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Parish gathers list of martyrs

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

It began as an idea for a parish bulletin board at St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan, Conn.: a plan to teach the about-to-be-confirmed something about Christian witness by featuring 20th-century martyrs. But it didn’t remain an idea. From its conception in 1997, the idea snowballed into an internationally recognized source for information on 20th-century Christian martyrs and inspired a book on their lives.

Carol Pinard, St. Aloysius’ religious education director, said several coincidences led to her compiling the names of more than 7,000 20th-century Christian martyrs. The idea began when Fr. Kevin Royal, then a St. Aloysius priest, handed her a copy of Pope John Paul II’s Tertio Millennio Adveniente. Pinard was struck by the statement, “At the end of the second millennium the church has once again become a church of martyrs, and this witness must not be forgotten.”

“That kept playing in my mind,” she said.

Pinard was further inspired by a visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Moved by the black granite testament to those killed, she thought how wonderful it would be “if people could see such a list of the Catholic martyrs.” Let’s use the church bulletin board, she thought, to display those names.

But no list of 20th-century martyrs existed. She called the United Nations, which referred her to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, who in turn referred her to the Office for Canonization in Rome. No one could provide a listing for her display.

Curiosity piqued, she wondered, “Who does know who they are?” Finally, she realized she might have to create the list of names herself.

St. Aloysius’ pastor, Msgr. J. Peter Cullen, quickly saw the importance of the project and offered encouragement and financial support. Said Cullen, “For me, to understand the martyrs’ significance is to understand the meaning of human rights issues in the world today.”

Pinard contacted both the Maryknolls and the Dominicans. Her idea met with cooperation and enthusiasm. Armed with the Official Catholic Directory, Pinard began the daunting task of sending almost 2,000 letters to the heads of religious orders and bishops all over the world. She enlisted a few people from the parish to help with mailing labels and a visiting seminarian who helped type in data. The response, she said, was “overwhelming.”

Pinard received more than 1,000 responses from people who sent not only names but also photographs, stories, even relics. Pinard has amassed more than 7,000 citations of those whom she considers to be martyrs for the faith. This information is stored in a database listing a name, country of birth, country of death, status (lay, priest, bishop and so on), and a notation of where the information came from.

“But what are we going to do with this?” Pinard and Cullen wondered as the list enlarged. A book was the logical outlet, but neither Pinard nor Cullen felt equipped to do justice to the material. As it turned out, Fr. Kevin Royal’s brother Robert was interested.

The result was Robert Royal’s book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History.

Pinard finds it difficult to select favorites from the huge number of stories she has gathered, but she mentions Edith Stein, Fr. Miguel Pro, the four churchwomen of El Salvador and Austrian Marianist Fr. Jakob Gapp. All are discussed in Royal’s book.

Lesser-known martyrs who stand out in Pinard’s memory are two missionaries from Poland who survived years of communist oppression only to end up in Peru where Shining Path Guerrillas killed them. She tells a poignant story about 51 young Claretian seminarians who were killed during the Spanish Revolution. Held captive by the communists and knowing they’d probably be killed, “they wrote their goodbyes on chocolate bar wrappers,” Pinard said.

Although some might argue that this parish list includes victims of atrocities, as distinct from martyrs for the faith, Pinard worked under a broad definition of martyrdom based on the pope’s idea of Christian witness. She argues that the “victims” were well aware of the dangers they faced and could have gone elsewhere. “Spreading the gospel caused their deaths,” she said.

Royal’s book has been criticized for its focus on certain types of martyrs at the expense of others. For example, Lauren F. Winner of Beliefnet.com criticized Royal in a review published Dec. 24 in The Washington Post for emphasizing martyrs who professed Christianity when it was politically dangerous to do so. The emphasis, she said, was at the expense of Christians who spoke out against injustices in addition to professing the faith. []

“As one follows Royal through the decades, one increasingly wonders if his understanding of martyrdom is adequate for a century marked by more mass murder than any other in human history,” Winner wrote.

Pinard regrets the places she was unable to cover in her quest: “So many people have died,” she said. Communications difficulties created gaps in her listings. The numbers for Africa are staggering and still uncounted, she said. Simply gleaning information about martyred clerics in these places is unusually difficult, she noted, and added that lay workers are virtually invisible to any historical record. She lists Sudan, Bosnia and East Timor as places where she knows there has been great loss of life, but her letters to struggling Christian outposts in these countries were usually returned unopened.

This project has garnered attention from the Vatican. In February 1999, Bishop Michel Hrynchyshyn, a Redemptorist and president of the Commission for New Martyrs for the Holy See, visited the parish. Cullen, Pinard, and author Robert Royal were invited to the Vatican. Royal presented the pope with his book.

The parish produced an exhibit that opened in the school auditorium last October. Fr. Dariusz Zielonka, parish computer whiz, provided graphics. Pinard hopes the exhibit can tour Catholic cathedrals nationally, though the parish lacks the personnel or financial resources to pursue the project further.

Undaunted, Pinard points to the unbelievable genesis of this project. “God will show us what to do next.”

Melissa Jones’ e-mail address is jonesma@worldnet.att.net

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001 [corrected 04/20/2001]