Catholics who die for Christ sometimes die more proximately for the Vicar of Christ. Last Saturday two such martyrs were honoured. English Catholics are familiar enough with the phenomenon; the English martyrs died as often for their loyalty to the Bishop of Rome as universal pastor than they did for a particular doctrine of the faith. St John Fisher’s martyrdom may have been prompted by the decision of Pope Paul III to create Fisher a cardinal. The newly elected pontiff, still in his first year of his Petrine ministry, thought it might protect Fisher from Henry VIII’s wrath. Instead, the papal favour may have prompted Henry to martyr him, and Thomas More a fortnight later.
On Saturday, Sister Leonella Sgorbati was beatified in Piacenza. The Italian Consolata missionary was killed in Somalia in 2006, in the bloody days after the Regensburg address. She was a martyr for Benedict XVI’s argument that theology had a role to play in countering religious violence. The Holy Father had suggested that it was possible that some extremist violence was rooted in strains of Islamic theology that placed God beyond reason. Violence erupted in parts of the Islamic world to protest against Benedict’s suggestion that there could be such a link.
Blessed Leonella was one of only two Westerners left in the hell-on-earth of Mogadishu in September 2006. After leaving the children’s hospital with her bodyguard – religious Sisters working with sick children needed bodyguards in Somalia – they were stopped by assassins who opened fire. The Muslim bodyguard threw himself between the shooters and Sister Leonella to protect her. He died immediately, while Sister Leonella died soon after from her wounds after being rushed to hospital.
Blessed Leonella was 65, having spent 35 years as a missionary, mostly in Kenya. In 2001, she heard a call to set up a nurses’ training school in Somalia, one of the most wretched places on earth, wracked by violence from warlords and Islamist fanatics. She knew that being a Catholic missionary in Somalia would mean her death. “I know there is a bullet with my name on it,” Sister Leonella said in March 2006, six months before her martyrdom. “I don’t know when it will arrive, but as long as it does not arrive, I will stay in Somalia.”
Her last words, while dying, were: “I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.”
Blessed Leonella was in a dangerous place due to her missionary vocation. But the manner of her death was caused by a fanatical response to learned the lecture by Benedict XVI.
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