A memorial service will be held in Novosibirsk on 29 November for the Otto Messmer SJ and Viktor Betancourt SJ, the two Jesuit priests who were brutally murdered in Moscow last week. The homily was given by Bishop Joseph Werth SJ, Bishop of the Diocese of the Transfiguration of the Lord and President Russian Bishops’ Conference. The full text of the homily is below.
Novosibirsk, 29th November 2008
Gospel reading: John 11, 17-44
We commemorate the slain and innocent Jesuits Fr. Otto and Fr. Viktor. They must have read this part of the Gospel many times at the funeral services they presided. And with this text they comforted the loved ones of the departed: brothers, sisters, children and parents. May the same words comfort today Fr. Otto’s own sister, Sister Lina, and all of us brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jesus says to Lazarus’ sister, Martha: “your brother will rise up”. Ine turn, Martha professes her faith in Jesus Christ, her faith in the resurrection: “I know he will rise up at the resurrection of the dead on the last Day.”
It is significant that this event took place in Jesus’ lifetime. He had not died yet, nor had he risen from the dead. Jesus had told his disciples many times: the Son of Man will suffer, be put to death, and rise on the third day. But each time they had failed to understand what He meant. In contrast, the profession of Martha shines forth: “I know that he will rise…” Following her words, Jesus solemnly proclaims: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Here, Jesus does not refer to the faith of Martha any more: – if you believe; – no, He is already talking about the faith of Lazarus who is dead: if you believe in me, even if you die, you will live. And Jesus brings up our own faith as well: anyone who believes in me will not die in eternity!
May the death of the fathers Otto and Viktor kindle our faith in Jesus Christ, our own faith in eternal life with no boundaries of space or time. “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die!”
Do we understand the meaning of this? It means that riches or poverty, fame or shame, health or sickness, life or death do not count; all these do not make any difference once we know that anyone who lives and believes in Jesus Christ will never die! All sufferings in this life are, therefore, nothing in comparison with the eternal splendour with Christ!
Soon after the war, an awful tragedy took place in Germany: a bus carrying Jesuit novices was involved in a fatal accident; the entire Novitiate perished. That disaster shook the whole Church in Germany. The following year so many Jesuit candidates presented themselves that there was no room enough to accept them all.
The death of these two Jesuits shook the Jesuit Order, in Russia and in the rest of the World. In their meetings, Jesuits are talking more often nowadays about the Ignatian spirit, which should ignite their service more and kindle their apostolic zeal. It is hard to keep such fire burning. But today I heard it several times already: the Jesuits in Russia are, from today, different Jesuits.
Dear friends – But we ourselves?
Many years ago Fr. Jan Fratzkevitz perished – but we remained the same. Afterwards, a priest was murdered in Astrachan – but we remained the same. Two years ago, youngsters killed an old priest in the Moscow Diocese – but we remained the same.
And today, after the death of Fr. Otto and Fr. Victor – will we remain the same?
How many more sacrifices do we need for the Church in Russia and Siberia to wake up? We say too easily that we build upon the foundation of the martyrs of the 20th century. But those martyrs lived and died many years ago. Who among us have known them? The death of both these priests, who we knew, saw, and had on the phone only three days ago – will these deaths change us, finally?
May the new victims Fr. Otto and Fr. Victor pray for us before God. And we, let us pray for their souls:
Lord, give them eternal rest and may Eternal Light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.
+ Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J.
President Russian Bishops’ Conference
Bishop of the Diocese of the Transfiguration of the Lord
Ordinary of the Catholics of the Byzantine Rite in Russia
[Translated from German by the News Service of the Conference of European Provincials]