Christian persecution challenges and strengthens

Archbishop Aquila

We live in a time of heroic witnesses who are giving their lives or suffering for the faith, but few people know it. As Pope Francis recently said, “the martyrs of today are more numerous than those of the first century.” Rather than discourage us, their witness should strengthen and challenge us.

I recently learned that the 2016 report from Open Doors showed that the persecution of Christians not only increased in places like Syria or Iraq, but that it is also on the rise in places like Mexico, India and China. In fact, the report found that worldwide 215 million Christians experienced some form of persecution last year, making Christianity the most persecuted faith. The Vatican-based news agency Fides also reported that 28 Catholic pastoral workers were killed in 2016.

That so many Christians are suffering provokes several thoughts. The first is the famous quote from Tertullian, who said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Certainly we see this with Christ’s death and resurrection, which made our salvation possible. We also see it in more modern examples like St. Maximilian Kolbe or Bl. Miguel Pro, whose examples have inspired countless people to deeper faith.

The strength of faith and love for Jesus that every martyr shows is truly a gift. Who could not be moved to hear how the Egyptian martyrs cried out, “Jesus” as they were beheaded by ISIS? But why would God allow this to happen to his most loyal followers? We find the answer in the Gospel.

Jesus tells us that people hated him because he exposed their deeds as evil. The world, he said, will hate his followers for the same reason. In the Gospel of John we read, “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20).

Today many prefer the darkness of sin to the truth of the Gospel, the truth that will set them free, Jesus Christ. Even many Christians want to have one foot in the Gospel and one foot in the world by condoning evil with a false understanding of mercy, compassion, and love. Nowhere in the Gospel do you find Jesus condoning sin in the name of mercy. True mercy always transforms the human heart, as it exposes it to the unconditional love of Jesus Christ so that the sinner may weep for his sins and know the freedom and new life that comes from being forgiven. The persecuted Church reminds us that Jesus’ mercy prevails in darkness, but it doesn’t pretend that darkness is light.

Jesus further teaches, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. … If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. … And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me also hates my Father” (Jn. 15:18-23).

Yes, these are strong words of Jesus, and they are words that cannot be ignored in the times in which we live. We can never water down the Gospel or think the Gospel is soft.

In his first month as pope, Benedict XVI offered advice to a group of German youth that we should take to heart. He said, “The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.” Just as the Father sustained Jesus in the darkness of the Cross, so too, does he sustain us today in the darkness in which we live.

With God’s grace, the Holy Spirit living in us, each of us can stand in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters by being a light for those around us. To be a light means speaking about the truth and freedom that we have discovered in Christ. It also means naming the evil that we encounter and loving those ensnared by it, “accompanying” them in the words of Pope Francis to lead them to the encounter with Jesus Christ, who is the only one who can set them free and bring light to their darkness.

In a January 2016 video from the EUK Mamie Foundation called “Wake Up,” Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, then-Eparch of Mosul, Iraq offered this advice to believers throughout the world, “you can help us by building a more active and courageous Christian society, which is active, brave. You have to evangelize your society again with courage, without any fear of saying, ‘we’re Christians.’” To build a Christian society is possible only if we live our faith in the world and name evil and sin for what it is. It means putting Jesus first, before the ways of the world. This must always be done with charity, and we must know Jesus deeply and have first encountered him ourselves.

Besides bringing God’s light to our society, believers should also express their solidarity with the persecuted by giving voice to their suffering. Justice demands that we support them with our prayers, resources, and by calling upon our government and the world to protect the common right to religious liberty.

The witness of the thousands of martyrs who died in 2016 challenges each of us to a deeper faith that is able to respond to the darkness with God’s love. May the Holy Spirit stir into flame his gifts in our hearts and souls so that we may proclaim with boldness the joy of the Gospel!

COMING UP: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.