“Fitting in” with the culture isn’t typical of Christianity. Persecution is.
“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ” Matthew 5:11-12
That quote from the Sermon on the Mount takes on new meaning in light of recent Supreme Court decisions. Some Catholics in the United States are feeling under siege, which is understandable given that, in the past 60 years, a Catholic rose to the presidency and Catholic Christians have been accepted at all levels of U.S. society.
Even a cursory look at history, however, shows that the past half century in the U.S. was an exception in the 2,000-year history of Christianity. In that history, persecution is the rule.
Beginning with the Romans, governments in places as diverse as Japan, Mexico, Poland, Vietnam, Russia, Uganda, Turkey, and China have sought to suppress the Church, often violently.
So have individual rulers. Nero was probably the most infamous Roman emperor to persecute Christians. In much more recent times, leaders such as Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin carried out threats against the Church.
Even in the United States, anti-Catholic bigotry, sometimes enabled by state governments, was practiced well into the 20th century. Today we think of the Ku Klux Klan as an organization mainly motivated by race, but Catholics have been a target of the KKK throughout much of its history. When my parents lived in Tennessee in the 1950s, anti-Catholic bigotry was still common.
Persecution, then, has been a constant in the history of the Catholic Church, as Jesus predicted. One difference today is that it’s more insidious, taking the form of a gradual erosion of religious freedom rather than outright violence or aggression against people of faith.
However, we are beginning to see Christian beliefs marginalized and Christians effectively silenced when they express those beliefs.
In this atmosphere, how does a Catholic respond?
- Pray and learn the faith. Prayer needs to be the basis for all we do, because, frankly, without it, we can’t accomplish anything. Fortified with prayer, we can learn and understand what the Church teaches. If we don’t learn why the Church teaches what it does, it’s hard to explain it to anyone else. Overwhelmed with what the Church teaches, and not sure where to begin? Start with a specific teaching, but don’t stop there. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, now accessible online, provides a single, comprehensive source for Church teachings.
- Boldly speak the truth with love. Once you know why the Church teaches what it teaches, you can proclaim that teaching. That doesn’t mean being obnoxious. Rather, watch for opportunities. If someone asks for your opinion, give it to them. If someone, especially a Catholic, expresses an opinion contrary to Church teaching, let them know what you believe and why.
- Be consistent in your denunciation of immorality. Singling out one type of sin for condemnation is a recipe for disaster. Remember that we’re all sinners, and we’re all in need of redemption.
- Treat individuals with respect and love. As Christians, we are called to love others, regardless of whether we agree with them. We are all children of God and deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect that status accords.
- Pray for those with whom you disagree the most. During the unrest in Ferguson last year, I found myself regularly getting angry at people I disagreed with. When I shared my feelings with a priest I know, he suggested that I pray for them. I tried it, and not only did it dissipate the anger, it provides me and the people I’m praying for opportunities for grace.
- Keep it in perspective. Our home is not here. We are pilgrims on a journey. Whatever difficulties we face in this life will be rewarded in the next.
Yes, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount are as pertinent today as when he spoke them. Persecution is part of our Christian identity. But we trust that our sufferings in this life are preparing us for joys in the next.