Just a few days ago, I heard about the death of a brother, a Dominican priest, Fr. Joachim Li, OP who on June 27th, died at the young age of 32. While enjoying his day off at the seaside in Rome, he lost his life successfully rescuing and saving two swimmers from drowning. Fr. Joachim’s heroic death reminded me of the story of his patron saint, St. Joachim Royo, OP, a Dominican missionary martyr in China. As Fr. Joachim gave up his life to save the two swimmers, St. Joachim gave up his life to save the souls of many.
St. Joachim Royo, OP was born around 1691 in Spain. In 1708, he joined the Dominican Order in Valencia. Filled with the zeal to preach the Gospel to the end of the world, he arrived in Manila in 1713. There he finished his studies and was ordained as a priest. St. Joachim arrived in China in the spring of 1715. In the missionary territories of southeastern China, he not only baptized many, but he formed the newly baptized converts into Dominican tertiaries and lay catechists. During the persecution of the early Qing Dynasty, he went into hiding in the wilderness and caves. Only in the cover of the night, was he able to administer sacraments for the faithful. While in prison, he continued his penitential practices, even going as far as asking the prison guards to whiplash him! He finally gave the ultimate witness of faith in Fujian, China in 1748. St. Joachim’s heroic life is just one story out of those of the 108 martyrs in China (33 of which were missionaries), whom we commemorate on July 9.
Even now, there are countless missionaries making all kinds of sacrifices, even risking their lives, so that people may hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can you help? First of all, you can pray for them. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote in 1896, to Fr. Adolphe Roulland, MEP, who was about to be sent to Sichuan, China,
“Distance can never separate our souls, even death will only make our union closer. If I go to Heaven soon, I shall ask Jesus’ permission to visit you in Sichuan, and we shall continue our apostolate together. Meanwhile I shall always be united to you by prayer…”
If you hear the Lord’s call to be a missionary yourself and go to Asia, please do not hesitate to contact us!
I’ve always enjoyed learning about epic stories of martyrdom. Even as a young child of 8 or 9 years old, I would read, in awe (and a little bit of shock) about the ways in which holy men and women across the centuries have lived and died as witnesses of God’s love and mercy. In fact, in my zeal for learning about martyrdom, I’ve even found myself skipping over areas of a saint’s life, just to get to the “good parts” where I learn about his or her heroic death.
“So-and-so was a good child, blah blah blah…very devoted to Mary…tortured for the Faith-ah yes, here’s where it gets good.”
Learning about a saint’s martyrdom is fascinating, and it can seem extremely relevant. After all, since our world is facing much division and persecution, hearing the stories of the martyrs can give us people to whom we can relate. Shouldn’t we spend our time focusing on stories of martyrdom, and just “gloss over” other aspects of their lives?
The more I think about this, the more I realize something: We can talk about martyrdom all we want, but if that is the only thing we’re focusing on, we are missing the bigger picture. We miss the why. For example, we recently celebrated the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Many people focus on how St. Maximilian offered himself. We talk about his selflessness and heroic sacrifice as he literally gave his life for another person. For years, this is the sole image I had of St. Maximilian. It wasn’t until I reached college that I began to see the “bigger picture.” I learned about how St. Maximilian Kolbe was deeply devoted to Mary, and how his love for Mary was a strong, guiding motivation throughout his life.
We cannot simply “gloss over” Marian devotion or any other devotions that the saints have practiced, thinking that we should only focus on the “good” or “relevant” parts of their lives. These practices have formed the saints and made them who they are. Not only that, but Marian devotion will always be relevant. In fact, as our society quickly plummets downward into the chaos of moral relativism and disunity, growing in our devotion to Mary so that she may lead us to Jesus seems especially relevant.
When we read the lives of the saints, let’s not just focus on their gory martyrdoms or the mystical experiences that they had. Rather, let’s look at the whole picture of their lives, and learn from them so that we can strive for greater holiness too. Marian devotion is and will always be relevant, because Mary will never stop leading us to her son. So why gloss over it?
Photo credit: “Statue” by Momentmal via Pixabay. CCO public domain.
In the Martin Scorsese film Silence, based on the book by Shūsaku Endō, the Jesuit protagonists face a terrible choice: to renounce their faith and trample on the image of Christ, or to let their flock of Japanese faithful suffer torture and death.
In saving their flock in the temporal realm, did they not risk losing them for eternity? Did they not betray those who had already been tortured and killed? The pagan Japanese have traditionally understood dying for honor, as in the practice of seppuku. The real-life Japanese martyrs understood dying for God and the eternal salvation of others. Christian martyrs have always held it a privilege to die for the Faith, participating in the redemptive death of Christ.
The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling the truth before I die. After Christ’s example, I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain. – St. Paul Miki
Let us turn to the example of Mary, our Mother.
Have you ever remarked that practically every traditional representation of the Crucifixion always pictures Magdalene on her knees at the foot of the crucifix? But you have never yet seen an image of the Blessed Mother prostrate. John was there and he tells in his Gospel that she stood. He saw her stand. But why did she stand? She stood to be of service to us. She stood to be our minister, our Mother. If Mary could have prostrated herself at that moment as Magdalene did, if she could have only wept, her sorrow would have had an outlet. The sorrow that cries is never the sorrow that breaks the heart. It is the heart that can find no outlet in the fountain of tears which cracks; it is the heart that cannot have an emotional break-down that breaks. And all that sorrow was part of our purchase price paid by our Co-Redemptrix, Mary the Mother of God! – Venerable Abp. Fulton J. Sheen, Calvary and the Mass: The Sanctus
She knew, better than anyone else will ever know it, that the greatest of all griefs is to be unable to mitigate the suffering of one whom we love. But she was willing to suffer that, because that was what He asked of her.
– Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God
Unlike Peter, who remonstrated with Jesus after He said He had to suffer and die, Mary quietly accepted this sword which pierced her heart. She watched in silence as her beloved Son, bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh, was mocked, cursed, defiled, falsely accused, scourged, spat upon, and crucified, with a crown of thorns jammed cruelly onto His poor head. All through the torture of the One she loved best, she never said a word against God. She trusted in His plan of salvation, though it tore her heart to shreds.
That suffering silence was the silence of a strong and virtuous woman who trusted completely in the foolishness of God, which is far above the wisdom of men. Unlike the priests in Silence, Our Lady held fast to the Word of God, the pearl of great price, the Way which leads through death to everlasting Life. Let us imitate her when we see our loved ones suffering, and stay close to Christ.
…the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright.
– Bishop Robert Barron, “Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ and the Seaside Martyrs”
…our world doesn’t know what to make of the Resurrection or indeed of miracles and the supernatural. And so a veil of deep silence falls over them. This, in fact, is the deepest silence in the film: that the Resurrection is not even alluded to. And so, ‘Silence’ is left with a naturalistic tale wherein the most noble goal is to alleviate and reduce suffering. This is unsurprising since the very notion of redemptive suffering makes no sense and is a scandal without the theological virtues.
– Fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., “Initial thoughts concerning Scorsese’s ‘Silence’”
From that time Jesus began to shew to his disciples, that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the ancients and scribes and chief priests, and be put to death, and the third day rise again. And Peter taking him, began to rebuke him, saying: Lord, be it far from thee, this shall not be unto thee. Who turning, said to Peter: Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto Me: because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men. Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it. – Matthew 16:21-25
Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence. Our liturgies must facilitate this attitude of authentic listening: Verbo crescente, verba deficiunt. (“When the word of God increases, the words of men fail.” – Augustine).
– Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini n. 66
As a convert, in watching The Passion I was most profoundly affected by a new understanding of Mary, as The Mother of Sorrows. It recently occurred to me that her Son was only 40 days old – a tiny little Baby – when she was told that through Him “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2: 35). And yet, did she hold back? Did she choose to protect herself from pain that was sure to come? No. She never held back her love in an effort to protect herself. She opened wide the doors of Hope. She rested in the joy that this life is not the end. She prepared her soul for the glory of eternal life. And she surrendered her will to the Will of her Heavenly Father, with calm, quiet, peace.
– Vicki Burbach, “Love, Loss and the Liberty of Letting Go”
…martyrdom is a gift from God that is born of profound charity. It is a specific and glorious sharing in the life of Christ… Martyrdom is the crown of a life lived with ardent love for God and the people of God.
– Bro. Edmund McCullough O.P., “Life and Martyrdom”
By “shock” I do not mean that all too familiar sickening feeling of disgust, pity and discouragement. I mean the feeling “I can’t believe this is happening in (America, the 21st Century, my state, my town, etc.).” Even worse is when something happens to us personally, and we are surprised.
Why? Why do we spend so much time and energy debating about these incidents? We should expect them by now.
We are surprised because we have forgotten that we are at war.
I am not speaking of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are no more than confused scuffles compared to the Great War. The real war is the spiritual war.
Even acknowledging this does not help most Catholics get it. “Okay, so it’s a spiritual war, you say? I don’t know, those bullets seemed awfully real to me! We aren’t talking about praying and going to confession and arguing with atheists on the internet. Maybe giving up chocolate for lent, if you want to get real crazy about it. But this is too real. Someone is shooting at us!”
Do you see the subtle deception? The spiritual war isn’t real to us, not real in the way a stubbed toe is real, or a caffeine withdrawal headache is real. When we say “real” we mean physical, and we are very much shocked and upset to find that our spiritual (by which we mean imaginary) faith has suddenly started having physical ramifications.
Have we forgotten the martyrs? Have we forgotten that a readiness to die for Christ is not just a cool extra, but a positive requirement of the faith?
The truth is that even in the physical realm all violence exists on a single continuum, from that snide remark I made under my breath yesterday to the holocaust. It is all of one piece. This may seem a bit exaggerated, but it is actually easy to see if you do not get hung up on the overt act, and instead look deeper into the motives for violence.
There are two main reasons why people engage in violence. The ordinary reason is as a means to some other end. I want something and I don’t care what I have to do to get it. You are either a means or an obstacle. The other reason is the sheer, nasty desire to hurt someone else, whether for revenge, for power or for fun.
Once you break it down like that, however, it becomes obvious that those motives apply to far more than simply pulling out a gun and shooting someone. Who doesn’t know a person who will not hesitate to make a scene at a family gathering, knowing that everyone else will let them have their way just to “keep the peace?” That is terrorism on a small scale. Even worse, who has not known someone who seemed intent upon insulting and degrading everyone around them, for no other reason that that they seemed to find it fun?
Who has not been that person?
A parent verbally abusing a child, a child saying “I hate you!” to its parent, these are acts of violence, just as surely as slapping, punching, stabbing or shooting the other. They are acts of anger directed at causing pain, or misguided attempts to force the other person to change their behavior, which is still violence.
Oh but these are just words. They don’t really mean them, they are just so angry.
That does not matter. When I carry a gun, do you think I can excuse myself from responsibility for every single bullet that leaves the barrel of that gun? Do you think, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that,” is going to make my target any less shot? “I was just so angry!” Well, if you don’t know how to control your anger you have no business carrying a gun. If you cannot control your words in any given situation, then you should not speak at all.
In the legal sense it is useful to make the distinction between physical and other kinds of violence, because the law can only see and punish the physical type. But in the spiritual warfare, there is no difference, and in fact, the physical violence may even be the least damaging type. Words are more damaging than bullets. Bullets destroy tissue, bone and flesh, but a resilient spirit will continue to function and thrive. Words attack the mind, heart and soul. Any attempt to diminish or limit the physical, mental, emotional or spiritual life or health of a person, whether that person is yourself or another self. This includes thoughts, words and deeds.
This is why I say that violence exists on a continuum. The visible acts that make the news, such as mass murders, serial rapes, genocides; and those that don’t make the news, such as abortion and the vast majority of instances of all of the above; all of these are continuations of thoughts, words and deeds of violence. The visible acts catch our attention, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. To focus on guns is to miss the real issue. Even to debate over whether or not Catholics should carry guns is to miss the issue. A gun is a viable response for only the very extreme outer percent of a percent of violent acts, which most of us will never see. A gun may help to end that particular situation if it arises, but it will do nothing to address the culture of violence out of which those acts arise.
In reality, each of us witnesses countless acts of violence every day. We see husbands degrading wives and wives mocking husbands. We see co-workers gossiping and backstabbing each other. We watch parents publicly shame their children, and children disrespecting their parents. What is worse, we engage in all of this ourselves. We snap out sarcastic, hurtful responses to minor inconveniences. We fantasize about all the things we could say to that person if we weren’t afraid of getting fired. We get angry and enjoy it.
All of this is violence, and all of it contributes to the overall level of hate in the world, which in turn enables mass shootings. This is both a natural consequence of cause and effect (people who are hurt become angry and depressed and are more likely to hurt other people, continuing the cycle). But it also occurs on a spiritual level. When I deliver that really biting, malicious put-down, I am opening up a pocket in the spiritual battlefield to a little bit more demonic influence. That will have consequences, and the consequences may be physical. Or the consequence might be enable someone else to commit a mortal sin.
Which is worse?
But the good news is that if violence exists on a continuum, so does heroism. Every act of standing up for another person, at work, at home, at school, really does shift the balance back the other way. Carry a concealed weapon, if you wish, (and if you are willing to put in the work) but do not think your responsibility as a protector ends there. You have declared your willingness to engage the battle at its most physical. Now put even more time and energy into engaging it at its most mundane, and most critical.
And never forget… (spoiler alert)
*This is the sixth and final part of a discussion on guns and violence. You can link to the other parts below, but this conclusion is really a stand-alone piece. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
When choosing my Confirmation saint, I had only one requirement – that the saint be someone no one else was likely to choose. I wanted to be different and have an intercessor all to myself. This led me to St. Zoe of Pamphilia – a New Testament mother of Maccabees.
St. Zoe lived in a pagan region around the year 127 AD in modern-day Turkey with her husband and two sons (also saints). The story varies depending on source but the meat of it is that they refused to sacrifice to a pagan god and were then tortured and martyred for their defense of the Faith. A particular version of the story that resonated with me said that St. Zoe wanted to sacrifice to the pagan god just to get their ruler and owner (they were slaves) off their backs and then they could worship the one, true God in secret. Her husband and sons talked her out it by reminding her that the reward and comfort of Heaven is better than any comfort on earth. When the pagan soldiers finally came to force the family to renounce their faith or die, they refused. First, St. Zoe’s husband was tortured and murdered and then her sons. Watching her sons being tortured was excruciating for St. Zoe and she almost renounced the faith. But it was her two sons who encouraged her to stay strong and that they would see her that day in heaven. She was then, also, tortured and murdered.
At sixteen, when I chose St. Zoe as my Confirmation saint, I had little in common with her – I was not a wife nor a mother and no one was trying to make me renounce my faith. I didn’t even strongly feel like God was leading me towards the vocation of marriage or motherhood, but I liked her name.
I first heard the name Zoe when the trio of brothers of the band Hanson’s youngest sibling was born and it stuck with me. The summer before I was confirmed, I learned what the word “zoe” means. A speaker at a Steubenville Youth Conference said that “bios” refers to the physical life of a person while “zoe” refers to God’s life within a person, or the spiritual life of a person. The bios dies and falls away, but the zoe remains forever. In that moment, I knew that what I wanted to be forever filled with was God’s life. I decided then and there to choose Zoe as my Confirmation name and then found St. Zoe to go along with that desire.
At the time of my Confirmation, I had more in common with the legend of my chosen namesake’s saintly progeny than with this holy woman herself. Yet I could not possibly foresee how much St. Zoe and I would truly share and how perfect an intercessor she would be for me.
When my faith falters, as it, regrettably, does more often than I’d like to admit, my children are usually the one who remind me to be faithful. My kids are only 2.5 and 1 years old and they lead me to Jesus in simple and profound ways – from kissing Jesus on my four-way medal, to asking me to sing “the Jesus song” (“Away in a Manger”) for bedtime, to crying when we have to leave church after Mass. When I am ready to sacrifice myself on the altar of worldly comfort, my children are always there to remind me of Zoe, the part of me that will never die and of the heavenly reward that awaits me.
There has been a lot of turmoil over the religious freedom law recently passed in Indiana. Religious freedom activists across the board are celebrating this “step towards religious freedom” while gay “marriage” proponents are in the throes of proclaiming this the end of the world.
It’s the same old run-around that always happens when such a bill is proposed, backed, voted on, or passed. This time, for some reason, it struck me as odd that Catholics seem so surprised by this step.
Perhaps we should be surprised. The law was established by a worldly government, which is (I admit) rather shocking.
However, I don’t think Catholics should be surprised when traditional marriage “wins” a battle. The fact is, the truth will always prevail. What’s more, the traditional marriage debate is not new ground for the Catholic Church. In fact, this is old squat as far as the Church is concerned.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s take a quick tour through Church history:
St. Valentine. St. Valentine died defending the Catholic view of marriage. In fact, Valentine was sentenced to a three-part execution consisting of beating, stoning, and finally decapitation because of his stand for Catholic marriage. That was in AD 269.
St. Augustine. In AD 410, Augustine wrote a work entitled Of the Good of Marriage in which he defends the Catholic understanding of marriage. He states: “it is observed, that there be no lying with other man or woman, out of the bond of wedlock.” Want to know why St. Augustine wrote this work? Because there was an attack on the good of traditional, Catholic marriage. Now, this attack came in the form of a monk claiming that there was no difference in merit between celibate marriages and conjugal marriages, so a bit different to what we’re facing today. This point serves to prove, however, that the Church is not only used to defending and fighting for marriage — it has done so in multiple fashions, against various onslaughts, and has always won.
Pedro de Corpa, Blas Rodríguez, Miguel de Añon, Antonio de Badajóz, and Francisco de Veráscola. These Spanish missionaries were martyred in September of 1597 by the natives in Florida who, as polygamists, could not accept the Catholic teaching of a life-long union between 1 man and 1 woman.
Or, look at scripture. Why was John the Baptist killed? Because he stood for traditional marriage, calling out Herod for an adulterous relationship.
There are other examples, but I think I’ve made my point. We’re seasoned veterans at this. Defending traditional marriage is nothing new for the Church. Every time the world thinks it has found a new course to take, a new argument to make, it hasn’t. The Church has been there before, done it in the past, fought this fight, and will continue to do so with more experience and grace than the “other side” will ever have to offer.
So, we as Catholics, need to have greater faith and trust in the institution Christ left us.
Pope Benedict XVI issued a year of faith two years ago. We were not called to renew or strengthen our faith for just that one year. Rather, it was a call to radically transform our faith into something that does not fear in the face of evil, and does not falter when faced with challenges. We may very well be martyred for our defense of traditional marriage, but the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and our sacrifice will only serve to strengthen the teachings of the Church and the faith of its faithful. We can trust that our sacrifice will not be for nothing; the righteous position will prevail because it always has and always will.
This battle is just that: a battle in the war of Good against Evil. This battle is not the war itself. We already know how the war ends. Christ won it. He overcame the culture of death in the very act we are in the midst of celebrating this week. In His cross and resurrection, He defeated death and sin and all of the cultural manifestations that come with it. His Church will always stand through trials because she is the bride of Christ, Son of the Father, Lord of the Universe.
Pope Saint John Paul II once said, “we are the Easter people and ‘alleluia’ is our song!” We must proclaim this to ourselves: we are the Easter people. Our entire faith is based on the belief that we will rise above sin and death, as individuals and as a faithful community. Our entire life should be one of celebration, hope, and joy in the resurrection of Christ: the defeat of sin and evil and its clutches on humanity by the Lord who loves His people enough to die on a cross for them.
Our Lord will not abandon His people. If we have faith in that, we can have hope in the eternal happiness He has ordained for us. If we have hope, we will have the love for our neighbor necessary to witness to the truth, bring about conversion, and ultimately, uphold the Church that for 2000 years has stood fast against the culture of death we fear so much.
This is not to say that worldly law does not have a place. Nor do I think we should cease at incremental legislation that will protect our faith and motivate authentic justice. Simply put, we ought to distinguish between Caesar’s law and the deposit of Truth that is the Catholic Church. Just because laws do or do not uphold a specific teaching does not mean that the Church is no longer the receptacle of Truth that will prevail in winning over the culture. This means that when a law is passed, whatever the outcome, we should not fear or become despondent, but remain calm and joyful in the presence of our Lord who has already won the war.
Gay “marriage” will threaten, snarl, huff and puff, but we should not fear. For, upon this rock Christ built His Church. It will not fall simply because evil huffs and puffs a little louder.
Our Lord is with us, and if He is with us, who could possibly stand against us? Let us abide by Pope Saint John Paul II’s famous words: Be not afraid!
The image of the ISIS’ beheading of Egyptian Coptic Christians has provoked various reactions: sympathy, outrage, exhortations to prayer, demands for action, and symbolic displays of solidarity. I think the most important reaction it is self-examination.
Pope Francis said of the slain Egyptian Coptic Christians that they were killed for being Christians, and that their blood bears witness to Christ. Their example should prod us to ask ourselves if we are willing to pay the price of discipleship — if we are willing to witness to Christ with our lives.
I’ve read somewhere that the word “martyr” comes from a word that means “witness”, and indeed, the martyrs who die for Christ give the ultimate witness to Christ.
However, all Christians, and not just those who face the prospect of literal martyrdom, are called to witness to Christ. Not all Christians are called to witness to Christ with their deaths, but all Christians are called to witness to Christ with our lives.
To witness to Christ with our lives may be less gruesome, less painful than what the martyrs had to face, but it too requires fortitude. Christ warned us that discipleship will not always be easy. But while we proudly call ourselves Christians, we often run away from the difficult but doable ways to live our faith.
Those Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded for being Christians. Many of us face more benign fates as a consequence of living consistently with our faith – losing friends; missing out on jobs or business opportunities; being labelled “self-righteous”, “old-fashioned”, “uncool”, “bigoted”, “close-minded”, or “outdated”; the inconveniences we have to put up with because we want to insert Sunday Mass in our week-end getaway plans. While our Christian brothers and sisters are being slaughtered for their faith, we let peer pressure or the allure of the easy way keep us from acting like a Christian when to do so requires, for example, saying “no” to an invitation to watch a certain popular movie, or explaining to a colleague why we are passing up the meat course during lunch on a Lenten Friday.
This is not to say that as Christians, we should deliberately stick out like sore thumbs. Nor does it mean that we should not defend our rights and well-being. Fortitude and prudence come hand in hand.
It does mean that we should follow Christ’s exhortation to be the salt of the earth, even when it is not easy. As the salt of the earth, we must blend in the world without losing our saltiness. Salt hurts when rubbed in wounds, and we live in a wounded world. Our example will inevitably make people uncomfortable. But just as salt heals, the public coherence between our behavior and our beliefs will help heal the wounded world in which we live.
Our decision to be more courageous in living the demands of the faith is the best way we can show solidarity with our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters. They strengthen us with their example and their prayers, but they are also relying on our help. Let us support them in their struggles by not shirking from the sacrifices that our discipleship will demand of us in our everyday lives.
Writing in the 2nd century, Tertullian once famously said that the blood of martyrs if the seed of the Church. If this is true, then the consequences of this are even more acutely felt today in the 20th century, where .
Earlier in June of this year, on the Feast of the First Roman martyrs, Pope Francis gave a homily and spoke of this tragic reality occurring in our day:
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 to 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….
One need not read the news too long to confirm that Christians are, indeed, facing grave threats around the world:
Boko Haram continues daily their murderous attacks and kidnapping of Nigeria’s Christians. Coptic Christians are recovering shattered livelihoods after the spate of attacks thrust upon them during the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. Syrian Christians remain caught in the midst of a civil war going on three years now, with the rebels growing more radicalized each day. There are countless other examples in Sudan, in Pakistan, in Kenya, and more.
Most recently, and what prompted my reflection, was the precarious state of Christians in Iraq. It was earlier last week when Islamic State fighters (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS) forced Christians in Mosul, part of their newly formed Caliphate, to either leave the city, pay a crushing tax known as the jizya, or convert to Islam. Otherwise they would face immediate execution.
Up to last week, that greatest attack the Iraqi church suffered was in 2010, when jihadists massacred worshippers at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad attending Sunday Mass. Apparently, that was only the start. The events in Mosul are another anguished chapter in the history of Christians in modern Iraq. No Christian in the West can hear of these stories and not be heartbroken.
Hearing all of this news, what can we do? What can be done in the face of such carnage? I am reminded of what St. Paul writes, “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36).
Certainly, the first thing must be to pray. Far too often, I have taken it for granted that I can read scripture, pray, and worship in peace. So many of our brothers and sisters cannot. As I write this piece on Saturday night, I am reminded that tomorrow morning we will celebrate Mass. This week has reminded me of the precious gift that we have. As Pope Francis encouraged us, we can be present with our brothers and sisters in that way and entrust them to God.
Secondly, in the short-term, we can donate money, volunteer, or organize fundraisers for groups like Caritas Internationalis, Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Charities, and other groups who are already helping Iraqi Christian refugees. Join me in giving something, even if it is little, or add to your normal tithe. Anything would help and, if enough of us do it, that will make a difference!
Finally, in the longer term, Christians must advocate for countries to respect the right of religious freedom and develop frameworks for a healthy interaction between faith and reason, governance and freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the right to exercise religious freedom is an “inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person” which must be “recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order” (See CCC #1738).
If we are successful, we will realize why the right to religious liberty is the highest right that we have. Properly understood, this is because every other good and human right is ordered to enabling us to fulfill that which we were ultimately made for: to seek God, to worship him in spirit and truth, and to attain the blessedness of heaven.
We can all do these three things in some capacity or another. Let us not grow discouraged when faced with the immensity of this task. Our Lord reminds us, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). We can also remember the examples of the faithful ones who have gone before us in ages past and who give themselves for the faith even now.
To end, let us meditate upon these words from a recent Mass reading:
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, That the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; Perplexed, but not driven to despair; Persecuted, but not abandoned; Struck down, but not destroyed; Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, So that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. -2 Corinthians 4: 7-11
As we do this, in the words of our Holy Father, let us also do so with them in our hearts: “[O]ur brothers and sisters who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born.” Our Lady of Salvation, pray for us!
While researching potential confirmation saints, I learned that Joan of Arc had a “notoriously volatile temper.” This caught my attention as, if there is one thing I’ve struggled with, it’s my temper. Learning that Joan of Arc, now my patron in Heaven, had a temper was of some consolation. However, learning that one can get to Heaven even with a temper was merely the beginning of what Joan of Arc had to show me about being a saint today.
We all desire the “big call.” People love the romance of leaving everything behind, traveling to foreign lands, abandoning our homes. There is something timelessly romantic in the notion that God could physically call us away from everything that makes us who we are. You can thank Hollywood for that in part, but you can also thank the human existence. We understand that we were made for greatness and having a “big call” that asks those “huge sacrifices” of us makes us feel as though we’ve attained the greatness we strive for.
In that sense, Joan of Arc speaks to all of us. At a young age, she left all she knew behind to lead an army and was killed for her response to God’s call. That is no small calling. However, Joan also seems very distant from us. None of us (or not many of us!) will be asked to gallivant off across the globe for Christ’s kingdom. Her story is inspiring, yet we are unable to relate to it.
In our glorification of Joan’s work and martyrdom, I believe it becomes a temptation to gloss over the Joan of Arc who was tried before being burned at the stake. The Joan who was taken to trial is the Joan we should – and can – aspire to be, because the Joan at trial was incredibly human.
During her trial, Joan’s human weakness and frailty came out in incredibly real ways. The close proximity of evil and the inevitable pain it would cause allowed Joan’s human weakness to overpower her several times. Accounts vary, but one account reflects a time when Joan had to be removed from the court because she was so nervous that she was unable to speak clearly and kept recanting her statements. Further, when faced with burning at the stake on May 24th, Joan signed an abjuration document regarding her male clothing, visions, and call from God.
Her fear is understandable, and makes her less of an icon and more of a person to us. She shows us that trust in God is difficult at any moment in life, but when alone and faced with a torturous death, it is near impossible. Joan’s human weakness, then, points not to our own human existence, but to God’s faithfulness and mercy. On May 28th, Joan recanted her previous abjuration. Having been visited by saints overnight to encourage her, she gained strength from Christ and was able to say “yes” one more time to our Lord. She faced her death with composure and peace on May 30th, 1431.
That is the true romance of Joan’s “big call.” She waged the war not without, but within, and won. God didn’t merely ask her to lead an army to victory – that was the relatively easy part. Rather, God asked her to abandon herself – her fears, her pains, her human terrors and weaknesses – and place herself squarely and firmly in His care.
He was faithful to her, and she accepted His love and strength, thus being faithful to Him as well. By overcoming herself and allowing her human frailty to decrease, Joan was able to allow Christ to increase in her, and do the very thing that we celebrate her for today: she died for the glory of God so that His will could be done.
Joan’s story remains incredibly relevant today. Millennials especially have the unique opportunity to be modern day Joan of Arcs. We are called to wage a war that is, in many ways, very similar to Joan’s. Instead of a physical English army swarming our lands, we are faced with a cultural war. As radical feminism, same-sex marriage, and the abortion debate swarm our cultural landscape, we are faced with the call to go out and lead our nation back to greatness.
Just as Joan’s work was only fulfilled in her martyrdom, in her total gift of self to Christ, so too will our cultural war only be won when we truly die to ourselves and leave ourselves solely in the care of Christ. When we die to our fears and temptations, when we decrease our own importance, we allow Christ’s hope and strength to increase.
We are called to overcome the temptation of mediocrity and the fear of death (physical, social, or otherwise) by dying to ourselves so he may increase in us. Only when we successfully turn ourselves over to him do we become vessels for his glory, making his will present and witnessing to his goodness, just as Joan was finally capable of on the fateful day 583 years ago.
If we want to win the culture war we must wrestle with the very real possibility that we will be “burned at the stake”. We should look to The Maid of Orléans for guidance in turning to Christ and accepting His mercy and inspiration for those times when we fail to trust in Him. She can help us to win the war within so that our fight for beauty, truth, and goodness may not be lost without.
May she be an inspiration to us to accept our fate with the same joy with which she finally bore her own Cross. In seeking her aid and learning to die to self, we may defend ourselves against the same evil Joan faced as it attempts, once again, to take over our land, nation and culture for its own.
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