“There are more martyrs in the world today than in the early centuries of Christianity,” Francis told thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square on December 26, the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Pope Francis recalled “the hard persecutions, even to the supreme test of martyrdom” that Christians are enduring in many parts of the world at this moment in history, and praised them for so courageously giving witness to “their belonging to Christ.” He expressed his personal closeness to them, praised their courage, and assured them of his prayers, saying he is praying for them.
Departing from his prepared text, the Jesuit pope praised the courageous example given yesterday by Christians in Iraq who bravely attended mass on Christmas day in the ruins of their cathedral that was destroyed in the conflict in that country. He has often grieved in public for the sufferings of the Christians in Iraq, as well as in Syria, and he intends to visit Iraqi Christians, as soon as this is feasible. Last year he sent Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who was nuncio in Baghdad at the time of the war on Iraq, to convey his consolations and closeness to them, and he has sent them assistance too.
Addressing thousands of pilgrims from many countries gathered in St Peter’s Square at noon on this beautiful sunny day, Francis recalled “the glorious witness of Christian martyrdom, suffered for love of Jesus Christ” that has marked the history of the church from the time of St. Stephen to our own time.
The Argentine pope reminded his audience that Jesus “foretold the rejection and persecution” that his disciples would encounter, and recalled that Jesus told them: “You will be hated by all because of my name” (Mt 10:22).
Francis explained that “the world hates Christians for the same reason as it hated Jesus, because he brought the light of God and the world preferred the darkness to hide its evil deeds.” For this reason, he said, “there is opposition between the mentality of the Gospel and the worldly one. To follow Jesus means to follow his light, which was lit on the night of Bethlehem, and to abandon the darkness of the world.”
He recalled how the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, “was stoned because he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He chose to follow Christ, “the life and light of every person” and in doing so “he became at the same time a victim of the mystery of evil present in the world.” But, the pope added, “in Christ he won!”
In giving witness to Jesus today, the Christian church “experiences in different places hard persecution, even to the supreme test of martyrdom,” Francis said. “How many of our brothers and sisters in the faith suffer abuse, violence and are hated because of Jesus’ sake!” he added.
“Today we wish to think of them and to be close to them with our affection, our prayers and our tears. Notwithstanding the trials and dangers, they witness with courage their belonging to Christ and live the Gospel committing themselves in favor of the least, the most overlooked, doing good to all without distinction, witnessing to charity in truth,” the pope stated.
At this Christmas time, Francis said, believers “renew” their “joyful and courageous will to follow Jesus faithfully as the only guide, persevering in living with the mentality of the Gospel and rejecting the mentality of those who dominate this world.” He concluded by praying that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Queen of Martyrs, “may guide and sustain us on this journey.”
After imparting his blessing to all present, Francis called for prayers for all those who died when the Russian plane crashed over the Black Sea yesterday. He recalled that among those who died were the members of the Russian Army’s band which had played in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall for the 27th anniversary of the pontificate of St. John Paul II. He concluded his remarks by extending his condolences to the relatives and friends of the deceased and to “the beloved Russian people.”
As a postscript to his talk, Francis thanked all those across the world who had sent him Christmas greetings, and apologized that he could not respond to them individually because they were so numerous.