|Martyrs of the 20th Century--|
Great West Door of Westminster
This past Sunday I noticed a middle-aged man get up and storm angrily out of Church when the priest mentioned the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, bishop of San Salvador, who was murdered while saying Mass in 1980. Though Father did not mention that the Archbishop was murdered by American-backed forces in the Salvadoran army, the very mention of the Archbishop and his upcoming beatification obviously stirred the memory of this gentleman and triggered his anger. It was particularly surprising as our parish, while somewhat heavier than we would like with us “late middle-aged” folk, is pretty liberal, both politically and religiously. But the mention of the murdered Archbishop, as the preacher was saying, is a reminder that the age of martyrdom is not over.
Over the great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London, the gothic niches have been filled with statutes with the “Martyrs of the 20th Century.” Archbishop Romero stands among them. In addition to Archbishop Romero, the Catholic Church is commemorated with the memorial to Saint Maximillian Kolbe , the Polish Franciscan who, in 1941, voluntarily took the place of another prisoner in a starvation cell at the Nazi Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
The Anglican Church is represented by Manche Masemola, Archbishop Janani Luwum, Wang Zhiming, Lucien Tapiedi, and Esther John. The Orthodox Church is represented by the Grand Duchess Saint Elizabeth of Russia, and the Protestant faith by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoffer and the Baptist, Dr. Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King, of course, is familiar to us Americans as the great preacher and apostle of non-violence who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 until his murder by a white racist in 1968. Just as attempts were made to tarnish the reputation of Romero by his foes both in El Salvador and here in the United States, King was subjected to character assassination by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI who wanted Americans to think that the preacher was a Communist agitator in an effort to discredit his objectives of an America in which there was an equal opportunity for all regardless of race.
The Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia was a German Princess who married into the Russian Royal Family and converted to Orthodoxy. (Her younger sister also married into the Romanoffs—married Nicholas II and became the Tsarina Alexandra.) Elizabeth’s husband, the Tsar's uncle, the Grand Duke Sergei, was assassinated in 1905. The young widow sold her jewelry to fund a convent of Orthodox nuns who worked among the sick and poor. She herself headed the convent as its Abbess. She was arrested during the Revolution and like her sister, the Tsarina, was brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Manche Masemola was a young South-African woman murdered by her own family in 1928 for converting to Christianity from the traditional tribal religion. Esther John similarly was murdered in the Pakistani Punjab region in 1960 for having converted from Islam to Christianity. Archbishop Janani Luwum has a story much like Archbishop Romero’s. Luwum was primate of the Anglican Church in Uganda and spoke out against the reign of terror in Idi’ Amin’s Uganda just as Romero had spoken out against the death squads in El Salvador. He was arrested and died in police custody. When the body was released to the family, it was riddled with bullet wounds. Some present claimed that Idi Amin had personally shot and killed the Archbishop.
Dietrich Bonheoffer was a German Lutheran Pastor who, with other Lutherans formed the “Confessing Church” when they found that the official Lutheran Church was collaborating too closely with the Hitler Regime. Although already in prison by the time of the 1944 plot to kill Hitler by placing a bomb in the conference room where the dictator was meeting with his staff, Bonheoffer was connected with the would-be assassins. He was hanged on April 9, 1945—just a few weeks before the fall of the Nazi regime.
Lucian Tapiedi was a Papuan New Guinea Anglican lay evangelist who was killed during the Japanese invasion of that Island during World War II.
Wang Zhiming was a Chinese Protestant brutally murdered during the Chinese “Cultural Revolution” in 1973 in a stadium before a crowd of 10,000 (mostly Christians) in an attempt to terrorize Christians to give up the practice of their faith. These ten figures from different parts of the Christian family alert us to the sufferings of Christians today. Christians in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and other countries often hold on to their faith at the cost of their lives.
When I lived in Rome, I always attended a very special prayer service each Holy Week sponsored by the Community of Sant’ Egidio to commemorate those men and women who in the 20th and now the 21st century have laid down their lives for their faith. We too should remember them—the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.