

Don Pino was a martyr not just during John Paul’s pontificate; he was also martyred precisely because of John Paul. In that, he was like his recently beatified fellow Italian, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, who was killed in Somalia by Islamist extremists in response to Benedict XVI’s address at Regensburg.

More to the point, Don Pino is a martyr very much like Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, the Polish “chaplain” of the Solidarity movement who was murdered in 1984 by the communist secret police for being a local champion of what St John Paul II proclaimed on his apostolic visits to Poland.

We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the election of St John Paul II as pope, on October 16 next. The anniversary will fall during the synod on the pastoral care of youth, for which the Polish pope remains the model given to the Church in our age. But in the providence of the calendar, John Paul is accompanied by his martyrs who, in effect, have sealed his pastoral witness.

Consider that Blessed Jerzy’s birthday falls on September 14, feast of the Triumph of the Cross, the day before Blessed Pino’s. That feast was important to John Paul, as he chose it for two of his encyclicals, Laborem Exercens (1981) and Fides et Ratio (1998). And his papal coat-of-arms – “M” under the Cross – is a depiction of Our Lady of Sorrows.

More impressive, their feast days also accompany each other. St John Paul’s feast day is October 22, the date of his inaugural homily as pope: “Be Not Afraid!”. Blessed Jerzy’s feast day is on October 19, the day of his abduction and presumed martyrdom, though his body was not discovered until 10 days later. The date of Blessed Pino’s martyrdom was already a feast on the universal calender, so he was assigned October 21, the date of his baptism. Thus the three together – the pope and his martyrs – form a sort of October triduum.

In particular, Blessed Pino’s feast on the vigil of John Paul’s is a reminder of the message of Veritatis Splendor: namely that baptism makes us capable of following Christ, even to the threshold of martyrdom. Blesseds Pino and Jerzy demonstrate that.

As John Paul wrote in Veritatis Splendor (93):

“Martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church. Fidelity to God’s holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem [to the shedding of blood], so that the splendour of moral truth may be undimmed in the behaviour and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities.”

In this anniversary year of Veritatis Splendor, we need reminding that moral heroism is always possible with God’s grace. When Pope Francis celebrates Blessed Pino this week, it will be a reminder written in blood.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the September 14 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here