The Martyr as Figure of Christian Humanism

Author: Cardinal Angelo Sodano


Cardinal Angelo Sodano

On Wednesday, 3 November 1999, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State, presided at the solemn joint session of the Pontifical Academies, which was dedicated to the theme, "The Martyr Identified with Christ, the Faithful Protomartyr: A Figure of Christian Humanism". During the session papers were read by Mons. Victor Saxer, President of the Pontifical Roman Academy of Archaeology, and by Prof. Fabrizio, Bisconti, Curator of the Pontifical Academy "Cultorum Martyrum". Musical selections were also performed by the Orchestra of Rome and Lazio. At the end of the meeting, Cardinal Sodano presented the annual Pontifical Academies Award in the Holy Father's name. This year's recipient was Dr Lucrezia Spera for her article on shrines and pilgrims in Rome from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. During the session the Cardinal gave the following address in Italian.Here is a translation.

Your Eminences and Excellencies,

Distinguished Academicians,

Ladies and Gentlemen!

I feel particularly honoured to preside at your Fourth Public Session in the name of His Holiness John Paul II, who asked me to express to all the participants his personal appreciation of the work of institutional renewal and cultural commitment carried out by your Pontifical Academies in recent years.

I would first of all like to extend a cordial word of gratitude to Cardinal Paul Poupard for his noble address which expressed your common sentiments and charged me with conveying your good wishes to the Holy Father for his name day, which I will not fail to do. I also express deep gratitude to the two speakers at this meeting, Mons. Victor Saxer and Prof. Fabrizio, Bisconti, who with great skill illustrated the theme of this academic session: The Martyr Identified with Christ, the Faithful Protomartyr. A Figure of Christian Humanism.

A few weeks before the opening of the Holy Door, which will mark the beginning of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, we become even more aware, especially after listening to today's two interesting papers, of the importance of the martyr's figure in the life of the Church and in Christian spirituality.

"Martyr" is the most glorious title one can have in the Church. Blood shed for the noblest of causes, a lasting attachment to invisible realities, the strength of mind that overcomes nature's weaknesses, perfect love offered to God in the torments inflicted in odium fidei, in short, all that raises man above himself for the love of God: this is what the concept of martyrdom calls to mind.

Certainly, the killing of the deacon Stephen, later glorified as a herald of Christ, was an occasion for weeping and lamentation at the time (Acts 8:1-2). And here in Rome, the great throng of Christians massacred by the emperors at first caused anguish and sorrow among the faithful. However, having overcome their initial dismay, they were able to receive with trusting abandonment the Saviour's words: "When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say ... you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.,... Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (cf. Mt 10:19-22; Mt 5:10).

The Apostles themselves bear witness to this: they are happy to be deemed worthy to suffer for Christ's name (Acts 5:40-41). Paul rejoices in the sufferings borne for Christ (cf. Rom 5:3; 2 Cor II: 23-32); John beholds under the altar of heaven the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God (Rv 6:9-11).

Without doubt, a martyr is the perfect Christian, the imitator of Christ, the faithful protomartyr, sacrificed for love of the Father to fulfil his great plan of salvation. Thus we should not be surprised if Christians proclaim their martyrs "blessed" and augment their names with titles of honour and blessing: makarios, beatus, beatissimus, benedictus, fortissimus. The Churches to which God granted the supreme honour of having one or more martyrs among their members are also blessed, because just as the name of Jesus is exalted above every other name, so the martyr is exalted above all the righteous (cf. Celestino Del Noce, Il Martirio: Testimonianza e spiritualita nei primi secoli, Studium, Rome, 1987).

The purpose of the addresses we have heard has been to highlight the significance of Christian martyrdom. However, it will not be out of place for us to continue to remember the apologetic meaning of martyrdom. Actually, scholars of all times find themselves faced with an impressive phenomenon that points to a mysterious force which alone could have made such a moral miracle possible.

During my theological studies at the Gregorian University, I also tried to examine more closely the number of Victims of the Roman persecutions, reflecting on the famous work of Fr Herding, S.J., entitled Die Zahl der Martyrer bis 313, in Gregorianum 25 (1944, pp. 103-129).One to two hundred thousand martyrs were mentioned. And to think that the population of Italy did not exceed seven million, according to the Encyclopedia Treccani (XXVII, 915).

Today the meaning of Christian martyrdom and the message that comes to us from so many witnesses to the faith has been well highlighted.

For the pagans who did not understand the inner secret of their heroism, their constancy was the object of extraordinary wonder. Their contempt for this life, their hastening to death for Christ was an attitude in their eyes that caused them to reflect. It was the silent language of Christian witness!

At the end of this solemn academic meeting, permit me nevertheless to recall that martyrs are not only a glory of the Church's past history; their blood was also shed abundantly in this century now drawing to a close with a heroism perhaps even greater than that of our many brothers and sisters in faith during the early centuries of Christian history.

At this time we are observing the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. This date also reminds us of the great number of martyrs who died for their faith in the various countries under communist regimes. We are truly amazed to learn of such heroism. It is only sad to note that these new martyrs are not sufficiently remembered in public opinion.

In some circles it seems there remains a "mental Berlin wall" which prevents reality from being recognized. Shocking are the numbers that have come to fight in recent years after the conclusions of the official Russian commission during the Soviet regime (cf. L'Avvenire and La Republica, 28 November 1995), headed by the well-known Alexander Yakoblev, regarding religious persecutions.

That having been said, I am particularly pleased to present in the Holy Father's name the Pontifical Academies Award for 1999.

This year the competition was dedicated to archaeology, history and the cult of the martyrs, with the intention of underscoring the value of the archaeological, liturgical and historical heritage to which Christian culture is so indebted and from which it can still draw the values of an authentic humanism.

After hearing the opinion of the Coordinating Council of the Pontifical Academics, His Holiness John Paul II has decided to give the Pontifical Academies Award for 1999 to Dr Lucrezia Spera, a liberal arts graduate from Rome's La Sapienza University, who specialized in archaeology at the National School of Archaeology, for her study: "Ad limina Apostolorum: santuari e pellegrini a Roma tra la tarda Antichita e l’alto Medioevo", in the book La geografia di Roma e lo spazio del sacro. L'esempio delle trasformazioni territoriali lungo il percorso della visita alle sette chiese.

Before presenting the award to Dr Lucrezia Spera, to whom I also extend my own personal congratulations and best wishes for ever fruitful cultural efforts, I would like, in the Holy Father's name, to thank all those who made this meeting possible: Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and of the Coordinating Council of the Pontifical Academies, the Presidents of the two Academies who prepared the Public Session, the two distinguished speakers, and the soloists from the Orchestra of Rome and Lazio, whose masterly performance made this moment even more memorable.

Lastly, I am pleased to grant to each of you and your loved ones the special Apostolic Blessing that the Holy Father imparts with deep affection, as he implores the Lord to shower an abundance of his graces on everyone.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 January 2000, page 6

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