ROME – Calling contemporary Catholicism “rich in martyrs,” Pope Francis Wednesday invoked the famous line from the second and third century Church father Tertullian that their blood is the “seed of new Christians.”

“Martyrs are not ‘little holy men’ [santini] but men and women in flesh and blood who, as the Book of Revelations says, ‘have washed their garments, making them white in the blood of the Lamb’,” Francis said as he addressed thousands who had gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly public audience.

Martyrs, the pope said, “are the real winners.”

Francis closed his remarks asking for prayer that “by contemplating the martyrs of the past and present, we may live a full life, accepting the martyrdom in daily fidelity to the Gospel and conformity to Christ.”

According to watch groups, an estimated 245 million Christians experience high levels of persecution, and while estimates of the number of Christians killed each year for their faith vary widely, even low-end estimates are in the thousands.

According to Open Doors USA, from Nov. 2017 to Oct. 2018 over 245 million Christians are found in countries where they experience high levels of persecution, including most of the Middle East, North Korea, China, India, Nigeria, Sudan, Russia and even pockets of Latin America such as Colombia, often ranked as the world’s most dangerous country to be a Catholic priest.

The annual report also found that over 4,000 Christians were killed for their faith last year, while 1,800 churches and other Christian buildings were attacked and more than 3,000 faithful were imprisoned without trial.

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The pope’s meditation Wednesday turned around the Acts of the Apostles, focusing particularly on St. Stephen, considered the first martyr, and who was one of the seven deacons on whom the apostles imposed their hands to go and carry out works of charity.

Stephen’s preaching met with resistance, the pope said, but even when condemned to death, he entrusted his life to God and forgave his adversaries.

“Lord, don’t blame them for what they have done,” were his last words according to the scriptural account.

“These words of Stephen teach us that it is not the good speeches that reveal our identity of children of God, but only the abandonment of one’s life in the hands of the Father and our forgiveness for those who offend us make us see the quality of our faith,” the pope said.

As is customary, after the pope’s words a summary of his remarks were read in various languages, and he greeted each group. When the time came to greet Arabic-speaking pilgrims, he mentioned a delegation of students from the Middle East, a region which has seen a genocide against Christians and other minorities perpetrated by ISIS.

Addressing the students, Francis said martyrs are those faithful men and women who, moved by the Holy Spirit, seek in everyday life to help others and to “love God without reserve,” teaching those who follow Christ that “with the power of love, with the power of meekness, we can fight against arrogance, violence, war” with patience and in peace.

When greeting Spanish-speaking pilgrims Francis said that the ministry of deacons was born in an attempt by the apostles to distribute tasks so that neither the preaching of the Gospel nor the attention to the poor was affected by the challenges the first Christian community faced.

“The ministry of deacons,” the pope said, “returned the harmony between the service of charity and the Word.”

He also said the enemies of St. Stephen, having no way to justify their attacks against the apostle, “slandered him and gave false testimony against him.”

“This diabolic cancer that is murmuring, born of the will to destroy the reputation of a person, attacks the ecclesial body and severely damages it,” Francis said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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