Blog Post

These Catholics Died for the Faith in 2023

Catholics are still dying for the Faith. In 2023, 20 men and women from nearly every continent laid down their lives for Christ, including a mother and daughter who were killed in Gaza as they walked into a Catholic church, two young students who were killed when a bomb was detonated at a Mass in the Philippines, and a Nigerian priest who was burned alive in his rectory.

Although the Church does not yet refer to these persons as martyrs, the Vatican recognizes any of the baptized who die in a violent way while engaged in the life of the church. By the end of 2023, the names of one bishop, eight priests, one seminarian, a novice, two non-religious men and seven laypersons were entered on this list.

According to the report by Agenzia Fides, the highest number of deaths occurred in Africa where nine people were killed including five priests, a seminarian, a novice and two religious men. Six people lost their lives in the Americas including 1 bishop, 3 priests and two lay women. In Asia, 4 lay men and women died violently., and one layman was killed in Europe.

But these are just the numbers. The stories behind the numbers are as tragic as they are inspiring. For example, in north central Nigeria, Fr. Isaac Achi, 61, was killed during an attack on his parish which was perpetrated by a group of armed men. The attack took place at 3 a.m. when the group tried to enter the parish residence. When they were unable to gain entrance, they set fire to the house, burning the priest alive. Pope Francis pleaded for prayers when Father Achi was killed, saying, “So many Christians continue to be the target of violence: let us remember them in our prayers!”

Diego Valencia, a 65-year-old layman and sacristan from Cadiz, Spain, was killed on January 25, 2023 after being struck with a machete wielded by a young Moroccan national. According to the report, the assailant originally broke into the church of San Isidro before the start of the 7 p.m. Mass and assaulted the parish priest who was seriously injured. He then went to the church of Nuestra Senora de La Palma, where Diego served as sacristan, and injured three people including Diego who tried to stop him. Although he managed to drag himself out of the church after being hit in the abdomen, Diego was chased by the assailant who caught up to him and killed him. “He died to defend the faith, the church and the faithful within the church,” commented one of the priests of Our Lady of La Palma church. Diego Valencia was married and a father of two children who also had two grandchildren.”

Monsignor David O'Connell, 69, an Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles who was known for his love for the poor and marginalized, was killed by the husband of his housekeeper. His body was found in his home in Hacienda Heights on the morning of February 18, 2023 with a single gunshot wound to the upper torso.

Two young catechists, Gertrudis Cruz de Jesús and Gliserina Cruz Merino, were killed on June 15, 2023 while on their way to a Eucharistic procession in the Mexican State of Oaxaca. They were traveling in a military vehicle for protection against local violence when their vehicle was ambushed by armed men. Both women, who were devoted to fighting for human rights for their people, were killed in the attack.

The report also tells the tragic tale of Samar Kamal Anton, a laywoman and a cook employed in the House of the Sisters of Mother Teresa in Gaza, who was killed on Saturday, December 16, 2023 by an Israeli army sniper in the Catholic parish of Gaza. Her mother, Nahida Khalil Anton, was also killed. The two women were killed as they were walking to the Sister’s Convent. One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety. The Israeli military refuted the claim that they were responsible for the shootings. Pope Frances condemned the attack. “Some would say ‘It is war. It is terrorism.’ Yes, it is war. It is terrorism", marking just the second time the Holy Father referred to the conflict as terrorism.

A Benedictine novice named Godwin Eze, 31, lost his life on the night of October 17 after being kidnapped along with two postulants from the Benedictine monastery of Eruku in north central Nigeria. According to the testimony of the postulants, who were eventually released, “after the kidnapping the three were forced to walk barefoot in the forest. At dawn, when they reached the bank of the river, Eze was shot dead and his body thrown into the river. The kidnappers said this was to show their determination and how serious they were.”

Two young students from the Philippines lost their lives when an explosive device was detonated during Mass on December 3 in the sports hall at Mindanao State University in Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur province. Among the four people killed in the attack, two were Catholic students: Junrey Barbante, 24 years old, and Janine Arenas, 18 years old, a student originally from Balabagan, in the province of Lanao del Norte. According to the report, “The attack was attributed to local groups inspired by the Islamic State, who acted in retaliation after military operations in previous days against their militants.” The island of Mindanao is predominantly Catholic but a large Muslim community also lives there. This community has been demanding autonomy and independence, a pursuit that has been marked by conflict and armed uprisings, and was recently established as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Agenzia Fides points out that one of the distinctive traits common among the Catholics who were murdered in 2023 is the ordinariness of their lives. “They did not carry out any sensational actions or out-of-the-ordinary deeds that could have attracted attention and put them in someone's crosshairs. Scrolling through the few notes on the circumstances of their violent deaths, we find priests who were on their way to celebrate Mass or to carry out pastoral activities in some distant community; armed assaults perpetrated along busy roads; assaults on rectories and convents where they were engaged in evangelization, charity, human promotion. They found themselves, through no fault of their own, victims of kidnappings, acts of terrorism, involved in shootings or violence of various kinds.”

As Pope Francis said during the Angelus address on the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian community, “There are still those – and there are many of them – who suffer and die to bear witness to Jesus, just as there are those who are penalized at various levels for the fact of acting in a way consistent with the Gospel, and those who strive every day to be faithful, without ado, to their good duties, while the world jeers and preaches otherwise. These brothers and sisters may also seem to be failures, but today we see that it is not the case. Now as then, in fact, the seed of their sacrifices, which seems to die, germinates and bears fruit, because God, through them, continues to work miracles changing hearts and saving men and women.”

Let us keep these brave men and women, and all of those Christians known only to God who are dying for the faith at every moment in every corner of our world, in our hearts and in our prayers.

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