Pope Francis’ visit in April 2017 to the Basilica of St. Bartholomew situated on an island in the Tiber in central Rome put the spotlight on the ‘new martyrs’ of the 20th and 21st century.
And it stirred a deep desire in me to visit this Memorial of the New Martyrs, if ever the opportunity should arise. My experiences as a missionary in Africa and visits to Christian communities in Asia and elsewhere have made me keenly aware of the sufferings and discrimination faced by thousands of men and women around the globe because of their Christian faith.
And now here I am in Rome as a participant of the 65+ course offered by the leadership of the Mill Hill Missionaries! A golden opportunity not be missed! So on the first Sunday available I made my way to the island in the Tiber in the company of Robert O’Neil, a fellow Mill Hill missionary, to attend the Eucharist at St Bartholomew’s.
The Sant’Egidio community, well known for its service to peace, are in charge here. From the first hesitant sounds of the opening hymn I felt drawn into what turned out to be a lively celebration with full participation of the youngest in the community. This clearly was a community that knew how to welcome the stranger and make him/her feel at home.
After the celebration large numbers of participants grouped together in the church for an animated chat. Others lingered outside basking in the sun whilst kids jumped around spending their surplus energy. A community fully alive!
Before and after the Mass we walked around the church admiring the stunning mosaics in the apse and exploring the various side chapels dedicated to the modern day martyrs.
The church of San Bartolomeo all’Insula 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 the current arrangement, 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.
In every side chapel there is a careful collection of things the new martyrs left behind. My attention was drawn to the breviary of Fr Jacques Duhamel whose brutal murder in 2016 in the church of Saint-Etienne-de-Rouvray is still fresh in my memory.
Other mementos include:
The Bible belonging to Shabaz Bhatti, a Catholic minister who was killed in Pakistan in 2011.
A letter of Christian de Chergé, trappist monk of Notre Dame de l’Atlas in Algeria, killed in 1996 together with six of his confrères.
The Bible of Floribert Bwana Chui-young of the Community of Sant’Egidio of Goma (Congo), tortured and killed in the night between June 8 and 9, 2007, for failing to bend to bribes.
The missal of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, killed while celebrating the Eucharist on the altar, March 24, 1980.
A letter written by Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, husband and father, beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to fight for the German army.
In 2002 Pope John Paul II presented the church with a large icon uniting the 20th century martyrs of the Eastern and the Western Churches.
The icon represents the martyrs depicted in a scene described in the Book of Revelation: “there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (7:9)”
The scene was chosen in reference to the large numbers of Christians who suffered persecution starting at the dawn of the 20th century. Martyrs gather around the figures of Christ surrounded by Mary, John the Evangelist and John the Baptist as well as Apostles Peter, Paul and Andrew.
Below the icon, the Earth is depicted, at its center a concentration camp, a focal point of prayer and unity between Eastern and Western Churches. Underneath a depiction of crumbling walls, desecrated churches and persecutions like those suffered by the many martyrs honored in the basilica. On the right, martyrs relive the Passion of Christ through trials, torture, scorn, and execution. On the left are images of resilience, with martyrs praying and helping each other in faith.
The icon is a true celebration and representation of the sacrifice of many for their Christian faith and a reminder of the perils that Christians still face in many parts of the world.
Fons Eppink mhm