On an island in Rome’s Tiber River, there is a basilica devoted to the Christian martyrs of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in the history of the Catholic Church.
Flanked on either side by relics of Christians martyred under Communism and Nazism respectively, the main altar of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island connects the tradition of Rome’s apostolic martyrs to the persecution of Christians today.
The church was first commissioned in 998 by German Emperor Otto III to receive the remains of St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive for his faith, and St. Adalbert, bishop of Prague who was martyred in 997 during the evangelization of Poland.
Today the basilica houses relics of the apostle and medieval evangelist alongside those of St. Maximilian Kolbe, martyred in Auschwitz, and Sr. Leonella Sgorbati, a missionary nurse in Somalia in the height of the country’s civil war. Her last words as she was murdered in 2006 were: “I forgive them, I forgive, I forgive.”
Father Angelo Romano, rector of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, told CNA that the basilica has received more than 120 relics from the persecuted Christian communities of modern martyrs from around the world. Many of the objects are second-class relics, which are items, or fractions of an item, that a saint personally owned.
The basilica is currently working on a crypt museum to display the entire collection because the basilica’s side chapels, which preserve the memory of recent martyrs from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, cannot fit them all.
“The stories of the martyrs are attractive. People want to know about them because they are very close to Jesus, and when you are close to Jesus, people love you,” Fr. Romano said.
“These people, they forgave their own persecutors, like Jesus on the cross. This is the strength of love,” he said.
As a priest, Fr. Romano said that he is challenged daily by the memory of the martyrs preserved in the basilica. “The martyrs are questioning us as to the level of our coherence, the level of our commitment, the level of our spirituality,” he said.
“It is quite a challenge because first of all I knew one of them personally,” he explained. Romano was friends with Blessed Giuseppe Puglisi, a parish priest in Palermo, who was murdered for speaking out against the mafia in 1993. His beatification “was a turning point in Sicily, for the whole society,” Romano said.
Recently, the basilica acquired the breviary of Fr. Jacques Hamel, who was killed in 2016 by ISIS terrorists in France while celebrating Mass.
“It is a story which continues,” Romano said.
On July 15, the basilica will host the launch of an independent review into the global persecution of Christians by the UK government, hosted by the UK Embassy to the Holy See.
At the event, Iraqi Cardinal Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church and representatives from Pakistan and Nigeria will speak of the persecution their communities have endured in recent years.
“As John Paul II said, freedom of religion is the basic freedom. Without it, there is no freedom at all. If you deny freedom of religion, you deny all the other freedoms,” Fr. Romano said.
The story of the basilica’s dedication to the “new martyrs” began with St. John Paul II, Romano explained.
“John Paul II was a friend of many martyrs … he lived through the persecution of the Second World War by the Nazi regime and then the Communist persecution,” he said.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II established the Commission for the New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee, giving them the task “not only to document Catholic martyrs, but also protestant and Orthodox, saying in the blood of the martyrs, the Church is already united. There was this vision of the ecumenicism of the blood.”
The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island continues the ecumenical focus today by honoring the Anglican martyrs of Solomon Island, a brotherhood working for reconciliation among the ethnic groups who were killed in 1992-93, and Russian Orthodox Father Alexander Men, who was assassinated in Moscow in 1990.
There is a large icon on the altar of the “New Martyrs and Witnesses to the Faith of the 20th and 21st centuries,” which was blessed by both an Orthodox patriarch and the cardinal vicar of Rome.
Pope Francis also gave the basilica a little wooden bird from the Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God in Syria, a church that burned during the bombing of Aleppo in the Syrian civil war. The bird was brought back to Rome with the humanitarian corridors of the Catholic Community of St. Egidio, a lay movement dedicated to works of charity, who have been entrusted with the spiritual care of the basilica of St. Bartholomew.
“When Christians are truly leaven, light, and salt to the earth, they are, like Jesus, subject to persecution; like Him they are ‘signs of contradiction,’” Pope Benedict XVI said on his visit to the basilica in 2006.