Archbishop Edward Nowak, secretary of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, made that point during an address at the inauguration of the new academic year of the "Studium" of the Vatican dicastery, held at the Patristic Institute Augustinianum.
The "Studium" was established 20 years ago in response to the need to form people specialized in carrying forward a cause of canonization, from the first phases. Until last year, the studies were carried out by more than 1,600 people.
The text of the monsignor's introduction, with the title in Italian "The Church Is Again the Church of Martyrs," was issued earlier this month by L'Osservatore Romano.
"The century that has just ended was presented as a time of very many martyrs. Some historians say that, in the 20th century, Christianity experienced the greatest persecution of its history," the prelate noted.
According to John Paul II, "at the end of the second millennium, the Church is again the Church of martyrs, the persecutions against believers, priests, religious and laity have produced a great sowing of martyrs in different parts of the world."
Martyrdom always has formed a part of the life of the Church, Archbishop Nowak said. He mentioned for example the persecution of the Armenian people, the Spanish and Mexican martyrs, and the victims of the Nazi and Communist eras, as well as the present time.
"The martyrs are, in the first place, an inestimable and precious value in itself for the Church herself," he said. "In the second place, they are bearers of a great message. Their martyrdom is above all the testimony of faith and of the Church.
"In particular, the martyr is a witness who has undertaken the following of Christ, to the giving up of his life, in order to witness to the truth of the Gospel."
The Vatican official said that martyrdom is "the scandal, the absurd, the paradox of Christianity. From a martyr who was killed, other faithful were born, hundreds, thousands. There is no reasonable explanation. Perhaps there is one, namely the person of Christ, his defeat on the cross, which generated Christianity, and millions and millions of Christians in all ages."
The secretary of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes added that "the martyrs are also a great patrimony of humanity. These persons, in civil language, are the heroes of society."
"They incarnate values of civility, fidelity, solidarity, primacy of conscience, primacy of being over having, heroism unto death, forgiveness, and help," he added. "Because of this, they are the most beautiful and true pages of history. Not only those of the Church but also of humanity."