By Christopher Lushis
SOUTH BEND — “At the end of the second millennium, the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs. … The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants.” These words from St. John Paul II, who experienced firsthand many of the violent atrocities committed during the 20th century, recalls the living witness of those who have courageously laid down their lives for the Gospel throughout the world. The examples seen on an almost daily basis of men, women and children choosing to stand firm in Christian faith, even at the expense of their own lives, has strengthened the Body of Christ and served as reminder that the kingdom of God is not of this world.
The Community of Sant’Egidio, an international public lay association of the Church, understands this message well. Originally founded by Andrea Riccardi in 1968, with the purpose of encouraging laypeople to take seriously the call of the Gospel, the community now includes over 50,000 members dedicated to serving the Church in a variety of apostolates. As an organization dedicated to prayer, evangelization, ecumenism and friendship with the poor, they have sought to foster dialogue and unity among Christians around the globe, specifically seeking to bring healing, hope and peace to a world in suffering.
In recognition of the countless Christian martyrs of the 20th century, in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II led a historic commemoration at the Roman Coliseum to honor these heroic men and women who testified to the Gospel with the offering of their lives. Afterwards, he commissioned Andrea Riccardi to write a book detailing the stories of many of these individuals, and officially dedicated the Basilica of St. Bartholomew in Rome to the Sant’Egidio Community as a perpetual memory of all recent Christian martyrs. This basilica includes many side altars, some of which are dedicated to Christians on specific continents, while others attest to the atrocities committed against Christians at the hands of Nazi and Communist regimes.
Since 2000, the community has held prayer services at this basilica every Holy Week to celebrate the memory of those who in recent years have been called to testify to their faith with the offering of their life.
In global solidarity, Sant’Egidio communities throughout the world each hold similar memorials to celebrate the lives of these martyrs.
On Palm Sunday, through the efforts of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and local Sant’Egidio coordinators Richard LaSalvia and Daniel Philpott, the community will participate in this worldwide tribute with a special memorial led by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades to acknowledge Christians of all denominations who have, in recent years, willingly laid down their lives for Christ. This service will be held at St. Matthew Cathedral at 7:15 p.m. on March 29 and is open to people of all faith traditions.
LaSalvia shared that “one of the martyrs who will be recognized is Msgr. Oscar Romero, former archbishop of San Salvador, a man of peace in a country marked by injustice and civil war, who was killed on the altar while celebrating the Eucharist on March 24, 1980.” In January, the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes officially recognized Romero as a martyr and he will be beautified in El Salvador on May 23 of this year. “The Community of Sant’Egidio assisted Romero’s beautification cause through the efforts of the spiritual director Bishop Vincenzo Paglia,” LaSilvia said.
LaSalvia, who has led and served with Sant’Egidio for over 10 years, primarily through organizing nursing home visits and weekly prayers with the sick and elderly, has helped bring much desired mercy and friendship to those often left feeling isolated and alone. He shared that the work of the community involves ministering to the various needs of the Church and walking in friendship with people of all ages.
In explaining why the community seeks to unite Christians through this type of memorial event, he revealed, “From the beginning, we recognized that prayer was the first work of the community. Everything that we do starts with prayer. It is our essential and fundamental task as Christians, and in addition to educating ourselves about what is happening, it is our most important response! Prayer is the work of the whole Church, which is why Bishop Rhoades has invited the priests, religious, laity and other Christians of the diocese to participate in this prayer service.”
He also recalled the various ways in which the community has responded to the violence so often inflicted upon Christians throughout the world. “We seek to come together through what Pope Benedict called and Pope Francis is now calling an “ecumenism of blood.” The 20th and 21st centuries have been periods of incredible persecution, especially in the Middle East. There, our founder, Andrea Riccardi is currently taking action to help Christians in Aleppo, Syria, one of the cities recently bombed by all sides and where many Christians have been killed. It was there that two Syrian Orthodox bishops, close friends of the Sant’Egidio community, were kidnapped. We are currently working to find them and return them home. Riccardi has also been working on opening a humanitarian corridor in Aleppo to bring out the innocent civilians currently in hiding.”
Additionally, LaSalvia shared, “Riccardi, who also has good relations with the Coptic Church in Egypt, sent condolences to Coptic Patriarch Alexandria Tawadros II, following the brutal killing of the 21 Christians who were beheaded in Libya. He responded with grateful affection for the sympathetic words and prayed, “the Lord of Life protect us from hatred and intolerance.”
LaSaliva further remarked that Pope Francis has been very supportive of the mission of the Sant’Egidio community, sharing that when he visited its members in Rome this past June, “He encouraged them to continue to remain vigilant in their prayer, to continue going to the peripheries and serving the marginalized, and to steadfastly work to achieving worldwide peace.”
The prayer vigil is co-sponsored by the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.