Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”
A basic theme of today’s Gospel lesson is martyrdom. We note that Jesus presents a key component to martyrdom as he instructs the disciples to go out and share the Good News. He tells them twice: “Do not be afraid.” I’ve reflected several times with you on the martyrdom that is occurring today. More Christians have been slaughtered in the last hundred years for the cause of Christ and his Church than all the previous 19 plus centuries combined. This aptly-named red martyrdom is ongoing.
So let’s get some historical perspective. I would remind you that the word “martyr” means “witness.” The first centuries of the Church were spattered red with the blood of these heroic martyrs. Finally peace of a sort came to the Church in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine became Christian and officially protected the Church. This was the age of councils and sophisticated theological development. It was principally the Councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 that brought about the establishment of the Church’s official teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity. We proclaim the result each time we recite the Creed. But all did not stay rosy and there was still a need for heroic witness.
Very soon the concept of “white martyrdom” developed; a martyrdom without death, but still bearing the brunt of scorn and ridicule and sometimes violent hatred of the faith and the faithful. These white martyrs were those who gave total offering to God while dying to self, the world, and its allurements.
There is much “white martyrdom” today, some with bloodshed. I recently read about some young Catholics in China who belonged to the Legion of Mary. They were forbidden by their government to practice the faith. But that didn’t stop them. They eventually were arrested and their rosaries confiscated. While in jail they continued to pray using their fingers to count the decades. The government swiftly chopped off those fingers.
Hopefully none of us will ever have to endure such a trial for our faith, but many ordinary Catholics do suffer rather minor but persistent persecution, especially if they—we— are committed to following Jesus for more than an hour on Sunday. Do you know anyone who is suffering a quiet white martyrdom for the faith? There are quite a few out there.
Let me offer some examples with corresponding Scriptures. To start, I read of a woman who announced, through heart-wrenching sobs, that her husband wanted a divorce and was moving out. After six kids and 19 years of marriage, you can bet they had their ups and downs. There finally was an issue of faithfulness that caused the break. You see, all throughout their marriage they had practiced Natural Family Planning. But now with age and unpredictable cycles, the husband did not want any more children, his solution was contraceptives. Her solution was continued Natural Family Planning and faith in the wisdom of God. After seeking counsel from several priests, family therapy, and prayer, he moved out. I believe she is a “white martyr” for the faith, a true witness for Christ and his Church.
The Prophet Sirach declares: When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in times of adversity. Cling to Him, forsake Him not; thus will your future be great. Accept what befalls you; in crushing misfortune be patient. For, in fire gold is tested, and worthy men [and women] in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and He will help you. Make straight your ways and hope in Him. You who fear the Lord, wait for His mercy. Turn not away, lest you fall. (Sirach 2:1-7)
Here’s another account of “white martyrdom.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism was abandoned by his family upon his conversion. He took refuge in his new-found faith. He even turned away from a lucrative business career in order to shoulder the wheel of evangelization. The people in his church-related workplace proved more secular and profane than those on the outside. He continues to struggle with disillusionment as he tries his best to share the faith with cynical, condescending cradle Catholics.
St. Peter wrote…you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Another convert is a lector and Eucharistic minister who brings Holy Communion to the sick at hospitals and to the homebound. His fellow very secular colleagues think it is hilarious to send pornographic images to his computer because of the “shock value” it evokes.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John: Remember the word I spoke to you. No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)
A young woman college student, the eldest of seven children, is walking in the way laid out by her holy parents, the way of Truth. She suffers from several chronic diseases, and has been accosted by inexplicable satanic malevolence. Yet she continues to be cheerful, faithful and unafraid. She is a hero of the Church and a good example to young people all around her. Her witness comes at great cost, but it is a scourge to the nemesis, and a scandal to worldlings at her college.
St. Timothy tells us: In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim 3:12)
In today’s society faithful Catholics are regularly held in contempt. They are the “spoilers” of deviant lifestyles, polluted entertainment and sinful pastimes. They are the moral compass in the office, in politics and in the world. These are the faithful voices that make so many angry and sometimes even violent.
Should we be surprised? Jesus tells us in the 15th chapter of St. John’s Gospel: If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)
But take courage! St. Peter exhorts us to cast all our worries upon Jesus because he loves us so very much. In the Epistle of First Peter we are told to be steadfast in faith, knowing that our fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings. Peter tells us that the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little. (cf. 1 Peter 5:10)
We take solace in Our Lord’s promise: 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. (Mat 5:11)
We are told in the book of Hebrews that God… will never forsake you or abandon you. Thus we may say with confidence: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me? (Heb 13:5)
God’s love for us is so deep and intense. Someone once said that he has a picture of you on his refrigerator. But there is a bit of carrot and stick here. Let me say that God would rather coax than coerce us to be faithful, but there are consequences for unfaithfulness. That is something of which we all need to be aware. We are loved without reservation, but it is not a sloppy agape. There is order and there are requirements. This is what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says to his disciples: Fear not:
Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”
This is the stuff of martyrdom, both red and white. It’s worthy of our reflection.