In Michelangelo’s Last Judgement scene painted in the Sistine Chapel there stands a man slightly below and to the right of the triumphant and exalted Christ; the man’s eyes are turned toward Christ as if pleading for justice and in one of his hand’s hangs his own skin. In the other is the instrument of his torture and death. This man is St. Bartholomew. Tradition holds that after Pentecost the apostle Bartholomew journeyed to India and Armenia to preach the gospel and it was there that he was martyred by being skinned alive. St. Bartholomew represents all the martyrs of the faith who suffered and died for their faith in Christ and who cry out for justice and intercede for the pilgrim Church.
One of my favorite churches is Rome is the Basilica of St. Bartholomew. The basilica sits on the Tiberine Island in Rome and under its main altar is found the relics of the apostle himself. During his pontificate, John Paul II entrusted the care of this basilica to the Community of Sant’Egidio. It was also at this time that John Paul II had the desire to honor all the Christian martyrs (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) of the twentieth century. The Community of Sant’Egidio recognized this desire of the late pope and has made the Basilica of St. Bartholomew a shrine to the “New Martyrs” of the twentieth century. In the side altars of the basilica are found memories of Christian men and women who have given their lives in witness to their faith and in witness to peace and human dignity. A letter of Dieterich Bonhoeffer stands as witness against the brutalities of Nazism. The missal of Archbishop Oscar Romero (see above) sits on one of the side altars as a testimony against political and economic oppression. The Bible of Floribert – a young African customs agent who was killed for not “looking the other way” in order to allow a shipment of rotten rice to enter his country – also stands in testimony against injustice. These are just a few. The memories of men and women (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) who lived and died for their faith are housed in this basilica in the heart of Rome. Along with St. Bartholomew, these men and women turn toward Christ the risen Savior and call out for justice and the coming of God’s Kingdom!
It must be noted that the days of the martyrs are not something of the distant past but rather a present day reality. The twentieth century was one of bloodiest centuries – if not the bloodiest – for men and women witnessing to Christ. But it is said that it is in the very blood of the martyrs that is found the seed bed of the church…
An interesting note to the Basilica of St. Bartholomew is that before being a site for a Christian basilica this island in the middle of the Tiber River was recognized as a place of healing. A pagan temple stood where now the church does and had within it a well whose waters were believed to contain curative powers. In front of the altar of the basilica now sits the top of this well (see picture). The well is now covered but what a powerful foreshadowing to the fullness of grace which now streams from the altar! From the sacrifice of Christ streams of life-giving and healing waters flow, cleansing us from sin and healing the disunity, injustice and pain of our world.
The martyrs stand in full witness to this healing grace of Christ, even as they are struck down they witness to that which is ever greater than the violence and evil of our world – an ever-enduring truth that the world cannot wipe away. The New Martyrs set their lives by the light of the Kingdom of God and whenever men and women live according to the truth of God’s Kingdom (whenever truth and love is chosen over injustice and oppression) healing and authenticity is found and grows – in self, in relationships, in daily encounters and in society.
With St. Bartholomew the new martyrs turn toward Christ and cry out for justice. For us, the new martyrs witness to the life-giving truth of the Kingdom of God!