Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Monday 20 May |
Saint of the Day: Mary, Mother of the Church
Aleteia logo
Issues & Implications
separateurCreated with Sketch.

US bishop launches project to remember martyrs of Communism

Monument to victims of communism in Sofia, Bulgaria


John Burger - published on 03/13/24

It's important to learn from the past, so as not to fall victim to false ideologies in the future, says Archbishop Cordileone.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone this Friday will launch the “Martyrs of Communism” project, a multi-media effort using liturgy, art, history, journalism, and educational curricula to bring greater awareness of the many martyrs of the faith under Marxist governments around the globe.

To mark the project’s beginning, Archbishop Cordileone will celebrate a liturgy at the Church of the Epiphany in South Miami, Florida. Composer Frank La Rocca’s Requiem for the Forgotten will be premiered during the liturgy.

La Rocca is composer-in-residence of the Benedict XVI Institute For Sacred Music and Divine Worship, an initiative of the archbishop’s.

“Today’s young Catholics are woefully unaware of the evils perpetrated against Church and society by Communist regimes in the 20th century,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “This means they are equally unaware of the heroism of so many Catholic martyrs and even much of the significance to the world of the leadership of St. Pope John Paul II.” 

The Requiem for the Forgotten includes a hymn by La Rocca with text by James Matthew Wilson, the Poet-in-Residence at the Benedict XVI Institute. This project has special significance for La Rocca, given that two of his grandparents sought refuge in the United States to escape Soviet oppression in Ukraine. 

“It is a privilege to write about these forgotten martyrs, who but for the grace of God could well have been my own grandparents,” La Rocca said. “I hope the work reaches far and wide to spread the word of the extraordinary sacrifices and acts of faith made by these men and women in the face of oppression.”

[Above, a monument listing victims of the communist regime was viewed during an open air Mass in Sofia, Bulgaria, on February 1, 2020.]

Is this really something from the past?

In an interview with Aleteia, Archbishop Cordileone discussed his interest in the martyrs of Communism and his plans for making them better known: 

Your Excellency, what got you interested in this subject, the victims of communism?

Two things happened at the same time: We commissioned a hymn for Ukraine for the latest magnificent new Requiem Mass for the Forgotten, which honors all those who die homeless whether through war, natural disaster or totalitarian regimes; or poverty, addiction and mental illness. As we looked at the Ukrainian martyrs and white martyrs (those who suffer the brutalities of war and persecution but manage to survive it), we realized that of course they were all persecuted by Soviet communism.

At the same time, I am bringing China’s Jimmy Lai and his courageous witness to the attention of our seminarians. Maggie Gallagher, [the Benedict XVI Institute’s] executive director, suggested we commission a Hymn to the Martyrs of Chinese Communism. These two small projects raised the larger question: Why is the heroic witness of Catholic martyrs (and white martyrs) facing godless totalitarian ideologies not well-known in America?

Thus was launched a new three-to-five year project to tell the stories of these heroes of the Faith through the arts: literature, poetry, plays, journalism, videos, music. Of course, for us as Catholics, the highest calling of the arts is to serve the liturgy. 

Why do you feel it’s important to focus on this subject today? Didn’t the West defeat Communism at the end of the Cold War? Aren’t there newer, more pressing threats today?

Will we remember today’s heroes and martyrs if we don’t remember those of the recent past? But also, fundamentally, is this really something from the past? Totalitarian regimes, whether Nazi or Communist, or others that travel under a progressive “false flag” like the current regime in Nicaragua, always target the Church, because the Church speaks for the forgotten and reminds people that tyranny is built on lies about human nature.

Moreover, if we do not keep their memory always before us and take inspiration from their heroic witness, we can unwittingly allow something similar to happen to us here in the United States. We are already seeing a decline in the belief in God, less religious liberty than in the past, and even growing hostility to religion – or, specifically, Christianity (and Judaism).

True, people here are not suffering the brutalities of those who endured and still endure explicitly totalitarian regimes, but our Founding Fathers understood the importance of robust religious liberty and the practice of religion in the public square as a means to instill virtue. They understood that, without a virtuous citizenry, a liberal democracy is doomed to failure. The very survival of our country as we know it is at stake here.

Who are some of the martyr-victims of communism who have inspired you, and in what ways, specifically, have they impacted your own faith and spiritual life?

More than victims, they are heroic witnesses to Christ. One of my most memorable exposures to this heroic witness is a man who is not well known. He doesn’t have a Wiki page. He was an Albanian priest by the name of Anton Lull, and I had the great privilege of hearing him give his testimony when I was living in Rome and he came on the occasion of John Paul II’s 50th anniversary of priesthood, as he was ordained the same year (John Paul invited all priests around the world ordained that year – 1946 – to join him in Rome in 1996 for a grand golden jubilee celebration).

The Communist government threw Fr. Lull in jail shortly after he was ordained, and he lived most of his priesthood in prison, 17 years of which was spent in solitary confinement. He told the story that, after he was freed, he had a chance encounter on the street with one of the guards who had tortured him. He said: “I took pity on him; I went towards him and embraced him.” This is true Christianity.

Think about one of the best known of these recent martyrs of godless totalitarian ideologies: St. Maximillian Kolbe. His willingness to give his life in a Nazi concentration camp to save the life of another innocent man is what it means to be in persona Christi. But there are others who deserve to be known as well, including the white martyrs who were willing to die, if necessary, but instead endured years of patient persecution and often torture.

These witnesses to Christ share something in common that we ought to pay attention to

Just a few weeks ago, Nicaragua’s human rights hero Bishop Rolando José Álvarez was exiled after months in solitary confinement, in part thanks to the intervention of Pope Francis. Bishop Álvarez had refused to leave earlier in 2023, until Rome intervened. He is one of hundreds of Nicaraguan clergy imprisoned and exiled, many of them here in the United States. In fact, the Church of the Epiphany in Miami, where I will be celebrating the Requiem Mass for the Forgotten on March 15, I am told now has one of these exiled bishops serving at the parish.

Then there is the great Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, named a cardinal in pectore by St. Pope John Paul II. He, too, refused to leave his homeland. In 1955 he was finally arrested by Communist China authorities and brought before a large crowd to confess his “crimes.”

“Long live Christ the King! Long live the Pope!” he shouted.

And let us not forget the American martyrs and white martyrs of Communism, who may not be so well-known as such. One of my great inspirations, who inspired me to pursue a call to the Priesthood, is the Servant of God Walter Ciszek, S.J., who answered the call of the Pope to go to Russia to spread the faith and ended up spending 15 years in hard labor in the Gulag, thanks to Soviet Communism’s relentless persecution of priests.

These witnesses to Christ share something in common that we ought to pay attention to: they suffer because of the rise of totalitarian ideologies in the 20th and 21st centuries that pretend to be “progressive” but reject God, who is the foundation of our rights and our freedom.

No doubt you appreciate the old saying that “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it,” and the press release for the event in Miami March 15 notes that the Victims of Communism Foundation has found that young people have more sympathies for communism.Aside from this project, what efforts do you undertake to help people see that the Church offers a better way to social justice — which, we assume, is the reason anyone would embrace communism?

Godless totalitarian ideologies start with a false view of man, including the idea that we can make a “new man” without the intervention of Christ. They always begin with promises of utopia that capture the idealistic spirit of the young, but end with the harsh reality of the Gulag (or its equivalent). These ideologies spiritually crush people and materially crush them as well. This is the reality we see over and over again, and yet we are always tempted to believe in this devilish false promise that materialist ideology can replace God and usher in a new kingdom.

Rejecting evil is the first step to choosing to do good. And that means fundamentally rejecting the devil’s proposition that we can remake ourselves and so no longer need the redemption won for us by Jesus Christ.

Totalitarian ideologies understand the power of art, and that is why artists are also brought under the thumb of the regime, with their gifts twisted to serve the regime’s purposes instead of respecting the artist’s call to truth, beauty, and goodness. This is, in fact, always the strategy: deprive the populace of a soul, and then they can be plied in any way the regime wants. That is why the first ones to be silenced and then persecuted, besides the priests, are, yes, the artist, along with the poets, philosophers, and intellectuals.

The young in particular need stories. I am concerned that this same phenomenon, loss of the soul, is happening now to the younger generation. They need the songs, poems, plays, movies, paintings, and sculptures that make history come alive and inspire heroism in our times.

And of all the ways to remember our martyrs, the liturgy is the most important. 

Totalitarian ideologies understand the power of art, and that is why artists are also brought under the thumb of the regime, with their gifts twisted to serve the regime’s purposes instead of respecting the artist’s call to

Why is this event taking place in South Miami rather than in your own Archdiocese of San Francisco, where, no doubt, you have met a few victims of communism, such as Chinese refugees?

The Benedict XVI Institute, which I founded and which sponsors this Requiem Mass and the Martyrs of Communism project, is a national organization at this point. Given that Miami is home to hundreds of thousands of exiles from communism, not just Cubans but also Venezuelans and now Nicaraguans, it seemed like an appropriate place to launch this project.

But I am glad you asked about San Francisco: As I mentioned, I am bringing Jimmy Lai’s cause to the attention of our seminarians, and the entire Archdiocese, most especially by hosting his godfather [Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn] at St. Patrick’s Seminary on May 8 to speak about the heroic witness of the Church in China.

I’ve commissioned a hymn text for the Chinese Martyrs of Communism from the Benedict XVI Institute’s poet-in-residence, James Matthew Wilson, set to music by our own Frank La Rocca.  

Miami on March 15 is just the beginning.

How to hear the Requiem Mass for the Forgotten

The Requiem Mass for the Forgotten celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone on March 15 will be sung by a 20-voice professional choir led by conductor Richard Carrillo, fresh from the celebration of the Mass of the Americas at the Church of the Epiphany. Click here to register or to receive a link to an EWTN broadcast, which will air two hours later, at 9:30pm Eastern.
A recording of Mass of the Americas in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

LiturgyMartyrsMusicPersecution of ChristiansSaints
Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.