No more appeasement of radical Islam

The murder of more than 50 Catholics by jihadists during Sunday Mass in Baghdad on Oct. 31 is the latest in a series of outrages committed against Christians by Islamist fanatics throughout the world: Egypt, Gaza, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan and on the list goes. The timing of the attack on Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic cathedral was striking, however, for it came shortly after the conclusion in Rome of a special Synod on the Middle East. During the Synod, very little was said about Islamist persecution of Christians; indeed, every effort was bent to show the Catholic Church sympathetic to Muslim grievances, especially with regard to the politics of the Middle East.

This strategy of appeasement has always struck me as unwise. The al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists’ answer to the Synod—the Baghdad murders—has now proven the strategy deadly. Appeasement must stop.

I quite understand that Christians in the Islamic world are tiny minorities, burdened by economic distress and cultural prejudice (the latter partially explaining the former). But unless Christians begin to push back against those who, like the Baghdad murderers, describe their churches as “dirty place[s] of the infidel that…have long been used as a base to fight Islam,” jihadists and other radical Islamists will simply roll over them, en route to rendering anything deemed an “Islamic land” Christian–free. What might a strategy of resistance to this implacable persecution look like?

It would begin with the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI quickly and forcefully condemned the murderers of Baghdad; no one should doubt the pope’s commitment to the survival of Christians in Muslim-dominated lands and to combating the anti-Semitism that often goes hand-in-glove with Islamic Christophobia. Yet in the Vatican Secretariat of State, the default positions vis-à-vis militant Islam are unhappily reminiscent of Vatican diplomacy’s default positions vis-à-vis communism during the last 25 years of the Cold War: try to reach political accommodations with Islamic states; foreswear forceful public condemnation of Islamist and jihadist ideology; look for interlocutors with whom to discuss co-existence among Islamic intellectuals. Such a strategy did not work in the Cold War, as I demonstrate in “The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.” And it will not work with jihadist Islam, which in many respects is a more ruthlessly determined foe than the late-bureaucratic communism of the 1970s and 1980s. So strategic re-set is required in Rome. And it might well begin with a steady campaign of public condemnations of Islamist depredations against Christians throughout the world.

The Vatican bureaucracy and local Catholic leaders in the Middle East must also reexamine the assumption—widely bruited at the recent Synod—that resolving the Israel-Palestine issue through a two-state solution will solve every other issue between militant Islam and Christianity. It won’t. Moreover, a viable two-state solution, which every reasonable person supports, is not on the short-term horizon (although important steps are being taken to build the infrastructure of civil society on the West Bank). Meanwhile, Islamist depredations against Christians in the Holy Land are a present reality.  Christian leaders whose people are being murdered by jihadists and other Islamist fanatics ought to stop blaming their precarious situation on the State of Israel and put the blame where it belongs: with Muslim intolerance.

The key theme to be stressed in all this is religious freedom, which is precisely what Benedict XVI emphasized at the conclusion of his homily at the Middle East Synod’s final Mass. As Father Raymond de Souza pointed out after the Baghdad massacres, “Christians have been in Iraq from the earliest centuries, long before there was an Iraq or, one might note, there was Islam.” Christians do not live in majority-Muslim lands by sufferance but by right. They should say so, and their co-religionists should say so. It would be helpful if the United States government would say so and would name the jihadist perpetrators of murder for who they are. But while we await that (unlikely?) change, we in the Church can summon the courage to confront, without illusions, what has become a lethal problem.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”