Basilica of Saint Bartholomew on the Island in the Tiber 1st July 2009
Resisting evil and violence
A presentation of the new edition of Andrea Riccardi’s book
“The century of Martyrdom”
Transcript of Andrea Riccardi’s presentation
At the outset I want to thank all of you who are here, and especially Vecchi for having organised this debate.
It gives me special pleasure that the book is being discussed by those who are participating. I’m especially pleased that Cardinal Sepe is taking part, not only because we are old friends, but also because he was involved in the genesis of this book as the Jubilee was approaching. Referring to my work collecting the stories of new martyrs, he said to me: “Why don’t you think of writing a book!” He said this more than a year before the Jubilee while the book was still just a possible venture. The idea of this book came along with the belief that such information should not be simply consigned to the archives.
I am very grateful to Adriano Roccucci, who is so knowledgeable about Russian affairs. He speaks with a passion which brings events alive before our eyes. And Roberto Saviano too-this is his first meeting with friends from Sant Egidio-whose presence here signifies that this discussion on giving witness is not something ancient or remote, but is a real challenge today. He is someone who speaks and is prepared to pay a personal price for what he says.
So Roberto Saviano and Cardinal Sepe, though approaching this problem from different perspectives, both maintain that one cannot remain indifferent, one cannot be hot or cold when confronting evil.
I think of what the Cardinal has done and is doing in Naples. I once said to him jokingly: “You’re becoming the ‘Romero’ of Naples”. He replied “Lets hope I don’t end up the same way!” It could seem a throwaway line, but it introduced me to Roberto Saviano’s discussion.
Witnesses are not necessarily heroes. The basilica of Saint Bartholomew where we find ourselves, speaks of martyrdom. The ornamentation of the palms speaks of martyrdom. It is a church which preserves the memory of the apostle Bartholomew, and was constructed by Ottone III for Saint Adalberto, figures of martyrdom in the history of Christianity. They seem heroes of long ago, from a world where men and women were sure of themselves, who went to their deaths and in so doing passed their images on to us.
They seem people different from us, from our uncertain times aggravated by our own lives. But history shows that things are not really like this. Let us understand that a martyr is not a man who simply chooses to die. A martyr is not a man completely sure of himself. A martyr or witness is not a man without fear. This is shown throughout the book.
In 2000 we wanted this church of San Bartolomeo to be transformed into a place of remembrance for new martyrs. You can see in these chapels that different figures from different contexts are remembered; Mons. Romero’s missal is here for example. This is a place which remembers the great intuition of John Paul II who believed that martyrdom is not something from remote times, but it is pertinent to here and now.
As we are here, I’d like to seize the genius loci and remember that from 1943-44 during the Nazi occupation there was a Franciscan friary on this site where 400 Jews were hidden before being moved to other places of refuge. But it was also on the bridge to the Island in the Tiber that a Jewish woman Celeste Di Porto, a spy by profession, sold her fellow Jews to the Nazis, taking money for each one. I believe the sum was 5,000 lire for a man and 3,000 for a woman. So this place is evocative of those who saved and those who betrayed. These antecedents are why we wanted to present the book here.
John Paul II understood that the twentieth century was a century of martyrs. This was not a theory of his, it was what he experienced in his life. In fact, 20% of the Polish population died during the Nazi occupation, apart from victims of the Shoah. This was followed by the hardships of the communist era. Within this context how can you fight against evil? How can you survive the hell of occupation? How can you survive the lager? How can you survive when the intellectual class has been murdered? How do you survive in the space limited by a communist dictatorship? Even though the Polish dictatorship was different from the one in Russia, it was a dictatorship nonetheless.
So the response from witnesses comes from a struggle with sleeves rolled up.
In this book I talk about Christian witnesses, not just Catholic ones, but Christian witnesses. Catholics, Orthodox and evangelicals. When someone is a witness in their blood, there is a solidarity with others which goes beyond the limits of their own Christianity. John Paul II interviewed for his first book by Andre Frossard, was asked about martyrdom by the French writer: “Can we say that the 6 million Jews killed in the camps are martyrs?” He replied: “Why should we deny that they are martyrs?”
There is a big difference in the conception of martyrdom. In a humanist sense a christian is someone who wants to live and who struggles for life. Through the media today we get the impression that an Islamic suicide bomber constitutes a martyr. The shahid who takes their own life and with it the lives of others, is someone who looks for death and with their own death brings death to others. This we know does not just apply to Muslim martyrs. It is representative of a cult of death. There was a death cult among members of the SS, among nazis, in the concentration camps and in many aspects of fascism. Think of the colour black or the symbol of the skull. It is there too in mafia symbolism, in the mafia’s initiation rites, in the relationship between blood and death. The cult of death is representative of a way of reasoning which puts no value on life.
No, the Christian martyr is not someone who wants to die. As Cardinal Sepe explained so well, the Christian martyr is also the sister in the Congo looking after people sick with Ebola who says: “Who else would look after these people?” This reasoning is not heroic, it is simply a way of saying: I’ll stay.
This was the view of John Paul II, that the martyr is also the small man or woman who does not run away from their responsibility. Out of love they stay , for humanity, for justice, for faith. They do not want to leave the people for whom they are responsible.
There is a beautiful story of a woman from Abruzzo who during the Second World War hid two British airmen after they had parachuted down nearby. She hid them despite the fact they were being hunted for and would be killed if found. “Why did you hide them ?” the nazis asked before shooting her. “I did not help them because they were English”, she replied, “but because I am a Christian and they are Christians too”. Similarly, the Abruzzese pastor Michele Del Greco, before being shot for similar reasons said: “I will die for having put into practice what I was taught in church when I was a child. That is to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty”. A simple reply perhaps, but a sign of deep humanity nonetheless.
A martyr is someone who will not give up on their work or their humanity in order to save their life at any cost. For me there is a deep humanist root here that supports the resistance of evil. There are enough witnesses to write a text on twentieth century humanism, on the particular strength of twentieth century humanism.
I would like to cite two examples. The first is Mons. Romero. Mons. Oscar Arnulfo Romero has become a symbolic figure, though controversial to some with a different outlook. Romero is a man who did not abandon his people despite the death threats he received. Cardinal Neves told me that during his last visit to Rome, Romero phoned him and said: “I’m coming back to San Salvador, but they’ll kill me there.” This was his act of witness. The act of someone who returns, someone who does not run away.
The second example is of brother Christian de Cherge. One of his letters is kept here at San Bartolomeo. He was a Trappist in Algeria in the twentieth century who became a hostage to violence. His writings speak of the fear at night as he listened to the footsteps of the guerrillas. He was abducted along with other monks and held prisoner for 50 days.
The recovered account of his time in prison is very interesting because you can see how Christian de Cherge and his brothers struggled with their captors as they held onto life. He explains their edict: “Look, if you kill me you are making a mistake.”.
The martyr then is someone who does not want to save his own life, but will not be submissive. I would say he would try to discuss matters reasonably, speaking as an equal to an equal.
So why do we from Sant Egidio have this particular interest in remembering? It is not because we are heroic, we are normal people, people who have fears. Instead it seems to me that in this time without vision or with little vision or ideas, in this time of instinctive revisionism which belittles everything, that remembering these figures gives great strength.
Memory is strength. It is a special strength. I like to call it a gentle strength, but a strength nevertheless. So I think that remembering and studying these figures, deepening our knowledge of them ( some are simple people, some are people who have had a particular idea, or analysis, a particular doubt or response) is a way of trying to rebuild a new humanism for the new century.
I’ve made reference to this being a time of instinctive revisionism. I’m in agreement with Saviano. The great martyrs of the first centuries of Christianity are often seen as great figures. They are heroes battling with the people who will kill them, battling with an evil often represented as demonic. The contemporary martyr though is a martyr of our world, the martyr of slander. In our time we have seen those condemned to death by Hitler or people from the church accused of immoral crimes or the compromising of values.
The martyr today is often no titanic figure whose death is almost a condemnation for their assassins. There is a martyrdom of defamation, the butchery of reputation; there is a moral and human destruction as so many figures who are unsettling become destroyed. This is the instinctive revisionism of our world which wants to belittle everything.
I believe instead that recalling these figures is a way of trying to imagine a new humanism. For us who are not heroes, this humanism starts with a choice: to befriend the poor and those who suffer; to be conscious of martyrdom and the oppression of life.
This humanism is not theoretical, it is lived. I have always been struck by the words of Martin Buber: “Archimedes point starts from where I can raise up the world by the transformation of myself”. This particularly strikes me in a time of failed revolutions and fading visions. I thank Saviano for having cited Hillel: “When there are no men, compel yourself to be a man”. It is not just about an alliance of people who come together to make a better world. Rather, there are many men who are moving in a certain direction according to their sensibility and their situation, and they often discover themselves to be in harmony with others. They may be alone, but the harmony becomes a strength.
I’d like to remember here, as I have written in the book, our friend from the Sant Egidio Community who lived in Kivu, Congo. From 1998 to 2002 the Congo experienced a terrible war in which 5 million were killed. It was a war that deeply scarred the country leaving a terrible legacy. Floribert was a simple boy from the Community who had gone to school with the other children. Aged 28 he was happy to take on the post as director of customs. He was glad to have found a job, no mean feat, and he was to be married. He was asked to allow the entry of a consignment of damaged rice from Rwanda, as all his predecessors had done. Instinctively he said no. Pressure was put on Floribert and he was offered large bribes. With great simplicity he resisted until he was kidnapped and killed.
This episode shows that people in their smallness, in whatever corner of the world, can express an incredible moral strength.
The new martyrs since 2000 are saying that this is still a time of martyrdom, of struggle, and I emphasise the presence of a very destructive revisionism. There is a cultural destruction; a moral and spiritual destruction in our time from where the message comes that everything can be bought or sold so there is value in taking risks. And as the things of value can be bought and sold, everything else is of no value.
To resist evil and violence in our time, we must find within ourselves through our faith and our love, poor as we are, men like us with the energy to put up resistance.
Martyrs are ordinary people. I have mentioned Floribert. I remember a young seminarian from Iraq, who distributed food to the homeless at Termini station with a group from Sant Egidio. After some time he went back to his homeland, and explained: “I must return to my people”. He died in Iraq. Ordinary people, people who are all around us.
Our time is one of revisionism, and one of violence. Studying the passage on twentieth and twenty first century martyrdom we see how martyrdom has changed. Roccucci is right. In the twentieth century there was a clash of evils, of ideologies. In the twenty first century, progressively, another force of evil has asserted itself. There are no longer the guerrillas who killed Cipriano Pariteia in Africa, but there is a faceless civil war: the mafias. The maras in Salvador, the camorra in Naples and Southern Italy and many other parts of the world. There is a frightening connection between money and violence which has destroyed various African countries. This is the case in Guinea Bissau, a country in the hands of drug traffickers.
We could outline an apocalyptic scenario. But I believe that the comparison with martyrs and today’s words shows that there is great hope, and that we have large resources. So we must not give in to pessimism.
History is a mystery of wickedness, but it is also a mystery of salvation and this is our faith. History is full of surprises. We all know Mishna’s phrase: “He who saves a man, saves the whole world”. It is little known how this expression found its way into the Koran, in the Sura of the Mensa which says: “Whoever kills a person, it is as if he has killed the whole of humanity; and who gives life to a person it is as if he saves the whole of humanity”. This wisdom-that saving a man is saving the world-transcends Judaism, Islam and Christianity itself.
I believe that this human wisdom, evangelical and religious, if lived by individuals and taken seriously, is a great strength. Even before scenes that could appear desperately evil and violent, there is the capacity to resist and hope for the future.
He who saves a man saves the whole world. He who saves a man in the lager saves the whole world. But I also believe that he who saves a man saves hope and the possibility to improve the whole world. Even if what is done does not produce immediate results, something deep is happening. It may be a single event, but it has an almost cosmic force.
I conclude with the words of Cardinal Sepe, that the martyr is Jesus himself, a man who died to save the whole world. This is not an isolated fact but has become a model for humanity.
I really want to thank Roberto Saviano, Card. Sepe, Gian Guido Vecchi, Adriano Roccucci and all of you for being here. This debate has been enriching for me, and I believe has further convinced me that the struggle to remember these figures is of real importance. Thank you.