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The Last Word - July 2015

Martyrs in the year 2015

On June 30 each year, we celebrate the feast day of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, sometimes called the "protomartyrs."  These are the men and women who were martyred under the Emperor Nero after the great fire in Rome in July of the year 63 A.D.  The Roman historian Tacitus describes what happened.  A great multitude of Christians were arrested and then executed. “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

Horrible as that must have been, the number of martyrs in first century Rome pale in comparison to the number that have and continue to attain martyrdom in our own time.  We only have to look back over the last several months for descriptions of martyrdoms as shocking as those described by the Roman historian.  Allow me just a few examples.

In February of this year, 21 Coptic Christians were brutally executed in Libya.  In March, suicide bombers attacked two Christian churches in eastern Pakistan killing 15 worshippers.  In April, some 30 Ethiopian Christians were murdered.  Also in April, 148 young students were killed in Kenya.  The Open Doors charity recorded 1,062 churches being attacked in twelve months.  This same organization can confirm that 4,344 people were executed for their Christian faith in 2014, more than double the number for 2013.  They report that the numbers are likely much higher, but they only use figures that be verified.  The Holy Father made repeated reference to these atrocities during Holy Week this year and called for a response.  But what is the Christian response in the face of persecution?

The altogether human, common sense response is to hope for an opportunity for revenge, even if it is often called “justice.”  But Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, Kenya, offered an additional suggestion during his visit to Garissa University College, where the 148 students had been martyred.  After praying with families at the morgue, the cardinal said in an interview with The Associated Press that parents of the dead were going through a very trying time and that what the attackers did was horrible, but he held out hope that militants would repent.  “Let us pray for them, that they may come to a point of undergoing a metamorphosis in which they realize they are dealing with life,” Cardinal Njue said.  And a cousin of one of the martyrs commented, "You should pray for your enemies, so that they can change.  As Christians, we are told to forgive those who sin against us."  I wonder how many people would have proposed prayer for the killers as a response to this atrocity.

It is a radical response and certainly not “common” sense.  But God's ways are not our ways, and God's thoughts are not our thoughts.  Could it be true that only love will change the hearts of enemies, as, indeed, Jesus said?

- Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal