[A short biography of Fr Salvatore Lilli, Italian priest, 1853-1895, martyred by Muslims for holding on to the Faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ and not converting to Islam]
WORDS BY BLESSED JOHN PAUL II AT THE BEATIFICATION:
It is significant that the beatification of Father Salvatore Lilli, a Franciscan missionary of the Custody of the Holy Land and pastor of Mujuk-Deresi, should take place today, the vigil of the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi…The history of Blessed Salvatore is simple, but rich in deeds that attest to his great love for God and his brothers and sisters. It culminates with his martyrdom that crowns a life of fidelity to the Franciscan and missionary vocation.
Concerning his seven companions in martyrdom we know their names, their families and their backgrounds: they were humble peasants and fervent Christians, coming from a stock that throughout the centuries had preserved whole their fidelity to God and the Church, despite difficult and at times tragic moments.
Among that humble people the young missionary immersed himself with total dedication, achieving in a short time what could seem unthinkable to others. He established three new villages to reunite separated families with a view of better protecting and instructing them. He provided for the acquisition of a vast expanse of land to give work and food to whoever was deprived and tenaciously fostered the instruction of youth. Above all, he set a more intense pace to the religious life of his parishioners, who felt drawn by his example, his piety and his generosity; his favourites were the sick, the poor, and children.
A wise adviser and diligent promoter of social works, he was open to everyone: Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, and to everyone he offered his service with a smile. For this he was particularly loved by his faithful, esteemed and respected by the others. Then during the cholera epidemic his apostolate glowed with heroic charity; he was at once a priest and a doctor. Heedless of the disease, he went from house to house helping the sick both morally and materially. On this occasion he wrote to his sister, a Trinitarian religious, “I felt such a courage that going among the cholera victims to assist them, administer medicine to them, etc., seemed ordinary things to me”. And he indicated the clear reason for this: the priest full of faith in God does not fear dangers and “runs to relieve the unfortunate brother who so many times finds himself abandoned by even his most dear ones” (letter to his sister, Sister Maria Pia, a Trinitarian, 4 December 1890).
When the warning signs of the storm that was coming menacingly near arose with violence, his confreres urged Father Salvatore to repair to safer places. The inhabitants of the area themselves, concerned for the life of their Father, insisted that he save himself. Father Lilli’s answer was calm and decided: “I can not abandon my little sheep; I prefer to die with them if necessary”…; and he stayed at his missionary post. On November 1895 soldiers came into the parish house and the commanding officers immediately gave an alternative: deny Christ or die. Clear and firm was the answer of the priest who for this reason suffered the first outbreak of violence…
Three days later the religious and seven of his parishioners were led away by the troops; they marched for two hours; they were made to stop near a stream, and the colonel offered for the last time the choice between denial and death: “Apart from Christ I do not recognise anyone”, said Father. No less noble was the response of the other martyrs: “Kill us, but we will not deny our religion”,…First to be killed was Blessed Salvatore, pierced by the soldiers’ bayonets; immediately afterwards, the other seven suffered the same fate. This Franciscan missionary and his seven faithful speak with incisive eloquence to the world of today: they are for all of us a salutary reminder of the substance of Christianity. When the circumstances of life make us face fundamental choices between earthly values and eternal values, the eight Blessed Martyrs teach us how to live the Gospel, even in the most difficult situations. Recognising Jesus Christ as Master and Redeemer implies accepting fully all the consequences that arise in life from this act of faith. The martyrs, raised today to the honours of the altar, are honoured by imitating their example of strength and love of Christ. Their witness and the grace that helped them are for us a reason for courage and hope; they assure us that it is possible, in the face of the most arduous difficulties, to follow the law of God and overcome obstacles that are met in living it and putting it into practice.
– ‘Example of Courage and Humility for Today’s World’, L’Osservatore romano, October 18, 1982