PROVIDENCE, R.I.—When he angered the Sanhedrin and was stoned to death for bearing witness to the Risen Christ, St. Stephen became the first Christian martyr. And to this day, men and women—clerics, religious and lay people—are still being killed around the world, their only “crime” being their devotion to the Church and to the people they are trying to help. In 1998 alone, 40 Catholic missionaries lost their lives in the service of the Church.
One, Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera of Guatemala, was leading an investigation into human rights abuses committed during Guatemala's civil war when he was murdered by a “death squad.” Jaguar Justiciero, the group responsible for Bishop Gerardi's murder, has vowed to kill other clerics, and has sent death threats to priests working in Guatemala.
In Haiti, Father Jean Pierre-Louis was shot and killed, most likely because he was promoting better conditions for those living in poverty in that country. In Algiers, Bishop Pierre Claverie was killed by the Armed Islamic Group for trying to negotiate peace between Christians and Muslims. On Christmas Eve, 1998, a Sardinian priest was shot to death on his way to celebrate Mass.
In addition to those murders, clerics, religious, and lay people are being kidnapped, raped and held hostage in various countries. Just before New Year's, mobs in western India attacked 18 churches, prayer halls and Christian schools and burned down a chapel. The Hindu extremist groups responsible for the attacks are said to be violently opposed to the attempts of Christian missionaries to convert poor and low-caste Indians.
Earlier in December, a mob dragged into a field and assaulted four nuns stationed as medical aid workers in village in India. During the 1990s, 15 nuns and priests have been murdered in that country.
Other episodes around the world have had more positive endings. A Canadian missionary kidnapped in Rwanda was released unharmed after being held for two days. China released a native priest after several days of imprisonment for participating in “illegal” religious activities.
Pope John Paul II, in his Christmas message for 1998, said that the lives of the 40 missionaries killed during the year were a gift for the world. And Bernardo Cervellera, director of the Vatican news agency, Fides, noted that more than 200 million Christians are being actively persecuted, with more than 400 million suffering discrimination because of their faith.
Paul Witte, director of Public Relations for the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME), a congregation of missionary priests, said the priests in the order go into the most difficult areas of the world to perform their work. “In a sense, this is inviting consequences, and it is very much a part of the congregation's spirituality,” he said.
One PIME priest, Father Clement Dismara, worked in Burma for 65 years, including during World War II, when conditions in the country were at their worst. While Father Dismara did not personally suffer physical harm, he worked and lived heroically in extreme poverty and the most difficult conditions. Today, Witte said, his cause for beatification has gone through the first phase, and his legacy continues.
Another PIME priest, Father Luciano Benedetti, was kidnapped in the Philippines in September 1998 and held for nearly 10 weeks, before finally being released unharmed.
While most of the clerics, religious and lay people murdered, Kidnapped, or ill-treated have been full-time workers in foreign missions, even American diocesan priests have died working for human rights and the betterment of the lives of the poor.
One such priest was Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, who was killed in Guatemala on July 28, 1981. He was sent to Guatemala as part of the mission the archdiocese has sponsored for nearly two decades.
Father Robert Weisenberger, currently pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Oklahoma City and a friend of Father Rother, recalled how Father Rother served in Guatemala in a time of great social upheaval.
“He received notice that he was on a group's death list, and was recalled to the archdiocese,” Father Weisenberger said. “But Easter was approaching, and Father Rother wanted to return to Guatemala. He said, ‘The shepherd cannot run.’ He was murdered four months later, because he cared for poor children and their families.”
One of the greatest tragedies, Father Weisenberger said, was that anyone of stature was marked for death, including prominent businessmen and parish council members. “They [the death squads] would even kill someone who took in the widow and children of a murdered man,” Father Weisenberger said.
Such persecution continues. In the Sudan, two Sudanese priests are on trial in a military court, accused of involvement in bombings in June 1998 in the capital city of Khartoum.
President Omar Hassan Ahmad alBashir said those convicted for the bombings “would be sentenced to death by hanging and then be crucified.” The trial has been vigorously protested by Amnesty International.
The trial was delayed on Dec. 10, so the Sudanese Constitutional Circle of the Supreme Court could consider a petition to hold the trial in a civilian court.
Even in the Information Age, the personal presence, the witness, and even the blood of missionaries fosters the way to faith throughout the developing world. But are we, in the developed world, witnessing more persecution of Christians today, or have the information outlets of our time magnified the issue by the reporting of more episodes?
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, says that, statistically, the 20th century has indeed seen more persecution and more martyrs than any other time in history. Even more, he says, despite the unprecedented availability of information on the martyrdom of missionaries and their flocks, Christians in the developed world have done little to show concern for their persecuted brethren.
“It's rather shocking we have Christians undergoing horrendous suffering, and there is almost no awareness,” Hitchcock said. “People might read about incidents in India and the Sudan, but rather than make them feel outraged, it makes them feel uncomfortable. They put such incidents right out of their minds.”
Hitchcock noted that nationally syndicated columnist A.M. Rosenthal has written editorials asking why Christians are not protesting the persecutions, especially in the Sudan, where Christian children are being sold into slavery and forced to renounce their faith.
“People in Western societies have bought into the idea that the purpose of religion is to make you feel good. They cannot even conceive the idea of suffering or dying for their religion.”
Yet there is an optimistic note; vocations to the priesthood are on the rise in certain parts of the country. Father Marcel Taillon, vocations recruiter for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, said there were five ordinations in June 1998, and eight young men have entered the seminary there.
“They know the work is demanding, and they must make great personal sacrifices,” Father Taillon said. “They are idealistic, but also realistic. The eight new seminarians are all joyful and spiritually healthy.”
Father Taillon also noted that at Bishop Hendricksen High School in Warwick, many of the students are attracted to the example of St. Maximillian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life in a German concentration camp during World War II.
“I'm encouraged by the students. All are respectful of the Church and the Faith. We had one student with leukemia who spoke to the student body about how his faith helped get him through the ordeal. He inspired everyone who heard him.”
While the seminarians and students with whom Father Taillon works may never face the suffering of missionaries in other countries, he said they still make great sacrifices. “Their formation is deeper and faster,” he said. “They are willing to reject the bad things of society, and focus on Christ and his Church in a society that is not doing so.”
James Malerba writes from Hamden, Connecticut.