ROME – On the feast day of Christianity’s original martyr, Pope Francis issued a strong call not to forget the testimony of today’s victims of anti-Christian persecution around the world, a stunning number of whom have made the supreme sacrifice in recent years.
“Even today the Church, to render witness to the light and the truth, is beset in various places by hard persecutions, up to the supreme test of martyrdom,” Francis said on Monday.
“How many of our brothers and sisters in the faith suffer abuses and violence, and are hated because of Jesus!”
“I’ll tell you something,” the pope said. “The number of martyrs today is greater than in the early centuries [of the Church]. When we read the history of the early centuries, here in Rome, we read about so much cruelty to Christians. It’s happening today too, in even greater numbers.”
“Today we want to think of them and be close to them with our affection, our prayer and also our tears,” the pontiff said. “In these days, in Iraq, the Christians celebrated Christmas in a cathedral that had been destroyed. That’s an example of fidelity.
“The hardships and dangers notwithstanding, they offer courageous witness by belonging to Christ, and they live the Gospel committing themselves in favor of the least, of the most overlooked, doing good to all without distinction.
“They testify,” he said, “to charity in truth.”
The pope’s personal interest in the subject seemed reflected in the fact that he added and expanded on his prepared text at several points.
Monday, the day after Christmas, is designated on the Catholic calendar as the feast of St. Stephen, a figure from the New Testament presented in the Acts of the Apostles as a deacon whose preaching of the new Christian faith aroused hostility and who was eventually stoned to death.
He’s celebrated as the first martyr, or the “Protomartyr,” of the Church.
“The world hates Christians for the same reason for which it hated Christ,” Francis said Monday, “because he brought the light of God, and the world prefers shadows in order to hide its wicked works.”
Today, the conventional estimate is that of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians, some 200 million of them are exposed to the risk of physical assault, arrest, imprisonment, torture and even death for reasons related to their faith.
The high-end estimate for the number of new Christian martyrs every day, from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States, is around 100,000. Most observers put the total considerably lower, perhaps in the range of 7,000 to 8,000.
In any event, that works out to one new Christian casualty somewhere in the world either every five minutes, or every hour, throughout the entire year.
Also on Monday, the Catholic news site “Il Sismografo” released its annual tally of the number of official Catholic personnel or “pastoral workers,” killed in the line of duty during 2016.
The total was 31, representing a 41 percent increase over 2015, with Latin America once again ranking as the single most dangerous continent in the world for a Catholic pastoral worker with 13 fatalities, including 7 in Mexico alone.
The final count includes 14 slain priests, 9 men and women religious, three charity workers, one seminarian, and four catechists. They represent a small fraction of the total number of Catholics killed for religious motives during the year, most of whom were laity with no official Church position.
Pope Francis on Monday said that Stephen set the tone for Christian martyrs through the ages.
“It’s the glorious witness precisely of Christian martyrdom, suffered for the love of Jesus, a martyrdom that continues to be present in the history of the Church, from Stephen up to our days,” he said.
“The protomartyr Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, was stoned to death because he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” the pope said. “The only-begotten Son of the Father who came into the world invites every believer to choose the way of light and of life.
“This is the deep significance of his coming among us,” the pope said. “Loving the Lord and obeying his voice, the deacon Stephen chose Christ, the Life and the Light of every person. Choosing the truth, he became at the same time a victim of the mystery of evil present in the world.
“But,” Francis insisted, “Stephen won!”
During his Angelus address on Monday, Francis also issued a blanket thank-you for holiday good wishes he had received from around the world.
“Not being able to respond personally to everyone, I want to express to all my feelings of thanks, especially for the gift of prayer,” he said. “Thanks from the heart, and may God repay you for your generosity!”
Pope Francis also asked for a moment of silent prayer for the victims of a plane crash in the Black Sea carrying members of the Russian army’s official choir, recalling that the choir had once performed in the Vatican.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis will hold his customary General Audience. On Friday, New Year’s Eve, the pope will preside over a vespers service and make his customary visit to the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, and on Sunday he’ll lead a Mass to mark what the Catholic Church observes as the World Day of Peace.