MARTYRDOM IN EASTERN EUROPE
«He who loses his life for my sake will find it» ( Mt 10,39). The first follower of Jesus who experienced this timeless investment was deacon Stephen. His epic example was imitated by countless others. This rich harvest of “semen christianorum” prompted Henri Daniel-Rops to label the Christian community of the first three centuries as “The Church of the Apostles and martyrs”. The historian specifies: “In the Acta Martyrorum the reader is struck by evidence of a courage so sublime that, viewed on the human plane alone, it places these tens of thousands of willing victims among the most outstanding heroes the world has ever known … witness given by man to man, demonstrating all that is best and purest in him” (Henri Daniel-Rops, “The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs” vol. I page 246).
Daniel-Rops explains: «The martyrs testified for Christ in two ways: by their words and with their blood … There is something catching about heroism … Nothing links the supporters of a cause together so firmly as the bond of blood: it was the seal that ratified nascent Christianity» (pp. 248-249).
“In our century the martyrs have returned” Pope John Paul II reminds us. There has been an astounding flourishing of the gift of martyrdom in many parts of the world, but perhaps nowhere as abundantly as in the countries of Easter Europe.
«I tell you, life up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest» (Jn 4,35). Indeed, in this century Eastern Europe has yielded an abundant harvest of martyrs. The Church is now faced with the happy challenge of reaping this abundance, which is unparalleled since the persecutions of the first three centuries.
«He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true: “One sows and another reaps”. I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labours» (Jn 4, 36-38). Present day leaders of Churches now have the honour and the privilege to gather this treasure and share it with future generations.
For most of the 20th century, Christians in Eastern Europe suffered at the hands of two ruthless persecutors: nazism and communism. Neither of these totalitarian systems planned to kill Christians with a view of making martyrs of them. The intention was to kill the soul rather than the body.
When analysing the historical reality as it transpired, one must bear in mind several categories or distinctions: martyrs sensu stricto, confessors of the faith, and persecuted Christians. At times the lines of demarcation are somewhat blurred.
In the message he presented at Lourdes on August 14th 1983, on the subject of those who were persecuted for the faith, Pope John Paul II enumerates in detail the different categories. The Pope diligently draws attention to the various forms and degrees of suffering or condemnation. He speaks of those who shed their blood, but he also insightfully draws attention to the less striking and less dramatic forms of persecution: those banished from their homeland; those whose civic liberties are curtailed; those who suffer social discrimination; as well as a host of other less bloody forms of suffering. These persecutions cut across all social lines: not only bishops and pastors, but also ordinary lay people, young and old.
A significant dimension of religious persecutions in Eastern Europe is the ecumenism of the gulags. This unique form of ecumenism is without a doubt a great fruit of recent persecutions. Ecumenism of the gulags has played a role in the recognition of Eastern Catholics Churches. Certainly, edifying examples of reconciliation and sharing within the gulags deserves to be made more widely known. These models could serve as examples in the further cultivation of ecumenical relationships.
***«Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses» (Evangelii nuntiandi 41). We live in an age of communication and personal testimony. Many people, believers and non-believers alike, want not only to know the martyrs and confessors of the faith, but also to understand them. Why them and not others? What was their motivating strength? In an age when the meaning of existence has become so important, the example of those who gave up life itself for their reasons for living, offers an irresistible attraction where, amidst hedonism and materialism, doubt and anxiety pre***vail.
Witnessing to the faith amidst persecutions clearly merits more profound analysis. Not a few witnesses of the faith were themselves inspired by other martyrs or confessors. Courage inspires courage and witnesses make witnesses.
Humanly speaking, martyrs and confessor were at a dead end. They knew that the result of their witnessing could only be persecution, imprisonment, suffering, gulag and death. However, the Gospel and not human reason, provides the basis for the martyr’s stance. «Take heed to yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them» (Lk 13,9). «If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you» (Jn 15, 18-19).
Under Communism in Eastern Europe persecution was the daily and “normal” expectation of Christian living. Martyrdom was not a theoretical but a practical challenge. As such, martyrdom was not a special type of holiness, but a basis for all holiness. Of course, martyrdom is a grace of God and no one may simply decide on his own to become a martyr. Rather, martyrdom reminds us that the Cross may not be eliminated from Christian life. Martyrdom, like the Cross, was and remains the decisive test. The recent experience of the Church indicates that all human ideologies - marxism, liberalism - need to be confronted by the Cross. Martyrs and confessors of the faith in the days of Communism dared to do it. Their victory is a gift of God for all of us.
Martyrs are commonly regarded as models, but they are also signs as well as icons. As such they deserve to be understood and interpreted. They are sources of guidance and spiritual enrichment.
New evangelization stands in greater need of saints than of scientific plans or well-trained professionals***. the blood of martyrs; “semen christianorum” is the source for the Church to draw upon in the challenge of renewing the world by means of the Gospel. Martyrs gave their lives, Confessors exemplify the daily living of the faith, they illustrate two ways of being Christians: both sacrifices are seeds for today and for tomorrow.