Monday, January 02, 2017

The treasure chest of murdered missionaries

There are the nuns of Mother Teresa who were slain in Yemen. 

There is the catechist who was killed in Indonesia, the priests who were gunned down in Mexico and the seminarian who lost his life in Nigeria. 

Then there is Fr. Hamel, who was martyred right in the heart of Europe. 

Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies, has published a report – as it does at the end of every year - presenting a list of Catholic pastoral workers killed in a violent manner. 

The information relates to all continents and to the political and religious tensions witnessed in the various regions from the Middle East to Eastern Asia, America and Black Africa.

The 2016 list includes 28 new martyrs (a term that is used exclusively in the etymological sense of the word: “testimonies”): 14 priests, nine nuns, a seminarian and four lay people. Most of the victims registered (12) were in America; Africa follows with eight, Asia with 7 and Europe with one.

Verified victims are mentioned in a list that has been described as “certainly incomplete”.

This new information takes the number of Catholic pastoral workers killed around the world, from 1980 onwards, to a total of 1,112 victims.

“In 2016, for the eight consecutive year, the highest number was registered in America, while the number of nuns killed – nine this year – rose dramatically, that is more than double the figure recorded in 2015,” Fides says. The primary cause of violent death is not, as some may assume, Islamic extremism, but “attempted robberies or theft, committed with ferocity, in contexts that show moral degradation, economic and cultural poverty, violence as a rule in terms of behaviour, a lack of respect for human rights and for life itself”. And this has become an established trend in recent years.

Missionary killings always take place in contexts of global unrest, power clashes, social and political violence. These are the contexts in which the innocent lose their life, ready as they are to bear witness to the Gospel “even in the farthest corners” of the earth.

But today, the annual martyrology is also a treasure chest that can reveal to us the true nature of Christian martyrdom, which is too often betrayed with a “persecutionist ideology” that exploits the lives of modern martyrs, greedily transforming their experiences into a golden opportunity to launch campaigns driven by political or even military interests (as is the case with the defence of Christians in the Middle East). 

Not to mention the fact that martyrs sometimes end up falling prey to marketing strategists who create visibility and financial power shrewdly exploiting the sacredness of things (the history of those who give their lives for the faith), that is able to touch the consciences and hearts of believers and non-believers alike.

With a spirit that is worlds away from these kinds of rationale, missionaries, nuns and lay people who continue to give themselves for the Gospel, choosing to stay at people’s side even in extreme situations, live their condition simply as Christians. They administer the sacraments, help the poor, comfort the sick trusting in divine Providence and living the Gospel even in contexts of violence and conflict, with a disconcerting meekness that expresses evangelical love towards the enemy.

“Throughout the centuries,” observes Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, “Christians have always seen martyrdom as the loftiest expression of faith. They have always been celebrated as those who redeem all of us and save the world because they take the sufferings endured in the name of God, upon them, bringing to their contemporaries the redemption brought by Christ.”

A case in point were the nuns massacred in Yemen, Fr. Hamel and other missionaries, becoming shining examples of the dynamics of Christian martyrdom. A closer look at their life stories reveals patience, meekness, mercy and absence of hatred towards their persecutors: an attitude that is not of human doing but a gift of Christ’s grace. It is he, his triumph that shines through in the stories of those who “join in his passion” through their closeness to Jesus Christ, explained Camillo Ballin, Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia.

Today, there is still one chapter of the tragic Yemen saga that remains open: the kidnapping of Indian Salesian priest Tom Uzhunnanil, who was in the targeted residence in Aden at the time of the attack. Hopes were reignited after fears of a possible execution; on 24 December this year, a video was published on YouTube showing Fr. Uzhunnalil hesitantly appealing to the Pope, the Church and governments for his release. 

 The Indian government reiterated its diplomatic commitment and Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, stressed, without giving any details, that “work is being done on a number of fronts to try to obtain his release,” inviting all Christians to pray. 

In the hope that Tom Uzhunnalil’s name is not added to next year’s list of martyrs.

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