Rome (AsiaNews) - Today is the 18th day of prayer and fasting in remembrance of missionary martyrs. Wanted by the Pontifical Missionary Youth Movement, it is celebrated every year on 24 March, the day in which Mgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was killed while celebrating mass.
The memory of the martyrs is one of the key elements for deepening the faith: John Paul II rekindled awareness of this as he prepared the Church to enter the third millennium. Now, in its wake, many Christian communities, associations, simple faithful organize marches, fasts, rosaries to honour brothers and sisters in the world who die because of faith. But if the cult of the martyrs is to become the basis for the renewal of our faith, than certain specific points need to be made.
First, we must remember all martyrs, without differentiating, hiding or forgetting those who are incompatible to our mentality. In the past, the preference was to speak of those martyrs who were considered "progressives", killed by right-wing regimes - especially in Latin America - or by regimes enslaved to Western neo-colonialism (as in Africa). In fact Mgr. Romero has long been used as a flag to criticize U.S. supremacy in Central America. It took John Paul II to rescue this martyr from sycophantic political exploitation, by highlighting his passionate love of Christ and his readiness to give his life for the good of his people. Instead today the preferred martyrs of choice seem to be those in the Islamic world, perhaps because they are seen, in some way, as useful in the global fight against terrorism and the need to enhance border security.
The opposite danger also exists: that for fear of political exploitation, Christians draw a veil of silence over the heroes of the faith. Remembering martyrs means honouring their faith and their gift of their lives for the Gospel, so we can become more like them. It does not mean making a political statement.
In this regard it is worth remembering that among the most neglected by the Church and society are the Chinese martyrs. Few Christians - even bishops - remember that there are three prelates of the Catholic Church in Chinese prisons. They have been missing for years (some for decades) in the hands of police. I have rarely seen any prayers for them or heard calls to Beijing for their release.
Catholics in Vietnam (and the archbishop of Hanoi, Mgr. Kiet) suffer a similar fate. They have been subjected to beatings, abuses and government media bombardment for years. Yet their testimony is among the most fruitful in Asia, and their persecution is very close to what could happen to us, from a government that demands blind faith and claims to occupy all social and moral spaces in the lives of the people: in some ways similar to what Western governments do with abortion, the pill, condoms and other imaginary "rights."
The memory of the martyrs should also encourage pilgrimage. Above all to their graves, but then to homes and churches in the communities of El Salvador, Mexico the Middle East, China. These trips must be used to share the suffering, but also the faith of our brothers and sisters, "sharing their imprisonment" (Hebrews 13: 3), so a greater missionary resolve may be born, particularly in young people.
The cult of the martyrs is of great value for civil society: in a world of relativism which in danger of self destructing because of the lack of truth, their valuable testimony states that there are values worth living or dying for and that there is a Life more powerful than death. It is no small coincidence that the Bishops of Japan have placed the lives of many young tempted by suicide under the protection of the Japanese martyrs.
For states and governments, the cult of the martyrs must move to ensure religious freedom everywhere. Their sacrifice is a sign of disorder and violence in society, two elements that do not help growth or peace. Their death for love of Christ is a pledge of reconciliation.