Knights of Columbus 2017 Convention
Homily for Wednesday August 2, 2017
Mass for Persecuted Christians
Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM, Cap.
Last April Pope Francis visited the Church of St. Bartholomew on the island in the Tiber River, to celebrate the memory of the new martyrs. That ancient church was Cardinal George's titular church now is Cardinal Cupich's.
Pope Saint John Paul in 2000, to mark the new millennium, entrusted this church to the San't Egidio community to establish a memorial of the martyrs of the 20th century. They have assembled relics and mementos there from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and Europe and dossiers on 12,000 martyrs of the 20th century. They even exhibit the missal that Blessed Oscar Romero was using to celebrate Mass when he was murdered.
We used to think of the first centuries of Christianity as the time of persecution, but today we are becoming more aware of the countless martyrs and persecuted Christians in our own times.
Today's Mass is offered for our persecuted brothers and sisters in these times, when, as the Supreme Knight said yesterday, there is a genocide against Christians. As Bishop Habash of Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Diocese appealed to us, we must be a sign of hope and solidarity. The presence of the Syriac Patriach, the Bishop of Aleppo and other bishops who represented our suffering brothers and sisters is a tribute to the work of the Knights of Columbus and a stark reminder of our responsibility for each other.
We have all heard that wonderful quote from Pope Paul the sixth where he declares that more than teachers, the world needs witnesses. Jesus sent his disciples into the world to announce the Good News but to do so primarily by the witness of their lives. Their faith was made visible by the coherence of their actions, the courage of their convictions, and the selfless love that express itself in the spirit of sacrifice. Sometimes we forget that the Greek word for witness is martyr.
In the early church the martyrs were seen as the ideal of discipleship: men and women so transformed by their faith and their love for God that they were prepared to suffer even death to be able to witness to the Church’s faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that just as He has been persecuted, we who are his disciples must expect persecution in our own lives.
In today’s Mass we remember our modern-day martyrs, especially our brothers and sisters who are persecuted in the Middle East. In many parts of the lands that are the cradle of civilization and also of Christianity, today Christians are being driven out, tortured and murdered. In some countries where there were thriving Christian communities living in peace with their non-Christian neighbors now only a remnant of the faith community remains. Like Esther in the first reading we can say: “our enemies are bent on destroying us.” Also, we can pray for those Christians whose life is in peril by using Esther’s words, “do not silence the mouths of those who praise you.”
We see in the Acts of the Apostles how the Sanhedrin tried to silence Peter and John, but these Apostles boldly proclaimed that they must obey God rather than man. Despite the beatings and the threats these Apostles proclaimed that “it is impossible not to speak about what we have seen and heard.” The same passage from Acts tells us that “many of those who heard the word came to believe and the number grew to about five thousand”. The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church as Tertullian said. The early Church had great devotion to the martyrs who gave their lives in the witness of the faith. In Rome where Peter and Paul were martyred and thousands perished in the Coliseum, the persecuted Christians celebrated the Mass in the catacombs on the tombs of the martyrs, hence our tradition of putting martyrs’ relics in our altars where ever the Holy Mass is celebrated.
As the number of Christians, Catholic, Orthodox and others who are suffering for their allegiance to Christ grows ever larger, Pope Francis’s often speaks eloquently of an ecumenism of blood. The Holy Father reminds us that our love for Christ and the Christian faith unites us closely with the Orthodox and other Christians who are shedding their blood in witness to the Christian faith.
Two years ago I was deeply moved by the news reports concerning the twenty-one men beheaded in Libya by the terrorists there. It was on February 2, 2015 when twenty Egyptian construction workers who were Coptic Christians were told by their captors that they must renounce the Christian faith. When they refused they were marched out in orange jumpsuits and beheaded. While they were being murdered they whispered prayers and the name of Jesus. There was another captive with them, a worker from Chad who was not a Christian. When the terrorists asked if he was a Christian, he simply said: “their God is my God.” And the terrorists killed him too. Would that our fidelity and courage in the face of hardship and persecution would lead people to say of us: “their God is my God.”
We have all been horrified by the spectacle of bombings in Catholic and other Christian churches in Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and India. The whole world lamented the brutal murder in Yemen of three of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity whose only crime was to care for the elderly and the poor.
The Holy Father is challenging us to strive to grow closer to our fellow Christians and live that unity that Jesus prayed for with the words “by this will all know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”
August 2 is also a special day for me as a follower of St. Francis, for today is the Feast of the Portiuncula, of Our Lady of the Angels. Also, today is the anniversary of my Episcopal ordination that took place in the Virgin Islands in the West Indies, thirty three years ago today. After many years and four dioceses later I’m here to tell the story.
The Portiuncula is the tiny chapel in Assisi dedicated to Our Lady that St. Francis made the principal church of the Franciscan family. St. Francis realized that many people would love to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land but because it was so far, so expensive, and so dangerous, few would be able to fulfill that dream. St. Francis wanted to initiate the Portiuncula indulgence so the pilgrims could receive the same graces by visiting the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels in the Portiuncula in Assisi. Today that privilege extends to all Franciscan churches and chapels and to all cathedrals on this day.
One of my earliest childhood recollections of observing this feast was going each year to the Poor Clare’s with my grandmother. In the good old days it was possible to gain many plenary indulgences and so the custom was to say the prescribed prayers in the chapel and then leave and come back in and say the prayers again. There was always a column of Irish and Italians going in and out of the Poor Clare’s chapel. Each time we entered my grandmother would announce which relative we were getting out of purgatory. After a while I was getting very tired and bored and said: “Nana, I think we got him out last year.” To which my grandmother replied, “That one needs a lot of prayers.
The practice of the Portiuncula indulgence ties Catholics around the world to the idea of our connectedness to the Holy Land. St. Francis had such a great love for the Holy Land which grew out of his love for the humanity of Jesus Christ and his devotion to the Incarnation. It was that same devotion that led Francis to prepare the first creche so that people could see the poverty and simplicity surrounding Jesus’ birth. To this day the Franciscan Friars take care of the holy places in Palestine, the first province that St. Francis founded in the Order, and receive pilgrims from all over the world. In the eighth centuries since Francis sent friars to work in that part of the world, several hundred friars were killed by hostile forces and died as martyrs.
During the fifth Crusade, Francis himself went to Egypt to meet with the Sultan. A new documentary prepared by the Franciscans was recently shown in Boston, at a mosque in the Roxbury section of the city. The film is entitled “In the footprints of Francis and the Sultan: A Model for Peacemaking.” Francis had a keen awareness of the fatherhood of God, to the point of seeing all of creation as brothers and sisters: brother sun and sister moon. Francis says his vocation and that of his friars is to be universal brothers, striving to overcome barriers and conflicts. So when the forces of Christendom were intent on violently destroying the Muslim presence in the Holy Land, Francis of Assisi had a different approach. He wanted to have a dialogue with the Sultan Malek Al Kamil, the nephew of the great Saladim. When Francis arrived at the sultan’s compound accompanied by one friar, the Muslim soldiers allowed them to enter because he seemed to be a harmless beggar, and of course Muslims have an obligation to give alms to beggars.
Francis finally managed to meet the Sultan and engaged in a long and friendly dialogue with him and his people. St. Francis actually spent several days there, St. Bonaventure describes the encounter in his biography of St. Francis. When Francis departed, the Sultan gave him an ivory horn used to call Muslims to prayer. Francis took it back to Assisi and used it to call the friars to prayer, it can still be seen on display in Assisi. I daresay if more Christians had had the attitude of St. Francis, we would not be facing the terrible violence spawned by radical jihadists today.
A few years ago a film was produced in France called “Des hommes et des Dieux “; “Of Gods and Men”. The film recounts the history of nine Trappist monks in a monastery in Algeria where they provided medical care and other services to the local population. They developed a very close relationship with their Muslim neighbors. The monks decided not to flee in the face of encroaching fundamentalism, but rather to stay among the poor Muslims they had been serving. The monks were captured and murdered. The film concludes with the spiritual testament of the Abbot in the form of a letter that he wrote to his brother back in France. In the letter Father Chretien tells his brother that he is prepared to die, but what worries him most of all is that many people use his death as an excuse to hate Muslims.
Like this holy Trappist and indeed like St. Francis we do not want the suffering of our Christian martyrs to be an excuse our pretext to hate Muslims. We want to see the death of our martyrs is a sign of the love and the witness of our faith in the resurrection that can truly be the seed of our religion. Gandhi once said: “if I would have ever known a Christian, I would have become one.” We must show the world the loving and merciful face of Christ by living lives of discipleship that are coherent with the Gospel and that contribute to building a civilization of love.
Centuries of misunderstanding, bigotry, persecution and hatred have produced the horrendous situation that we face today. We must all work diligently for a world where prejudice and hatred are changed by a spirit of dialogue and solidarity, where each and every person is valued as a child of God.
Part of faithful discipleship is being focused on the suffering of so many persecuted Christians. Too often we are like the priest in the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan who seems to be oblivious to the suffering of his brother. We are all grateful to the Knights of Columbus for their ongoing and generous commitment to aid the suffering Christian brothers and sisters whose lives and communities are in shambles. Today’s Gospel reminds us that Christ promises happiness to those who are persecuted. Our reaction to martyrdom cannot be one of despair, but rather of hope.
The Beatitudes in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are the ideals that must inspire us each day. Jesus’ Beatitudes represent a reversal of values, and indeed turn the world’s standards for happiness upside down. Jesus challenges us, his disciples, to see life through God’s eyes. The same Beatitudes are a portrait of Christ’s own life: Jesus as poor, meek, merciful, a peacemaker, pure of heart, and persecuted. Jesus teaches us that happiness is not achieved through money, pleasure and power. True happiness comes through a life of love and sacrifice, happiness born of making a gift of ourselves to God and to others. This is precisely what our martyred brothers and sisters have done. They lay down their life for love of God and for love of us. As Jesus has shared with us, greater love has no one than those who lay down their life.
May the courage and fidelity of this cloud of witnesses help us to be more faithful Catholics, to be more authentic, true missionary disciples whose lives and values betoken the joy of the Gospel.