Today is the anniversary of the death in 1993 of Don Sergio Mendez Arceo, the bishop of Cuernevaca, Mexico.
Don Sergio was a major promoter of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and an advocate of base communities and liberation theology.
Commonly known as the red bishop because of his strong commitment to justice and the liberation of the poor, he also was responsible for the renovation of the cathedral in the late 1950s.
My first visit to Latin America in 1985 began in the city of Cuernavaca. The cathedral has a large baptismal font to emphasize the role that baptism has in the life of the People of God.
But the renovation revealed a series of frescos on the walls detailing the life and death of Saint Felipe de Jesús, a Franciscan martyr, whose feast is celebrated today (though it is celebrated on February 5 in Mexico).
With 25 others – 3 Japanese Jesuits, 5 other Franciscans, and 17 lay Japanese Christians, Felipe de Jesús was crucified on a hill in Nagasaki. The reasons for their martyrdom are varied. Some believe that fear of becoming a Spanish colony was part of the emperor’s persecution of Christians.
The martyrs had their left ears cut off and were forced to march several days until they were killed at Nagasaki.
From the cross, Japanese Jesuit Paul Miki preached the love and forgiveness of Christ:
“The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason I die. I believe that I am telling only the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you become happy, I obey Christ. After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow humans as a fruitful rain.”
Perhaps this memory was in Don Sergio mind when he spoke of the contemporary persecution of Christians in Latin America for their commitment to the poor:
“Blessed are those who suffer persecution, those who for justice suffer persecution. . . . Thus we can call blessed all our people, beaten down and oppressed: when they take consciousness of oppression and struggle to be liberated, when they really long for justice; thus, in those moments, those who have already passed the ultimate test of giving their live for their desire [for justice], would be the ones who give us joy, the joy of so many brothers [and sisters] who form, with Jesus, heaven, the heaven we seek, the fullness of the Kingdom.”
But I also remember that Nagasaki was one of the two Japanese cities that suffered the atomic bombing by the US in 1945. The bomb was dropped only 500 meters from the Urukami Cathedral, where people were gathered in prayer. Of the 79,000 killed by the bomb ten thousand were Catholics, which constituted half of the Catholic population of this major center of Catholicism in Japan.
Remembering the martyrs of Nagasaki, the witness of Don Sergio, and the atomic bombing of a city calls me to ponder today: how I am called to live and witness to the love of Christ, the commitment to the poor, and the challenge of peace where I am?