Cardinal leads Holy Week prayer vigil for recently martyred Christians — By: Catholic News Agency

Catholics gather in Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island on Holy Tuesday, March 26, 2024, for a prayer vigil honoring Christians who have been killed for their faith in recent years. / Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Mar 27, 2024 / 10:45 am (CNA).

Catholics gathered in Rome on Holy Tuesday for a prayer vigil honoring Christians who have been killed for their faith in recent years.

A monk in Nigeria who was kidnapped and brutally murdered last fall, catechists in Mexico killed on their way to a Eucharistic procession in June, and Catholics who died in Myanmar when an airstrike hit their church last year were among those honored by the prayer vigil.

Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life, presided over the vigil on March 26 in Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island.

“Persecuted Christians show us, in every age, that nothing … is superior to the bond with Christ. In the martyrs, we see that communion with Jesus is far more precious than earthly life, family ties, everything,” Farrell said.

Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life, presides over a prayer vigil honoring Christians who have been killed for their faith in recent years on March 26, 2024, in Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

“This ‘witness of blood’ that the martyrs give to Christ is a powerful prophetic voice and a great sign of hope because the kingdom of God will continue to spread; indeed, thanks to the martyrs, it will be even better known and loved.

The prayer vigil was held on Holy Tuesday, a day in which the Church reflected on Jesus’ words to Peter at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John: “Will you lay down your life for me?”

Candles were lit during the vigil as the names of more than 50 Christians killed for their faith in the past century were read aloud. 

Catholics gather in Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island on Holy Tuesday, March 26, 2024, for a prayer vigil honoring Christians who have been killed for their faith in recent years. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

The congregation sang “Kyrie Eleison” after each name, which included Shahbaz Bhatti killed in Pakistan in 2011, Father Olivier Maire killed in France in 2021, and the Missionaries of Charity killed in Yemen in 2016. 

“Many who have suffered for their faith and lost their lives in China” were also remembered.

Four crucifixes and palm branches were carried in procession to honor those killed in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the Americas, and Africa respectively.

The names of more than 10 Catholic priests and brothers killed in Africa last year were honored, including Father Jacques Yaro Zerbo killed in Burkina Faso, Father Charles Onomhoale Igechi killed in Nigeria, and Father Pol Feyen killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Members of the local Orthodox and Protestant Christian communities also took part in a prayer vigil honoring Christians who have been killed for their faith in recent years in Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island on Holy Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Members of the local Orthodox and Protestant Christian communities also took part in the prayer vigil at the St. Bartholomew basilica organized by the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio and the Diocese of Rome.

The basilica was so packed for the prayer vigil that overflow seating was needed in the piazza outside of the church on the overcast night in Rome.

The basilica of ‘new martyrs’

The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island is devoted to Christian martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries, referred to as the “new martyrs,” connecting the tradition of Rome’s apostolic martyrs to the persecution of Christians today.

The church was first commissioned in 998 by German Emperor Otto III to receive the remains of St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive for his faith, and St. Adalbert, bishop of Prague who was martyred in 997 during the evangelization of Poland.

Catholics gathered in Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island on Holy Tuesday, March 26, 2024, for a prayer vigil honoring Christians who have been killed for their faith in recent years. The basilica was so packed for the prayer vigil that overflow seating was needed in the piazza outside of the church on the overcast night in Rome. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Today the basilica houses some of the relics of the apostle and medieval evangelist alongside those of St. Maximilian Kolbe, martyred in Auschwitz, and Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a missionary nurse in Somalia in the height of the country’s civil war. Her last words as she was murdered in 2006 were “I forgive them, I forgive, I forgive.”

The basilica also has the breviary of Father Jacques Hamel, who was killed in 2016 by ISIS terrorists in France while celebrating Mass. 

Pope Francis gave the basilica a little wooden bird from the Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God in Syria, a church that burned during the bombing of Aleppo in the Syrian civil war. The bird was brought back to Rome with the humanitarian corridors of the Catholic Community of St. Egidio, a lay movement dedicated to works of charity, who have been entrusted with the spiritual care of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew.

The basilica is flanked on either side by chapels containing relics of Christians martyred under communism and Nazism respectively, marking the 20th century as the bloodiest century in the history of the Catholic Church.

Today Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island houses some of the relics of the apostle and medieval evangelist alongside many others, including those of St. Maximilian Kolbe, martyred in Auschwitz, and Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a missionary nurse in Somalia in the height of the country’s civil war. The basilica also has the breviary of Father Jacques Hamel, who was killed in 2016 by ISIS terrorists in France while celebrating Mass. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

The story of the basilica’s dedication to the “new martyrs” began with St. John Paul II. In 1998, Pope John Paul II established the Commission for the New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee, giving them the task “not only to document Catholic martyrs but also Protestant and Orthodox, saying in the blood of the martyrs, the Church is already united. There was this vision of the ecumenicism of the blood.”

The Basilica of St. Bartholomew continues the ecumenical focus today by honoring the Anglican martyrs of the Solomon Islands, a brotherhood working for reconciliation among the ethnic groups who were killed in 1992-93 and Russian Orthodox Father Alexander Men, who was assassinated in Moscow in 1990.

Ahead of the Catholic Church’s 2025 Jubilee, Pope Francis has tasked a new commission within the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints with creating an archive of the lives of Christian martyrs, both Catholic and non-Catholic, killed in the last quarter-century.

A prayer vigil on March 26, 2024, honoring recent martyrs took place facing a large icon in the basilica of the “New Martyrs and Witnesses to the Faith of the 20th and 21st centuries,” which was blessed by both an Orthodox patriarch and the cardinal vicar of Rome. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Tuesday’s prayer vigil took place facing a large icon in the basilica of the “New Martyrs and Witnesses to the Faith of the 20th and 21st centuries,” which was blessed by both an Orthodox patriarch and the cardinal vicar of Rome.

“Brothers and sisters, in this time wounded by war and terrorism, let us walk together seeking the light of Easter,” Farrell said at the vigil.

“May the witness of contemporary martyrs strengthen us in faith, ignite in us the fire of charity, and help us to hope in the victory over evil and death of Christ Jesus Our Lord.”

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