Unlike most spiritual leaders and moral teachers, Jesus of Nazareth
offered no formula for worldly happiness and social order. Just the
opposite: he told his disciples to take up their crosses (an image
he used well before the Crucifixion) and to expect suffering. He warned
them that the world would hate them as it hated him: it was their destiny
After the conversion of the Roman world under the Emperor Constantine,
a Christian civilization arose and the age of martyrdom seemed to be
over. Most Western Christians still think of that period as a thing
of the past, a venerable but remote phase of their history.
But the most intense persecution of Christianity
occurred not in the Roman Empire, but in the twentieth century,
especially in the Communist world. A large part of this story,
hidden and ignored, is told in a new book by Robert Royal, The
Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Crossroad Publishing).
It is hard to tabulate or even estimate the number of Catholics
and other Christians murdered by modern tyrannies. The figure
certainly runs into the tens of millions, though it isn’t
always easy to distinguish between those killed specifically
for their religion and those killed for other reasons, ethnic
and social. But contrary to recent slanders, the Nazis as well
as the Communists regarded the Catholic Church as their mortal
After World War II, Communism’s triumph in Catholic Central
Europe — the bitter fruit of the Anglo-American alliance
with the Soviet Union — brought ferocious assaults on Catholics.
Yet, as Royal observes, surprisingly few renounced their faith
even in the face of torture and death.
The measure of these Catholics’ courage is suggested by part
of one Jesuit’s summary of the tortures they suffered in Albanian
Most of them were beaten on their bare feet with wooden clubs; the
fleshy part of the legs and buttocks were cut open, rock salt inserted
beneath the skin, and then sewn up again; their feet, placed in boiling
water until the flesh fell off, were then rubbed with salt; their Achilles’ tendons
were pierced with hot wires. Some were hung by their arms for three
days without food; put in ice and icy water until nearly frozen; had
electrical wires placed in their ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus;
burning pine needles placed under fingernails; forced to eat a kilo
of salt and having water withheld for 24 hours; boiled eggs put in
their armpits; teeth pulled without anaesthetic; tied behind vans and
dragged; left in solitary confinement without food or water until almost
dead; forced to drink their own urine and eat their own excrement;
put in pits of excrement up to their necks; put on a bed of nails and
covered with heavy material; put in nail-studded cages which were then
As Royal, a Dante scholar, remarks: “The sorrowful litany shows
an inventiveness in torture surpassing the punishments that Dante,
one of the great human imaginations of all time, displayed in writing
his Inferno.” No less horrible than the sheer conception of these
torments is the fact that men were found who could be paid to inflict
them without fainting.
Yet the martyrs not only died willingly, but often died forgiving
and blessing their killers, in the very spirit of Christ. Royal recounts
similar stories — amazing, sickening, inspiring — from
Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Romania,
Latin America, China, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, and elsewhere. Christ’s
warnings are still being borne out.
Why hasn’t all this been told before? It’s not surprising
that the liberal Western media should ignore it; what is very surprising
is that American Catholics have ignored the plight of their brethren.
But prosperous American Catholics are a self-absorbed lot, too obsessed
with contraception and women priests to spare much thought for those
who are far worse off.
As the brave Romanian Bishop Iuliu Hirtea put it before his death
in the 1970s: “It is not we who keep silence here. It is not
we who are the Church of Silence, but the members of the Church in
the free world who are the real Church of Silence, for they do not
speak on our behalf.”
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on May 18, 2000.
Robert Royal's excellent book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth
Century: a Comprehensive World History (Crossroad Publishing,
2000, 429 pages) can be purchased at Alibris.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
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