What does it mean to be a martyr today, and who are the people who continue to die for their faith?
These are the questions that the Basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola in Rome has been trying to address for the last 20 years, as it has been dedicated to the memory of modern martyrs since the Jubilee of 2000. The church is continuing in its mission, as on March 23, 2023, it inaugurated a new and amplified memorial in the crypt, to continue commemorating the stories of the Christian martyrs of the 20th and 21st century.
“Here in this Basilica the ancient history of martyrdom is united with the memory of new martyrs,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, who is the titular of the church and was present at the inauguration. From housing the relics of St. Bartholomew, an apostle who died as a martyr in Armenia, according to tradition, this church today recalls that people continue to lose their lives due to their faith.
“Never in the history of the Church have we had so many people persecuted for the Gospel, and therefore martyrs,” said the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, during the inauguration. The Holy See’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva recently stated that one in seven Christians today is a victim of persecution.
The new crypt and Blessed Stanley Francis Rother
Located on the Tiber Island, a small piece of land in the middle of the river that runs through Rome, the Basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola has been housing objects and relics of modern martyrs in the six chapels that flank the main nave since 2002. The chapels are divided by region or a specific period of persecution, such as under Nazism or Communism. However, these spaces were limited in the number of martyrs they could feature and thus the crypt was revamped to include more testimonies and be able to accommodate future ones as well.
One of the new additions, for example, is a relic of Blessed Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma killed in Guatemala in 1981 due to his defense of the local indigenous populations. Cardinal Cupich stopped for a few moments to venerate the relic in its glass case. In his speech, he had highlighted Father Rother as the first U.S. martyr and first priest born in the United States to be beatified.
The crypt started being restored in 2004 to become the newly inaugurated memorial. It is now adorned with modern wooden walkways and glass display cases, accompanied by detailed historical and biographical explanations. This project was funded in large part by the Community of Sant’Egidio, which administers the church. The Archdiocese of Chicago, through its Archbishop, Cardinal Cupich, also contributed to the expenses.
The wide variety of testimonies: From famous saints to recent killings
The church complex reminds us of the stories of famous saints such as Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero, whose missal and blood-colored chasuble are on display, or Maximilian Kolbe, whose relic can be found in one of the chapels. However, the crypt now also includes objects associated with saints who left powerful testimonies but were not necessarily martyrs, such as St. Charles de Foucauld. The trowel he used to build his hermitage is on display.
Additionally, to honor those who continue to lose their life due to their faith, there are also many objects belonging to Catholics who were killed very recently and whose martyrdom has still not been officially decreed. For example, there is a breviary belonging to French Father Jacques Hamel, who was murdered in his parish by Islamic terrorists in 2016, and there are several objects belonging to the victims of the 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka that caused 269 deaths.
How this Basilica came to be dedicated to modern martyrs: The heritage of John Paul II
The Basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola began to host the memory of modern martyrs about 20 years ago. In 1999 John Paul II created a commission to study this phenomenon on the occasion of the Jubilee of 2000. The Polish Pope had known the reality of modern martyrdom up close and wanted their witness of faith to be remembered. He had lived through the Second World War and seen the oppressive forces of communist regimes.
The commission worked in the complex of the Basilica for two years and gathered around 12,000 files of material on the subject. In 2002 the sanctuary was officially opened at San Bartolomeo all’Isola.
The new memorial fits into the heritage left behind by John Paul II but also looks to the future, towards the Jubilee of 2025. In fact Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, announced in late 2022 that another commission of the same kind as that of 1999 will be created for the Jubilee, to continue studying the Christian martyrs and other witnesses of faith of the 21st century.