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Martyrs are witnesses of faith, not just victims of genocide, pope says

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By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Using the word “genocide” to describe the persecution of Christians in the Middle East risks downplaying the courage and witness of those who boldly profess faith in Jesus Christ even in the face of death, Pope Francis said.

“I want to say clearly that I do not like it when people speak of a ‘genocide of Christians,’ for example in the Middle East,” the pope said, responding to questions June 18. Calling the persecution “genocide,” he said, is using a juridical and sociological category to speak of “something which is a mystery of the faith: martyrdom.”

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said Pope Francis “was not speaking about the use of the term ‘genocide’ on a political level, but on a level of faith. When applied to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the dimension of faith is essential,” particularly when victims are murdered for not renouncing faith in Christ.

Pope Francis spent more than an hour responding to questions during an afternoon visit to Rome’s Villa Nazareth, a residence for university students and headquarters of a foundation dedicated to helping gifted students who do not have the financial resources to continue their studies.

Asked how young people can find courage to live their faith, Pope Francis said the Gospel calls Christians to give witness to their faith in Christ and to the reality that he died to redeem sinners “but is alive,” working in the lives of individuals and communities.

Martyrdom is the fullest expression of Christian witness, he said. “It’s the maximum, heroic.”

Recalling the Islamic State’s martyrdom of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach in 2015, Pope Francis said none of them were theologians, “but they were doctors of Christian consistency; they were witnesses of the faith.”

Fidelity to Christ and being living witnesses requires sacrifice, though usually not to the point of death, he said. It requires many little acts of martyrdom, “the martyrdom of honesty, the martyrdom of patience, of raising your children, of fidelity in love when it’s easier to take another path.”

“We are sinners who Jesus loves and has healed, or who are in the process of being healed,” the pope said. Recognizing one’s own sinfulness and the unfathomable depths of God’s mercy are essential for being an authentic witness.

Asking forgiveness in advance, Pope Francis said those who strut around like peacocks may look impressive, but from behind you see the mess they leave. “Pardon me,” he said, “but that’s the truth of the peacock.”

Asked about the economy, unemployment and migration, Pope Francis repeated what he had written in “The Joy of the Gospel,” his 2013 exhortation: “Today there is an economy that kills.”

“In the world, globally, at the center of the economy, there is not man and woman, but the god money. And this is killing us,” he told the students.

Finding work that pays only under the table or being offered only successive short-term contracts without health insurance, pension contributions and vacation time — “this is slave labor,” the pope said. Employers who know they can always find people willing to work under those conditions and so take advantage of people are committing “great injustice and we must speak clearly: this is a mortal sin.”

“War is the business that is making the most money now,” he said. “Why? Because it’s big business. It’s the god money.”

The fact that it is so difficult to deliver humanitarian aid to the innocent victims of war, yet weapons move easily across borders shows that money is more important than people’s lives, he said. “The economic system as it operates in the world today is immoral.”

A young man with a question about facing doubts in one’s faith life, asked the pope if he ever struggled with his faith.

“This is a question you ask the pope? What courage!” Pope Francis said with a smile.

“Many times I’ve found myself in a crisis with the faith,” either asking God why he lets something happen or even wondering if it’s all true, he said. “This happened as a young man, a seminarian, a priest, as a religious, as bishop and as pope.”

“A Christian who has never felt this once in a while, one whose faith never entered in crisis, is missing something” and is probably too content, the pope said. A crisis brings questions and growth.

“I’ve learned that a Christian should not be afraid to experience crisis. It’s a sign that one is moving forward, that one is not anchored to the shore, but has set out and is moving forward,” he said.

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