ROME — Pope Francis reminded visiting pilgrims Wednesday that Christians today continue to be persecuted and to give their lives as martyrs throughout the world, even in Europe.
“Around the world today, in Europe, so many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith,” the pope told the thousands gathered in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall for his weekly audience, “or they are persecuted with white gloves, that is, ostracized and marginalized.”
The pope also recalled that persecution and martyrdom are part and parcel with Christianity, from its beginnings until the end of time.
“Martyrdom is the life’s breath of a Christian, of a Christian community,” he continued. “There will always be martyrs among us: this is the sign that we are traveling on the path of Jesus.”
As painful as it is, persecution is not a curse for Christians, the pontiff insisted, since it conforms them to Christ.
“It is a blessing from the Lord that among the people of God there is someone who gives the witness of martyrdom,” he said.
In his remarks, the pope was reflecting on a passage from the biblical book of the Acts of the Apostles in which Saint Paul recounts his conversion to Christianity and the subsequent persecution he suffered for the faith.
In the passage, “Luke highlights the similarity between Paul and Jesus, both hated by their adversaries, publicly accused and recognized as innocent by the imperial authorities,” Francis noted, “and so Paul is associated with the passion of his Master, and his passion becomes a living gospel.”
“Paul is not only the evangelizer full of ardor, the intrepid missionary among the pagans who gives life to new Christian communities,” he said, “but he is also the suffering witness of the Risen One.”
As examples of modern-day martyrs, the pope held up the people of Ukraine.
“How these people were persecuted!” he exclaimed, “How they suffered for the Gospel! But they did not negotiate with their faith. They are an example.”
During his six-year pontificate, Pope Francis has often invoked the example of the martyrs, while calling attention to the plight of persecuted Christians throughout the world.
In 2015, Francis called on Christians to undertake a “spiritual journey of intense prayer, concrete participation, and tangible help in the defense and protection of our brothers and sisters who are persecuted, exiled, killed, and beheaded just for being Christians.”
“They are our martyrs of today, and there are so many, we can say that they are more numerous than in the first centuries,” he said.
In one of his very first acts as pope in 2013, Francis canonized the more than 800 “martyrs of Otranto,” a group of mostly lay Christians who were put to the sword by an invading Muslim army for their unwillingness to renounce Jesus Christ and embrace Islam.
On July 29, 1480, the armada of Sultan Mehmet II, the leader of the Ottoman forces, landed in Otranto in southern Italy. The Ottomans separated out the women and children, who became slaves, while the 800 men were ordered to convert to Islam or die.
The Christian men all refused and on August 14, they were beaten and decapitated, one by one, in full view of the others, and then thrown into a mass grave.