Christians need the heroic witness of those who stand up to hatred even when it means giving up their lives, Pope Francis has said.
At Rome’s Basilica of St Bartholomew, a shrine to modern martyrs, Pope Francis presided over an evening prayer service honouring Christians killed under Nazism, communism, dictatorships and terrorism.
“These teach us that with the force of love and with meekness one can fight arrogance, violence and war, and that with patience peace is possible,” the Pope said in his homily in the small basilica on Rome’s Tiber island.
Departing from his prepared text, Pope Francis said he wanted to add to the martyrs remembered at St Bartholomew by including “a woman – I don’t know her name – but she watches from heaven”.
The Pope said he had met the woman’s husband, a Muslim, in Lesbos, Greece, when he visited a refugee camp there in 2016. The man told the Pope that one day terrorists came to their home. They saw his wife’s crucifix and ordered her to throw it on the ground. She refused and they slit her throat.
The Pope said: “Now it’s that man, a Muslim, who carries this cross of pain.”
Francis remarked that he did not know “if that man is still at Lesbos or if he has been able to leave that ‘concentration camp’”. He said that, despite the good will of locals, many refugee camps were overcrowded and little more than prisons “because it seems international agreements are more important than human rights”.
His use of the description “concentration camps” was criticised, however. The American Jewish Committee said the wording was “regrettable”.
At the service on Saturday Pope Francis said: “So many Christian communities are the object of persecution today! Why? Because of the hatred of the spirit of this world.”
Jesus, the Pope said, has “rescued us from the power of this world, from the power of the Devil,” who hates Jesus’s saving power and “creates the persecution, which from the time of Jesus and the early Church continues up to our day.”
“What does the Church need today?” the Pope asked. “Martyrs and witnesses, those everyday saints, those saints of an ordinary life lived with coherence.
“But it also needs those who have the courage to accept the grace of being witnesses to the end, to the point of death. All of those are the living blood of the Church,” those who “witness that Jesus is risen, that Jesus lives.” Under a large icon depicting modern martyrs of the gulag and concentration camp, Pope Francis prayed: “O Lord, make us worthy witnesses of your Gospel and your love; pour out your mercy on humanity; renew your Church; protect persecuted Christians; and quickly grant the whole world peace.” During the prayer service, Pope Francis wore a stole that had belonged to Chaldean Fr Ragheed Aziz Ganni, who was murdered in Mosul, Iraq, in 2007.
Fr Ganni’s stole along with dozens of other items that belonged to men and women martyred in the 20th and 21st centuries are on display on the side altars at the basilica, which is cared for by the lay Sant’Egidio Community.
During the prayer service, at which Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox clergy were involved, people who had been close to those honoured as martyrs at the shrine spoke.
Karl Schneider’s father, the Rev Paul Schneider, was the first Protestant pastor martyred by the Nazis for opposing their hate-filled doctrine. He was married and the father of six children.
“My father was assassinated in 1939 in the Buchenwald concentration camp because he believed the objectives of National Socialism were irreconcilable with the words of the Bible,” Schneider told the congregation. “All of us, still today, make too many compromises, but my father remained faithful only to the Lord and to the faith.”
The next to speak was Roselyne Hamel, the sister of Fr Jacques Hamel, who was murdered as he celebrated Mass on July 26, 2016. The Archdiocese of Rouen has begun his Cause with Pope Francis’s approval. Fr Hamel’s breviary is preserved at St Bartholomew’s.
“Jacques was 85 years old when two young men, radicalised by hate speech, thought they could become heroes by engaging in homicidal violence,” his sister said.
“At his age, Jacques was fragile, but he also was strong – strong in his faith in Christ, strong in his love for the Gospel and for people.”
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