In his great commission, the last words of Jesus on earth, he said You will be my witnesses…’ (Acts 1:8). The greatest form of witness is martyrdom, ‘a witness that must not be forgotten’, as Saint John Paul II wrote in his letter for the third millennium. Indeed, less than ever today, when the Church has once more become a Church of martyrs.

Willingness to forgive is part of the mystery of the Cross. How often the persecuted speak the words of Christ: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Lk 23:34). Their witness is the beginning of reconciliation, so it must not be forgotten. Without forgiveness the memory fades; but the witness of love and the imitation of Christ – even to death – opens our horizons to the future. It is this future, this reconciliation that lies at the heart of one particular project in El Salvador.

The Franciscans of the province of Central America are gathering testimonies about the martyrs of the civil war there. We have all heard of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero; what is not so well known is the martyrdom of thousands of simple peasants, mothers and fathers of families, rural workers and catechists who were vilified and murdered on account of their faith between 1980 and 1991.

In order to gather, examine and evaluate the many hundreds of accounts, the Franciscans had to establish a special centre in 2004. We are supporting its work with a contribution. Time is pressing, however, as the work has to be completed while the widows, children and friends of these martyrs are still with us.

The words of these martyrs bear testimony to their love of Christ. Shortly before her death, Gumercinda Chicas said to her killers, ‘God will forgive you for what you are doing to us. For we are innocent, and you do not know what you are doing.’ As for young Julio Hernandez Barahona, he prayed: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my life. Do with me what you will.’

To his mother he said ‘Mama, I am not afraid. I am ready.’ And the catechist Ana Carmen Sanchez was also fully conscious of the danger: ‘I will not hide the Bible; it is the word of God, and if they come and kill me because of it, then I will be dying in a just cause. Christ himself died for the truth.’ Similarly, for Rufino Ramirez Hernandez it was quite clear: ‘Even if they kill me, they won’t find any weapons on me. My only weapon is the Bible.’

Equally steadfast was Luis Umana Najarro: ‘The Lord knows what I am doing. I am working with Caritas, taking food to the poor, proclaiming the Gospel, teaching the Word of God in the parishes. If they regard that as a crime, then let them think so. But I will not give up this work on that account, as long as I live.’

And again, Armando Oscar Flores has a lesson for us all when he says, There is a time for everything. There is a time to laugh, to weep, to sing. So there is no room for excuses when it is time to follow the Lord.’

Now is the time to make the witness of these disciples of Christ visible and fruitful.

This article can be found in Mirror 0315.