The martyrs of Jolo

On Sunday, January 27 around two dozen of our fellow Catholics died at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in the city of Jolo, on the island of Sulu in the Philippines. The Internet news site rappler.com this week reported on the continuing investigation of this massacre. The Philippine National Police  chief Oscar Albayalde announced this past Monday the surrender of five of the people involved in the attack (besides the man and woman who killed themselves, detonating the two suicide bombs).

Rappler.com reported, “On January 27, [a] woman allegedly detonated the first IED at 8:48 a.m., then the man detonated the second IED at the church entrance ‘minutes later. Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Ano and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the suspects could be Indonesian or Yemeni. Albayalde added during the briefing that they doubt Filipinos carried out the bombing because it clashed with the country’s ‘culture.’ He said this would most likely be executed by foreigners. ‘There is already [the] presence of suicide bombers in our country. They are being imported by ISIS.’”

Back in 1997 the vicar apostolic (this is equivalent to a diocesan bishop in mission lands) of Jolo, Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, was “barbarously killed near the cathedral.” St. John Paul II said those words to Bishop de Jesus’ successor, Bishop Angelito R. Lampon, whom he ordained to the episcopacy on Jan. 7, 1998. Back in November Pope Francis appointed Bishop Lampon to be the archbishop of Cotabato (in the same country). He actually was installed there on January 31, just a few days after the bombing.

On the actual day of the attack, Pope Francis was in Panama City, at the World Youth Day. In his remarks following the Angelus prayer, the Holy Father said, “To Christ and to the Blessed Virgin, we likewise entrust the victims of the terrorist attack perpetrated this Sunday in the Cathedral of Jolo in the Philippines, while Mass was being celebrated. I reiterate my firm condemnation of this act of violence, which brings new grief to this Christian community, and I offer up my prayers for the deceased and for the injured. May the Lord, Prince of Peace, convert the hearts of the violent and grant to the people of that region a peaceful coexistence.”

This week the pope visited the United Arab Emirates, a land where Catholics are a small minority, but also a country where the Muslim rulers treat us with more respect than in many other lands. In an interfaith meeting on Monday, the Holy Father said, “We cannot honor the Creator without cherishing the Sacredness of every person and of every human life: each person is equally precious in the eyes of God, Who does not look upon the human family with a preferential gaze that excludes, but with a benevolent gaze that includes. Thus, to recognize the same rights for every human being is to glorify the name of God on earth. In the name of God the Creator, therefore, every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation, because we gravely profane God’s name when we use it to justify hatred and violence against a brother or sister. No violence can be justified in the name of religion.”

What the pontiff said speaks to the need for peaceful coexistence between people of different religions and to the need of all people (including in our country) to recognize human beings’ God-given dignity, from conception until natural death. If people’s lives are not viewed as Sacred, it’s easy to destroy them.

Most of the people who died in the attack on the Jolo cathedral were there praying at Mass, although some of the dead were the first responders, who were killed by the second bomb (ISIS often does this, using a second bomb to kill those who come to help those injured by a first bomb). Thus, most likely the dead will be considered to be martyrs — people who witnessed to the Catholic faith, even to the shedding of their blood.

At Mass this past Monday the first reading discussed Old Testament martyrs and said of them: “They were stoned, sawed in two, put to death at sword’s point; they went about in skins of sheep or goats, needy, afflicted, tormented. The world was not worthy of them” (Heb 11:37-38). The world thought that it was better than them, but they were actually much better than the world. 

The people killed in Jolo, who get so little attention from the world — both because they died in the Third World and because they were Catholics (so they “deserved it,” since the Catholic Church really should be crushed, in the opinion of so many people) —– have the undivided attention of God. They, to paraphrase St. Paul, “in [their] flesh [were] filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His Body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). On the U.S. Catholic bishops website, this line from the Apostle is explained: “although variously interpreted, this phrase does not imply that Christ’s atoning death on the cross was defective. It may refer to the apocalyptic concept of a quota of ‘messianic woes’ to be endured before the end comes; cf. Mk 13:8, 19-20, 24 and Mt 23:29-32. Others suggest that Paul’s mystical unity with Christ allowed him to call his own sufferings the afflictions of Christ.”

The martyrs of Jolo died at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral. In the Old Testament (1 Kgs 18) the prophet Elijah witnessed on Mount Carmel to the true faith, while so many of his countrymen (including King Ahab) gave themselves over to paganism. The pagans danced around and even “slashed themselves with swords and spears according to their ritual until blood gushed over them” (1 Kgs 18:28). The people who killed our fellow Catholics in the Philippines also rejoiced and thought that God was happy with these deaths. 

Elijah ultimately prevailed. God often makes His followers wait, but His love endures forever (Ps 136 — every other line). We probably will not be put to death at Mass (although that is not entirely outside of the realm of possibility), but we are all called to be witnesses (“martyr” comes from the Greek word “witness”) to Christ and His teachings. This will make us unpopular at times, but if so, then “the world was not worthy of” us, according to the Bible.

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