cottonbro / PEXELS

The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century:
A Comprehensive World History
By Robert Royal | Crossroads, USA | 2000, 448 pages

At the turn of the new millennium, Pope Saint John Paul II announced that the twentieth century had been a century of martyrs. To those of us who grew up in the Sixties, that was news — we could be forgiven for thinking it had been the century of the Beatles.

This book documents the veracity of his statement. Nazi persecutions are relatively known, but not so are the suffering of multitudes in the Communist bloc countries. This book goes through each one of them in detail: Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Albania, Ukraine. It also moves across the globe to Korea and Vietnam as well as China, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda in Africa; Mexico, Central and Latin America are also covered. For those of us not familiar, there is much to chew on.

The author captures the horrors of the injustice and tortures inflicted by totalitarianism. Amazingly, there were few apostasies in all the refinement of human cruelty. You realise what a gift religious freedom is, so much enjoyed in so many countries and perhaps little appreciated.


Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein receive special mention. The story is told of a boy in Rwanda, belonging to a parish run by Polish missionaries. Together with a friend he is caught by soldiers who accuse him of some misdemeanour, and threaten to kill his friend if he does not confess to the act. The fellow tells them to kill him instead of his friend. Eventually the soldiers let them go.

He tells the story to his parish priest, who asks: “Where did you get the idea of being killed yourself to save your friend?” The boy tells the priest that in one of his homilies, he told the story of a priest in Poland who gave his life to serve others. A seed sown in the heart of deepest Africa, fruit of the holiness of Maximilian Kolbe, brought fruit in the heart of this young man.

A nun in a concentration camp in Germany was ordered to adore Hitler on her altar. She replied that when Hitler dies for the sins of men on a cross and rises again three days later, then she would adore him, but until that time she was sticking to Jesus Christ — a courageous answer.

The Reds

Royal notes the influence of the Polish pope:

“The Ukrainian Catholic Church under the Soviets was the largest group of suppressed believers in the world. The greatest progress in defending Ukrainian Catholics came when Cardinal Wojtyła, a  Pole with a knowledge of Communist tactics and of the Ukrainian situation, was elected John Paul II in 1978. He made careful diplomatic moves and also directly confronted Soviet policy by convening a synod of the Ukrainian Church in Rome.”

The Communists could be even more amoral than the Nazis. A Chinese Catholic who had been imprisoned by the Nazis and later by Communists in China, noted that the former did not try to convert him from his faith.

Meanwhile, Eastern Europe fell under a dark shadow. “The story of Romanian persecution and martyrdom is virtually without equal in the twentieth or any other century,” LOsservatore Romano wrote in 1948, when the persecution was only starting.

“No similar story of moral violence, of persecution, of the Via Crucis of liberty, of personality and of human dignity can be read in all the pages of history.”

The Communist party secretary announced in February 1948 that the main obstacle to “democracy” in Romania was the Catholic Church.

Tyrannical secularists

Albania was the first self-proclaimed atheist state. The Jesuits and Franciscans had played a major role in in modern Albanian culture. Other orders such as the Salesians and Servites established communities of sisters that ran kindergartens, hospitals, trade schools. Religious orders were integrated in the very heart of the nation. Albanian Communists had good reason to pay attention to the Church. A family caught praying the rosary could be punished with five years in prison. Teaching a child the sign of the cross could bring a similar penalty. The mere possession of religious literature could bring a death sentence.

We don’t know enough about these stories. We hear a lot about the Jewish holocaust, but not so much about the Catholic one. More Catholics died in the Communist bloc countries than Jews in Nazi Germany. “At Auschwitz itself, Catholic deaths probably equaled Jewish deaths.” One interesting factor of this book is that it examines historical data.

Titus Brandsma and Charles de Foucauld, recently canonised by Pope Francis, receive ample space. As in all cases, the heroism of their lives is inspiring. George Weigel has said that this book is essential reading for anyone who cares about the Church in the modern world. Michael Novak described it as a “masterpiece”.

With the demise of totalitarian systems and the rise of human rights movements, we should not think that injustice and martyrdoms will come to an end. The rule of law and democratic procedures, desirable as they are, will not abolish sin. The martyrs staked their lives on a truth beyond all human powers.