Are there any saintly Catholics who lived under Communist governments, died as martyrs, and are remembered by the Church during the month of May? Unfortunately, there is no shortage of blesseds who fit that description.
The country of Ukraine alone has graced the Church with four blesseds who will be commemorated in May. Blessed Klymentiy Sheptytsky (feast day May 1) was a Benedictine abbot, priest, and Metropolitan He died in a Russian prison for the crime of being the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman left alive after the Nazi army left the country at the end of World War II. Blesseds Vitaliy Vladimir Bayrak (May 16), Ivan Ziatyk (May 17), and Mykola Tsehelskyi (May 25) were Ukrainian priests who were also sentenced to horrific Soviet prisons, where they died of mistreatment.
At around the same time, Blessed Vladimir Ghika (May 15), a Romanian priest and apostolic protonotary who had served the pope, died in a Romanian prison. A few decades earlier, Blessed Ramon Oromi Sulla (May 3) was executed by Communists during the Spanish Civil War. Note that all them were executed for the same “crime”: they were Catholic priests.
There are many feast days of martyrs in May, but May 1st is an important day for Catholics as it highlights the differences between what Communists mean and what Catholics mean when they talk about work.
Parts of Europe have been celebrating May Day as a pagan festival or a public holiday for many centuries. This is only natural; doesn’t everyone want to celebrate the end of winter? But Socialist groups appropriated the date for their own purposes in the late nineteenth century.
A protest staged by Socialists and workers’ unions became violent in 1886, and several people died. A few years later, in 1889, they held the first international celebration of that date and of their new labor movement in May. These annual celebrations increased in number and size over the years. The former USSR, most notably, held massive May Day military parades and choreographed demonstrations throughout the twentieth century until the USSR’s collapse. The goals of these events were clearly to celebrate the triumphs of Communism and to win people over to their understanding of the rights of workers.
But, in a stroke of divine inspiration, Pope Pius XII established the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker on May 1, 1955.
It is as if the Holy Father said, “You want to celebrate rights of workers? Let’s celebrate the true meaning of work by honoring a simple, faithful man who worked with his hands to live and support his family.” By directing our attention to Saint Joseph, the pope gave us a perfect insight into what’s wrong with Communism and what’s right about Catholic social teaching.
The Bible tells us that Saint Joseph was a carpenter (Matt 13:55), not a hunter or shepherd, scholar or king, lowly soldier or great military leader like many of the other famous men of the Old Testament. He was clearly poor, since he could only afford the offering of a poor man for Mary’s purification after she gave birth: two turtledoves or two pigeons (see Lk 2:22-24; Lev 12:6-8). He lived in a town so unimportant that it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, and he was forced to take his family and leave his homeland as an immigrant for a period of time (Matt 2:14). He and the other Jewish people of his day were controlled by their Roman conquerors and lived under oppressive taxation.
What could overcome the inequality that Joseph was forced to endure as a poor man living under such an unjust political and economic system? According to Communism, such injustice would demand that workers use any means, including violence, to overturn the existing government.
Of course, Joseph did no such thing. Saint Joseph lived an ordinary life, faithfully obeying the Jewish Law and caring for his family. Instead, as Pope Saint Paul VI said, “St. Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies; …he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things—it is enough to have the common, simple, and human virtues.”4
Ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, our fallen nature often experiences daily work as tiresome, boring, and painful. But, according to Pope Saint John Paul II, “Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth.”5 Joseph was a faithful Jewish man who recognized that he was fulfilling God’s will simply by serving God, caring for his family as a husband and father, and behaving virtuously toward others. I cannot imagine Saint Joseph grumbling about Roman taxation and complaining about the neighbors. After all, he spent every day in the loving presence of the Son of God and His Mother.
And that, of course, is yet another reason we can thank Saint Joseph. We too are by Christ’s Presence any and every day. Ever since our Lord’s Last Supper, Passion, Death, and Resurrection, He is as close to us as the nearest tabernacle.
All the May martyrs described above are priests. Blessed Rolando Rivi (feast day May 13) was just a fourteen-year-old boy when Communist partisans in his native Italy kidnapped, tortured, and killed him. Why did they do that? Because, as was the custom at the time, he publicly wore a cassock, showing his pride that he was studying in a minor seminary with the desire to become a priest. They killed him for wearing the uniform of his chosen profession. Saint Joseph, a faithful man who was never ashamed of his profession or a hard day’s work, would understand.
1 Paul VI, Discourse (March 19, 1969), quoted in an apostolic exhortation by John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 24.
2 John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 22 (emphasis in original).
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