If the first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate could be characterized by one word, it would certainly be “joy.” The world has been awed by a man who has brought an infectious love for Christ and the gospel to people on the margins and who has lifted the spirits of the faithful and the fallen-away with his personal phone calls, interviews, and spontaneous acts of affection in St. Peter’s Square. However, nearly eighteen months after his election, his focus has changed from the joy of knowing the good news to martyrdom for its sake.
Perhaps this is not a theme Pope Francis intended to tackle so soon, but the persecution of Christians around the globe has lent itself to such a shift in message. Over the last week, Pope Francis’ tweets have consistently included pleas for prayers and sacrifices for Iraqi Christians who face death because of their refusal to deny their faith. He writes, “The news from Iraq pains me. Lord, teach us to live in solidarity with all those who suffer.” And again, “An appeal to all families: when you say your prayers, remember all those forced from their homes in Iraq.”
Though the persecution and martyrdom of the Iraqi Christians is cause for grief and sadness and impels us to work for justice, the paradox of Christian history that the pontiff knows too well is that wherever Christians have faced persecution and martyrdom – from Rome to Uganda to Korea – thousands of men and women convert to the faith or are invigorated in their own. Death leads to life.
It cannot be coincidental that Pope Francis’ visit to South Korea – which began on the feast of twentieth century martyr St. Maximillian Kolbe, no less – will include the beatification of one hundred and twenty four Korean Catholic martyrs who died between 1791 and 1888. The Holy Father, who is set to speak at the sixth Asian Youth Day, has said to the young Catholics in South Korea, “The light of the risen Christ shines like a mirror on the testimony of Paul Yun Ji-chung and 123 companions, all martyrs for the faith. Asian youth, wake up! The glory of the martyrs shines on you.”
The rapid growth of the Catholic Church in Korea can be tied to the witness of these men and women, just as the growth of the early Church was born from the testimonies and martyrdoms of the apostles and Christians in the Roman Empire. After all, as Tertullian said of the persecution of Christians during that era, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” What had started as a small group of Jews and Gentiles became a global faith in a short amount of time.
According to Candida Moss on CNN's website, in just over fifty years, the Catholic Korean population has rise from 2 percent to 11 percent, and the faith is largely being embraced by the young. They have enough priests to serve the faithful and nearly 1,500 seminarians in training.
The Washington Post reported that many of the descendants of the martyrs will be in attendance at the beautification. Kim Dong Sup, age 55, is related to thirteen of the martyrs. “What they did was incredible,” he said.
Incredible for sure. And yet this is the vocation of every Christian. After all, the word martyr simply means “witness.” Each Christian will face a kind of martyrdom as he testifies to the gospel with his words or deeds. While some might face personal rejection or discomfort, others will pay the ultimate price with their lives. Jesus says, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…they will deliver you up to the councils and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them…you will be hated for my name’s sake, but he who endures to the end will be saved. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…”
To a non-Christian, these themes – joy and martyrdom – might seem at odds, but in life of the believer, they will always be intimately connected. The joyful encounter with the person of Christ will lead the Christian to tell others about the Truth they have come to know. And this will bear lasting fruit no matter the cost.