There are some who would have the Church step back to avoid persecution or giving offense. Perhaps there are assets like buildings and land to protect. And maybe some rapprochement with the world will attract more members. Or so the thinking goes.
But a study of earlier periods of persecution reveals a different plan for the way forward: confidence, courage, boldness, and love—even for our enemies. Let’s look at some texts.
Earlier this week we read from St. John Chrysostom, who knew all about exile and persecution. At a difficult time for him and his flock, he preached from the following text of St. Paul’s:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:18-25).
Of this passage, St. John Chrysostom said,
How the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and his weakness stronger than men! In what way is it stronger? It made its way throughout the world and overcame all men; countless men sought to eradicate the very name of the Crucified, but that name flourished and grew ever mightier. Its enemies lost out and perished; the living who waged a war on a dead man proved helpless.
Therefore, when a Greek tells me I am dead, he shows only that he is foolish indeed, for I, whom he thinks a fool, turn out to be wiser than those reputed wise. So too, in calling me weak, he but shows that he is weaker still. For the good deeds which tax-collectors and fishermen were able to accomplish by God’s grace, the philosophers, the rulers, the countless multitudes cannot even imagine (from a homily by St. John Chrysostom, bishop, on the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Hom. 4, 3. 4: PG 61, 34-36)).
Such words ought to encourage us as well, for many today gleefully report the decline of faith and of the influence of the Church. 2000 years of history bears witness to the fact that those forecasting the doom of the Church will be long gone, and the Church will still be preaching the gospel.
Indeed, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the Church has read the funeral rights over everyone who has predicated her demise. Where is Nero? Where is Domitian? Where is Napoleon? Where is Mao? Where is the Soviet Socialist Republic? Indeed, the largest statue of Christ in the world is reportedly being built in Russia right now. Where are so many heresiarchs? What happened to the erroneous philosophies and destructive trends that have been proposed? These things have come and gone; empires and nations have risen and fallen. But the Church is still here. Often persecuted, sometimes growing and sometimes struggling, but here, still here, always here. Twelve fishermen and other commoners with Jesus have established a stronghold in the world.
Some trust in Chariots or Horses,
But we in the name of the Lord.
They will collapse and fall,
But we shall hold and stand firm (Psalm 20:8).
But of course this will happen only to the extent that, by God’s grace, we DO hold and stand firm. It will not happen by adopting the world’s ways or fearfully caving in to its demands.
There is a powerful description in Scripture of the time when Peter and John were arrested for causing a commotion in the Temple area (by healing the lame beggar and proclaiming Jesus at the Beautiful Gate).
Now when [the Jewish leaders] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
Note that the Jewish leaders recognized that “they had been with Jesus.” Would anyone recognize this about you, or your parish, or your fellow parishioners, or even us clergy? This is our main goal in times like these: that others recognize that we have been with Jesus! In times like these, the Church must be the Church.
And notice this prayer in the Acts of the Apostles, of the early Church under persecution. It takes place just after the arrest of Peter and John, after they had been warned not to mention Jesus again.
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:29-31).
In her work on Acts, Dr. Mary Healy notes that they do not pray for safety or for their enemies to be vanquished; they pray to be able to continue to speak with boldness, to bring healing, and to announce Jesus and draw others to Him.
And this should be our prayer: Lord, keep us strong. Keep us bold and filled with love for our enemies and for all those who are troubled and in need of healing. Never allow us to hide or to be concerned for our own safety, but rather concerned only that your glorious and Holy Name bring healing and grace, conviction for our sins, repentance, and therefore mercy. Help us, Lord, to stay faithful, courageous, and bold no matter the threats, the hardships, the persecution, and even the ruthless attempts at suppression. May no one who looks at us conclude anything less than that we “have been with Jesus.”
Courage and holy boldness, fellow Catholics! The only way we will change the world (by grace) is to be Catholic through and through. The world does not know it, but Christ and His Body, the Church, are the only hope. Be authentically Catholic, and by that grace, save the world!
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Be Catholic to Save the World by Grace! Some Words of Encouragement from the Early Church