Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Persecution of Christians in 2019

(Fifth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 19, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145:8-13; Revelation 21:1-5A; John 13:31-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Easter]


Those numbers are from the group, Open Doors USA, which monitors the persecution of Christians throughout the world.  Sad to say, there’s an awful lot for them to monitor these days.  Here’s a quote from their website:
Every day we receive new reports of Christians who face threats, unjust imprisonment, harassment, beatings and even loss of family because of their faith in Jesus.  [Now here’s where the three numbers come in.]  Every month, [in the world] on average:
  • 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons
  • 105 churches and Christian buildings are burned or attacked
  • 219 Christians are detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned
In today's first reading, St. Paul says, "It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."

Truer words were never spoken.  St. Paul, of course, knew this from experience.  He dealt with persecution first hand—many times.  In last week’s first reading, for example, we heard about how he and Barnabas were verbally opposed and attacked in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia, and how they were eventually booted out of town.  In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about other persecutions he had to face in his ministry: how he was scourged 5 times by the Jews, beaten with rods 3 times and stoned once—among other things!

It’s ironic that, after being one of the biggest persecutors of Christians in history, St. Paul himself became one of the most persecuted Christians in history! 

The kind of persecution Paul faced 2,000 years ago is being experienced by believers in over 60 countries around the world at the present time.  (That’s according to Open Doors USA.)  The country, incidentally, that’s #1 on their list of persecutors is none other than North Korea.

No surprise there.

The prevalence of this kind of open persecution came home to me the other day, when our summer seminarian came for a visit.  He came for lunch and to meet the parish staff, with whom he’ll be working this summer for several weeks, beginning at the end of June.  His name is Doan (pronounced “Dwan”), and he’s from Vietnam—which is, of course, a communist country at the present time.  Fr. Najim at one point asked him about the condition of the Church in his country and the relationship that Catholic bishops and priests there have with the civil government.  Doan said that everything is fine—unless you take a public stance against the government and criticize its policies.  Then there are consequences.  They might even decide to close your church and confiscate it and the land it’s built on.

I read recently that some historians believe that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century ALONE—more people who died because of their faith in Jesus Christ—than in the previous 19 centuries PUT TOGETHER!

With incidents like the attacks on the 3 churches in Sri Lanka this past Easter Sunday, it seems that some radical Muslim terrorists and others would like to eclipse that mark in the 21st century.

It’s interesting that we have this gospel reading about love paired with this first reading from Acts 14.  Jesus tells us in this gospel to love one another as he has loved us.  Well, the love that Jesus had (and still has) for us is selfless, and patient, and self-sacrificial—and forgiving.  I think it’s a tremendous witness of faith when Christians forgive their persecutors (like some of the survivors of the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting did back in 2015).  But to forgive does not mean that you completely ignore or forget about justice.  That’s an important point to remember.  Those of you who are parents of young children know this well.  You forgive your children all the time for the bad things that they do—but you also punish them appropriately.  Your forgiveness doesn’t eliminate your justice.

Nor should it!

I’m reading a book right now about Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan.  Both men were shot by would-be assassins in 1981.  Both men forgave their attackers.  But Ronald Reagan didn’t give John Hinckley a presidential pardon, nor did John Paul II immediately pressure Italian authorities to release Mehmet Ali Agca from prison.  Forgiveness did not eliminate the need for justice—and these two men understood that.

So what can we do to respond to this situation?  What practical steps can we take to address the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world—as well as right here in the United States?  Lest we forget, Christians are also undergoing persecution here: the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were persecuted by our government for failing to offer abortion and contraception coverage in their healthcare plans for their employees; the florists and bakers who have been publicly vilified because they’ve respectfully declined, for religious reasons, to provide flowers or to bake a cake for a “gay wedding”; the Christian doctors and nurses and pharmacists who are pressured by their peers and by the government to violate their consciences in their work.

Those are just a few examples of the persecution that’s happening right here in our midst.  We don’t need to go to North Korea to suffer for our Catholic beliefs.  There’s plenty of opportunity to do it right here in the good old U.S. of A!

So obviously the first thing we need to do is pray!  We need to pray—daily—for our brothers and sisters who are suffering for their faith (both here and around the world), and especially for those who are being asked to give the ultimate witness to Christ through martyrdom.

And secondly, we need to make it personal.  We need to make “freedom of religion” an important issue on our personal list of important issues—and we need to vote people into public office who also consider it important: people, in other words, who will work to preserve and protect religious freedom here in our own country and who will, at the same time, support policies that promote religious freedom throughout the world.

And please remember, freedom of religion is different from freedom of worship (which is what some of our leaders say they support).  Freedom of religion, which is what our Constitution guarantees, is much more than freedom of worship.  Freedom of religion means that you can live your private life—and your public life— according to the dictates of your faith. Freedom of worship means, “You Christians can pray however you like within the four walls of your church building, but outside in the real world you had better think and act and live like the rest of us—or else!”

It’s freedom of religion that people need, not just freedom of worship.

Let me end this morning with a brief quote from Pope Francis, who addressed this topic in a homily he gave back in 2014.  There he said this:
 There are many martyrs today, in the Church, many persecuted Christians. Think of the Middle East where Christians must flee persecution, where Christians are killed. Even those Christians who are forced away in an ‘elegant’ way, with ‘white gloves’: that too is persecution. There are more witnesses, more martyrs in the Church today than there were in the first centuries. So during this Mass, remembering our glorious ancestors, let us think also of our brothers who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born. Let us pray for them and for us.