The Church of Silence

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18, 2000

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 as Christians.

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 enemy.

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 prison camps:

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 rotated rapidly….

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

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

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