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: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”