Pope John Paul II presides at an ecumenical
celebration of 20th-century witnesses to the faith
On Sunday evening, 7 May, Pope John Paul II presided at the
Ecumenical Commemoration of Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th
Century. Joining the Holy Father at the ancient Colosseum of Rome
were ecumenical representatives from various Christian Churches and
Ecclesial Communities and thousands of the faithful.
The rite began inside the amphitheatre with a liturgical greeting
and invocations, followed by a procession to the platform outside
the Colosseum, where two New Testament readings were proclaimed (I
Pt 1:3-9 13-21; Heb 12:1-6,18-19a, 22-24) and the Gospel of the
Beatitudes was chanted in Italian and Greek (Mt .15:1-12). After the
Pope's homily, a sign of peace was exchanged and the Apostles' Creed
was recited in different languages. Then testimonies from various
witnesses to the faith in the 20th century were read: victims of
Communism and Nazism in Europe, Christians persecuted in the
Far East, Latin America and Africa, and witnesses to the faith in
other parts of the world. Between the testimonies hymns were sung by
choirs from various Christian traditions. After the our Father was
chanted by all in Latin, the service concluded with the Holy
Father's Apostolic Blessing.
Here is a translation of the Pope's homily, which was given in
1. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and
dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit"
(Jn 12:24). With these words on the eve of his Passion, Jesus
foretells his glorification through his death. We have just heard
this challenging truth in the Gospel acclamation. It resounds
forcefully tonight in this significant place, where we remember the
"witnesses to the faith in the 20th century".
Christ is the grain of wheat who by dying has borne fruits of
everlasting life. And down the centuries his disciples hive followed
in the footsteps of the crucified King, becoming a numberless
multitude "from every nation, race, people and language":
apostles and confessors of the faith, virgins and martyrs, bold
heralds of the Gospel and silent servants of the kingdom.
Dear brothers and sisters united by faith in Jesus Christ! I am
especially happy today to offer you my brotherly embrace of peace as
we commemorate together the witnesses to the faith in the twentieth
century. I warmly greet the representatives of the Ecumenical
Patriarchate and of the other Orthodox Sister Churches, as well as
those of the ancient Churches of the East. I likewise thank the
representatives of the Anglican Communion, of the worldwide
Christian Communities of the West and of the Ecumenical
Organizations for their fraternal presence.
How many Christians shed their blood for Christ!
Gathered as we are at the Colosseum for this meaningful jubilee
celebration, our coming together this evening is for all of us a
source of great emotion. The monuments and ruins of ancient Rome
speak to humanity of the sufferings and persecutions endured with
fortitude by our forebears in the faith, the Christians of the first
generations. These ancient remains remind us how true are the words
of Tertullian who wrote: "sanguis martyrum semen
blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians (Apol.,
50, 13: CCL 1, 171).
2. The experience of the martyrs and the witnesses to the faith
is not a characteristic only of the Church's beginnings but marks
every epoch of her history. In the 20th century, and maybe even more
than in the first period of Christianity, there has been a vast
number of men and women who bore witness to the faith through
sufferings that were often heroic. How many Christians in the course
of the 20th century, on every continent, showed their love of Christ
by the shedding of blood! They underwent forms of persecution both
old and new, they experienced hatred and exclusion, violence and
murder. Many countries of ancient Christian tradition once more
became lands where fidelity to the Gospel demanded a very high
price. In our century "the witness to Christ borne even to the
shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics,
Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants" (Tertio millennio
adveniente, n. 37).
The generation to which I belong experienced the horror of war,
the concentration camps, persecution. In my homeland, during the
Second World War, priests and Christians were deported to
extermination camps. In Dachau alone some 3,000 priests were
interned. Their sacrifice was joined to that of many Christians from
other European countries, some of whom belonged to other Churches
and Ecclesial Communities.
I myself am a witness of much pain and many trials, having seen
these in the years of my youth. My priesthood, from its very
beginning, was marked "by the great sacrifice of countless men
and women of my generation" (Gift and Mystery, p. 39).
The experience of the Second World War and of the years following
brought me to consider carefully and with gratitude the shining
example of those who, from the beginning of the 20th century to its
end, met persecution, violence, death, because of their faith and
because their behaviour was inspired by the truth of Christ.
3. And there are so many of them! They must not be forgotten;
rather they must be remembered and their lives documented. The names
of many are unknown; the names of some have been denigrated by their
persecutors, who tried to add disgrace to martyrdom; the names of
others have been concealed by their executioners. But Christians
preserve the memory of a great number of them. This is shown by the
numerous replies to the invitation not to forget, received by the
"New Martyrs" Commission within the Committee for the
Great Jubilee. The Commission has worked hard to enrich and update
the Church's memory with the witness of all those people, even those
who are unknown, who "risked their lives for the sake of our
Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15:26). Yes, as the Orthodox
Metropolitan Benjamin of Saint Petersburg, martyred in 1922, wrote
on the eve of his execution: 'The times have changed and it has
become possible to suffer much for love of Christ...". With the
same conviction, from his cell in Buchenwald, the Lutheran Pastor
Paul Schneider asserted once more in the presence of his prison
guards: "Thus says the Lord, 'I am the resurrection and the
The presence of representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial
Communities gives today's celebration particular significance and
eloquence in this Jubilee Year 2000. It shows that the example of
the heroic witnesses to the faith is truly precious for all
Christians. In the 20th century, almost all the Churches and
Ecclesial Communities have known persecution, uniting Christians in
their places of suffering and making their shared sacrifice a sign
of hope for times still to come.
These brothers and sisters of ours in faith, to whom we turn
today in gratitude and veneration, stand as a vast panorama of
Christian humanity in the 20th century, a panorama of the Gospel
of the Beatitudes, lived even to the shedding of blood.
They loudly proclaimed their loyalty to Christ
4. "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute
you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven"
(Mt 5:11-12). How well these words of Christ fit the countless
witnesses to the faith in the last century, insulted and persecuted,
but never broken by the power of evil!
Where hatred seemed to corrupt the whole of life leaving no
escape from its logic, they proved that "love is stronger than
death". Within terrible systems of oppression which disfigured
man, in places of pain, amid the hardest of privations, through
senseless marches, exposed to cold and hunger, tortured, suffering
in so many ways, they loudly proclaimed their loyalty to Christ
crucified and risen. In a few moments we shall hear some of their
Countless numbers refused to yield to the cult of the false gods
of the 20th century and were sacrificed by Communism, Nazism, by the
idolatry of State or race. Many others fell in the course of ethnic
or tribal wars, because they had rejected a way of thinking foreign
to the Gospel of Christ. Some went to their death because, like the
Good Shepherd, they decided to remain with their people, despite
intimidation. On every continent and throughout the entire 20th
century, there have been those who preferred to die rather than
betray the mission which was theirs. Men and women religious lived
their consecration to the shedding of blood. Men and women believers
died offering their lives for love of their brothers an sisters,
especially the poorest and the weakest. Many women lost their lives
in order to defend their dignity and purity.
5. "Whoever loves his life loses it and whoever hates his
life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (Jn
12:25). A few minutes ago we listened to these words of Christ. They
contain a truth which today's world often scorns and rejects, making
love of self the supreme criterion of life. But the witnesses to the
faith, who also this evening speak to us by their example, did not
consider their own advantage, their own well-being, their own
survival as greater values than fidelity to the Gospel. Despite all
their weakness, they vigorously resisted evil. In their fragility
there shone forth the power of faith and of the Lord's grace.
Dear brothers and sisters, the precious heritage which these
courageous witnesses have passed down to us is a patrimony shared by
all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities. It is a heritage which
speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division. The
ecumenism of the martyrs and the witnesses to the faith is the most
convincing of all; to the Christians of the 21st century it shows
the path to unity. It is the heritage of the Cross lived in the
light of Easter: a heritage which enriches and sustains Christians
as they go forward into the new millennium.
If we glory in this heritage it is not because of any partisan
spirit and still less because of any desire for vengeance upon the
persecutors, but in order to make manifest the extraordinary power
of God, who has not ceased to act in every time and place. We do
this as we ourselves offer pardon, faithful to the example of the
countless witnesses killed even as they prayed for their
May their memory remain vivid and ever stronger
6. In the century and the millennium just begun may the memory of
these brothers and sisters of ours remain always vivid. Indeed, may
it grow still stronger! Let it be passed on from generation to
generation, so that from it there may blossom a profound Christian
renewal! Let it be guarded as a treasure of consummate value for the
Christians of the new millennium, and let it become the leaven for
bringing all Christ's disciples into full communion!
It is with a heart filled with deep emotion that I express this
hope. I pray to the Lord that the cloud of witnesses which surrounds
us will help all of us who believe to express with no less courage
our own love for Christ, for him who is ever alive in his Church: as
he was yesterday, and is today, and will be tomorrow and for ever!