Fides.org, the news service of the Pontifical Mission Societies at the Vatican, publishes an annual list of pastoral workers killed in the missions while serving the Church. For 2018, the list includes the names of 40 souls -- 35 priests, one seminarian, and four lay people. This is an increase of 17 since 2017's list.
After six consecutive years as the most dangerous place on earth to be a Catholic missionary, the Americas has passed that tragic mantel on to Africa, where 21 of 40 missionaries lost their lives. The Americas' loss numbered 15, Asia saw the blood of three spilled, while Europe suffered the loss of one missioner.
Fides gives us a snapshot of how each of them died and where in the world the tragedy unfolded.
Each year as I read the list, I pray for each person. I also think about how the murders affected their families and friends, and the witnesses to the crimes. The stories are chilling but are also faith-filled testimony to everyday Catholics who are willing to lay down their lives for the Gospel message.
Gerard Anjiangwe was a 19-year-old seminarian in northwest Cameroon. At the end of a parish morning Mass, Gerard was in front of St. Theresa Church with parishioners when a truckload of soldiers arrived and began to shoot wildly. While the faithful took refuge behind a bolted door in the sacristy, Gerard lay on the ground outside and began to recite his rosary. When the soldiers could not open the door, they ordered the seminarian to his feet, questioned him, told him to kneel, and shot him three times. He died instantly.
In the Philippines, 37-year-old Father Mark Yuaga Ventura was speaking to children and members of the parish choir when he was shot and killed. Father Mark had been the head of his mission station for only a month. He was known to support fair elections, the rights of tribal populations, and to fight against mineral exploitation in the state of Cagayan. Father Mark was the second of three priests killed in the Philippines in 2018.
Sandor Dolmus was 15 years old and a youth minister at the Cathedral of Leon, Nicaragua, when he was killed by paramilitary police while walking with friends near the church. Those who knew him describe him as a helpful boy who wanted to become a priest. In his last Facebook post, he wrote: "Lord Jesus, I put into your hands our country, Nicaragua. Do not abandon it. Send us peace."
The list of stories goes on -- too long.
A striking omission from this register of violence is the area of the world that the Church calls Oceania -- the Pacific Islands. As I read back through all the annual lists on their website, I saw that no missionary's death has been recorded by Fides on that continent since 2006.
Curious, I reached out to Bishop Donald Lippert, OFM Cap., Bishop of Mendi, Papua New Guinea (PNG) to ask what his opinion was about this blessed break in cruelty. He recalled that it wasn't always so -- the Church in Oceania was founded on the blood of martyrs in the mid-19th and 20th centuries.
Bishop Lippert told me, "I can attest that our people are some of the most committed and faithful Catholics that I have ever met. They love their Church, their priests, religious, and other ministers. However, just within the boundaries of my diocese, we are dealing with the atrocity of the torture and killing of women accused of sorcery as well as the increasing horror of tribal conflicts, which destroy families and communities."
Bishop Lippert continued, "When a church takes a prophetic stance, motivated by the Gospel, then it will draw down upon itself the wrath of some in the political order. As the Church in PNG (Oceania) matures, as the Church becomes more localized (is administered by its own people), it can turn its attention from the inherent struggles of the first evangelization to the ongoing evangelization of society and culture. It is entirely possible that the forces of destruction, which rage against the Church and its ministers in other parts of the world, will attempt to unleash their doomed violence here in PNG. In the time-proven irony of Christian logic, this will only make the Church in PNG stronger and more faithful to her Lord and his saving Gospel."
The stories from Cameroon, the Philippines, and Nicaragua reflect Bishop Lippert's theory -- in the more evangelized lands, where the faith may now be more inherited than introduced, those willing to proclaim the Gospel may be more at risk of violence.
Some people may speculate that these Catholics lost their lives to random or sectarian violence, robberies gone awry, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I would submit that each was where he or she was supposed to be, that is, the place where God intended them to serve Him.
Please pray for the repose of the souls of those named in 2018's infamous inventory and for those who will most certainly follow in their faith filled footsteps in 2019.
And please, pray for peace.
MAUREEN CROWLEY HEIL IS DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS AND DEVELOPMENT FOR THE PONTIFICAL MISSION SOCIETIES, BOSTON.