In 1999, in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, St. John Paul II established a “Commission of New Martyrs” to investigate Christian martyrdom in the 20th century. The commission worked for two years on the premises of St. Bartholomew’s Basilica, collecting some 12,000 files.
“I entered the great archive of the New Martyrs Commission, where letters, reports, memoirs are collected that, in recent years, have arrived in Rome from all over the world. I began to leaf through them. They were official letters from bishops’ conferences around the world. But also memoirs from simple groups of religious. I read and got hooked. There were thousands of stories of contemporary men and women: Christians who had been killed as such.”
This is how Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, talks about it, introducing his work on more than 9600 files in the archives. The experience of this commission was instrumental in spreading awareness in the Church of the dimensions of the martyrdom of Christians in the last century. In fact, more than thirteen thousand testimonies were received by the commission, some of which were recalled on the occasion of the ecumenical prayer in memory of the witnesses to the faith of the 20th century, presided over by John Paul II at the Colosseum on May 7, 2000.
On that occasion John Paul II said:
“The generation to which I belong has known the horror of war, concentration camps, persecution. […] The experience of the Second World War and the years that followed led me to consider with grateful attention the shining example of those who, from the early years of the twentieth century until its end, experienced persecution, violence, death, because of their faith and their behavior inspired by the truth of Christ. And they are many! Their memory should not be lost, rather it should be recovered in a documented manner.”
The richness of the testimonies received, their sheer number so great, brought to light a phenomenon previously almost ignored, that of a century, the twentieth century, profoundly marked by the testimony of witnesses to the faith from every continent. There remained, however, in the aftermath of the Holy Year, the need for this heritage not to fall back into oblivion and forgetfulness.
To this end, John Paul II decided that the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island should become a memorial place for the “new witnesses of the faith” of the 20th century. The proclamation was solemnly celebrated on October 12, 2002, in the presence of Cardinals Ruini, Kasper and George, and the Orthodox Patriarch of Romania Teoctist: the large icon dedicated to the Witnesses of the Faith of the 20th century was placed on the high altar. On April 7, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI honored the memory of the Witnesses of the Faith of the 20th and 21st centuries with a visit to the Community of Sant’Egidio on its 40th anniversary. The six altars, the Pope explained.
“Remember the Christians who fell under the totalitarian violence of Communism, Nazism, those killed in America, in Asia and Oceania, in Spain and Mexico, in Africa: we ideally retrace many painful events of the past century. So many fell while fulfilling the Church’s evangelizing mission: their blood mingled with that of native Christians to whom the faith had been communicated.”
Below we offer an article by Kurt Koch, Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, published in L’Osservatore Romano on January 17, 2020.