Pope Francis arrived the afternoon of Saturday, April 22, 2017, at Tiber Island in the middle of the river that crosses the city of Rome, where the ancient Basilica of Saint Bartholomew is located. The Pope wished to render homage to the martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries, in this Shrine that remembers Christians killed out of hatred for the faith.
The Pontiff’s entrance in the esplanade was festive, amid the enthusiasm of the crowds, among which were young people and children of the “Schools of Peace.” Many children handed him letters and drawings. In contrast, his entrance in the Basilica was marked by solemnity and, once he arrived before the icon of the main altar that remembers the martyrs, the Holy Father prayed for a few moments in silence.
Andrea Riccardi, founder of Sant’Egidio Community, expressed heartfelt words, thanking the Pontiff “for having come as a pilgrim to the Shrine of the New Martyrs,” recalling that today is “the anniversary of the abduction of two Bishops of Aleppo, “who prayed in this church.” It is a church that was desired by Saint John Paul II, which keeps the memory of the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Evangelical martyrs united in blood shed for Jesus.”
Readings followed that alternated with three testimonies. The first was that of Karl, son of Paul Schneider, Pastor of the Reformed Church, who was killed in 1939 in the Buchenwald camp, because he said that Nazism had “incompatible” objectives with the message of the Bible.”
After another reading, Roselyne spoke, sister of French priest Jacques Hamel, murdered on July 26, 2016 by ISIS militiamen. She recalled the paradox of one who never wanted to be a protagonist and who instead gave witness to the whole world. She pointed out that Muslims gathered to pay him homage and mentioned the sentiment that the murder aroused in France.
The third testimony was that of Francisco Hernandez Guevara, friend of William Quijano, a youth of Sant’Egidio in El Salvador, who was killed in September of 2009, while working in the Schools for Peace and offering young people an alternative to gangs or marras. “His fault was his dream of a world without violence,” and his telling his dream to all. He never spoke of vengeance against gangs but of the need for a change in mentality, beginning with the children.
Incense and polyphonic singing were part of the liturgy, in which the Pope, dressed in white, use the red stole of the martyred Prelate.
“We have come as pilgrims to this Basilica of Saint Bartholomew in the Tiberina Island, where the ancient history of martyrdom is united to the memory of the new martyrs, of the many Christians killed by absurd ideologies of the last century, and killed because they were disciples of Jesus, ” said the Successor of Peter.
How many times it was heard, in this Basilica of Saint Bartholomew in the Tiberian Island, that “the homeland needs heroes,” said the Pope, specifying that what the Church needs are “martyrs, witnesses, everyday Saints who lead an ordinary life with coherence, but also who have the courage to accept the grace of being witnesses to the end, to death.” “They are graced by God,” and, “without them the Church cannot go forward,” he said.
The Pontiff recalled “a woman, I don’t know her name but she looks at us from Heaven.” He learned about her during his trip to Lesbos, when her husband with three children said to him: “I am a Muslim, my wife was Christian; the terrorists came, they asked us about our religion and she, wearing a crucifix, was asked to take it off. She didn’t and they decapitated her in front of me. We loved one another so much.” Francis concluded this account, saying: “This is an icon that I bring here as a gift.”
The Holy Father also said: “to remember these witnesses of faith and to pray in this place is a great gift for Sant’Egidio Community and for the Church in Rome, all the communities of this city and for pilgrims.”
We can therefore pray: “O Lord, make us worthy witnesses of the Gospel and of your love; shed your mercy upon humanity; renew your Church, protect persecuted Christians, grant speedily peace to the whole world,” concluded the Pope.
The Pontiff went to all the six different chapels, beginning with the victims of Nazism, passing through that of Latin America, lighting a candle in each of them, and concluding with those martyred by Communism.
Prayer was also raised “to disarm the blasphemous violence of those who kill in the name of God.”