21st Century Martyrs Show That Faith Is Strong … and Will Keep Growing

I saved the srongest sign of hope for last: The martyrs.

I have been sharing signs of hope at Aleteia for weeks now, after I was struck by Bishop Robert Barron’s YouTube video “4 Ways to Grow the Church.” He asked for every Catholic to invite someone to Mass this year, saying he was tired of watching the Church shrink and it was time to start helping it grow.

If we think Christianity is a weak, dying reality, we are absolutely wrong, as I’ve tried to show. But the absolute strongest sign of this is the witness of martyrs.

Pope Francis often explains why the martyrs are a sign of hope — and that, sad as it may be, we have more hope than ever.

“There are more martyrs today than there were at the beginning of the life of the Church,” he recalled in his September 25, 2019, General Audience. “Martyrs are everywhere.”

Citing the Church Father Tertullian, he said “The blood of Christians is seed, and ensures the growth and fruitfulness of the People of God.”

This is a mystical reality — the sacrifice of the martyrs calls down grace which benefits the Church. But it is also true in very practical ways. Not only does the witness of martyrs convince non-believers and inspire believers, but the persecution of Christians causes the faith’s most ardent believers to leave their homes and spread their faith worldwide.

Reflect for a second on two statistics shared by Aleteia in the last few weeks:

In Nigeria, 94% of self-identified Catholics surveyed said they attend weekly or daily Mass.


89% of Christians killed throughout the world are located in Nigeria.

Let that sink in.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis drew attention to the terrible atrocities in African nations.

Pope Francis on his visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo heard horrifying stories of persecution there — and astonishing examples of what it means to “love your enemy.”

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. In an eight-month period last year, there were nearly 200 attacks on Christians communities in northern Nigeria alone, according to the new “Nigerian Atrocities Documentation Project.” Thousands have been displaced — including 18 cases in which priests were kidnapped — and hundreds of Christians were killed, including four priests.

That number doesn’t include Father Isaac Achi, who was shot dead on January 15 by terrorists shouting “Allahu Akbar!” according to a priest who reports frequently from Nigeria. After gunmen broke into the parish, Father Achi and another priest prayed together and gave each other the sacrament of confession.

Middle Eastern and Asian nations were also the site of many martyrdoms throughout the 21st century.

The stories about Iraqi priest Father Ragheed Ganni, killed in 2007, are frightening and inspiring. Once when he was giving First Communion to children in the basement of his church, gunfire erupted outside. Father Ganni calmly told the terrified children that fireworks were celebrating their big day.

At a Eucharistic Congress in Italy before he died, he said, “When I hold the Host in my hands, it is really he who is holding me and all of us, challenging the terrorists and keeping us united in his boundless love.”

Violence has too often been part of Eucharistic life in the Middle East. In 2010, there was the Baghdad massacre of Christians, where dozens were killed for going to Church. In 2015, Servant of God Akash Bashir gave his life preventing a similar massacre when he stopped a suicide bomber in Lahore, Pakistan.

There were 45 children among those killed in Sri Lankan Church bombings in 2019, including brother and sister Sharon Stephen Santhakumar and Sarah Epzhibah Santhakumar, pictured here.

These stories are at the same time crushingly sad and transformed by faith, hope, and love.

The martyrs come from all over the world, but share in common their beautiful witness to Jesus Christ.

  • Columbian Archbishop Isaías Duarte Cancino was assassinated in 2002 after praying for the gift of abandonment to God.
  • Italian Consolata Missionary Sister Leonella Sgorbati was killed in 2006 by Islamicists in Mogadishu, Somalia, where she had dedicated her life to serving the poor. Her last words were “I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.”
  • French priest  Father Jacques Hamel was killed in 2016 in a Rouen, France, suburb while saying Mass.
  • Missionaries of Charity from far and wide were killed in Yeme in 2016 after praying “Teach me, Lord to be Generous.”

But the iconic 21st century martyrdom might be the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded on video by ISIS in Libya in 2015. They were migrant workers from a particular Egyptian village and were very poor. Journalists recorded their families’ beautiful witness.

There was one man killed with them, though, who tells the story of martyrdom in the 21st century.

His name was Mathew Ayairga, a Black man from Chad. He was reportedly not a Christian, and yet, when he was asked “Do you reject Christ?” He indicated the beheaded men around him and said “Their God is my God,” and so he was killed, too.

His story is the story of what happens when martyrs witnesses to Christ. Their faith attracts others. We all need to repeat his words again and again: “Their God is my God.” Their faith is my faith; their hope is my hope. And that hope is strong.

This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Lawrence OP Flickr.


Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.