There is not much we know about him beyond his name: Matthew Ayariga.
But his story, or what we know of it, matters to every one of us here this morning. In these weeks after Easter, it is a story of faith and courage that should humble every one of us. It needs to be told. I owe a debt of gratitude to journalist Luke Coppen, who published a story about this man’s life last week.
This much we know: Matthew Ayariga was born, it is believed, in Ghana in the 1980s or early ‘90s. Some accounts say he was raised a Christian, like about 70% of the population in Ghana. It is not known if he was Catholic.
At some point, he left his homeland to be a migrant worker and found his way to Libya and the port town of Sirte, where he befriended a group of Coptic Orthodox construction workers from Egypt. He worked with them. He lived with them. Perhaps, even, he prayed with them.
His life was otherwise unremarkable, and we probably never would have heard of Matthew Ayariga, except for what happened on February 15, 2015.
That day, Matthew was one of 21 construction workers rounded up by ISIS militants, who seized the men to make them an example to the world.
Video captured what happened next. The militants marched the men, all wearing orange jumpsuits, across a beach in Libya. They lined them up and ordered them to kneel.
Many of the prisoners could be seen moving their lips in prayer. The video called them, “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”
One of the militants questioned Matthew Ayariga about his faith. He didn’t look like the others. What did he believe?
Matthew replied simply, “Their God is my God.”
Seconds later, all 21 men were beheaded.
This past week, Pope Francis added those 21 martyrs to the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic listing of all who have died for the faith. It is an extraordinary, even historic move — adding Coptic Orthodox Christians to an official Catholic document.
It was done as a gesture of ecumenism, solidarity and Christian unity, honoring the prayer of Jesus from John’s Gospel “that all may be one.”
Pope Francis said: “These martyrs were baptized … in blood, blood that is a seed of unity for all followers of Christ.”
Their feast will be observed on the date of their execution, February 15.
These weeks after Easter have been full of celebration and joy, as we commemorate the holiest season of our faith. The readings every Sunday have proclaimed how the early Church grew and spread — today, the reading from the Acts of the Apostles described how countless numbers of people were converted in Samaria.
But the letter from Peter then speaks of the suffering of the early Christians, and links it to Christ’s own passion: “Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.”
With the pope’s move this past week, we were reminded once again how so many today are suffering and being “put to death in the flesh,” in every corner of the world.
Last year, the advocacy group Open Doors reported that an estimated 360 million Christians worldwide experienced “high levels of persecution and discrimination.” Nearly 6,000 were executed.
Many died simply for what they believed, as witnesses to the faith, wanting only to do what all of us here take for granted every Sunday morning: to worship our God in freedom.
Here in a parish dedicated to the Queen of Martyrs, we can never forget the martyrs of our own time. In an age when so many call themselves Christian, paying lip service to faith, these figures did even more. They spilled their blood for what they believed.
But there is more. Beyond that grim reality, we see light. We are promised hope.
This Gospel we heard this morning foreshadows Pentecost, two weeks from now, as Jesus promises to send “an Advocate,” the Holy Spirit, to be with his followers, to inspire them, to console them, to strengthen them and stand by their side. “I will not leave you orphans,” he says.
That same Spirit endures today, inflaming the hearts of believers everywhere who hold fast to this sure hope, the hope of this Easter season that echoes with “Alleluias” and says, again and again, this certain truth: Death doesn’t win.
The God who created us, and who came to dwell with us, is here with us today in this holy sacrifice of the Mass — and in a profound way, in the Eucharist we are about to receive.
And he remains with us continually through the gifts of his Holy Spirit.
Jesus did not leave us orphans. We are not alone.
The Church endures, because of people like Matthew Ayariga and countless others whose faith cannot be shaken.
This morning, we join our prayers to those of all the suffering Christians around the world — the persecuted, the imprisoned, the desperate, the afraid. May they know the consolation of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
And may the holy martyrs of Libya pray for us and our world.