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: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]