Martyrdom is primarily an act of love, not heroism, and while it often comes in the midst of persecution, it should motivate Christians to seek peace and reconciliation, Pope Francis said.
Persecution and martyrdom are not a thing of the past, he told people at his weekly general audience April 19. "Today there is persecution of Christians in the world. A lot. There are more martyrs today than there were" in the first centuries of Christianity.
As part of his series of talks about "zeal" for evangelization, Pope Francis spoke about the witness of "the host of martyrs -- men and women of every age, language and nation -- who have given their life for Christ."
"The martyrs, in imitation of Christ and with his grace, turn the violence of those who refuse the proclamation (of the Gospel) into a supreme occasion of love, which goes as far as forgiving their persecutors," the pope said. "This is interesting: martyrs always forgive their persecutors. Stephen, the first martyr, died praying, 'Lord, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing.' Martyrs always pray for their persecutors."
To illustrate his point about modern martyrdom, Pope Francis drew attention specifically to Yemen, "a land that has for many years been afflicted by a terrible, forgotten war, that has caused many deaths and still causes many people, especially children, to suffer today."
Out of a population of about 31.6 million people, the Vatican estimates the number of Catholics in Yemen to be about 1,000.
In a situation of war and dire poverty, Pope Francis said, "there have been shining witnesses of faith, such as that of the Missionaries of Charity. They are still present today in Yemen, where they offer assistance to elderly who are sick and to people with disabilities. They welcome everyone, of any religion, because charity and fraternity have no boundaries."
The sisters' witness of love to others has cost them dearly though. The pope reminded the crowd in St. Peter's Square that three of the sisters -- Sisters Aletta, Zelia and Michael -- were "killed by a fanatic" in July 1998 as they were returning home from Mass.
"More recently, shortly after the beginning of the still ongoing conflict, in March 2016, Sister Anselm, Sister Marguerite, Sister Reginette and Sister Judith were killed together with some laypeople who helped them in their work of charity among the least," the pope said.
The dozen laypeople included "some Muslim faithful who worked with the religious sisters," he said.
"It moves us to see how the witness of blood can unite people of different religions," he continued. "One should never kill in the name of God, because for him we are all brothers and sisters. But together one can give one's life for others."
Pope Francis prayed that Christians would "never tire of bearing witness to the Gospel, even in times of tribulation."
"May all the martyr saints be seeds of peace and reconciliation among peoples for a more humane and fraternal world as we await the full manifestation of the kingdom of heaven when God will be all in all," the pope said.