They Died for Christ

Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History
by Robert Royal, Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000, 430 pages, $20.00


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This review originally appeared in the October 2000 edition of Crisis Magazine.


In his encyclical Tertio Millenio Adveniente, preparing for the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II stated: “At the end of the second millennium, the church has once again become the church of the martyrs…. [emphasis added].” The author of the present book tells us that a group of lay people in St. Aloysius Parish in New Canaan, Connecticut, took the pope’s words to heart. They began composing files on the Catholic martyrs of the 20th century, and soon they had collected copious material from all over the world. Nothing further would have resulted from the project if Robert Royal had not undertaken the extensive work of researching and planning that resulted in the publication of this volume on the Catholic martyrs of the 20th century. We are prompted to join the author in expressing gratitude to the various persons and foundations who supported the work financially.

In an article published on August 13 in Our Sunday Visitor is a verification of Royal’s statement to the effect that more Christians have died for Jesus in the past century than in all previous 19 centuries. The article is a report on an address given by Glenn Penner, the development director for the Canadian branch of Voice of the Martyrs, founded in 1967 by Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran minister. Penner reminded his audience in Vancouver that the organization is truly ecumenical; all Christians suffering persecution are treated equally because they are all suffering for Jesus Christ.

For example, in the past 15 years, more than a million Christian believers, mostly Catholic and Anglican, have died at the hands of the Muslim government of Sudan. In China, Catholics are targeted in particular. Similarly in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, all Christians are suffering under the Islamic regimes. In India there has been more violence against Christians by Hindus in the past few years than in the previous half-century. In some areas, even the peace-loving Buddhists are attacking Christians. All of this should refocus our attention to stop thinking of martyrs as those who suffered and died centuries ago but to take a stand for Christ in our contemporary world. That is the value of Royal’s book.

This leads us to the question: What is a martyr? At one time, the answer was simple: A martyr is a person who dies for his faith in Christ. In this century, however, the concept of martyrdom has been extended to embrace various forms of Christian witness. For example, in canonizing the Franciscan friar Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Pope John Paul II decreed in October 1982 that he who had been venerated as a confessor after his beatification, should henceforth be venerated also as a martyr, even though he died as a “ martyr for charity” rather than strictly at the hands of non-Christians acting in odium fidei (in hatred against the faith), as the martyrs of the first centuries. But there was a precedent for this, because St. Maria Goretti, who died in resisting rape in 1902, was hailed as a “martyr for chastity” by Pope Pius XII.

Since the days of persecution of Catholics in Russia, Nazi Germany, and Vietnam as well as the more recent murder of Catholic clergy and laity in Latin America, theologians such as Jon Sobrino of San Salvador have been calling for the recognition of a new type of holiness, namely “ political holiness.” This, however, does not settle the question concerning the death of Juan Jesus Cardinal Posadas, who was shot to death on May 23, 1993, at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico. After several years of investigation, Church and government officials have concluded that the cardinal was killed as a result of mistaken identity. Until further proof is forthcoming, it is not possible to say that he died for the faith and is, therefore, a martyr.

This book deals with Catholic martyrs of the 20th century. Consequently, although Pope John Paul II has paid tribute to numerous Protestants who suffered and died for their faith (e.g., at Kosice, Slovakia, July 2, 1995), Royal has restricted himself to Catholics who are acknowledged as martyrs for their Catholic belief and practice.

However, Royal does not neglect to mention numerous non-Catholic but Christian martyrs who suffered and died for their faith. Those of us who lived through World War II are fully aware of the heroism of Christian pastors and laity in the various concentration camps in Nazi Germany, but now, at the start of the third millennium, the spotlight has shifted to Uganda and the Sudan in Africa as well as the Islamic extremists in Indonesia and Algeria. No, the persecution of Christians has not ended; it has merely moved to other parts of the world. The words of Cardinal Arinze, sent to Muslims in the name of the Holy Father in 1996, are well worth remembering:

Our relations as believers, Christians and Muslims, should go beyond mere tolerance, understood simply as putting up with one another. A brother is not just tolerated; he is to be loved. For us as Christians and Muslims to reach beyond tolerance to reconciliation and love there is still a long way to go. As we prepare for the future, we cannot afford to forget the past or neglect the future.

How do we see our future? As one of confrontation or a mere coexistence? Or marked by mutual understanding and respect and fruitful collaboration? Is this not what God wants of us? [February 15, 1996]

Royal’s book deserves the widest possible distribution. It acquaints the reader not only with those who made the ultimate sacrifice but with the obligation of all people to abide by the moral law– whether from revelation or reason.


  • Rev. Jordan Aumann

    Rev. Jordan Russell Aumann, O.P., who died in 2007, published eight books on spiritual theology and taught as a professor of theology at the Angelicum in Rome.

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