“I was able to speak from the heart. To stand before the sufferings and the dramatic events of the Middle East and to express my prayerful encouragement for the legitimate aspirations for peace there. I was deeply moved by the faith of the local Church and I asked the faithful to keep their gaze fixed on Christ crucified, therein finding the strength amid trying circumstances to celebrate the victory of love over hate, of forgiveness over revenge and of unity over division.” Benedict XVI, General Audience, September 19, 2012
This appeal by the Holy Father to the Church in the Middle East could easily be applied to the Church in the United States as well. Every committed Catholic in this country is struggling “amid trying circumstances.” While the circumstances facing the Pope’s children in the Middle East can easily involve jail time, job loss, bombed out churches and death, the groundwork for that scenario is being laid now in our own country.
And make no mistake, the legal, political and sociological framework for escalating persecution of committed Christians is already in place in the United States. When the courts can veto the majority vote of citizens regarding what constitutes marriage, for example, the next short step is to arrest priests and pastors who conform to Church teaching by refusing to witness non-licit marriages. The federal government abrogates to itself the rights it denies to God and becomes the arbiter of good and evil.
These “trying circumstances” come as no shock to any committed Christian. Variations on the theme of persecution of Christians by petty tyrants with huge egos is two thousand years old. Not to be dissuaded by the facts of history, every dictatorial government convinces itself and its enthusiastic followers that, in the end, they will triumph and show the Church that Jesus established on earth the error of her ways. Without exception, every dictatorship crumbles and the Church arises from the ashes, whole and victorious, just like her Lord rose from the dead.
While we know how this story ends, how are we who believe in the teaching of Christ as mediated by His Church to react now when confronted with a culture that has enshrined death and rejected life? In answer to this question, Benedict XVI encourages us to “keep our gaze fixed on Christ crucified, therein finding strength.” Translation: Pray. Just. Pray. The more time we spend with Jesus Christ, the less frightened we become by all the noise in this world. The less frightened we become, the more we are able to see our persecutors as Jesus did and acknowledge that they really “don’t know what they are doing.”
Of course the “dictators of relativism” thoroughly enjoy the admonition to prayer by those who disagree with them. Nothing, in their opinion, could be more fruitless, innocuous and old-lady oriented than dedicated, believing prayer to a God who doesn’t exist and/or care what is going on in this world. This practical atheism is belied, however, by the obvious fear that a crucifix or a rosary or even a church engenders in those who profess to believe only in ‘tolerance’. This fear arises from the sense that, in fact, prayer is the driving force behind this world and outlawing it is useless, at best, and damning, at worst.
So, as the divisions in our culture reach a boiling point, let’s follow our Holy Father’s advice this week and fix our eyes on Jesus crucified who has promised to never leave us orphans. In this way, we will eventually “celebrate the victory of love over hate, of forgiveness over revenge and of unity over division” and be at peace!