Witness to Martyrs

A Visit to St. Bartholomew’s Basilica on the Island


When visiting Rome, Catholics should not forget to visit St. Bartholomew’s Basilica on the Island. Although many guidebooks on the Eternal City ignore it, since 2000, it has been home to an inspiring collection of relics of recent martyrs from all continents. It reminds us that the shocking persecutions of Christians today may bear surprising fruits.

St. Bartholomew’s is located on Tiber Island; it is connected to both banks of the Tiber by two bridges. One of them — Ponte Cestino — was built in 46 B.C., making it the oldest Roman bridge in use.

Since its foundation, St. Bartholomew’s has been inextricably connected with the martyrs. Holy Roman Emperor Otto III established it in 997 to hold the relics of St. Adalbert, the bishop of Prague who Christianized Hungary, Poland and Prussia, which Otto received from Boleslaus the Brave, the first king of Poland. Pagans killed Adalbert in his effort to bring the Gospel to Prussia.

Eventually, however, the church became devoted to St. Bartholomew the Apostle, a martyr himself — his feast day is Aug. 24 — after his body was moved there. Connected to Rome’s former ghetto by Ponte Cestino, St. Bartholomew’s has served as a bridge between the Christian and Jewish worlds. During the 1943 deportations of Roman Jews to Nazi death camps, around 300 Jews were hidden around the island, many of them by nuns in the basilica.

In the 16th century, Pope Clement VII entrusted the basilica to the Franciscans. They were in charge of the basilica until 2000, when Pope St. John Paul II transferred it to the Sant’Egidio Community. One of Italy’s leading Catholic intellectuals, Andrea Riccardi, then 18 years old, founded this lay community in Rome in 1968. Sant’Egidio has more than 60,000 members in 70 countries. It is one of the most vibrant Catholic movements in today’s Italy. Its focuses are prayer, evangelization, ministering to the poor and interreligious dialogue.

Although St. John Paul II was not physically martyred, Catholic commentator Robert Royal has called him a “dry martyr.” Never in history were Christians as persecuted as in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Kirche in Not (“Church in Need”) organization estimates that three-quarters of all people persecuted for their religious beliefs today are Christians and that 170,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year. Having survived both the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland and the communist attempt to create a society built on the lie that man does not need God, John Paul knew the Church of the martyrs from the inside.

From El Salvador to East Timor, communist-era Poland to Cuba, he traveled wherever the Church was persecuted, emerging as the martyred Church’s mouthpiece. John Paul II decided to dedicate St. Bartholomew’s to the new Christian martyrs, entrusting Sant’Egidio with the task of converting the basilica into a memorial to them.

In the center of this basilica are a marble altar and an icon presenting St. Veronica’s veil, directly below a transept ceiling. It was painted by the Sant’Egidio community and is dedicated to the new martyrs. On the sides are 14 Egyptian marble columns. Between them are chapels dedicated to the new martyrs, accompanied by Baroque frescoes painted by Caracci.

One of the first thoughts that come to one’s mind while visiting St. Bartholomew’s is Tertullian’s famous observation that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

The basilica features six side chapels devoted to new martyrs, representing various regions (Europe; Asia; the Middle East and Oceania; Africa; and America) and ideologies (Nazism and communism) that persecuted Christians.

Many of these martyrs led to the flourishing of the faith. The American chapel houses a missal belonging to Blessed Oscar Romero. Earlier this year, in San Salvador, 250,000 people attended his beatification.

Also represented in the chapel is André Jarlan, a French missionary in Chile killed during an anti-government protest in 1984 (although Father Jarlan has not been officially declared a martyr by the Church). At that time, the Chilean Church stood on the side of the people, encouraging them to protest peacefully against Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship; it then enjoyed its greatest prestige among the Chilean people.

Among relics of the martyrs of communism is the rock that killed Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, the pro-Solidarity Polish priest who was killed by communists in 1984. Father Jerzy’s brutal murder exposed to millions of Poles that Marxism is funded upon lies and hate; hundreds of thousands attended his funeral and beatification.

Another European martyr is Blessed Pino Puglisi, an Italian priest killed by the mafia in 1993 after defending his flock. His stole and crucifix are presented at St. Bartholomew’s. Since his death, Father Puglisi’s witness has inspired many Sicilians to stand up against the mafia’s culture of violence and corruption.

A major theme of John Paul II’s pontificate was Ut unum sint (“That they become one”), a verse from the Gospel of St. John (17:21). St. Bartholomew’s suggests that modern martyrdom brings the Christian churches closer together. Among the items on display is a rosary belonging to Aleksandr Men, a Russian-Orthodox priest who worked effortlessly to evangelize Russians; Soviet authorities likely ordered his murder. Also featured are the relics of Paul Schneider, a Lutheran pastor who died in Buchenwald, where he was imprisoned for his opposition to Nazism.

There are no relics or items related to martyrs from the United States at St. Bartholomew’s, and apart from Father Puglisi’s stole and cross, no holy men and women who lived in rich democracies are represented at St. Bartholomew’s. Does this mean that the Sant’Egidio memorial is irrelevant to Christians living in today’s West? Perhaps it is worth noting that, until his recent death, Chicago Cardinal Francis George’s titular church was St. Bartholomew’s. The late prelate famously predicted that his successors would endure martyrdom.

Christians in Western countries today are facing a bloodless martyrdom: Increasingly, their religious rights are threatened, and they are coerced to accept a secularist agenda. Such persecution is less tangible, but it is real.

The martyrs should inspire us to not cave in, but to remain true to our faith.

Representing the Asian martyrs is the Bible of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Catholic politician killed in 2011, after criticizing Islamic Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law and Christians persecuted under it, such as Asia Bibi. Bhatti should serve as an inspiration to Catholic statesmen in the United States and around the world to remain vigorous defenders of the truth even when it is unpopular.

St. Bartholomew’s Basilica on the Island deserves to be better known. At a time when even secular newspaper headlines bring dire news of the persecution of Christians, it challenges us to remember that, rather than despair, the example of the martyrs can lead to a renewed faith.

Filip Mazurczak

filed this story from Rome.