Congregation for Causes of Saints, Note Concerning Martyrs and Witnesses of the Faith, 28 December 1999.
In the apostolic letter Tertio Millennio adveniente, the Holy Father invited the Church to make the celebration of the year 2000 a “great prayer of praise and thanksgiving, especially for the gift of the Incarnation of the Son of God and of the Redemption” (no. 32) and “to extend such thanksgiving for the fruits of holiness which have matured in the life of all those many men and women who in every generation and every period of history have fully welcomed the gift of Redemption” (ibid.).
The Church’s initiatives within the sphere of the celebration of the Great Jubilee have therefore the goal of recalling not only the historical fact of the Incarnation and Redemption, but also of recalling their fruits that have matured in time—up to the recent events of this century. In this there will be a reliving that is fruitful as every celebration by the Church should be. From meditation on the Redemption, our consideration moves to the redeemed, and from the consideration of the saints it moves on to the response that every baptized person must give to the universal call to sanctity.
In no. 37 of the same apostolic letter, the Holy Father pauses at a special form of response to the gift of the Redemption—martyrdom.
Recalling that the Church was irrigated by the blood of the martyrs and that martyrdom has been the constant situation of its bimillennial history, the Holy Father mentioned in a special way the martyrs of our century and invited particular Churches to do their utmost to preserve the memory of the “new martyrs,” “many of them nameless, ‘unknown soldiers’ as it were of God’s great cause.” To accomplish this the Holy Father recommends the collection of the pertinent documentation that still exists.
In the spirit of this recommendation, the Apostolic See has brought up to date the martyrology of the universal Church, and in the particular Churches an effort is being made to compose a list of the local witnesses of the faith by collecting the useful documents for the preservation of their memory.
In this context also a special initiative has been agreed upon for the calendar of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 for next May 7, in which
there will be a memorial of all the new martyrs with a special celebration at the Coliseum.
However, local and religious ordinaries will see to the collection of the documents—as a fulfillment of what the Holy Father recommended in Tertio Millennio adveniente — and will join in the celebration on next May 7, in the way that is most opportune to obtain the best spiritual benefits.
With this in mind, the following should be observed:
1. In order to avoid confusion among the faithful, it seems opportune to draw attention to the true meaning of terms.
The term “martyrdom” refers to the saints and blessed in the sense according to the teaching of Benedict XIV as: “the voluntary suffering or sustaining of death for the faith or another virtue related to God.” This has been the constant teaching of the Apostolic See. This strict, specific or theological-juridical meaning is clearly distinct from “martyrdom” in the broad sense. It follows from this that the faithful, whose death has not yet been recognized by the Church as true martyrdom, should be called simply “witnesses of the faith.”
Also the term “martyrology” of the Church properly indicates only the official list of all the saints and blessed, who have been formally canonized or beatified, or have the Holy See’s approval for their ancient cult. The list of the “witnesses of the faith” that will be proper to the individual particular Churches with the approval of the diocesan bishop can be called “catalogue” [or “register” catalogo].
2. The Apostolic See recommends that the initiatives to preserve and celebrate the memory of the “witnesses of the faith” be done in such a way to highlight their just meaning and be done in ways that are distinct from those used for true martyrs. This will avoid ambiguity and undue manipulation.
In the promotion of the collection of the documentation and the composition of the lists of “witnesses of the faith,” the bishops will determine the precise goals and their nature. They will insist that it is not an anticipation of judgment of martyrdom, understood in the canonical sense, of these witnesses, nor to begin or legitimize public cult, but only to preserve the memory of the witnessing of the faith, so that it can be either
a stimulus for the baptized, or in order to establish an eventual foundation for a future cause of beatification.
The celebrations that take place in the various dioceses in harmony with that at the Coliseum on next May 7 must be presented in their proper light. The faithful should be told that the celebrations are not a beatification, and even more so not a canonization. These celebrations will be reserved for those who have really shed their blood for Christ and the Gospel, and not for some other ideal—no matter how elevated and meritorious it may be.
Thus, one must avoid in these celebrations all those signs of public veneration which can in some way anticipate the judgments and concessions of cult reserved to the Apostolic See and could foment social tensions and the manipulation of the mass media, by falsifying the meaning of the initiatives and compromising the intended benefits.
In addition to this, it is proper to avoid using in the aforementioned celebrations lists of individual persons. Rather it should be restricted to indicate categories of witnesses, e.g., witnesses in the persecutions in Mexico, in Spain, under Nazism, under Communism.
3. Finally, the mentioned initiatives should offer the occasion for a special catechesis on the universal vocation to sanctity, that can bring the faithful to heroic witnessing.
The memorial of the witnesses of the faith constitutes an opportune occasion ro recall the faithful to their baptismal obligation of faithfulness to Christ including the shedding of blood, if this is necessary. The relationship between baptism and martyrdom will be clearly reaffirmed to stir up among today’s faithful a militancy of faith that is in harmony with the radical new existence that has its origin in baptism, which is incorporation in Christ dead and risen.
December 28, 1999
Notitiae 36 (2000): 41-54; W.H. Woestman, Canonization: Theology, History, Process (Ottawa, Faculty of Canon Law, Saint Paul University, 2002): 207-209.