Jesus prepared His disciples for the inevitability of persecution once He ascended to His heavenly Father. We have been reading John’s account of these warnings in recent days. The experience of the early Christian community, as St. Luke narrates in the Acts of the Apostles, amply confirms both the oppression of the Christians and their faith-filled witness to the Gospel in the midst of it. The result was a steady, indeed meteoric growth of the faith.
Nowhere does Jesus nor Christian tradition anticipate any cessation of persecution in the spreading of the Gospel. In fact, faith and stiff resistance seem to go hand-in-hand. Anecdotes of opposition abound, but practically every account of a martyrdom is followed by a decided increase of believers.
Martyrdom, as we are aware, means witness – not necessarily the imposition of a death sentence. In our time, there is certainly no shortage of examples of martyrdom to the point of death. We hear daily reports of the alarming increase of violence against Christians in the world, particularly in, though not confined to, the Middle East. All Christians must face the inevitability that living the Gospel of Jesus in the contemporary world will, to a greater or lesser degree, subject them to scrutiny, suspicion, ridicule and perhaps even death itself.
To witness is to suffer yet, paradoxically, to experience deep and abiding peace – the peace that, as Jesus says, the world cannot give. The religious priests and brothers whose anniversaries and jubilees we are celebrating in these days rejoice in their many years of fruitful ministry. Anyone who has had the privilege and the pleasure to recount with them the years of their service – whether it was in evangelization, education, healthcare, administration, some form of social service or any other kind of creative ministry – will be spiritually and affectively enriched by the encounter. Their work is a labor of love.
At the same time, it must be said, the respect owed to our religious is not something that is always afforded them even by those with whom they have collaborated. Certainly, the caricature of nuns and religious in some of the media is something with which we are all too familiar. In spite of this, we see how gracefully and courageously our dedicated religious sisters and brothers bear witness to God’s love, His love for His Church and the world that Jesus came not to condemn but to save. We thank them and honor them for all that they have given and continue to give.
All Christians, whatever their state, must remain men and women for all seasons – in good times and in bad times. This does not mean “keeping up with the times” in the manner in which the phrase is often used, following the moral descent of increasingly nihilistic and hedonistic elements in our society. Naturally, the way in which we communicate and relate to the world must always be adapted to the mode in which those to whom we witness can perceive the message. Faith is directed to both the mind and heart as is any important relationship, and that must be conveyed through the five senses, as St. Thomas Aquinas insists.
Lovers will go to great lengths to demonstrate their love, even as a grandparent, forgetting the dignity of age (and the pains of arthritis) might descend to the floor to play a silly game with a delighted grandchild. We may abandon neither the virtue of prudence nor the challenge to employ the strategy of every God-given talent and refinable skill in the service of the Gospel. Inevitably, there will be missteps and even debacles. Consider St. Paul’s less than compelling speech at the Areopagus. At least a handful of Athenians appreciated his attention and offered to hear him again. It was, all things considered, a lukewarm response. One wonders whether St. Paul would more readily have tolerated another stoning, which tended to deliver – in a wryly irreverent humor – more buck for the bang.