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‘The Church is always the target’: Why Archbishop Cordileone wants new emphasis on the martyrs of Communism

The Archbishop of San Francisco told The Pillar this week that more needs to be done to mark the witness of heroic Catholics who oppose totalitarian regimes in countries like Nicaragua and China.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco. Pillar file photo.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s remarks came as the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Benedict XVI Institute launches a new project to commemorate the martyrs of Communism.

Throughout the 20th century, many cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, and lay people have suffered persecution at the hands of Marxist totalitarian regimes. 

The persecution continues today in countries like China and Nicaragua, where the government places harsh restrictions on the practice of the faith, and jails Catholics for witnessing to religious freedom and to human dignity.

While many of these martyrs are commemorated nation by nation, under the categories like the “martyrs of China,” the institute says that categorization, while logical, tends to bury what these martyrs and other heroes have in common: that these men and women of faith stood up before the totalitarian ideologies that spread across the globe in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Speaking to The Pillar, Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone explained why he sees a need to recognize, commemorate and celebrate the witness of the martyrs of Communism worldwide, and what he thinks they can teach the Church about enduring persecution.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Archbishop, you're launching a project to remember the “Martyrs of Communism.” This might strike a lot of people as being a sort of 20th century thing. Is this about remembering the past?

Past and present. These Marxist totalitarian ideologies, they take different manifestations, but they're all about the state controlling and oppressing people who would voice objections. Communism is the most explicit form and it takes other forms as well. 

That's certainly going on in the world today a lot. You see what's happening in China, what's happening in Nicaragua. It's still with us today.

And do you think that this is something that's of particular impact on the Church, or does the Church have a particular role to play in witnessing against this kind of oppression?

It's both. 

There is a particular impact on the Church. The Church is always the one targeted by these regimes because the Church is willing to give voice to the voiceless and defend the poor. And poor people tend to have faith and they trust the Church. 

The power of faith can withstand, as St. John Paul II showed us, can topple these brutal regimes. It's the one thing that's in the way of these dictators so they always try to take down the Church.

When people talk about "Communism" and communist regimes, the term can become a catch-all for anything that smacks of sort of left-wing economic policies. 

But what does the Church have to say about actual Communism, and real remedies for the poor versus the sort of regimes that you're highlighting?

In our country, we have these debates about big government, small government, socialist policies, free market capitalism. The Church's answer is subsidiarity. It's that the people at the local level are the ones that know the situation best, can make the best judgments. And so they're the ones that need to be empowered to do that. When they're not able to, then the higher society then supports them in order to do that. So the bailouts during COVID for example, would be an example of that. 

I think that's the Church's response to it. It's neither all collectivism or all individualism. It's this sense of subsidiary. Let the society that's most connected to the people be the one to give the care and governance for them.

In terms of human dignity and solidarity, what to your mind is the Church's chief witness that it offers that, for example, a Marxist style government doesn't recognize and can't offer?

That people do not exist for the sake of the state — that their whole identity is not bound up in the identity of the state. 

But also, if the Church would in a social teaching favor a kind of a principled sort of a free market economy [then] it is one that's principled. If it's unshackled for principles, that also becomes dehumanizing where it ends up being the same thing where people are used as a means to an end. We do whatever we can to make a profit. 

Sadly, we see that happening in our country today that whatever makes a profit is what's good and what is done. And if people are harmed in the process, they want to get away with it anyway. We see abortion has turned into an industry in this country — it's the billion-dollar industry.

We are spiritual as well as physical beings, but we're also social beings. We work out our salvation within the context of society and the workplace is one of the privileged places we do that, where we can use our talents and our skills and our hard work to not only make money to support our families, but to contribute to the common good.

When you speak of the martyrs of communism in the Church, who for you comes particularly to mind?

Do you have a particular saint or martyr, or class of saint or martyr to which you’re particularly devoted?

Most of the ones I think of are not ones who actually died, but were severely persecuted. 

One of my great heroes has always been Father Walter Ciszek. I've read his accounts with God and Russia. He inspires me with what he went through. 

The great bishops and cardinals during the Soviet regime and under the Nazis as well — Nazis, let us remember, we like to call it a “right-wing” ideology, but remember what it's a contraction for: national socialism. So again, it's essentially the same thing. 

So people like the [Clemens] von Galen's, Cardinal Mindszenty’s, the Karol Wojtyła’s, those have always been great heroes of mine. A couple of years ago I was preaching about Fr. Anton Lull, an Albanian priest. I heard him give his testimony in the Paul VI Audience Hall in 1996. That's the year John Paul celebrated his 50th anniversary of priesthood and he invited all the priests in the world ordained that year to celebrate it with him.

A friend of mine from the diocese I was from was in that class, so he came so I was able to be at these events. And it was Fr. Anton Lull, he was ordained in ‘46, right before Christmas. He was arrested by the communist regime in Albania and put into prison. And that was where he spent his second Christmas as a priest. And for the next about 20 years, he was in solitary confinement most of that time. 

It's just horrendous, the stories they had to share, but he was nonetheless a man of great joy. He was beaten, he was persecuted, he was tortured. He slept in basically a bathroom, feces on the floor. Then he said after he was released, he ran into one of the guards who persecuted him on the street, and he said, “I embraced him and forgave him.” 

These are the heroes who have always inspired me, and those are the ones that come to mind when you ask for who I think of.

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You've asked the Benedict XVI Institute, which is an institution you created, to look at a multi-year project, telling the stories of these martyrs. Is this about encouraging pious devotion? Or is it also about public education? 

I know there was a poll you have cited that suggested that something like 30% of “Gen Z” now have a favorable view of Marxism. That must be alarming to you.

It is alarming. I just heard yesterday some young people being interviewed on NPR about their attitudes, about what's happening in the political world. And one of the concerns was [against] parents having a say in what their children are taught in school. So yes, it is alarming to me. 

So devotion, yes. But I'd say primarily it's about education. We need to keep these memories alive and we need to appreciate these legacies. We can't let these memories die. Otherwise, as the saying goes, “We're doomed to repeat it.” 

So we want to keep it alive and we want to honor them. These are such heroes of the faith. And so yeah, we want to educate people about this.

How do you see this program of education taking shape? The Benedict XVI Institute is primarily a center for the arts and for liturgy. 

Yes. Well, we're going to use all the different areas of the arts. The first one will be a Mass I'm celebrating in Miami on March 15th. 

This sort of evolved from something we commissioned at the B16 Institute as a working Mass for the Homeless, that our composing residents wrote. Then James Matthew Wilson, our poet in residence, wrote a poem that became lyrics for a hymn for the martyrs of Ukraine. So we expanded the project into a requiem Mass for the Forgotten — people who are forgotten by society, either because they're poor and outcasts, like the homeless, or they're persecuted by governments, or they're drug addicts, or whatever the situation might be, it's a Requiem Mass for the Forgotten. And we will be premiering this hymn to the Ukrainian martyrs at that mass.

And for Catholics who have their interests piqued by all of this, how can they support or take part in what you’re doing?

I would like them to stay connected with our Benedict XVI Institute, we're still in the planning stages. This is the first sort of launch of it, of the whole project. But they can go online at and follow the news of our “Martyrs of Communism” project.

People might think it's strange to look at it this way, “Martyrs of Communism,” but this is what's unique, right? The Church has always categorized martyrs by their nationality. the Korean martyrs, the Vietnamese martyrs, Chinese martyrs, the Mexican martyrs. But this is a little different. We're grouping them because they're all victims of this kind of ideology that persecutes the Church and persecutes the leaders in the Church who are willing to speak out against those who are being harmed by the regime. 

These different kinds of Marxist ideologies in the 20th and now 21st century, this is what they all have in common.

It's a legacy we need to remember to honor, and we need to emulate their example of courage.

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