ISIS atrocity underscores the importance of religious freedom

“For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” Patriarch Louis Sako said after the July 19 noon deadline passed. Mosul has been a city with a Christian presence for more than 1,700 years, but now the radical militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has banished them and is trying to expand its territory.

Our brothers and sisters in the faith were told that they must leave their homes and uproot their families if they wanted to keep the faith. If they stayed they had two choices: convert to Islam or die. As the distraught families left they were forced to hand over any money or valuables and stripped of their passports.

In Mosul, ISIS members tagged the homes of Christians with the red spray-painted Arabic letter “N” for Nazarene. This means that the home and anything in it can be plundered and occupied by one of their followers. Christians were not the only ones to be targeted, as Shiite Muslims had their homes painted with the letter “R” for being “Rejecters” of the fighters’ radical brand of Sunni Islam.

With the Christians gone, ISIS has started burning historic churches, monasteries and Shiite mosques. One mosque that was demolished was a former Catholic monastery that contained the tomb of the prophet Jonah. It had been a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims for centuries but is now a pile of rubble.

The auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, Shlemon Warduni, also described how the elderly, the sick and small children are being treated by the militants. He lamented, “We ask ourselves, ‘Why is this happening, these things against human dignity, against God, against mankind? These (militants) rip the medicines from the hands of children, small children and throw them on the ground.”

I join my voice to Pope Francis’ and the many others who have condemned and cried out against this grave injustice. It is clear from their actions that ISIS is unable to enter into dialogue and cannot be trusted to protect Christians or other minorities. It is their way or death.

So what should we do now? First, we need to express our solidarity with our fellow Christians in the Middle East through material and spiritual support. We must pray and fast for our enemies and their change of heart as Jesus commands us in the Gospel. You can also donate to agencies that are still operating amidst the chaos, like Catholic Relief Services, Aid to the Church in Need and the International Catholic Migration Network.

By taking action and standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted, you will grow in courage and mercy. These are essential virtues needed for the times in which we live and we must desire them in our hearts if peace is to come about. These two virtues are also needed for your efforts to protect our religious freedom in Colorado and nationwide.

The second thing we should do in the wake of these atrocities is reflect on how they underscore the crucial importance of religious freedom for having a civilized society. But do not stop with thinking about it. All of us should become actively engaged in the political system to protect our religious rights and to work for the common good in the light of the Gospel and our faith.

Religious freedom is not just the ability to worship in a house of prayer. For Christians it is the ability to be Christian, to let our faith impact the way we work, shop, make decisions, form our families, run our charities and businesses and interact with the rest of society. Truly encountering Jesus and his Church is so powerful that it doesn’t just affect what we do on Sundays, it affects our whole lives.

As Americans, we have been blessed to live in a country that has valued faith, and for the most part, respected the right to practice it freely. But the government’s support for faith is growing increasingly weaker. The most recent evidence of this erosion is President Obama’s executive order that adds individuals with same-sex attraction and “transgendered” people to a list of protected classes for hiring done by federal employers and contractors. The most telling aspect of this order is that it does not include any religious exemption, despite repeated requests for one.

The best defense against this is the involvement of people of authentic faith in the political system, at all levels. After the defeat of Colorado’s Senate Bill 175, several people told me that praying and acting to defeat the bill was the first political thing they had done in years. Some people even said that they had not voted in the last three election cycles because they had given up hope in government!

But the Christian attitude toward politics must be one of hope, because Christ can overcome anything. The evil one wants us to become hopeless and despair, but Jesus’ resurrection tells us otherwise. With God all things are possible for the good and the true, but we as human beings must receive and act on this truth. We are called to be people of hope who place our trust in Christ to help us make his kingdom more of a reality here on earth.

I pray that everyone who reads this column or hears about it will act to help our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and in doing so, that they will receive the grace to be courageous in the defense of religious freedom in our country as well.

Let us pray for the persecuted and their persecutors, and let us give witness to our faith no matter the cost, even if it leads us to the cross of Jesus Christ! May the afflicted be consoled by God’s grace and the hope of heaven.

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.”