For the month of March, the Holy Father’s prayer intention is “For the new martyrs: We pray that those who risk their lives for the Gospel in various parts of the world inflame the Church with their courage and missionary enthusiasm.”

Ever since taking a little trip to Rome in October, 2015, thinking by my invisible presence and silent prayer to be in solidarity with the Synod on the Family that was taking place during that time, I’ve had a special place in my heart for the New Martyrs. This is a piece I wrote of my two weeks there.

The churches were stupendous. The ruins were sublime. But I couldn’t get over the Tiber, which runs north to south through the city, and which Romans largely ignore. For most of my visit, the water was a dreamy green (later brown). Still, if such a river ran through the middle of my own city of LA, the whole thing would have been turned into a mall or at the very least an over-crowded bike path.

As it was, other than the stray jogger, cyclist or stroller, I had the Tiber almost to myself. My rented studio apartment was hard by the Ponte Sisto, and I loved descending the stone steps to walk along the ancient cobblestones, pass beneath the crumbling, moss-covered bridges, and marvel at the curving lines of lamps as they came on at dusk.

A few bridges down, I noticed a little island and, after several days, made my way over. That was when I stumbled upon the Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola, the Memorial of the New Martyrs

The church dates back to the Roman Empire. The website explains:

In 1999, anticipating the celebration of the Jubilee 2000, Pope John Paul II created a Commission to the study the life and history of the New Christian Martyrs of the 20th Century. For two years the Commission worked in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, collecting approximately 12,000 dossiers on martyrs and witnesses of faith from dioceses all around the world.

Among the fruits of this study was the ecumenical prayer at the Coliseum, when the Pope gathered with several representatives of various Christian Churches during the Jubilee celebrations. The event revealed that the multitude of Christian believers killed or persecuted in the last century is like a continent still waiting to be explored, a heritage that all Christian denominations share. 

After the Jubilee, John Paul II wished that the memory of the witnesses of faith of the 20th Century were made visible in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew.

In its current incarnation, the basilica features six chapels, three on each side: The New Martyrs in Asia, Oceania, and the Near East. The New Martyrs in Latin America. The New Martyrs of Africa. The New Martyrs of Communism. The New Martyrs of Nazism. The New Martyrs of Spain and Mexico.

Each chapel featured a large glass case of relics. (The labels were in Italian so I looked up the relics  online in translation after):

“Chalice, paten and stole of Don Andrea Santoro, Catholic priest missionary in Turkey, killed while he was praying in his parish in Trabzon, on the afternoon of Sunday, February 5, 2006.”

“Rosary and “discos” of Father Alexander Men, Orthodox priest from Moscow, killed on September, 1990, as he was on his way to his church to celebrate the Sunday liturgy.”

“Pectoral cross belonged to Father Joseph Maria Noguer y Tarafa, parish priest of Santa Pau, Catalonia, shot on August 9, 1936.”

It’s one thing to visit the Colosseum and contemplate the martyrs who were thrown to the lions 1800 years ago. Or courtesy of some Dominican nuns, to kneel by the tomb of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), who had a thing for self-mutilation and may or may not have been anorexic.

But these men and women who had been killed for the faith seventy, fifty, as recently as eight years ago, moved me in a way that was more immediate and more piercing. 

In fact, the Church has produced more martyrs in the last 100 years than in the previous 1900 put together.

“The Bible of Floribert Bwana Chui-young of the Community of Sant’Egidio of Goma (Congo), tortured and killed in the night between 8 and 9 June 2007 for failing to bend to bribes.”

“The missal of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, killed while celebrating the Eucharist on the altar, 24 March 1980.” 

“A letter written by Blessed Franz Jägerstätter husband and father, beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to fight for the German Army.”

In 1938, Jägerstätter cast the only vote in his village against joining the Third Reich. He underwent military training from 1940-41, but the experience only sharpened his resolve to resist serving under Hitler. To his wife he wrote: “Christ said that whoever wants to be my disciple must take up his cross and follow me.”

In notebooks he kept from 1941-43, he remarked upon, but did not blame, the priests and bishops who had chosen to go along with the Nazis and counseled their parishioners to do the same. He dreamed one night of a train that was going to hell. He asked himself: “What must people of other beliefs think about us and about our Christian belief when we value it so little?”

Many of his fellow Catholics criticized Jägerstätter’s decision, accusing him of  neglecting his moral duty as a husband and father. He rejoined: “Is someone permitted to lie in taking an oath just because he has a wife and children? Did not Christ himself say that whoever loves a wife, mother and children more than me is not worthy of me?”

Across the Tiber and several bridges north, cardinals and bishops from all over the world were debating the human family. Close by were the world-renowned schools of theology where many of them had been trained: the Pontifical North American College, the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

Jägerstätter had a seventh-grade education. 

But he had the firmest possible grasp of “family values.”


This piece, about another “New Martyr,” was published as a “Credible Witness” essay in the October, 2020 Magnificat.  

Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko (1947-1984), Polish priest and staunch anti-Communist, associated with Solidarity trade unions and dared openly to celebrate Mass under the country’s totalitarian regime. He was martyred—beaten to death by three state-sponsored thugs—under Communism.

Popiełuszko was born in the village Okopy, in the Białystok area. His parents were farmers and devout Catholics. As a seminarian in Warsaw, he was conscripted into the army. As a result of repeated punishments for resisting atheistic propaganda, he suffered ill health for the rest of his life.

After being ordained, he served at local parishes there. His sermons, notorious for exhorting members of the faithful to resist Communism, were broadcast on Radio Free Europe.

From December 13, 1981 to July 22, 1983, the Polish People’s Republic imposed martial law in an effort to crush political opposition. During that period, Father Popiełuszko continued to celebrate Mass in public places.

“An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord,” he observed. And elsewhere, “It is not enough for a Christian to condemn evil, cowardice, lies, and use of force, hatred, and oppression. He must at all times be a witness to and defender of justice, goodness, truth, freedom, and love. He must never tire of claiming these values as a right both for himself and others.”

In 1983 he was arrested on trumped-up charges but members of the clergy intervened and he was soon released and granted amnesty.

He then emerged unscathed from an October 13, 1984 car “accident” that had been staged by the state for the purpose of killing him.

But on October 13, 1984, he was murdered in 1984 by three agents of Służba Bezpieczeństwa (Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). The thugs lured him by faking the breakdown of their vehicle, and flagging him down for help. They savagely beat him, tied him up, and shoved him in the trunk of their car. They then bound a stone to his feet and dumped him into a nearby reservoir. His body was recovered on October 30.

An uproar went up across Poland. His funeral was attended by 250,000. His martyrdom became a flash point for the anti-Communist resistance movement.

His assassins were subsequently tried and convicted of murder, as was the colonel who gave the order.

Fr. Popiełuszko’s courage and integrity were astounding. But it’s worth noting that what got him killed was a simple act of charity: stopping for a stranded motorist. “Truth, like Justice,” he once observed, “is connected to Love, and Love has a Price.” 

He was buried in St Stanislaus Kostka Curch, Warsaw, and in 2009 posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor for civilians and military.  

But his truest crown is of another kind. The rock used to kill him is now housed as a relic in San Bartolomeo all’Isola—the Shrine to the New Martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries—in Rome.  

He was beatified on June 6, 2010, by Archbishop Angelo Amato on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI.

These men were extraordinary–but they probably didn’t seem extraordinary to themselves.

Thus, a last word from Venerable Mary Magdalen of Jesus in the Eucharist, from the Monday, February 5th Magnificat reflection:

“We must appreciate those saints of a simple life, who have done no more than love God with fidelity in the duties of their state in life. This is all the more necessary now, when sanctity is badly understood and only the extraordinary arouses interest. But one who seeks the extraordinary has very little chance of becoming a saint. How many souls never reach sanctity because they do not proceed by the path on whih they are called by God. I even dare to add that those who desire to be saints and do not know for certain the path by which the Lord wants to lead them should embrace this path of fidelity to their obligations.”

Off to sweep the sidewalk.

4 Replies to “THE NEW MARTYRS”

  1. Anonymous says: Reply

    Thank you Heather. I agree, hearing recent martyr stories, make all martyr stories seem more real and present to us today. Matthew Kelly produced a hard cover small book for taking notes at Mass. I use it to record martyrs that I read about in the newspapers and write down their names. I’m off to remove some small rocks in my front yard so the tree removal guy can get to his task sooner this afternoon! (BTW you’ve got some typos in the final quote but we all know that sants are saints!).

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      ha ha thanks, corrected sant…forgive me if there are other typos. I love that you’re removing the small rocks in your yard so as to make it easire for the tree removal guy! This is the stuff. The plumbers were here yesterday and I kind of cleaned the house for them…thank heaven for these tradespeople who halp keep our homes safe and sound.

  2. smaierhauser says: Reply

    Thank you for these memories of many in our lifetime who very simply gave their lives. I completely agree that the impact is greated when they are modern. Once again you’ve brought the gospel into focus for us whose vision of such things becomes often blurry.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Much appreciated…thank you!

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