ROME – The persecution and martyrdom of Christians will be the topic of discussion at an annual gathering of Pope Benedict XVI’s former theology students, who will meet in Rome on September 1-3 for a reunion and symposium.

The “Ratzinger Schuelerkreis” is a group of students who studied under the then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger and who continue to meet each year.

Meeting alongside the Schuelerkreis will be a group called the New Schuelerkreis, comprised of young scholars who study the thought of Benedict XVI.

The upcoming symposium is entitled “On the Persecution of Christians and Martyrdom.”

Father Stephan Horn, coordinator of the Ratzinger Schuelerkreis and formerly assistant professor to Joseph Ratzinger in Regensburg, told CNA that the topic “met the consensus of the majority of the Schuelerkreis members, and Benedict XVI accepted it and immediately suggested the presenters for the symposium.”

The two presenters are Msgr. Helmut Moll and Bishop Manfred Scheuer of the Austrian diocese of Linz. Both have studied the martyrdom of Christians, with a particular focus on martyrs of the 20th century.

Moll was already a member of the Ratzinger Schuelerkreis, but he is also the curator of the “German Martyrologium,” a book published by the German bishops’ conference dedicated to the martyrs of the 20th century.

Scheuer is the postulator of the cause for the beatification of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic who refused to collaborate with Nazis, and was sentenced to death and beheaded Aug. 9, 1943.

The discussion will likely focus on the meaning of martyrdom in 20th century. This theme is especially important to Pope Francis, who has stressed throughout his pontificate that “there are more martyrs now than in Christianity’s early ages.”

Horn noted that one of the reasons for the martyrdom of Christians is increased secularization, which Pope Benedict XVI noted in the years following the Second Vatican Council.

“To the Pope Emeritus,” Horn said, “the Church’s suffering comes from this secularization. But secularization can be won with a renewed testimony of faith, since when Christians are more united, or work together for unity, secularization can be defeated.”

He added that “unity” is crucial to Benedict XVI because “martyrdom does not affect only Catholics, but all Christian groups.”

In addition to the two presenters selected for the symposium, Coptic Bishop Anba Kyrillos William Samaan of Assiut, Egypt, will offer testimony on the experience of martyrdom in the Middle East.

Horn explained that the pope emeritus will not fully participate in the symposium, but he will receive a small delegation of participants. Benedict has not fully participated in the annual gathering since prior to his resignation in 2013.

The gatherings began in 1978. When Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich, his students asked him if they could meet with him once a year, to discuss specific issues. Ratzinger said yes.

The Schuelerkreis meetings continued even after Ratzinger was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and moved to Rome in 1981. In 2005, Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, but continued the tradition of the annual gathering.