ROME — At the end of every December, the Vatican’s missionary agency Fides puts out a list of Catholic pastoral workers killed in the line of duty during the past year. It’s not a complete index of anti-Christian violence, just clergy and laity murdered while working full-time for the Catholic Church.
For 2014, the agency lists 26 such victims, including 17 priests, one religious brother, six nuns, one seminarian, and one lay catechist. Latin America was the most dangerous zone, accounting for 11 deaths, followed by Africa with 7.
A careful reading of the Fides list debunks three common misconceptions about anti-Christian violence in the early 21st century.
The Middle East is not the only place where Christians are at risk, and radical Islam is not the only threat.
Of the 26 victims, only two — one in Syria, and another in the Central African Republic — were killed by militant Muslim groups.
That observation does not minimize the danger posed by forces such as ISIS and Boko Haram, but it does make a simple point: Radical Islam could disappear tomorrow, and it would not mean Christians are safe.
It’s a fallacy to think Christians face threats only where they’re a minority.
Of the more than 2 billion Christians in the world, some 200 million live in countries or regions where they’re a statistical minority, yet it’s obviously not just those places where violence occurs.
The country with the highest number of murdered pastoral workers in 2014 was actually Mexico, the second largest Catholic nation in the world after Brazil. The reality is that there are no “danger-free” zones.
We need an expanded concept of martyrdom.
Traditionally, the Catholic Church has defined a martyr as someone killed in odium fidei, meaning “in hatred of the faith.” A classic example is St. Thomas More, killed by King Henry VIII for refusing to renounce his loyalty to the pope.
While such deaths do still occur, the more common form of anti-Christian violence today is someone killed for defending human rights, for resisting injustice, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On the 2014 list, for instance, we find Sister Mary Paule Tacke, killed in South Africa while trying to visit an orphanage she founded. She was grabbed by thieves trying to evade the police, and eventually strangled to death.
We find the Rev. José Acuña Ascensción Osorio, a Mexican priest whose body was found in a river near his parish in Arcelia. Police believe he had been kidnapped by one of the area’s notorious criminal gangs, which often hold the heads of victims under water in an attempt to extort them, killing them if they refuse to pay.
There’s the Rev. Gerry Maria Inau and a lay catechist known as Benedict, who were killed in Papua New Guinea while doing pastoral work in a remote area known for tribal violence. They may have been targeted because Inau and Benedict came from different tribes, and working together may have been seen as a betrayal.
Though not technically part of the list, the Fides list also notes that the missionary order Fatebenefratelli, which specializes in health care, lost 18 people (four brothers, a nun, and 13 lay workers) in Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014 to the Ebola virus because they refused to stop treating the area’s sick.
Strictly speaking, one could say that none of these people are martyrs because they weren’t killed in hatred of the faith, yet that conclusion betrays a selective focus.
Why should the only motives that matter be those of the perpetrator, not the victim? To grasp whether there was a Christian component to a death, we need to understand not only why someone committed the act, but also why the target put himself or herself in a position where it could happen.
Tacke, for instance, was born in Idaho but had served in South Africa since the 1950s. Originally she went about teaching in rural areas on horseback, until complaints about a white woman teaching black children became too strong.
She then shifted into helping abandoned and orphaned children, including many infected with HIV-AIDS. Working in dangerous neighborhoods, she often faced the threat of violence, including once being the victim of a carjacking.
Tacke obviously knew the risks, so the question is why she chose to take them. The answer has everything to do with her Christian beliefs, making her death no less a “martyrdom,” in the original sense of a witness to the faith, than that of Thomas More.
Christians are hardly the only group facing persecution and violence, but it’s sometimes more difficult for stories such as those in the Fides report to register since Westerners, at least before the rise of ISIS, were unaccustomed to thinking of Christians as victims.
The reality is that two-thirds of the Christians in the world today live outside the West, many of them members of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural minorities, putting them doubly or triply at risk. In sheer numbers, Christians today are the most persecuted religious body on the planet.
Perhaps that’s a final lesson to be learned from the Fides list — it’s time, really far past time, for denial about anti-Christian violence, wherever it persists, to end.
A very Bergoglio kind of Christmas
By now, we all know the Pope Francis brand — relaxed, hip, funny, non-judgmental, humble, spontaneous, a maverick upending the Catholic system. It’s usually expressed by a picture of a beaming pope flashing a thumbs-up to an adoring crowd, hugging a laughing child, or holding a parrot on his fingers.
(Imagine what a money shot it would be if some photographer captured him doing all three of those things at once.)
This certainly wasn’t the reputation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires. Many Argentines are dumbfounded by the charisma he now projects, since back home he often came off as sincere but a bit of a downer, so morally earnest at times he could seem a scold. They say he rarely smiled, something that seems unfathomable today.
In that sense, the holiday season 2014 may not have been vintage Pope Francis, at least as measured by the public brand, but it was a very Bergoglio kind of Christmas.
Probably the single best phrase for the message the pontiff tried to deliver during the holiday period is “examination of conscience.” Underlying that call was an assessment that both inside and outside the Catholic Church, there are serious problems that have to be addressed.
The first installment came in his Dec. 22 address to the upper echelons of the Vatican, known as the Roman Curia, when Francis picked up a metaphorical stethoscope and brusquely informed the cardinals and archbishops that they’re infected with 15 spiritual diseases, including the “terrorism of gossip” and “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”
Then came the pope’s Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi address, in which he sorrowfully asserted that “there are so many tears this Christmas” to join the cries of the infant Jesus. He became visibly emotional talking about the suffering of children, “buried under the egoism of a culture that doesn’t love life,” and once again condemned a “globalization of indifference” to human misery.
Whatever one made of the message, “Walking in a winter wonderland” this clearly was not.
His homily for the New Year’s Eve vespers service was more for the community of Christian believers, and again it was strong medicine. Francis demanded an examination of conscience for sins both “personal and communal,” saying that Christ took on human flesh “to rescue us from slavery,” meaning slavery to sin.
Then the pope asked a couple of pointed questions: “Do we live as children [of God], or as slaves? Do we live as people redeemed by Christ, or according to a corrupt worldly logic that the devil wants us to believe is in our interests?”
It was clear in the way the pope framed things he doesn’t believe the answer to that question is all good news.
“Paradoxically, we more or less unconsciously prefer slavery,” he said. “Liberty frightens us, facing the responsibility it implies to live our time well. Slavery reduces us to the moment, and thus we feel more secure.”
Francis even took a small shot at the traditional New Year’s fireworks displays, saying “they only last a few instants,” and warning people not to be seduced by “the fascination of the moment.”
There are two conclusions to be drawn about the Pope Francis we saw over the holidays.
First, the Bergoglio of old — the denouncer of sin and hypocrisy, almost at times an Old Testament prophet in tone — may not be the pontiff’s only public face anymore, but he’s still in there waiting to get out.
Second, it’s abundantly clear that Pope Francis does not believe the moral ills of the modern world begin and end with the mandarins of the Vatican or the failures of the Catholic Church.
The truth is that Francis could easily have delivered his “15 spiritual diseases” speech on Christmas Day, directing it to the wider world, and have meant every word. If anything, he sees the root of most problems in the Church as the product of that “corrupt worldly logic” he referenced on New Year’s Eve.
All those who delight every time Francis skewers the power structure in Catholicism, in other words, ought to brace themselves, because this is a pope capable of taking a hard look at everyone else, too.
As a footnote, the populist and upbeat face of Francis did stage a comeback on New Year’s Day, when he twice led an impromptu chant of “Mary, Mother of God” in honor of the solemnity of Mary on Jan. 1.
Both times he told the story of how a club-wielding mob in Ephesus shouted that slogan at bishops gathered for a 5th-century Church council, in effect threatening to beat them if they didn’t formally declare Mary as the Mother of God.
“This time,” Francis said with a smile, “let’s do the chant without the clubs.”
Setting the record straight on ‘Petty Gossip’
My wife and I were fans of the recently concluded HBO series “The Newsroom,” which centered on life inside a cable news network. Speaking as someone who dips in and out of that world, I thought the show generally rang true.
However, it could be a little preachy about the moral decline of the news business, which makes it especially irritating when the writers, led by creator Aaron Sorkin, don’t get their own facts right. Such a slip occurred in the finale that aired on Dec. 14, and since it concerns a pope, this is as good a place as any to set the record straight.
The episode contained a couple of flashbacks in which the show’s moral center, an old-school network executive named Charlie Skinner, challenges its star anchor, Will McAvoy, to live up to his potential. In one conversation set in spring 2010, Skinner ticks off a number of important stories McAvoy had failed to cover, including the child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
This is what the script had Sam Waterston, playing Skinner, say to McAvoy:
“At the Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict tells tens of thousands of people, as well as the rest of the world, about the recent ‘petty gossip’ — his words — that he’s been subjected to. ‘Petty gossip.’ He’s talking about proven allegations that priests have been raping children, and that bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and maybe even this pope have been protecting the children? No, [they protected] the priests. Benedict fails to mention that in his sermon, which is bad enough, but you failed to mention that in your report Monday. And that’s inexplicable to me.”
Here’s the problem.
Pope Benedict XVI did use the phrase “petty gossip” in his Palm Sunday homily that year, but it had nothing to do with the abuse scandals. He was talking about how Jesus helps people to become the best version of themselves, including “the courage not to allow oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinions.”
(Actually, the Italian word the pope used was chiacchiericcio, which might better be translated as “chatter.”)
Benedict’s point was that Christ gives one the courage to do what’s right, not what’s popular, which is as close to boilerplate sermon material as one can get.
The link to the abuse scandals came a week later, on Easter Sunday, and not from the pope, but rather Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals.
In a brief salute to the pope during the Easter Mass, Sodano referred indirectly to the controversies that had burst open in various parts of Europe in 2010 over abuse cases, telling the pope: “The people of God are with you and do not allow themselves to be impressed by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers.”
It was actually a deeply ironic thing for Sodano to say, since insiders knew that when Pope Benedict was still the Vatican’s doctrinal czar as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he and Sodano had fought titanic battles over the abuse scandals, with Ratzinger backing the reform position and Sodano defending the status quo.
In sum, if the writers at “Newsroom” wanted to have the Skinner character get mad at McAvoy for giving someone a free pass over the “petty gossip” line, it should have been Sodano, not Benedict XVI.
That’s not enough to spoil what was overall a satisfying ending to a great show, but especially for a series that based itself on the gospel of journalistic purity, it deserves to be corrected.