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: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”