Modern Martyrs of Communism

by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone

This article originally ran online in First Things.

Bianca Jagger just issued a thundering warning about Nicaragua’s human rights abuses: “Just like the Castro Regime did in Cuba during the 1960s,” she wrote in the U.K.’s Independent, Nicaragua has put “harsh restrictions on religious freedom, practices, and church processions. Catholic education has been forbidden.” She even compares the country’s current purge of the Catholic Church “to Joseph Stalin’s purge of religious institutions in the Soviet Union.”

Her appeal comes just a few weeks after Nicaragua’s human rights hero Bishop Rolando José Álvarez was released from jail and repatriated to Rome thanks in part to the intervention of Pope Francis. He is one of hundreds of Nicaraguan priests imprisoned and exiled in the last year. Nicaragua is following the path laid out by totalitarians in Russia, Cuba, China, and elsewhere: Shut down the Church, because otherwise the forgotten and the persecuted will have a voice. Protestant pastors are facing persecution as well.

Why do so few Americans pay attention to the horrors of Marxist-leaning regimes? For me, an even more troubling question is: Why do Catholics know so little about the martyrs and victims of the brutalities of communism?

One reason, not so obvious, may be that the Catholic Church traditionally has categorized martyrs under their national identity—for example, “Martyrs of China.” This categorization, while logical, tends to bury what these martyrs have in common: These men and women are heroes of faith who stood up before godless, murderous, totalitarian ideologies that spread across the globe in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In earlier eras, martyrs mostly suffered at the hands of their local governing authorities; now it is a world-wide ideology, manifested in different guises, that leads the persecution.

Another, more obvious, reason Catholics forget our heroic martyrs is that we have become overly dependent on secular media and artists to tell our story. For Catholics this is historically unusual: For centuries the Catholic Church, with the help of patrons, commissioned great works of art—painting, sculpture, and sacred music for the liturgy—that have lasted through the centuries and continue to teach and uplift souls today. But in the last fifty years or so, as the poet Dana Gioia has pointed out in his seminal essay The Catholic Writer Today, this massive flood of creative production has slowed to a trickle. In his latest book, Christianity and Poetry, Gioia points out why this matters to Christians: “Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice.” God speaks to us in the Bible in poetry. The liturgy itself is a form of poetry, of deeply condensed meaning. Catholicism once understood that cognitive argument alone is insufficient to capture or convey spiritual reality, an understanding common to our sister churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. 

As the secular culture becomes more hostile, or simply indifferent, to religion, it is time to rediscover the arts as a center for evangelization. We must once again sing our own songs and tell our own stories, so that we can share the truth, goodness, and beauty of faith with the world.

This is one reason I’ve asked the Benedict XVI Institute to launch a new multiyear project telling the story of these heroic martyrs of communism—in liturgy and hymns, but also in paintings, poetry, plays, videos, and essays, partnering with the Victims of Communism museum in Washington, D.C., among others. 

The classically Catholic way to remember the heroic witness of martyrs is through her liturgy and through prayer. That is why on March 15, I will be at the Church of the Epiphany in South Miami to celebrate the world premiere of a new Mass I commissioned from Frank La Rocca: The Requiem for the Forgotten. This Mass, originally conceived for the homeless, has been repurposed for refugees in Ukraine. We asked our poet-in-residence James Matthew Wilson to craft a new hymn, an “Offertory for Ukraine,” that honors venerable Catholics who withstood the persecution of Soviet Communism. Miami, now the home of many exiled Nicaraguans, as well as Cubans and countless others forcibly exiled, is a natural place to begin this project.

One thing I am sure of: Our failure to remember our heroes and martyrs of communism is having a dangerous effect on what the next generation knows. In 2022, the Victims of Communism Foundation released a report on U.S. attitudes toward socialism, communism, and collectivism, synthesizing data from 2,100 U.S. respondents ages sixteen and older: Thirty percent of Generation Z has a favorable view of Marxism, up 6 percentage points from 2019. Only 63 percent of Gen Z and Millennials (compared to 95 percent of the older generation) believe the Declaration of Independence better guarantees freedom and equality than the Communist Manifesto.

When I hear of Bishop Alvarez and the other Nicaraguan bishops who refused to leave their beloved country until Pope Francis asked them to go, I think of the great Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, named a cardinal in pectore by Pope John Paul II. He, too, refused to leave his people. In 1955 he was finally arrested by authorities in Communist China and brought before a large crowd to confess his “crimes.” “Long live Christ the King! Long live the Pope!” he shouted.

On January 24, 2024, Pope Francis recognized yet another martyr of Communism: the Polish priest Father Michal Rapacz, who survived the Nazi occupation only to be dragged into the woods and shot in 1946 by Polish Communists when he refused to turn over parish property.

The arc of communism may be long and it may disguise itself under different names, but it begins with the false promise that government without God can usher in utopia and ends with persecution of the Church for daring to speak out against oppression on behalf of the forgotten.

Salvatore J. Cordileone is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco. “The Requiem for the Forgotten” will be released by Cappella Records on March 15 the same day that Archbishop Cordileone will celebrate the Requiem for the Forgotten for the first time at Miami’s Church of the Epiphany. 

Image by Jorge Mejía Peralta licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.