A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Blessed John-Paul’s Century of Saints and Martyrs

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

When Pope John Paul the Second was beatified by the Church in early May 2011 it was a fitting climax of the career of this remarkable Polish Pope. He bestrode the 20th century as the pontiff who faced down Communism in Eastern Europe, the deadly enemy of the church, in an historic confrontation. He travelled the globe, inspired young people and made links with other religions notably Judaism, and forged a new social order in his encyclicals. He created more saints than all his predecessors put together, many of them martyrs to the Faith.

Blessed John-Paul II

Blessed John-Paul II

His longevity as Pope meant that his death was that of an old man well past his prime, and suggested a funeral that might have been quiet and anticlimactic. The total opposite was true. His death and funeral caused an astonishing outpouring of grief, with world leaders vying with each other to pay tribute. A royal wedding was postponed in England. The huge event that was his death put his life in true perspective.

In his homily on 7 May 2000 at the Ecumenical Commemoration of the Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th century the Pope suggested that there were more martyrs, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant in this century, than in the first period of Christianity. George Weigel, the historian and his biographer has confirmed this, and further pointed out that the Commission for the New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee concluded that there were likely twice as many martyrs in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries of Christian history combined. The great majority of 20th century martyrs gave their lives at the hands of Communism. This makes Wojtyla’s confrontation of Communism of truly heroic status.

As the archives of former Soviet bloc countries become available the true scale of the persecution of the Church is becoming evident. There was constant undercover war against the Church as well as mass murder of Christians. The Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine was the one of the most brutally suppressed communities. The Vatican was penetrated by Russian KGB spies at many levels: seminarians and diplomats spied for Eastern European regimes. John Paul II knew of the penetration, and changed his routine regularly to make surveillance harder. Attempts were made to discredit him, including a fake diary by a non-existent acquaintance “Irina”. The attempt on his life damaged his robust health, but he turned it into an ‘own goal’ by his enemies when he was photographed forgiving his assailant in prison.

Pope John Paul II is being beatified for the holiness of his life, not for success of his pontificate. Historians may be less generous in judging the latter than his holiness. There were gaps in his influence; despite his brave pastoral visit to Central America in 1983, the Church was arguably more deeply divided as a result. He was never a hero in that region which had its share of martyrs. In El Salvador dozens of priests and an Archbishop were hunted down by right wing death squads for standing by the poor. Thousands of mourners but no Catholic prelate attended Oscar Romero’s funeral. However John Paul II named him Servant of God when his Cause for canonization was accepted.

It was truly a century of martyrs and saints. We will honour the new Blessed’s legacy if we acknowledge the courage of many unnamed people who lived and died for their faith unknown, unheralded and unmourned in the century of two World Wars, a Cold war, and unrelenting warfare on the Church.

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