Neighbor 2015

A new take on an old story

A man was going from North St. Louis County to the Central West End when he was carjacked while sitting at a light on North Kingshighway. The robbers drug him out of the car, pistol whipped him, and took his wallet and phone, along with the car, before leaving him for dead in the street.

The congressman drove by in his town car, but he told his chauffeur not to stop.

The archbishop came by in his well-appointed sedan but steered around the man in the street and kept going.

Finally, a man in an old, beat up coupe with a broken taillight pulled over. He gave the man a drink of water, washed his wounds as best he could, put the man in his passenger seat, and drove him to the Medical Center. Once there, he offered his own credit card to pay the hospital bill and promised to come by the next day to visit.

This man was a radicalized Muslim sympathetic to the Islamic State.

Now you can imagine how the followers of Jesus felt when they heard this parable.

New Normal

“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.Supreme Court

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.

Done

In the work Jesus brought to completion on the Cross, our work begins

Recently, my pastor, who spent much of his priesthood in rural parishes, described a moment of accomplishment and anticipation: when a farmer, after plowing and planting, looks out over the field and says, “Done,” as he watches the crop grow.

That word “done” has the same root in ancient Greek, “Tetelestai, ” as the final word of Jesus, commonly translated, “It is finished.” Although Tetelestai is often interpreted as an accounting term meaning “paid in full” – meaning that Jesus wiped out the debt of our sins – it can also mean, “I’ve completed exactly what I set out to do.Crucifixion

Like the farmer who worked hard plowing and planting, Jesus spent three years preaching and teaching, preparing his disciples to take up his work when he returned to the Father.

The Crucifixion brought all of that work to fruition and was the ultimate lesson to his disciples. They, too, must be prepared to hand over everything, including their lives, in spreading the Good News.

And so must we.

There’s great comfort in the gospel of Jesus: that we have a God who loves each of us so much that He was willing to sacrifice himself so that we might have life eternal. But that comfort comes at a cost: persecution, suffering, and our own cross to carry. Being a Christian doesn’t shield us from those things in this life. Instead, it reorients our perception so that we recognize that this life is only transitory, and that the next life is what’s really important.

Like the pearl of great price or the treasure buried in the field. eternal life is so fundamental to who we are that we must be prepared to sacrifice all.

Our job as Christians is to recognize that our life on this earth is fleeting, but to live it in such a way as to be worthy of our heavenly home in the next life. One way to remind ourselves of the shortness of our own lives is to focus on the passion of Jesus, either meditating on it in our prayer or during Mass. In order to live our call, we need to pray frequently and take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation when we stumble.

Sometimes we don’t have to be reminded of the sufferings of Jesus. Sometimes we have our own sufferings, our own crosses to carry. In those moments, we can lift up our sufferings and work through them in solidarity with Jesus.

Another part of our call is to be witnesses, to attract as many friends and neighbors as we can to this way of life. Attracting others means genuinely and humbly living a Christian life in a way that makes others want what we have.

Peter says in his first letter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15) That’s our call, as well.

Demonstrating genuine hope among a population that has grown increasingly cynical. Enduring redemptive suffering in a culture that is often focused on immediate self-gratification. Detachment from the things of this world when materialism and conspicuous consumption are the norm. These are countercultural signs. They’re not easy, but they’re what we’re called to as Christians.

Share your joy with others, patiently accept suffering when it comes, never give up hope, and you will continue to carry out the work that Jesus brought to fruition on the cross.