Archbishop Cordileone’s Vision: Honor Martyrs of Communism With Music, Art and Literature

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s innovative Martyrs of Communism project is a revival of the classically Catholic way of preaching the Gospel message.

A marker commemorating the Ukrainian martyrs of the 20th century stands at Sorrowful Mother Shrine in Bellevue, Ohio.
A marker commemorating the Ukrainian martyrs of the 20th century stands at Sorrowful Mother Shrine in Bellevue, Ohio. (photo: Nheyob / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

On my porch last January, I found a bulky, wet, disintegrating brown envelope. As I moved to open it, the paper simply gave way, exposing a messy assortment of books, booklets and old mimeographed pages about the Catholic martyrs of Ukraine. These were sent by Father Andrew Summerson, a Toronto Byzantine Catholic priest, to help me fulfill an unusual commission from San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone: Create the text of a new hymn (with the music composed by Frank La Rocca) honoring the heroic witness of Ukraine’s martyrs and white martyrs.

This hymn was the very first of an ongoing Benedict XVI Institute project to remember the martyrs of Communism through hymns, liturgies, sacred music, stories, film, plays and painting — a new spring of art for God’s sake. Our second commission is to create a hymn for martyrs of Chinese Communism.

If the outside of the package reminded me of the battered fate of all material things, the interior spoke of great suffering and much death, but also of the witness of faith and the possibility of holiness, even in the face of persecution, torture, penal servitude and assassination.

Why are we Christians in the West so little aware of the great witness of the martyred and the persecuted under the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th and 21st centuries? One reason may be that the Catholic Church logically categorizes martyrs under their national identity, e.g., “Martyrs of China” or “Martyrs of Ukraine.” And yet their witness is universal, or should be.

“Referencing the commonality of these martyrs, and other believers who, although not executed, nonetheless heroically endured persecution in the face of those godless, murderous, totalitarian ideologies that spread across the globe in the twentieth century, helps us teach the next generation to remember their heroic witness to the faith,” Archbishop Cordileone told me via email.

Yet another reason we Christians forget to remember is that artistic creation is now dominated by secular interests. Historically, the Catholic Church has been the source of a great outpouring of art that has lasted through the centuries, uplifting on the concert stage even the most hardened heart. 

Archbishop Cordileone’s vision seems unusual today only because we’ve accepted this novel secular dominance of cultural life. In the woke West today (as it was under Communist domination) the aims of art are often lowered from sacred to superficial political purposes. Archbishop Cordileone’s innovative Martyrs of Communism project is thus a revival of the classically Catholic way of preaching the Gospel message. Once truth, goodness and beauty together directed our attentions to the path to God. Now truth and goodness are expected to do the heavy lifting — a task especially difficult in a culture that has given up on rational, objective truth.

Recapturing the role of symbols and stories in evangelizing is an urgent task for Christians today. Dana Gioia, the poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chairman, points out, in a small new book Christianity and Poetry (forthcoming from Wiseblood Books), “Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice.” Catholicism, like Orthodox Christianity, once understood that cognitive prose alone cannot convey to us the greater spiritual reality. As Dana Gioia puts it: “The Incarnation deserves an ode, not an email.”

For the poet as for the composer, creating for the liturgy is a fundamentally distinct artistic task: to create a poem that not only highlights the sacrificial witness and serves the music but most importantly furthers the worship of God. These words were to be words for prayer, so that all who listen might also pray for, and through, these martyrs.

Who were these heroes of faith? Consider Theodore Romzha, a bishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Russian soldiers first rammed his horse-drawn carriage with a military truck. But he survived the attack and refused to renounce his fidelity to the Church. Hospital workers in the pay of the Soviets soon poisoned him. He died Nov. 1, 1947. The hymn speaks of Romzha and other Ukrainian martyrs thus: 

Knowing it would bring his death
Firm in faith he answered, “never.”
This we bring you with our loss
For your altar and your cross.

Among the Chinese martyrs was Father Chrysostom Chang, whom the Maoist regime forced, with his brother monks, to undertake a long death march across China. The monks trudged endlessly, watching as their religious brothers dropped dead one by one along the roadside, their bodies unburied. In commemorating Father Chang’s sacrifice, I sought to bring into English the allusive, dense, richly symbolic patterns of classic Chinese poetry:

A flowering of wire
 Binds the bare wrists behind;
The opened skin a fire
 He suffers to remind
Of one before who wore a crown of briar. 

Not all who suffered persecution paid the ultimate price. During his years of forced labor, Father Li Chang dwelt in the forest, naming the trees and talking to them, as he worked collecting pine resin. His undaunted joy in suffering and fraternal love of creation are reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi. Under threat of death or worse, he continued to say the Mass in secret for his fellow imprisoned Christians, including one night when his suffering was so great he asked God to bring him the rest of death:

After the lamp-lit Mass,
 The corporal stashed away,
He seemed a shattered glass
 And now began to pray
That with his suffering his breath might pass.

These hymns remind us of the unique insight of faith: even in suffering we can make a gift of ourselves to God. Even amid immense worldly losses, we can build up a kingdom founded at the foot of the cross of Christ.

As Archbishop Cordileone told me, the heroic witness of these martyrs “hasn’t stopped happening. The imprisonment of Jimmy Lai, Cardinal Zen, and others persecuted by the Chinese government reminds us that witness to the love of Christ requires courage in our times, as well.” 

The Offertory for Ukraine was recorded by the Grammy-Award winning team led by Blanton Alspaugh with the magnificent Benedict XVI Choir, Richard Sparks conducting, as part of “The Requiem for the Forgotten.” On March 15, the recording will be released by Cappella Records and celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone for the first time at Miami’s Church of the Epiphany. The Requiem Mass for the Forgotten will also be broadcast live by EWTN. Register to attend or to receive the EWTN link.

The Soviet Communists marked the Ukrainian Catholic church for demolition. They imprisoned, deported, tortured or murdered thousands of lay Christians, priests and sisters — a small but symbolic percentage of the tens of millions killed under the reigns of Stalin and Mao.

The Church still lives to sing the martyrs’ song.