ROME — Attacked because of their faith, killed in a robbery, murdered in a general climate of violence or struck down by someone with obvious mental difficulties, the 20 missionaries who died violent deaths in 2020 were witnesses of the Gospel, said Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news agency.
Presenting its annual list of missionaries killed during the year, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples explained, “We use the term ‘missionary’ for all the baptized, aware that ‘in virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples.”
Fides‘ 2020 list includes eight priests, six laypeople — including two girls, 10- and 12-year-old sisters, who were members of the Holy Childhood Association in Nicaragua — three women religious, two seminarians and a religious brother.
From 2000 to 2020, Fides said, 535 pastoral workers, including five bishops, were killed.
When Fides first began publishing the list and still today it focuses primarily on foreign missionaries or pastoral workers in mission lands, but also “tries to record all the baptized engaged in the life of the church who died in a violent way, not only ‘in hatred of the faith,'” the agency explained. While the word “martyr” literally means “witness,” the agency does not use the term for the missionaries killed “in order not to enter into the question of the judgment that the church might eventually deliver upon some of them, after careful consideration, for beatification or canonization.”
The murdered missionaries, Fides said, shared the life of the people with whom they lived and, in too many cases, shared the same kind of violent death.
They include Michael Nnadi, 18, one of four seminarians kidnapped in Nigeria from a seminary in Kakau. Over a period of two weeks in late January, three of the seminarians were released. Nnadi’s body was found Feb. 1.
Police arrested Mustapha Mohammed, alleged leader of a gang that specialized in stopping cars and robbing the drivers, Fides reported. Mohammed confessed to killing Nnadi because “he kept preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ” to members of the gang.
The girls on Fides‘s list, Lilliam Yunielka Gonzalez and Blanca Marlene Gonzalez, were murdered with machetes Sept. 15 in Mulukuku, Nicaragua. Their mother had already told police that Lilliam, the older girl, had been harassed. The bishop, U.S.-born Bishop Pablo Schmitz Simon, said their deaths were part of a widespread pattern of violence against women and girls and urged Catholics in the diocese to report to police “anything that puts their physical, psychological and spiritual integrity at risk.”
While most of the people on the list were killed in places many people would think of as mission lands, Fides included 51-year-old Father Roberto Malgesini, a priest of the Diocese of Como, Italy, who was stabbed to death Sept. 15 by a mentally ill homeless man he was helping.
Eight of the 20 victims on the Fides list were killed in Central or South America, seven were killed in Africa, three in Asia and two in Italy; in addition to Malgesini, Fides listed Camillian Brother Leonardo Grasso, 78, who was beaten and then died in a fire set at the community for recovering addicts he ran in Riposto.
Fides also noted that the numbers would be much, much higher if one considered the number of priests, religious and laypeople who died after contracting COVID-19 while serving others as doctors, nurses or chaplains. The Council of European Bishops’ Conferences had reported in late September that at least 400 priests had died in Europe after contracting the virus.